Rentierism as an Isolated Factor: Effective on its Own?

The rentier model describes a state whose economy relies on outsourcing the advantages of its land abroad. The outside states are “renting” the rentier state’s property because that state does not primarily use its land for itself. The benefits of this land can be either military location or natural resources. In the case of MENA, almost all the rentier states are dependent on oil extraction. The states that are not oil rich export their labor to these states, so the entire region’s fortunes are tied to these rents. 

It is commonly understood that rents have negative impacts on democratization. The rentier model allows the government to have an excess of power while lessening that of the people, whether through the absence of taxes, military repression, or other methods. What is less understood is which specific qualities of rentierism are sufficient to trigger the prevalence of authoritarianism.  

As Ross’s article explains, rentierism, though conceptualized by MENA experts, is not exclusive to the MENA region. Other regions, namely sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, have large oil deposits and states which fit into the rentier model. Ross’s article makes clear that the negative effects of rentierism are highly general. In other words, they are not limited to any one region; they apply universally. Income prior to the discovery, not geographic location, of oil wealth is the factor that has the biggest impact on negating the authoritarian effects. Nevertheless, it is notable that Latin America had a wave of democratization in the 20th century, which MENA was resistant to. The question then becomes: is there something specific about MENA oil rents which cause its perpetual authoritarianism? Or is there something else in combination with rentierism that yields this result? Personally, I tend to think the latter.  

Another key principle in Ross’s article is the idea that mineral exports are particularly prone to promote authoritarianism. He tests these minerals against agricultural exports and finds that they do not produce the same outcomes. One theory behind this phenomenon is that agriculture’s labor intensity lends itself to higher employment levels and increased specialization. Conversely, oil extraction employs few and does not require specialized labor. Moreover, agriculture does not enrich the government to the extent oil does. In this way, agricultural exports increase the power of the workforce and limit that of the government. The Middle East is restricted in this area, not able to produce large quantities of agricultural goods due to its topography.

This is not to say that its lack of airable land has caused MENA’s reliance rentierism nor that the presence of farmable land would deter such practices. Rather, this points to factors unique to MENA which drive it to rely so heavily on oil, in turn causing enduring authoritarian. More plainly, it is impossible to study rents in a vacuum. Though their effects may be generally applicable, what triggers them or makes them so severe is more difficult to grasp. Many things which may initially be perceived as outside factors can be explained by rents. For example, as previously discussed, unemployment and a lack of specialization are tied to rents through oil’s low labor requirements. However, land quality is one characteristic that is innate to the region and cannot stem from rents. It therefore functions as a useful example of a confounding factor in the rentier model and its consequences. 

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

Comments (1)

The Consequences of Ideological Colonization: Projecting Western Values onto the Middle East

Lisa Anderson’s 2006 article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East” pieces together the works of various scholars to explain the misconceptions political scientists had about the Middle East in the past several decades. The main issue she describes is the West’s tendency to project its own values and expectations universally.  

While her diagnosis is most explicitly about the Middle East, it applies to Western political academia as a whole. In the West, the natural model of progression is independence, economic modernization, social mobilization, then the inevitable: democracy. Every step in this model is seen as causing the next, a logical evolution. However, as the Middle East has demonstrated, this pattern is in no way fixed. Middle Eastern states grew their economies, but the rentier model did not lend itself to passive rulers willing to allow a peaceful transfer of power. Even though they modernized, civil society could not be understood through the Western lens because loyalties were still based locally rather than nationally. The West took its understanding of politics and forced it onto regions it did not (and perhaps refused to) understand. 

Anderson attributes this insistence of democracy to the political atmosphere during the Cold War. During this period, there was a bipartisan push to embrace democracy wholeheartedly, both as a tool of foreign policy and a principled conviction. Such an environment not only affected government behavior but the ideology and approaches of individual political scientists as well. As she puts it, U.S. political science was designed to study and find democracy. Whether by true faith or social pressure, it is undeniable that the scholars of this time were prone to see democracy everywhere and as the only solution.  

Middle Eastern leaders were paying attention to the democratic pressures of the West, but rather than adopt democratic processes, they simply copied and misused the language of democracy. Pretending to run fair elections and advocate for human rights became the norm as it was a new way to claim legitimacy. It pacified Western political actors who hoped and expected these leaders would take the necessary steps towards democratization. Instead of investigating the validity of the democratic rhetoric and institutions, political scientists were satisfied with accepting vague indications; it was presumed that modernization made eventual democratization unavoidable. 

In this course, we should avoid replicating these mistakes, seeing the world only through the eyes of the West. We cannot look for democracy wherever we wish it existed but must remain impartial observers, open to shaping our ideas around the region rather than the other way around. We must understand the Middle East on its own terms instead of forcing democratic verbiage and systems onto it.  

The 2011 uprisings make it clear that the public is not a passive actor in politics. They are mobile and influential, even if Arab civil society is not identical to that of the West. Yet it is impossible to simply say the Arab public galvanized to insist on democracy. A major part of the uprisings was economic matters and perceived corruption, concepts which can be understood as separate from regime types as they apply to everyday life. The uprisings do not demonstrate that the people will revolt until they get democracy. They show that public opinion cannot be disregarded by any ruler. Even authoritarians cannot afford to constantly squash rebellions if they are to remain in power. 

Works Cited 

Anderson, Lisa. 2006. “SEARCHING WHERE the LIGHT SHINES: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9 (1): 189–214 

Comments (1)