Rentier Islamism: Politics and religion in Arab Gulf societies

Rentier Islamism: Politics and religion in Arab Gulf societies
7 min read
12 Sep, 2018
Book Club: Courtney Freer's timely offering provides important new insights into political Islam in the Gulf, and the region's current schism, writes Andrew Leber.
Qatar's approach to Islamism sets it apart from other GCC nations [Getty]
Over the past decade, the Arab Gulf monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have played an increasingly prominent - and public - role in the politics and society of the Middle East and North Africa. 

Yet one issue has cleaved apart what was once a relatively unified bloc: The appropriate role of political Islam in Arab politics.

Islamism - a "political movement that favours reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam," as per the Associated Press - has been championed by Qatar as an integral part of the region's (ostensibly democratic) political future, and attacked (and criminalised) by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a terrorist organisation bent on toppling existing political regimes and imposing totalitarian control over society.

Much as a shifting international context since the Arab Spring (and the election of President Trump) has brought these tensions to boiling point - as seen in the ongoing GCC rift - focusing too much on the present obscures the long and tangled history of political Islam within the GCC itself.

As Courtney Freer notes in her timely and groundbreaking volume, Rentier Islamism, political Islam in the Gulf is no less varied than its manifestations elsewhere around the world.

Freer situates her study within the predictions of rentier theory - a sprawling body of social science that argues (in some forms) that citizens in natural-resource-rich countries are less likely to make coherent political demands of their rulers when governments fund social services with "rents" derived from the sale of natural resources rather than taxes extracted from the populations they govern. No taxation, no need for representation.

Political Islam in the Gulf is no less varied than its manifestations elsewhere around the world

Yet the efforts of organised Islamist groups in the Gulf would seem to challenge this view, as they strive to see their views on society represented in government policy. This is especially true in three of the most oil-rich countries in the world - Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE.

Freer sketches out potential motivations and mobilising potential rooted in the ongoing culture clash between economic modernisation and "traditional" values in the three monarchies.

Islamist groups across the region have spoken out against the one-time prevalence of Arab nationalism as an ideological force in the region; the growing presence of expatriates, particularly from western countries; liquor stores and bars a stone's throw away from mosques and Islamic institutions.

In time, they have added more causes to their repertoire, such as advocating for more representative politics in closed political systems (as in the UAE) or more robust political freedoms where meaningful elections exist (as in Kuwait).

Strategy and success have, broadly speaking, have been determined by two factors.

Different political institutions shape the efforts of Islamist organisations to acquire influence, while their day-to-day fortunes depend in no small part on the shifting alliances of Gulf rulers with domestic constituencies.

In Kuwait, for example, electoral competition has provided a focal point for Islamist organising.

Dating back to 1951, the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood (now known as Islah, or "Reform") invested early on in the schools (and school organisations such as student unions), prayer circles and cultural organisations that have allowed Islamist thought to endure organisational schisms and government intervention.

In a recurring story across the Gulf, efforts by the ruling Al Sabah family to sideline secular opposition helped kick-start an organised Islamist presence in the elected National Assembly from the 1980s, only for the growing political clout of Islamists to prompt ruler efforts at "divide-and-rule" by siding against Islamists' conservative social policies.

Since the Iraqi occupation and the re-establishment of parliament, the quasi-party Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) has served as the political arm of Islah. Typically holding three to five seats in the parliament, the ICM now plays a double game of pursuing policy aims in the short term while preserving its ability to contest elections in the future.

In years past, it has variously sided with yet-more-conservative Salafi parliamentarians to advance conservative social policies or a broader range of opposition blocs to promote the further democratisation of the Kuwaiti political sphere (including boycotting two elections in 2012-2013 to protest unilateral changes to the electoral law).

The establishment of the Qatari Muslim Brotherhood in 1975 brought formal organisation to a loose community of like-minded individuals

Elsewhere, Islamist organisations have faced a more uncertain path to policy influence. The establishment of the Qatari Muslim Brotherhood in 1975 brought formal organisation to a loose community of like-minded individuals active in educational institutions and cultural outings.

Yet while the Qatari government would go on to cement a relationship with prominent Islamist exiles such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Egypt, the local Brotherhood affiliate struggled to gain much popular traction or elite patronage and voted to disband itself in 1999.

"Nobody will listen to any radical ideas when their needs are fulfilled," argues former Brotherhood member Jassim Sultan, who now pursues Islamist aims through smaller-scale cultural projects.

Yet Freer presents other, darker views from around the Gulf that the group disbanded strategically in order to avoid government attention and eventual repression - as would happen in the UAE.

Read more: Critics of Corbyn's Rabaa sign undermine victims of a massacre

Freer's account of the Islamists in the UAE - also known as Islah - is likely the volume's most valuable contribution.

Dating back to 1974, the organisation's growth was fueled by the return of Emirati students from hubs of Islamist thought in Kuwait and Cairo, as well as the arrival of Egyptian expatriates hired to fill out rapidly proliferating state offices in the UAE (especially in the education sector).

Islah, primarily based in the UAE's poorer constituent Emirates, such as Ra's al-Khaimah, gained access to government offices high and low as the Emirati membership recruited its membership for their educational backgrounds as much as their ability to project a "conservative and Islamic image" for the young country.

Yet the growing influence of Islah - particularly in the judiciary and the educational system - led the Emirati government to restrict the group's activities over the course of the 1990s, with an even stricter response in the wake of 9/11. 

Islah's ambitions of political reform (rather than just social change) ultimately prompted a campaign of state repression in the wake of the Arab Spring

The relationship between Islah and the Federal government in Abu Dhabi grew particularly acrimonious in the wake of 9/11, with "Muslim Brother" allegedly the "worst epithet possible" in the vocabulary of Muhammad bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the UAE.

Islah's ambitions of political reform (rather than just social change) ultimately prompted a campaign of state repression in the wake of the Arab Spring - their past and present influence in the Emirati bureaucracy taken as evidence of a threatening plot rather than the historical legacy of state-building in the UAE.

As with any work seeking to break new ground, some subjects addressed by Rentier Islamism might benefit from further exploration in future work.

First, while Freer provides considerable insight into the often transnational nature of Islamism in the Gulf, as well as the interplay between Gulf foreign policies and Islamism in the region, the country-by-country structure of the volume's chapters can make these complex interactions a challenge to follow.

Read more: From the mystical to the political: What is Sufism?

Likewise, the rich descriptions of organisations and political manoeuvrings can obscure when and where Islamist groups have succeeded in getting markedly "Islamist" policies into official policy. It is not immediately clear what "Islamist" policies the ICM has been able to enact across its 25-year existence, for example, despite widespread perceptions among some Kuwaitis that Brotherhood (and Salafi) dominance of the National Assembly have contributed to the "Islamisation" of Kuwait.

Still, these are small concerns with a book that provides important insights into a region that has historically attracted far less academic interest than its present importance in the regional politics of the Middle East and North Africa warrants.

Given the difficulties of fieldwork in the Gulf, Freer is to be commended for the personal interviews and original material that informs this work. Present and future students of Gulf politics will be grateful for the considerable ground covered in Rentier Islamism.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University.

Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.