Government and Economic Interactions with Rentierism

Oil rents are an important concept in Middle Eastern politics, due to their impacts on various political and social outcomes in states. Simply explained, rents are what a state can extract from something just because they own it, which in this case is massive oil reserves. Frequently in this region, rents are used to maintain authoritarian control of a nation. Although their unusual size plays a factor in the repression of a population, it is largely the interaction of those rents with other factors, such as the government and economy, that allows authoritarian leaders to stay in control. 

U.S Chamber of Commerce Global Energy Institute

The way that Middle Eastern governments use oil rents allows authoritarian regimes to stay in power. The Rentier Effect explains this precisely; governments use oil revenues to relieve social pressures that might otherwise lead to demands for greater accountability.

For example, because Middle Eastern governments derive so much wealth from these rents, they don’t have to tax the population. Taxation is an important part of government accountability, so without it the government acts in its own interest rather than that of its population. Another way governments use rents to stay in power is through spending on patronage. Again, instead of using the wealth derived from rents to benefit the population, governments engage in greater spending on patronage which lessens pressures for democratization. Similarly, governments can use oil rents to prevent the formation of social groups that would be able to mobilize and hold governments accountable. These are all key examples of governments manipulating rents to maintain control of a population. 

The Repression Effect also shows how governments interact with rents to produce negative outcomes. Resource wealth allows governments to spend more on internal security, such as the military, and block democratic operations. This is seen in the Mukhaberat state, or intelligence agencies, that constantly monitor citizens’ actions. An example of this is Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in which opponents of the regime were detained and assassinated. 

Outside of rents’ interaction with governments, they also interact directly with the economy. The expansion of the oil sector reduces the price of foreign currencies, hurting productive sectors exposed to foreign competition. This can hinder the development of an efficient private sector, which means performing poorly in agriculture and manufacturing, high levels of macroeconomic instability and inflation, low levels of job creation, and high levels of unemployment. These economic effects create public dissatisfaction, which can lead to social unrest.

Although resource-rich countries in the region directly feel the effects of oil rents, resource-poor countries are also affected by rents. Even though resource-poor labor-abundant countries may not have high amounts of oil wealth, they still send their labor force to resource-rich labor-poor countries, intertwining them and affecting them indirectly. 

Therefore, although the size of oil rents plays a considerable role in the control and repression of a population, it is mostly the relationship of rents with other factors that allow for poor outcomes in the region.

Works cited:

Cammett, Melani. A Political Economy of the Middle East. Available from: MBS Direct, (4th Edition). Taylor & Francis, 2018.

Ross, Michael L. “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001, pp. 325–61. JSTOR,

Lisa Anderson Article Reflection: The Problem With How We Study the Middle East

In her article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”, Lisa Anderson addresses the problems with the ways that scholars attempt to understand the political dynamics of the Middle East. Anderson explains that many political scientists exclusively engage in Western discourse, projecting American institutions onto other areas of the world. These people view democracy as the ideal path for every nation, so they are obsessed with why the Middle East is so lacking in it. Taking this Western-focused approach fails to address greater historical and cultural factors at play and hinders political scientists’ ability to understand why certain political phenomena happen in the Middle East.

The Economist

A specific area where this has consequence is scholars’ misinterpretation of Islamism. Being so prevalent in the region, understanding Islamism is essential to get an accurate picture of social and political life. However, many of the intricacies of Islamic culture are brushed over when scholars engage in Western discourse to study them. One scholar precisely describes this phenomenon in an assessment of Middle East studies, where he writes, “the languages of political Islam, for example, can appear in Western scholarship only through a process of translation that enables them to speak in terms of the modernizing discourse of the West” (Mitchell 2003, p. 24). This is not productive when analyzing the role Islam plays in democracy and political trends between different Arab nations. 

This type of Western discourse towards the Middle East was especially prevalent after World War 2. After the war, most Middle Eastern countries were gaining independence from European imperial powers and had therefore only been recently reorganized in a European image. This caused many people to see the Middle East as if societies were starting from scratch, overlooking vast historical influences on the region. Anderson writes, “…the novelty and frailty of the European-style states of the region and the continuing importance of local, nonstate political forms and dynamics would prove to be a powerful but largely neglected feature of Middle East politics for most of the second half of the twentieth century” (Anderson 192). Instead of analyzing these factors, many assumed that modernization was expected to produce political democracy and economic prosperity, similar to the United States in the 1950s. For the most part, this was not accomplished. 

Additionally, political scientists have given external actors, namely the United States, too much power with respect to the Middle East. Karawan writes that “The field of Middle Eastern studies suffers from an excessive preoccupation with the United States and its policies toward the region,” and then explains how underdevelopment, the absence of democracy, the role of military elites, the rise of fundamentalism, and the persistence of Saddam Hussein in power have all been attributed to U.S. actions and desires (2002, p. 101). Again, this approach is too narrow and brushes over the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. 

More recently, the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11 are of great interest to political scientists because they challenged authoritarianism deeply entrenched in the region. The causes and effects of the Arab Uprisings are still studied today, although frequently through a Western lens, as these protests were perceived to be centered around democracy. Although democracy was one factor, it wasn’t the only reason for mobilization. Economics, including perceived inequality, had a large impact as well. Understanding the mass mobilization of people against authoritarian regimes not strictly in terms of democracy brings political scientists and students closer to comprehending the details that shape politics in the region. 

Protesters gather in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Image

In this course, it will be important to challenge our understanding of Western institutions and norms with regard to the Middle East. We must move away from these Western-centered conversations and take a greater look at the history of Middle Eastern countries, especially in regard to the Ottoman Empire and European imperial powers that dominated the region. We must also examine Islam, its culture, and its relationship to politics. In doing all of this, we will begin to understand the complexities of politics in the region.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Lisa. “Searching where the light shines: Studying democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 189–214,