Institutional Autonomy and Economic Change in Small States: Mary Ann Tétreault’s Contribution to the Study of Oil Politics

By Geoff Martin
Submitted to Session P4452 (A Tribute to the Work of Mary Ann Tétreault (1942-2015), 2016 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Mary Ann Tétreault’s numerous publications on the political economy of oil, small states, and state-society relations have greatly influenced my understanding of how the policies, structures, and capacities of the international oil economy have conditioned economic development in the global south. In The Kuwait Petroleum Corporation and the Economics of the New World Order Tétreault argues that economic power is not the exclusive right of the advanced industrial world as popular dependency theorists argued (Cardoso and Faletto 1979). In her case study of Kuwait, she argues that this small Gulf state acted autonomously in vertically integrating the oil sector under state ownership, allowing it significant autonomy from internal and external influences. However, Tétreault simultaneously challenges resource curse theorists (Gause and Yom 2012, Grey 2012, Waldner and Smith 2012, Herb 2014, Hertog 2010, Bellin 2012) who agree that oil rents foster socio-political stagnation by buying off citizens, making them dependent, and undergirding state autonomy from society. Her work on political opposition and civil society dynamics in Kuwait reveals that social life in oil monarchies is complex and not merely a network of patron-client relations conditioned by oil wealth.

Building on Tétreault’s work on political economy and oppositional politics, this paper analyzes how certain socioeconomic institutions in Kuwait—particularly municipal cooperatives and other welfare institutions—impact the relationship between social forces and the state’s economic co-optive power, at the micro-level. Using in-depth interviews with a variety of Kuwaiti social groups coupled with archival research into the history of these institutions, I argue that although the state successfully developed methods of oil wealth distribution (e.g. the development of cooperative societies that distribute food subsidies), many organizations have roots in the pre-independence era, revealing the ongoing relevance of pre-oil structures on state-society relations. Families and groups that run the cooperatives often have important interests that are beyond government control, and the state has to negotiate how to distribute state subsidies (challenging the top-down distribution model of resource curse theory). As Tétreault consistently showed, such forms of negotiation and consensus have been the building blocks of Kuwaiti institutions. My research also considers how new political processes over the past fifteen years (universal suffrage, electoral district reform, and the rise of powerful youth movements) coupled with considerable changes in the distribution of oil wealth (increased budget spending on social programs and reforms to citizenship laws) have impacted these socioeconomic institutions and their relationship to the state.