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Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula Roundtable: Capital and Labor in the Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In

[This is one of seven contributions in Jadaliyya's electronic roundtable on the symbolic and material practices of knowledge production on the Arabian Peninsula. Moderated by Rosie Bsheer and John Warner, it features Toby Jones, Madawi Al-Rasheed, Adam Hanieh, Neha Vora, Nathalie Peutz, John Willis, and Ahmed Kanna.]

(1) Historically, what have the dominant analytical approaches to the study of the Arabian Peninsula been? How have the difficulties of carrying out research in the Arabian Peninsula shaped the ways in which knowledge is produced for the particular country/ies in which you have worked, and in the field more generally?

My work has focused on the political economy of the Arabian Peninsula and processes of class and state formation in the region. In this field, the dominant framework that scholars adopt is that of rentier state theory, which has been described by Lisa Anderson as “one of the major contributions of Middle East regional studies to political science.” According to this framework, states that are recipients of large external rents (typically—although not exclusively—oil revenues) are able to forestall significant social struggles or pressure for political reform because government revenues are derived externally and not from taxation or exploitation of the population. The theory draws heavily upon institutionalist approaches to political economy, where the state is considered as a neutral body with a wide measure of freedom in its policy formulation. The original formulation of this theory by the Iranian economist Hossein Mahdavy, later developed by Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, emphasized that rentier states were predisposed to economic policies that discouraged diversification because they could rely upon external rents. But with the correct choice of economic policy—the right mix of protectionism, development of local industry, and diversification—it would be possible to pursue a developmental pathway that was beneficial for all citizens. Theoretical and empirical work inspired by this approach tends to focus on the use of these rents and the linkages between the state and other parts of society. 

I think there are several problems with the rentier state framework. Much like the “Developmental State” approach, popular in analysis of the political economy of East Asia, Latin America, and some African countries, rentier state theory attributes a large degree of autonomy to the state and tends to conceptualize the state as a separate sphere from class. This standpoint tends to divest the state of any class character, treating the state as a technocratic body divorced from wider social relations. Moreover, rentier state theory (and the developmental state framework) is frequently characterized by a methodological nationalism, where social relations are seen as being neatly circumscribed within nation-states. I think this is problematic in an era where social relations are deeply interpenetrated across national borders. My work on the political economy of the Gulf has attempted to rethink these processes through the lens of class formation and the ways in which the Gulf is located in the wider region and a capitalist world market.

There are numerous barriers faced by those doing research in and on the Arabian Peninsula. First, there are very practical questions regarding the availability and access to interview subjects and statistical data in these areas. People are often reluctant to speak openly about what is happening in these societies, and information on issues such as ownership, investments from the region, the nature of decision-making, and even demographic data is extremely difficult to obtain (and often just does not exist). One striking example is the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the most important Sovereign Wealth Funds in the world, whose size, precise geographic spread, and nature of its investments are virtually unknown. Another example is the much-used phrase “Shi’a majority in Bahrain.” In reality, we just do not have an accurate demographic profile of Bahraini society.

But beyond these practical issues, we need to recognize that much of the research on the Gulf is—directly or indirectly—funded by regimes in the region itself. Across the world, the Gulf states are providing enormous amounts of funding for university chairs and research centers, academic conferences, and research grants. The ways in which this funding impacts the nature of research are complex and mediated, but they are real and they should be considered. I believe they influence not only the ways in which the Gulf is discussed in the academy, but also the types of questions that are considered “legitimate research.” I think that they have led towards a focus upon “technocratic” questions—what types of economic policies to pursue, how to industrialize, how to deal with the question of non-citizen labor, and so forth—that assume a benign standpoint of the state itself. That is why so much of the research on the Gulf reads like policy advice for governments. In the worst cases, it leads towards a hagiography of ruling families and state elites.

This means that a whole series of questions become elided in scholarly research. One example of this is that the concept of imperialism—and the Gulf’s position in the hierarchy of the world market—is notably absent in much academic work. We can contrast this with the work that exists on regions, such as Latin America and Africa, where categories such as imperialism, “sub-imperialism,” and so forth, are foundational to critical scholarly analyses. The relationships between the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western states and the core states of the Arabian Peninsula are among the most significant alliances in the contemporary world order. These relationships are central to the architecture of imperialism and the ways in which the United States, specifically, acts to dominate the Middle East as a whole. I think it is impossible to gain any real insight into the region without taking as a starting point this relationship with imperialism. Much work on the Gulf simply ignores this, or treats the relationship between these states as simply one foreign policy choice among many.

