Khaldoun Hasan Al-Naqeeb, State and Society in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula: A Different Perspective (trans. L. M. Kenny and amended Ibrahim Hayani) (Routledge, 1990).

The recent Gulf crisis was, among other things, a clash between two quite different types of political systems, with enormous consequences for the future of both. One is the Iraqi version of the authoritarian model, with its characteristic combination of developmentalism and would-be totalitarianism; the other, the family-controlled state as exemplified by Kuwait. At present, it must be a tossup as to which one will have to bend or break first, with important ramifications for the similar types of systems to be found in Syria, on the one hand, or in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula on the other.

Analysis of both types of systems presents particular difficulties, the more so as it is now necessary to respond to the challenge posed by Samir al-Khalil and others to conventional methods that somewhat mechanistically apply notions like “authoritarianism,” the autonomy of the state or the antithesis between confessionalism and class. There also seems to be an unusual lack of cooperation between Arab and Western scholars trying to grapple with these difficulties. Khaldoun al-Naqeeb’s book is a good case in point. First published in Arabic by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies as part of its project on state and society in the Arab world, it came out in the same year (1987) as Hazem Beblawi’s Rentier State (Routledge) which covered much the same ground without, it would seem, either author knowing anything about the other. The same is true of the new English translation, which still makes no mention of the publication (also by Routledge) of the four volumes in the rival series on the Arab state edited by Beblawi, Giacomo Luciani and others.[1]

Al-Naqeeb teaches sociology at Kuwait University and was the first editor of The Arab Journal of the Social Sciences. His book provides a succinct analysis of the history and present condition of the states and societies of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as some trenchant comments on what, even before the Gulf war, the author termed their “looming crisis.” He divides their historical development into four periods, characterized by four successive domestic and regional orders. The first, a “natural state economy,” is said to have existed up to the sixteenth century. Al-Naqeeb emphasizes this as an antidote to the accounts of an endless succession of ruling dynasties which, he says, form the usual staple of Arab histories of the region. The second period, the intrusion of the Europeans under the guise of the “grand imperial design,” ends up by fragmenting the peoples of the Gulf into a host of tiny and easily manipulable political entities. For al-Naqeeb, state boundaries represent the central feature of the British policy of divide and rule, a process culminating in the Treaty of ‘Uqayr in 1922, when Sir Percy Cox used a red crayon to draw the borders between Saudi Arabia and both Iraq and Kuwait, leaving only the Iraqi-Kuwaiti one for future determination — and a great deal of future trouble.

The characterizations of the third and fourth periods — the “rentier” and then the “authoritarian” state — present more of a problem. Like Beblawi and his fellow authors, al-Naqeeb takes the notion of “rentierism” from the well-known essay by Hossein Mahdavy, and uses it to make much the same points about the freedom of maneuver given to ruling families by large oil revenues and the way in which welfare expenditures could camouflage the existence of huge disparities in domestic income.[2] But he differs from them in seeing that the mere existence of rent is not enough to establish the defining characteristics of the oil-rich states. It is at this stage that he feels the need to bring in the much more political concept of authoritarianism, which, for him, has three central features: penetration of civil society and its transformation into what al-Naqeeb calls “corporate” institutions which act as an extension of the state apparatus; subjection of the economy to bureaucratic control; and greater dependence on terror and naked power than on traditional legitimacy.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that authoritarianism — like corporatism — already has a different well-established meaning, for better or worse, in works of Western political science. Another part comes from al-Naqeeb’s desire to stigmatize all Arab regimes as authoritarian in the pejorative sense of despotic, illegitimate and politically bankrupt. But this is to operate at an almost stratospheric level of generalization where essential differences between, say, family rule and highly bureaucratized regimes like the Egyptian tend to get completely ignored. A good example is the important distinction between states whose claim to independence and sovereignty is based, essentially, on the continuous link between a family (e.g., the Sabahs) and a particular piece of land (e.g., Kuwait) and those where it is based on that of a people and a territory. A second problem, also ignored by al-Naqeeb, concerns the difference between the implicit universalism contained in the notion of citizenship to be found in a country like Egypt — where welfare is supposed (at least in theory) to be the right of all — and that of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf where a central feature of ruling family control is the creation of a rigid but arbitrary distinction between those defined as nationals and those as foreigners.

The implications are also important. In al-Naqeeb’s parsimonious description, present despotic and authoritarian practices have led to what he calls a “closure” characterized by an unwillingness to share power, the impossibility of further economic expansion, a turn to Islam and general social and cultural stagnation. Change “must” come, he argues, but there are too many variables to be able to predict which social forces might act to break the impasse, and all he can suggest is the need for a program which combines constitutionalism, democracy and a vague scheme of Arab unification which will open the way to vigorous economic growth. Perhaps the main attraction of the whole analysis is to demonstrate that there can be only one possible way forward? A different type of analysis could lead to different conclusions. Just as al-Naqeeb’s necessities leave little room for popular political initiatives, they also impose a deadening uniformity on the many different states of the region — including the new Yemen — while failing to allow for shocks of the type which Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait has just provided. Where he sees an almost immovable system of control, others may see fissures and conflicts and contradictions which offer some possibilities for future political action in a number of different contexts. In Kuwait, claims to leadership based on the ruling family’s superior ability to manage core concerns like foreign policy and defense have been seriously impaired. Elsewhere, the division between the interests of privileged local nationals and a politically suspect foreign labor force are becoming more acute. Even Saudi Arabia displays a much more diverse pattern of economic activity and a built-in tension between the ‘ulama’, fighting to maintain its monopoly as sole adviser and critic of the ruling family, and the more liberal groups of professionals and businessmen now pressing for a greater input of their own in government decision making.

This book is one of five studies commissioned by the Centre for Arab Unity studies and the only one so far translated into English. Together they represent a substantial contribution to the analysis of the modern period and deserve to be much better known.[3] They manage to combine the individual approach of their authors within a general framework of ideas which includes a critique of the present state system and the necessity for joint Arab action to overcome the region’s many economic problems. But while many people would agree on the importance of such a critique, it is not at all clear that it is either nuanced or various enough to form the basis for accurate prediction or for local political action.


[1] They are: Ghassan Salame, ed., The Foundations of the Arab State (1987), Hazem Beblawi, ed., The Rentier State (1987), Adeed Dawisha and William Zartman, eds., Beyond Coercion: The Durability of the Arab State (1987), and Giacomo Luciani, Ghassan Salame and William Zartman, eds., The Politics of Arab Integration (1987).
[2] Hossein Mahdavy, “Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran,” in M. A. Cook, ed., Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East (London: Oxford University Press, 1970).
[3] The others are by Ghassan Salame (The Arab East), Elbaki Hermassi (The Arab West), Nazih Ayubi (Egypt) and Saad Eddin Ibrahim (Society and State in the Arab World). A sixth, more general, volume edited by Khayr al-Din Hasib has just been translated into English as The Future of the Arab Nation: Challenges and Options (London: Routledge, 1991).

How to cite this article:

Roger Owen "Al-Naqeeb, State and Society in the Gulf," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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