Bahrain, often overlooked in both academic and media analyses of the Middle East, has a strategic importance hidden by its small size. As home of the American Fifth Fleet, Bahrain hosts a deterrent against Iran from blockading the Straits of Hormuz as it has recently threatened to do. As such Bahrain has a prime role in safeguarding the world's oil supply. Equally interesting from both academic and strategic standpoints, Bahrain's demographics in many ways resemble those of Iraq. Ruled over by the Sunni al-Khalifa family since 1783, Bahrain's Shiite majority has at times exhibited elements of civil unrest, most prominently in the riots Emir Isa bin Salman violently suppressed in the 1990s. These divisions have been exacerbated by ethnic distinctions between Persians, Arabs whose ancestors came from what is now Saudi Arabia, and other Arabs who have historic ties to Iran and are thus more Persian in cultural outlook. The current King (formerly Emir), Hamad bin Isa, has sought to avoid alienating these segments of the population, but unrest remains. Bahrain has undergone tremendous economic success in the past century, fueled largely by oil rents. While it has been a center of trade for more than a millennium, its domestic resources were limited to fish and pearls until oil was discovered in 1932. Bahrain was the first Gulf country in which oil was found, and the British—who indirectly ruled at the time—wasted no time in exploiting it. Following full independence in 1971, the al-Khalifa family used the oil money that was coming in to Bahrain to build a rentier state, with most of the population looking forward to a relatively comfortable life of state employment, free education, and free health care.
[...] The political and economic transition in Bahrain complicates the issue of the relative strength of a rentier state. This paper will explore some of the issues involved in this case study. Most academic theories of rentier economies state that they continue until the rents run dry, then either rapidly transition or simply collapse. On the one hand states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia show little sign of running out of oil soon. Thus, they maintain rentier economies funded by the state's oil money. [...]
[...] Nevertheless, this dialogue between state and society—following Migdal's theory of the state in society—shows that rentier states are not weak; they merely have certain obligations to their societies that can be changed to other obligations. The case study above proves the existence of the social contract of rentierism. In most respects, Bahrain's rentier system was typical of most others in the Middle East and elsewhere. At the instigation of the state, society followed the social set-up and demanded very little from the state except benefits. [...]
[...] By postulating a theory that envisions state and society—both as wholes and as conglomerations of parts—in constant interaction with each other, the social contract theory shows that rentier states are not weak entities exercising tenuous authority, but strong institutions in dialogue with strong societies. While Bahrain was never as wealthy as some other GCC states (notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), it benefited from the oil prices explosion of the 1970s a great deal. While the government knew that Bahrain's oil supplies were rapidly depleting, its decline in oil revenues experienced a sudden reversal starting in 1973. [...]
[...] State in Society: Studying How States and Societies Transform and Constitute One Another. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Mohammed, Nadeya Sayed Ali. Population and Development of the Arab Gulf States: The Case of Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait. Aldershot: Ashgate Noreng, Øystein. Predicament of the Gulf Rentier State,” in Oil in the Gulf: Obstacles to Democracy and Development. Daniel Heradstveit and Helge Hveem, eds. Aldershot: Ashgate Okruhlik, Gwenn. “Rentier Wealth, Unruly Law, and the Rise of Opposition: The Political Economy of Oil States.” Comparative Politics, Vol No (Apr., 1999), 295-315. [...]
[...] Traditional rentier state theory is correct in that society—variously defined—is a strong player in political relations. Indeed theorists might cite the Shiite riots in the nineties and Hamad's eventual response with the National Charter as evidence that society has most of the power in a rentier system. It is true that Hamad likely would not have re-constituted parliament without the pressure society had put on the state for most of the previous decade. This shows the inherent conservatism of the social contract of rentierism. [...]
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