As a consequence of the narrowing down of research questions, there is a whole range of other social issues that tend to get downplayed. Most importantly, the question of migrant workers tends to be sidelined within the political economy literature. Of course, there exists a wide set of insightful anthropological and sociological work on migrants in the Gulf, but in the political economy literature, the presence of these migrant workers is typically treated as a result of neoclassical “push-pull” factors: a lack of skills and population levels in the Gulf and the prospect of higher wage levels “pulls” those who are simultaneously pushed by the low wages in their country of origin. This approach treats migrant labor flows as a positive sum game for both the sending and receiving countries, and obfuscates the mechanisms of exploitation that underlie these movements of people. We can see here again the ways in which academic research becomes a form of policy advice for governments, where it often becomes a question of finding the right policy mix: “Gulfization” programs to replace non-citizen with citizen labor, for example.

More generally, I think the question of migrant work in the Gulf really needs to become much more central to how we look at these societies. We see a whole range of research focusing on so-called “democratic openings” in the Gulf, or improvements in the visibility of women, but much of this work tends to ignore the fact that these states have been (and continue to be) built upon the backs of millions of temporary migrant workers. I am not saying that struggles, for example, between the Kuwaiti parliament and the Sabah monarchy are not significant, but we need to remember that we are discussing this in the context of a society where only a small minority of the population hold citizenship rights!

Finally, the institutional and political barriers that exist in doing critical research in these areas act to conservatize the ways in which academics relate to the region itself. A clear example of this is the muted response of many academics to the uprisings in the region (specifically Bahrain). I think it is quite striking, because many are worried about their ability to visit these states or about continued funding to research centers and so forth, that any criticism of governments, let alone active solidarity with struggles in the region, tends to be downplayed. This is particularly true in an environment where there are enormous pressures on university research budgets and a demand on academics to show their research has “impact,” understood in the narrow sense of influencing government policy. We can contrast this with the varied and interesting examples of “activist scholarship” that has arisen around places such as Palestine and Egypt. What would this look like in the case of the Gulf?

I completely agree with Neha Vora that we need to be careful in assuming an exceptionalism for the Gulf states in this regard. There are plenty of examples in the Western academy of self-censorship and a reluctance to engage politically because of the perceived repercussions. Palestine, of course, is the standout case. I think we need to see this, however, as a partial reflection of the successes that solidarity movements have had in actually making a difference. In many ways, I think academics are very well placed to have an impact on the openness of Gulf politics. Perhaps more than most, these states are very concerned with their external image, and this creates a particular vulnerability to solidarity from outside. One interesting example of this in recent years was the campaign around the conditions of migrant workers at the Abu Dhabi branch of New York University and the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim. I do not know to what extent these made a concrete difference on the ground, but they do point to the openings for solidarity actions as the links between Western academic and cultural institutions and the Gulf deepen.

(2) What are some of the new and innovative ways of thinking and theorizing the Arabian Peninsula and how has your work drawn on these approaches? How do these new theoretical interventions address elisions or tensions within more traditional approaches?

I think there are some very interesting questions that are being raised more generally in social science that we can bring to the study of the Arabian Peninsula. One of these, which I mentioned earlier, is the critique of “methodological nationalism”; specifically, how social relations tend to form across national borders and a de-centering of the nation-state as the privileged standpoint of analysis. I think this critique raises some useful issues regarding how the core Gulf states relate to other countries in the Middle East. One thing I have been trying to look at recently is how we understand the nature of “national capital” in countries like Egypt, or Palestine, where we have very significant levels of Gulf investment and an interpenetration of capitalist classes. I think there are some useful insights that can be drawn from some of the wider political economy debates in this regard, and applied to the Middle East. Nicos Poulantzas, for example, made some prescient observations back in the 1970s around the notion of an “internal bourgeoisie.” In contrast to positions that posited an ongoing conflict between national and foreign capital, Poulantzas argued that processes of internationalization meant that “foreign” capital needed to be seen as reproduced and interiorized within individual nation-states. What we are accustomed to thinking of as a national bourgeoisie had become affixed to and oriented towards the imperatives of internationalization. Simultaneously, international capital had become part of, and internalized within, domestic social formations. It made little sense, therefore, to speak of separate “domestic” and “foreign” capitals. This did not mean that nation-states were no longer important, nor that there existed a single, transnational capitalist class, but rather that classes needed to be considered beyond any “national” identity. I think these notions present very interesting ideas on how we think of capitalism at the regional level in the Middle East.

