Angry Retweets

By Geoff Martin
Submitted to Session P5149 (The Online Public Sphere in the Gulf: Disagreement, Dialogue, Creativity, and Change, 2018 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Arabian Peninsula;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Research on the Gulf States focuses almost exclusively on two facts: oil money and its reciprocal impact on state power. Approaches to rentierism, both old and new, generally agree that oil rents foster socio-political stagnation by buying off citizens, making them rent dependent and weakening mobilization efforts by civil society groups (Luciani 1987, Moore and Peters 2009, Gray 2011, Gause and Yom 2012). Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the thoroughness of this narrative has been called into question. In Kuwait, activists united many different tribes, urban-rural groups, and ideological factions under a—short-lived but inclusive—banner calling for structural reforms to the political system. In a series of events that rocked the country to its core, protesters stormed the Kuwait parliament in November 2011 and organized some of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history. Since the protests, the Kuwaiti government has made many steps to increase citizen representation in the public sphere. One of these steps has been to expand the government’s presence on social media, specifically Twitter, in order to respond to a rising crescendo of criticism and facilitate engagement with citizens’ concerns. How have Kuwaiti citizens voiced their opinions to government officials? What are government responses to online criticism?

In the literature on rentier states lower class societal forces are considered politically acquiescent or at best, only concerned with access to patronage sources (Crystal 1989, Yom 2016). If this thesis is correct, then the Kuwaiti states’ intervention in the public domain should lead to a collapse in societal pressures or signs that criticisms or commentary are reduced.

This paper investigates this puzzle by looking at the pattern of interactions between elites—government ministries and organizations, members of parliament, and other important political figures—with ordinary citizens on Twitter. I conduct a content analysis of individual tweets and comment sections of 50 government Twitter accounts from February 2018 to June 2018. If we are to take theory seriously - and to digest the ramifications of events in Kuwait - some combination of factors must have changed the relationship between the state and civil society. Ultimately, the clashes between the government and the people online are a very public and a legitimate form of dialogue that moves beyond the rigid structure of state and society by which we understand Gulf rentier societies.