Rentierism and Democracy

September 25, 2023 | | 2 Comments

The Middle East and North Africa region is characterized by the rest of the world as being incredibly resistant to democracy, prompting a specific focus on authoritarianism and the idea of a rentier state. Rentier states have rents on specific products, which in this case is oil, and charge foreigners for access to those rents. That money goes directly into the hands of the government creating a strong central power and impacting social and political outcomes. The rents themselves serve as a sign of societal disturbance, but it’s the resulting interactions they have with the government, civilians, and the economy that are particularly damaging.

In his study, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?”, Michael Ross looks at the role of oil rents on democracy in the Middle East and globally. Specifically, he looks at the rentier effect, where resource-rich countries use low tax rates and patronage to avoid accountability from citizens. In understanding this tax effect, the motto is essential, “no representation without taxation”. The oil industry requires less labor and puts money directly into government funds, therefore, avoiding the involvement of civilians altogether. This money instead can go towards strengthening patronage. Ultimately, as a result of money accruing directly to the state, the civilians feel less entitled to democracy and representation, thus damaging political and social outcomes.

Along with using the money to bolster the government, it is also used to put down citizens. The repression effect is another topic that Ross talks about to explain that as resource wealth grows, the government will be more likely to spend it on internal security. Building up the military creates a power imbalance in which citizens don’t feel secure raising their voices. Many resource-rich countries have a mukhabarat state, in which there is an internal intelligence network where one can never be sure that their neighbor isn’t spying on them. It’s essentially like the Soviet KGB or the police under Saddam Hussein.

World Bank, Federal Reserve Bank St. Louis

Regarding the economy, resource-rich countries often find their private sector lacking as a result of a large and overbearing public sector featuring the oil industry. Due to the funds from these rents accruing directly from the state, the government has a more direct hand in controlling the public sector, which can lead to large population struggles if the industry is impacted.
This was seen with the 2008 recession in which many countries in the Middle East, specifically resource rich countries, had lingering effects of economic struggle as the oil industry’s success declined. An example of this would be Kuwait which, as evidenced by the graph, had a decrease in GDP when oil prices decreased during the recession. Additionally, the government also has a heavy hand in setting wages and the other industries that can find success, although they tend to be limited.

Ross claims that this is also not limited to just the Middle East or small countries. In fact, these results regarding a struggle for democracy in oil rent states are seen across the world. The interaction of these rents through the government and thus civilians and the economy makes it commanding and detrimental to democratization and stability of social and political life.


Work Cited:

Ross, Michael Lewin. 2001. “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics 53, 3. (Apr.): 325-361

Cammett, Diwan, Richards, & Waterbury Chapter 9, 319-354


In Lisa Anderson’s 2006 article, “Searching for Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”, she argues that the model for democracy, which is idealized by the Western world and the US specifically, does not necessarily apply to the region of the Middle East. Western foreign policy puts a large emphasis on democracy and a global movement towards liberalization. Throughout history trends of modernization, transitionology, and the most recent success of “third-wave” democracy have been the primary focus of the global political science lens on development and regimes. And yet it meets resistance in the Middle East specifically. Anderson cites many issues with political scientists attempting to understand the political forces in the Middle East and North Africa through the lens of democratization, starting with the new state creations in the 20th century and including the modern economies of each country.

 A democracy requires destabilizing a nation both socially and economically and a reliance on civil society to make a functioning state. The nations of the Middle East were created from colonial parentage after the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1, making them fairly young nations, yet still carrying the burden of the prior history in the region. Modern political scientists choose to view these as new states, but Anderson claims they neglect to look at the local, nonstate networks that were already in place. As a result, as these nations have developed, their governments have a frail foundational view of democracy and a reliance on coercion and establishing legitimacy to function. Most attempts at democracy have been brief or surface-level on the part of the government to gain international support. Much of the Middle East and North Africa lacks cultural unity as a result of their more recent formation and often have governments that are resource-reliant and thus less reliant on the citizens. Democracy, as a result, serves less of a purpose to the authoritarian regimes that are already in place.

Ultimately, Anderson says that despite democracies’ success globally and most recently in Latin America in the ’80s and ’90s, the Middle East is a case study that cannot be viewed through that same lens. Through her analysis, she makes a point of emphasizing that the region must be viewed in more of an area study than just a global context, a lesson that can be taken throughout this course. Instead of using an American political scientist’s perspective, the country must be understood from the inside out. The culture of the Middle East as a result of their Ottoman history, the strong presence of Islam, and their complicated economic situations as a result of natural resources, such as oil, make them entirely different from the deeply studied regions they’re compared to. Viewing the Middle East and North Africa with these differences in mind before applying that Western mindset will be crucial to fully understanding the politics of this region.

Additionally, Anderson’s article was written before the Arab uprisings in 2010 and 2011 in which citizens revolted against their governments across much of the region, starting in Tunisia and spreading across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. As the region experienced changes in the oil markets and thus unreliable economies and governments, and a perception of decreased social satisfaction, democracy began to look more appealing to the citizens. As a result, a sort of civil society was built among the people in a way that hadn’t been seen before. These uprisings had a variety of impacts, but the new emphasis on citizens and representation of their needs, specifically the non-elites, brought an aspect of democratization that the region lacked before. This is not to say that the Western lens of democratization is suddenly applicable to the region, but perhaps these uprisings add a qualification to Anderson’s claims as the nations may move in a new, more liberal direction.


Work Cited:

Anderson, Lisa. 2006. “Searching where the light shines: studying democratization in the Middle East” Annual Review of Political Science 9:189–214