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Rentierism and the Formation of States in the Middle East

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Published: 10th Dec 2019

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To what extent were processes of state-formation in the modern Middle East distinctive, in comparison with equivalent processes in other regions of the world?

The Middle East comprises some of the oldest civilizations in the world, including Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Although many of the region’s states go back to the 19th century or before (Harik, 2015), for this essay ‘modern Middle East’ is determined as the group of states that emerged following World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. North Africa is excluded as the question does not refer to ‘MENA’.

While process variations and different state types offer rich intra-regional comparison, this essay is concerned instead with comparison with other regions of the world.  Lacking scope here to cover all regions, and although comparison is often made with Western Europe, this essay will instead compare Latin America, which has been suggested as being “much more relevant to contemporary analysis” (Centeno, 1997, p.1566) but where the overt commonality of external imperialist powers – Spain in Latin America, Britain and France in the Middle East – belies as many differences as similarities.

Consideration of state formation processes in the two regions reveals several distinctions.  First, those imperial or colonial powers played quite different roles, both in the events leading up to territorial declarations and in their subsequent state building.  Second, the impact of historical context: the modern middle East emerged in the 20th century, with its rapid technological advances, while modern Latin American states were founded 100 years before.  Third, economic and demographic differences either facilitated or inhibited formation. To illustrate this last point, comparison will be made between Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.  Despite historical and contemporary congruity – both states had an economically significant pearl fishing industry before their oil discoveries, are founding members of OPEC, are often referred to as rentier states and today have a similar population size (c. 32m) – it will be seen that distinct regional and particularly local factors resulted in quite different paths to state formation.  This essay will conclude that many state formation processes in the modern Middle East state formation processes were quite different to those of modern Latin America.

While there are many definitions of ‘state’, Owen provides two which are particularly helpful in reflecting both the external or territorial perspective: “sovereign political entities, i.e. those states with international recognition, their own boundaries” and the internal or structural: a “set of institutions and practices which combines administrative, judicial, rule-making and coercive powers”(Owen, 2004, p.1).  A discussion of ‘nation’ as separate from (though often conflated with) ‘state’ – is excluded.

If ‘process’ is ‘a continuous action’ or ‘a series of actions and events’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017) and “state formation is an ongoing process” (Schwarz, 2011a, p.419), a declaration of territorial independence was more often the beginning, or at least continuation, than the end of the formative process: Owen’s definitions manifest somewhat sequentially, as will be seen from both the case examples.  It is useful, then, to frame state formation as being in two parts, the first being the period leading up to the declaration of independence (Owen’s ‘sovereign political entities’) and the second being the emergence of internal structures characteristic of modern states.  Both lend themselves to examination through different accounts of state formation: the former through the lens of war and the latter through institutional or bureaucratic theory.

From the territorial perspective, what actions and events created the modern Middle East?  Gelvin (2016) cites two: decree (Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan and Iraq) and violence (Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), however coercion, in the form of direct or indirect aggression, was involved in all these cases.  The Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 (and the subsequent variations not covered by the original decree e.g., Lebanon and Palestine) carved up the lands of Mesopotamia and the Levant between Britain and France and thus was instrumental in the creation of the modern Middle East.  Neither Britain nor France directly invaded the territories whose boundaries they drew up, instead providing military protection, funding of local actors, provision of arms and stationing of troops. Britain maintained some control in the region until its final withdrawal in 1971, with the formation of the UAE.  Saudi Arabia escaped colonial rule, the impact of which will be discussed later in this essay.

Given the prevalence of war during the century of modern Middle East existence, it is appropriate to consider its role in state formation.  One influential scholar in this field asserts that “war makes states” (Tilly, 1985, p.170): that is, in the drive to eliminate external and external rivals, to protect populations and to fund those activities, centralized bureaucracies are created to facilitate resource extraction from populations through taxation and conscription, an action requiring what Tilly calls “coercive exploitation” (1985, p.169). It follows, then, that weak i.e., poorly resourced states, are absorbed and the victor’s territory expanded. Tilly studied Europe but is his theory applicable in the modern Middle East?

Tilly suggests state formation is an unintended by-product of wars but, by the 20th century, states as a form of territorial organization were the norm in Europe and the Americas.  Thus, Sykes-Picot was a carefully planned and extensively executed state formation process, yet still an act of war on several levels – born of war (WW1), its enforcement of arbitrary boundaries without consultation of local people – so clearly coercive – was seen by many, then and now, as also an act of war, “the map that spawned a century of resentment” (Muir, 2016).  For those states excluded from Sykes-Picot – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Gulf countries – all but the latter arose from conflict with what must have been a clear intention to create a territorial state, given the model already in existence elsewhere.  The small Gulf States, already formed but under British protection since the late 1900s, avoided conflict.  Britain and France succeeded in enforcing Sykes-Picot because of their relative (though post-WW1 depleted) military strength applied not directly (invasion) but indirectly and at arm’s length, through partnership with local actors, provision of external military protection and funding of local military resources to deal with external and internal security threats, together with direct administrative control i.e., following a sequential not a causative pattern.