In a related sense, this regional perspective brings into focus the vital role of Gulf states as an accumulation base for diaspora capital in the Middle East. Particularly pertinent in this respect are Palestinian, Lebanese, and Iraqi business groups, although this argument could be extended to look at East Africa and parts of South Asia. What are the political and economic implications of these ties? Does it make sense, for example, to speak of a “Palestinian bourgeoisie” when the core zone of accumulation for most of the major Palestinian corporate groups is based in the Gulf?

Another interesting set of literature that I think holds promise for understanding social processes in the Gulf relates to questions of space, urbanization, and finance. It is very interesting that John Willis, Ahmed Kanna, and Neha Vora have all highlighted the importance of space and scale as analytical categories for approaching the Arabian Peninsula. Space, as Lefebvre and others have emphasized, is something that is produced and not simply given to us a priori. We can learn a lot about the way that power is exercised through the spatial arrangements that underpin any given social formation. In the Gulf this is clearly apparent: the proliferation of “special zones” with different laws and regulations for various economic activities, the restrictions (both spoken and unspoken) on movements of people into certain areas, the ways in which Gulf cities are arranged in sharply demarcated neighborhoods correlating to different social groups and classes; these are all indicative of how the contestation of space underlies forms of power in the region. One of the insights of the geography literature that I have tried to employ in this regard is Doreen Massey’s notion of class as a “spatial structure.” If we approach class in this manner, it helps us see labor in the Gulf as something necessarily bound up with the surrounding region, and not confined within the borders of the nation-state. Historically, I think Gulf regimes have acted to overcome crises (both political and economic) through spatial displacement, a reworking of the spatial structures that define class at any particular moment.

In a closely related sense, Nelida Fuccaro observed back in 2001 that there was a lack of historically informed studies on Gulf cities. Over the last decade there have been some attempts to address this gap (see, for example, the work of Christopher Davidson and Yasser Elsheshtawy). Ahmed Kanna’s work on Dubai was particularly insightful for me. But surprisingly little of this writing draws upon a political economy perspective and the wider debates in the literature around financialization, urbanization, and real estate markets. Financialized forms of capitalism, as we can see in the recent global economic crisis, are deeply connected with urban processes and this is as true in the Gulf as it is in places such as New York, London, and Shanghai. This raises very interesting questions regarding the relationship between finance, mortgage, and debt markets: the ways in which urbanization underpins accumulation of the major capital groups in the Gulf; the role of Islamic finance; and the connection with international financial flows. Once again, it is important to remember that these urban processes are also deeply connected to the position of migrant labor. I think the work of scholars such as David Harvey, Manuel Aalbers, and Kevin Gotham raise some interesting insights around these issues that still need to be generalized to the Gulf urban environment. I would note here the work of Michelle Buckley, who has really been doing some interesting thinking on these issues.

Finally, I think Ahmed Kanna and Toby Jones are absolutely right to highlight the recent writings of Timothy Mitchell and Robert Vitalis as presenting an important challenge to much of the rentier state-inspired approaches to oil. I think there is an interesting parallel here in the literature on Canadian political economy. For a long period, Canada was seen as being a resource economy whose historical development could be explained by the “Staples Theory”—basically its export of relatively unprocessed commodities such as lumber, furs, wheat, and fish. David McNally has presented a persuasive critique of this theory, arguing that it demonstrates a form of commodity fetishism, in which “staples exports” are viewed as “things” separated from the social relations that give them meaning. In many ways, I think the critical writing on oil is making a similar intervention—one that is long overdue! It would be fruitful to see more interchange and comparative work on the theoretical approaches to these different cases.

(3) “Sectarianism” seems to have reemerged in popular and academic work on the Arabian Peninsula as both the label for and analytic of a socio-political phenomenon. What is the utility of both past and more recent formulations of “sectarianism” as an analytical tool for the study of the Arabian Peninsula? What challenges or problems have these formulations created?

There is no doubt that sectarianism is a major theme of the popular discourse in the region. This can be seen in government statements about Iran, as well as Gulf intervention in Syria. I think it is important, however, to distinguish the ways this is articulated by different states in the GCC; sometimes the Gulf tends to get lumped together, ignoring the significant differences which exist, for example, between the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. 

