All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies.
An observer of the Gulf states once quipped that studying the region's monarchical politics is akin to watching television without sound. Michael Herb pursues this difficult issue by launching a multicase, comparative project with a clear theoretical target. His aim is to place the political institution of the monarchy as the key variable that explains the resilience or overthrow of monarchical regimes, not only among the Gulf states but also across the Middle East. Herb's foil is rentier theory, a fiscal sociology of the state that argues the character of a state's revenue determines a country's basic politics. This is an impressive, thought-provoking book of comparative scholarship that advances debate about the rentier state to fruitful grounds. Yet, those who believe rentier theory explains more than Herb is willing to grant (this reviewer being one) still have grounds to challenge some of the book's claims.
Herb argues that the Arab monarchies of the Gulf have succeeded in fashioning enduring political rule through intrafamily cohesion, which he terms "dynastic monarchy." The primary cases that serve as examples for the other Gulf monarchies are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In each case, ruling families established their predominance in the period immediately before and after decolonization. Keys to the endurance of this domination were the ruling family's control of the most important government ministries and intrafamily resolution of succession issues. The distribution of government posts among family members ensured that political rivals could not gain a bureaucratic foothold, and the internal resolution of disputes limited the exploitation of family divisions. To varying degrees, the monarchies in Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have emulated this design.
Variation in the dependent variable comes with a discussion of the failed monarchies in Libya and Afghanistan. According to Herb, the failure to establish dynastic control led to their overthrow. The key comparative leverage for the Libyan case is that the 1969 overthrow occurred despite the presence of high oil rents. Demonstrating impressive breadth for a first book, Herb goes on to discuss the fate of other nondynastic regimes in the Middle East (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco). Herb's handling of these deviant cases settles on two claims. First, for the overthrown monarchies in the first three cases, the lack of a dynastic character made monarchical rule more precarious, and thus challenges eventually overcame the poor decisions of rulers. Second, Herb attempts to explain the resilience of the nondynastic Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies by highlighting contingent and idiosyncratic factors that have meant regime survival but not endurance. These are hard cases to square with the book's thesis, b ut by not shying away from the contrary evidence, Herb enriches the theoretical debate.
All in the Family joins the work of scholars (Eva Bellin, Steven Heydemann, Miriam Lowi, and Gwynn Okruhlik) who challenge the assumptions and predictions of rentier theory. An important component under frequent attack is the distinction made between externally and internally derived revenue and the political implications that are expected. In the latter, political representation follows taxation. In the former, the state is aloof and unconstrained by representation demands. Herb's counter is that the arrival or decline of rents only signals change, but to understand variation in political outcomes, one needs to consider domestic political institutions. This is clearly an agency claim against the structural determinism of rentier theory. Monarchies survive, liberalize, or fall because of the decisions of monarchs, not because of the abundance or lack of exogenous rent. To this point, the argument does not stray far from recent revisions to the basic theory that explore the importance of a number of nonrent v ariables to postrentier outcomes. Yet, Herb flies a bit close to the sun in asserting that oil by itself explains nothing and is best understood as "an intervening variable" (p. 241).
In the linchpin Kuwaiti case, Herb argues the dynastic pattern was set in the wake of the proparliament Majlis movement in 1938. It was not until the 1950s, however, that a "dynastic proto-cabinet" (p. 76) was formed, with al-Sabah family members dominating state agencies. Timing is crucial, for by the 1950s Kuwait was flooded with oil monies, and it is precisely the presence of those external funds that allowed dynastic formation. Jill Crystal's influential treatment (Oil and Politics in the Gulf, 1995) of this period notes that oil rents allowed the emir first to establish regular revenue distribution among family members and then to coopt merchant elites. The 1961 dispute between merchants and the emir over Kuwait's first cabinet (a crucial event only briefly mentioned in the book) clearly demonstrated merchant abandonment of cabinet positions in exchange for distribution. The particular form of dispute resolution and bandwagoning Herb documents can be understood once one recognizes that the prospect of e ver-increasing rent makes royals risk avoident; therefore, sharing the pie ensures intrafamily compromise. In the contrasting case of Libya, timing was also important. No doubt, from 1963 to 1969 the Sanusi monarchy made bad political decisions, but Dirk Vandewalle (Libya since Independence: Oil and State-Building, 1998) argues, in part, that these bad decisions were amplified by institutional destruction wrought by a massive influx of capital. Similarly, Jordan was born a rentier state (albeit in the form of foreign aid) but has a surviving nondynastic monarchy. Apart from idiosyncratic reasons for survival, the presence of those rents allowed the Hashemite state to employ half the country's workforce and coopt much of the business elite. These incentives played an important role in the Hashemite victory in the 1970 civil war. In all this, however, Herb is right that there is plenty of room for agency mistakes, but nevertheless the structural constraints of a rentier state are quite evident.
All in the Family imparts very useful lessons that further the debate about the legacies of rent and postrentier politics. This debate is not abstract theorizing. The Gulf states are currently crawling out of their own oil bust, and over the next decade, more rentier states will be created as some of the Caspian States receive their own oil windfalls. Oil revenue and its effects will be with us for some time.
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|Author:||Moore, Pete W.|
|Publication:||American Political Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2000|
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