Other challenges to Tilly’s model include assertions that inter- and intra-state wars with external patronage did not produce territorial change because ultimately, the patrons controlled outcomes: “the system of colonial subordination and externally enforced norms to which the nineteenth and twentieth century Middle East was subjected did not allow cross-border warfare by local rulers to effect substantial change in the number, size, or internal regimes of states” (Lustick, 1997, p.657). Moreover, the role of revenue extraction through taxation emphasised by Tilly was not universally applicable in the Middle East, where several states obtained revenues through ‘rents’, defined as “income generated through the export of natural resources, usually oil and gas but also income from bilateral or multilateral foreign aid payments” (Schwarz, 2011b, p.420).  Oil rentierism in Saudi Arabia is explored later.

In summary, war did indeed play a significant role in the territorial emergence of the modern Middle East, but not necessarily in the manner Tilly proposed.

In Latin America, the dominant external power, Spain, played a quite different role in the emergence of the modern states. Under colonial rule as a part of the Spanish Empire for three centuries, the period 1808-1832 saw a succession of wars that ejected the colonial master entirely but, although Ferdinand VII of Spain did make some attempt to recover his colonies, Spain’s attention was engaged on its doorstep, its fiscal and military resources depleted in self-defence during the Napoleonic Peninsular War of 1808-1814.  Unlike Britain, Spain had neither the means nor the interest to retain its former territories. Thus, in direct contrast to the Middle East, 16 new states emerged and Latin America began its postcolonial formation.

Tilly’s theory is challenged as being too narrow a model for Latin America: “when the almost exclusive focus on external war is replaced with the more general phenomenon of interstate rivalry, and intrastate rivals are included simultaneously in the model, we can account for both the impact of external and internal forces on the development of the state” (Thies, 2005, p.451). The Wars of Independence were as much civil as external wars: royalists vs. separatists, which succeeded in preventing formation of any effective state mechanisms except the military: “The birth of the Latin American state, despite being announced by the sound of guns, did not produce the expected forms of political apparatus” (Centeno, 1997, p.1582).

The demographic legacy of the colonial era was societies highly stratified along ethnic and economic lines: criollos (landowning and merchant elites, of direct Spanish descent), mestizos (farmers and craftspeople of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage), indigenos (Indians, the indigenous population found usually in remote areas) and negros (labourers, descended from African slaves) (Ewell, 1984, pp.3–6).  In contrast, although the Middle East saw ethnic conflict e.g., Kurds and Azeris, religious sectarian conflict – Shia, Sunni, Christian, Jew – was more prevalent.

Centeno observes that state centralization and power consolidation require a “driver” in the form of e.g., a dominant class or powerful individual, without which wars are about simple survival (Centeno, 1997, p.1599). It took Latin America 70 more years of inter-and intra-state violence for such drivers to emerge and structural state building processes to begin.  Further differences between the two regions are observed in these processes.

Owen’s second (internal) definition of state echoes Weber’s view of the rational or bureaucratic state which proposes the state as administration, for whom “the essence of bureaucratic governance was a hierarchy of administrative offices occupied by full-time specialists with differentiated functions” (Spencer, 2010, p.7119). The tools of internal state formation include political government, military (army and police), legislative, fiscal (which may or may not include raising taxes), social, economic and, in some cases e.g., Saudi Arabia, religious institutions.

Prior to WWI the Middle East was operating under “one of the great patrimonial bureaucratic states, the Ottoman Empire” (Anderson, 1987, p.2), yet Britain and France believed that the region was not ready for self-governance. Sykes-Picot was intended to ensure the introduction of modern administrative processes but was in essence a European perspective that in some states was forced onto peoples and systems that neither requested nor necessarily required them.  Anderson also distinguishes between those that continue the patrimonial model, i.e., monarchies, and those that adopt Weber’s bureaucratic model but this is a false split: Middle East monarchies also adopted bureaucratic mechanisms, often faster and more effectively than republics.

Oil rents distinguished the state building capacity of several Middle East countries: “The availability of oil resources profoundly affects the domestic political order and contributes to explaining the Middle Eastern particularity” (Luciani, 2009, p.93).  Under the Red Line Agreement 1928-48, regional oil was in colonial control and rents mainly flowed outwards, but thereafter oil rents were a means in some states both to fund structural state building at speed e.g., the UAE, and to silence opposition coercively e.g., Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Rogan (2016) disagrees with Tilly, suggesting instead that wars fail states due to negative social, cultural, fiscal and economic impact of conflict.  While external wars require greater bureaucratic capacity for extraction and coercion purposes, internal wars have the opposite effect, clearly evidenced in postcolonial Latin America’s decades of factional infighting, which delayed the emergence of strong political parties, restricted economic growth and prohibited modernization (Cárdenas, 2010).   Criollos were economically, not ideologically, motivated, uninterested in building state bureaucracy as long as their lands and position in the social hierarchy were not affected (Centeno, 1997).  Conversely, the caudillos (military dictators) were politically conservative, motivated by power but lacking the economic means to consolidate it.  Influenced by Europe and the US, liberalism emerged amongst the elites in the later decades of the 1900s, but their attempts at representative government through adoption of constitutions and institutional centralization were of limited success, possibly being merely an echo of imperialist Spain: “liberal elites [who] struggled for a design of institutions able to suit local conditions” (Negretto and Aguilar-Rivera, 2000, p.364).  The authors support Ewell’s (1984) view of the causal centrality of postcolonial territorial fragmentation. It is ironic that although, according to these authors, liberals espoused concepts of civil rights and popular participation, the reality was several decades of despots and dictators.  By the late 1800s many states had attained some political and institutional stability and began to turn their attention to economic growth.