In general though, I must admit I am rather skeptical about the way in which sectarianism has become such a major theme of literature on the region. Is it true that identities are increasingly (or primarily) refracted through sectarian categories? If so, why? I am not convinced the first question should be answered in the affirmative; there may be a rise in the levels of sectarian discourse from Gulf leaders and the domestic media, but this does not necessarily tell us much about the ways in which the citizen population identify. I think the reasons why regimes in the region are playing up the sectarian discourse is much more related to the ways in which power is articulated in the Gulf. Sectarianism has an ideological function that can be used as a divide-and-rule strategy, helping to foster an allegiance to the ruling family and to justify internal domestic repression. I think this is very clearly illustrated in the case of Bahrain, where the monarchy has utilized sectarianism as a way to attack mobilizations against the regime. Their ability to do this successfully is partly related to the weakness of secular left forces. In periods when these movements were stronger, for example, the labor struggles in Bahrain through the 1960s and 1970s, there were conscious attempts to push back against the sectarian framing of politics. The sectarian framework tends to reinforce the notion that politics is about intra-religious conflict and disputes over doctrine, a kind of invariable, immutable identity. I think there are parallels in the way that Palestine is often wrongly portrayed as a conflict between Islam and Judaism.

The one final comment I would make on this is that the emphasis on sectarianism is again indicative of the way that social science studies of the region tend to be framed by a focus on concerns and attitudes attributed to the citizen population, evincing an analytical blindness to the majority non-citizen workforce. In this sense, irrespective of how we might assess sectarianism, there is a discursive privileging at play here that acts to reinforce the hierarchies that exist within these societies, an assumption that those who are “in the right place” should be the principal objects of social science inquiry. The kinds of questions asked, and the explanatory factors that are sought, thus tend to obscure the most significant feature of these societies—the fact that they rest upon exploitation of a temporary, right-less, and easily deportable working class. Domenico Losurdo has recently observed in his revealing study of liberalism that the categories employed by many historians of Western thought tend to focus upon what he describes as “the restricted sacred space,” ignoring the “profane space” of slavery, indigenous peoples, and the various forms of indentured labor that accompanied the rise of Western liberal concerns with liberty, freedom, and individual rights. He noted that, as a result, “historiography tends to shade into hagiography.” I think we can see a similar process of a restricted “sacred space” in much of the discussion around sectarianism in the Gulf.

(4) What is the relationship between local scholarship produced in the Arabian Peninsula and the work done by academics in the United States, Western Europe, Russia, etc.? What kind of attention has been given to local and regional knowledge production, if any?

There are significant restrictions on what scholars in the region are able to research and publish on contemporary politics, and this is important to highlight this up front in answering this question. The connections between academic networks in the region, those outside, and the Gulf regimes themselves, can encourage a particular focus on the types of questions and analyses that I have discussed above. In the field of political economy, I think this has really impacted the ability of local scholars to produce critical work. In other fields—anthropology, history, cultural studies, and so forth—I sense the situation is somewhat better; there is interesting research that appears to find more of an echo outside and I think the interchange can be quite fruitful.

I think, however, the lack of critical voices from the region itself is a general problem of Middle East studies as it exists in Western universities. More needs to be done to enable these voices to be heard (they do exist!). I think this is potentially one of the very positive repercussions that could emerge as a result of the Arab uprisings. Social movements tend to generate a much more engaged and critical scholarship. We need to encourage this process and hopefully begin to contest some of the established frameworks that dominate Middle East studies. As part of this, I think one of the biggest challenges is to generalize the critical knowledge that is currently being produced by social movements in those places most impacted by the revolts. The Jadaliyya project is an excellent example of what can be done in this respect.

In relation to the Gulf, I think it is noteworthy that Western universities are rushing to set up in “education zones” in places like Abu Dhabi and Qatar. It will be fascinating to see whether these universities act simply to reproduce the dominant forms of knowledge about the Middle East within the region or can provide a space for critical voices to develop and be heard. Of course, there are many structural barriers that exist in front of the latter path—certainly there are corporate motives behind university expansion in the Gulf and these institutions will need to deal with many of the issues I have raised above—but these barriers will inevitably be challenged and they could potentially act as interesting points of contestation.