Further illustration of differences in state formation are evident when comparing one state in each region, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Under Ottoman rule, the Arabian Peninsula comprised a number of provinces but following WW1, Najd was unusual in not being under colonial rule, leaving its leader, Abdul Aziz bin Saud, free to expand territorial control through inter-tribal warfare. After conquering Hijaz province, home of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, modern Saudi Arabia was established in 1932.  Abdul Aziz partnered with Wahhabi clerics, gaining political legitimacy in return for social control and embedding Islam into the fabric of both the state and society.

Economically split between trade, agriculture (mainly dates and pearl fishing) and some tourism (Hadj pilgrims) and socially split between the merchants of the coastal settlements and the nomads of the interior, Saudi Arabia began its shift from tribal chieftancy to monarchy when oil was discovered in 1938, fuelling the creation of modern bureaucratic government at a speed that would have been impossible a century earlier.

Political control consolidated in 1953 after which the King ruled by decree through an unelected Council of Ministers.  An ethnically and religiously homogenous population facilitated by extensive, albeit occasionally fragile, familial ties provided relatively little opposition; political parties were prohibited and coercion maintained via the mutawa and military police force and the clerics were now, in practice, a junior partner:  “The Saudi ulama, finally, were an important part of the ruling elite but, despite popular myths, consistently deferred to royal prerogative on larger political questions” .

In common with other oil states, Saudi Arabia developed a particular type of welfare system: oil rents rather than taxes resulted in public acquiescence and the avoidance of democracy (Schwarz, 2008); the state provided education, healthcare, security and jobs.  Hertog (2007, p.539) recognises the next phase as “the crucial period of state formation between 1951 and 1962, when the interplay of administrative growth, elite politics, and patronage and factionalism was the most intense”, during bureaucratic, specialized Ministries (Agriculture, Communications, Education, Information, Labour & Social Affairs, Petroleum and Pilgrimage) were established, further centralizing control and providing the main source of employment outside the oil industry.

Modernization at speed continued through the 1960s and was further boosted by the 1970s oil boom, but it is clear that by that time, the modern state was already formed. It took just 30 years.

Like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela emerged to territorial independence after two decades of external conflict, albeit against its colonial oppressor, not its local neighbours.  From 1811 Simon Bolívar, whose vision of a single great Latin American state echoed the Middle East’s pan-Arab movement more than 100 years later, led Venezuela in the Wars of Independence from Spain, initially forming Gran Colombia until seceding, with Ecuador, and declaring independence in 1830. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Venezuela gained independence as a republic.

Similarities in structural state formation end there. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Venezuela remained fundamentally unstable during the following almost four decades, with conflict between regional and local caudillos devastating its agrarian economy and impeding structural state building (Ewell, 1984; López-Alves, 2014). That one dominant social group, coalition or individual failed to materialize was due largely to previously mentioned ethnic and economic fragmentation but following the Federal War of 1858-64 the dictator Antonio Guzmán did emerge to lead political and economic centralization, culminating in the Constitution of 1881.  The state encouraged foreign investment in infrastructure, expanded through the establishment of public departments to supervise and control banking and finance, education, economic development, public works and foreign relations. Note no army: instead, regional caudillos continued to exert control in return for a share of national power and wealth (Ewell, 1984).

By the late 1900s Venezuela had developed only a quite rudimentary centralized political, administrative and economic institutional framework.  Having been in existence since 1830, it was nevertheless an established state, though perhaps a precarious one. The period of transformation after the discovery of oil in 1914 accelerated state-making; comparison of that era in Venezuela’s development with Saudi Arabia warrants further exploration outside the scope of this essay.


Despite apparent commonalities, state formation processes in the modern Middle East and Latin America are sufficiently diverse to warrant that theories of war, bureaucracy or state classification do not, either on their own or even collectively, provide adequate frameworks or explanation when comparing different world regions. Complexity and variation even within each region include the presence and role of colonial powers, the nature of and participants in regional wars, the historical context and differences in regional economics and demographics; all were influential in either facilitating or inhibiting state formation.  This holds true even at the level of the individual state, such that it is more illuminating to compare state formation processes at this local rather than regional level.


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