(5) Some argue that the Arab uprisings changed the ways in which the Middle East can and will be studied. What has been the immediate impact of the Arab uprisings on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula and what are likely to be the long-term effects?

In my opinion, the Arab uprisings have, and will continue to have, an extremely significant impact on how the Middle East is studied and on scholarship on the Arabian Peninsula in particular. I think the multi-faceted causes of the uprisings have really revealed the weaknesses of a lot of the dominant frameworks: the sidelining of questions related to imperialism, the lack of a focus on class formation, the need to better emphasize worker struggles and other social movements, and the significance of neoliberalism and the ways in which the region has been inserted into the global economy.

There are a couple of themes that are important to highlight in this respect. The first is the focus of much mainstream political science (particularly comparative politics) on “authoritarianism” and “democratization.” The typical methodological categories employed here are “state” and “civil society,” with an opposition posited between the two. Frequently, there is a two-way, causal link made in the literature between authoritarianism and an alleged weakness of capitalism. Individuals are prevented from freely engaging in market activities while state elites benefit from authoritarianism by engaging in “rent-seeking behavior": using their privileged position to divert economic rents that pass through the state for their own personal enrichment and consolidation of power.

I think the uprisings have really demonstrated what is wrong with this mainstream approach. Authoritarian states acted to facilitate neoliberal reform in the Middle East; they were very much the mid-wife of capitalism in the region, not some kind of aberration. For this reason, the revolts should not be seen as simply protests for more “democracy,” but were very much connected to the processes of neoliberal reform and the nature of the class structures that underpinned authoritarian states. The uprisings have shown that the realm of the “economic” cannot be separated from the political sphere. Of course, there are a lot of analyses attempting to push these uprisings back into the pigeon-holes of mainstream comparative politics, but the experience of the last few years has given an important spur to developing critical political economy frameworks that will help us better understand the actuality of neoliberalism in the Middle East. The Gulf is no exception to this rethinking. I think the uprising in Bahrain, and the ongoing dissent in other Gulf states, will help to shatter this myth of “authoritarian resilience” and refocus attention on questions of class and the specificity of neoliberalism in the Gulf region.

I think the second important lesson of the uprisings is the overriding significance of the regional scale on national processes. This relates to my earlier comments on methodological nationalism. One of the conclusions that I think we can draw from an analysis of the past couple of decades is the importance of understanding capitalism in the Middle East from the perspective of the regional scale. Here, the role of Gulf states is absolutely central, for reasons I have mentioned above. The experience of neoliberalism in the Middle East not only acted to strengthen national elites, but also the position of the Gulf within the wider region. It was a real sense of uneven and combined development, which has been accentuated as a result of the recent global crisis. There is much more that is being written about this from a perspective of politics (the increasing diplomatic and political weight of states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the region), but I do think we need to understand the political economy of these processes much better; the uprisings have really brought this question to the fore.

Toby Jones’s point about the proliferation of “instant experts” in the media coverage of the region is important and very true. One of the effects of the uprisings, however—and it is too early to know the impact of this in the longer run—is the interest that they have generated among a new generation of students. I have been consistently impressed with the ways that students at SOAS, where I teach, have been following these events closely and are well informed about the dynamics of the region. It is interesting to note how the established frameworks that many of the participants in this roundtable have rightly criticized—the so-called exceptionalism of the Gulf’s social structures, the analytical separation of the Arabian Peninsula from the wider region, and a blindness to its relations with the South Asia and Indian Ocean area—are also increasingly dismissed by students. I have encountered a deep inquisitiveness about Gulf states, with students instinctively knowing that it is impossible to really get a grasp on the region without bringing the Gulf into central focus. I do think these “unintended consequences” of the uprisings augur very well for the future of scholarship on the region.


Theorizing the Arabian Peninsula
electronic roundtable contributions:

Thinking Globally About Arabia by Toby C. Jones.

Knowledge in the Time of Oil by Madawi Al-Rasheed.

Capital and Labor in Gulf States: Bringing the Region Back In by Adam Hanieh.

Unpacking Knowledge Production and Consumption by Neha Vora.

Perspectives from the Margins of Arabia by Nathalie Peutz. 

Writing Histories of the Arabian Peninsula or How to Narrate the Past of a (Non)Place by John Willis.

Towards a Critical Cartography of the Political in the Arabian Peninsula by Ahmed Kanna.

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