Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Courtney Freer (CF): I was living in Qatar when I thought of writing a book about the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf, or rather, when I thought of writing a PhD dissertation on that topic, which gradually evolved into this book. I had previously been interested in Islamists in Egypt and Jordan and was working with Shadi Hamid at Brookings on some research linked to those topics, so I began to wonder why there had not been a book in English written about the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf states. I also found that, at least when the first Gulf rift began in 2013, much of what was written about the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf was biased, whether written by members of the Brotherhood themselves or by people who vehemently oppose the organization. I therefore thought it could be helpful for me, as an outsider without a vested political interest, to understand how these groups operate in oil-wealthy environments, as well as to translate into English some of the relevant historical research on the topic that had previously existed solely in Arabic.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CF: The book addresses some of the major shortcomings of the primary theoretical framework used in the Gulf, rentier state theory—particularly the idea that with no taxation, no representation is universally and rather self-consciously accepted by politically quiescent citizens. I wanted to show that, despite material disbursements, ideas and ideologies have power. In an effort to critique rentier state theory, my book incorporates the work of other scholars who have done the same, while also examining the existing literature on political Islam in other parts of the Middle East to reveal the gap in both bodies of literature when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf states. In a sense, then, I wanted to de-exceptionalize the Gulf by showing that the same Islamist movements that hold appeal in other parts of the Middle East also have a following there. I also wanted to make the point that the social and the political are very much linked in the Gulf, especially in states without parliamentary elections; the link between social and political has led analysts and policymakers in the past to presume incorrectly that the Gulf lacks political life, when in fact political life there is often simply less institutionalized than we may expect.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

CF: The book is an elaboration on some of my earlier work on the Brotherhood in other parts of the Middle East; I have written some short pieces on the Brotherhood in Kuwait, as well as in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar separately, but I wanted to consider them together in the book as a means of creating a new theory to deal with Islamist actors in wealthy Gulf states. I think that, generally, the Gulf is under-theorized, and so this book is a small effort to contribute to theoretical advancement in that area. I also have always focused my work on the domestic politics of the Gulf states, since so much that has been written about the region in the past has focused on foreign policy, regime politics, or political economy, rather than grassroots political life and behavior in this area.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CF: Naturally, I hope everyone reads it! A bit more realistically, though, I think that anyone with an interest in the Gulf or in religious politics could learn something from the book. I hope that it also can help clarify, especially for interested laypeople and policymakers, some of the debate linked to the ongoing Gulf crisis by tracing what exactly these groups have done, how they have positioned themselves vis-à-vis their governments, and how much popularity they actually have had or retain today. I think too much of the debate about the Muslim Brotherhood has been based on fear and conjecture, rather than on actual historical fact or interviews with relevant figures; this book contains both, so hopefully it can help combat some of the vitriol circulating on this topic.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CF: I am still working on some projects linked to Islamism in the Gulf, but hoping now to broaden out my enquiry to look at Salafi and Shi‘i Islamist actors, particularly in Kuwait. Kuwait provides an excellent case study because we can use the data from parliamentary elections to gain a concrete sense of how popular certain political blocs, ideologies, or tribal groups are. I am also working on a project with several other scholars on mapping religious authority in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to understand which religious figures actually hold sway in these countries. Beyond Islamism and religion, I am also tracing the political role of tribal actors in the Gulf states, since I believe tribes are a group whose political influence, like that of Islamists, is often overlooked or subsumed within theories of clientelism in rentier states. So there are a few articles and a book in the making there, in addition to a broader project on the state’s role in heritage production in the United Arab Emirates, which involves considerable references to the state’s tribal past.

J: How do you see the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf?

CF: I think the ideology espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, namely the notion that religion should be involved in political decision-making, is likely to remain. How Brotherhood groups look in the Gulf, however, is more difficult to ascertain. Indeed, because they are not needed to provide social welfare networks and cannot contest parliamentary elections outside of Bahrain and Kuwait, they can take on a more flexible appearance, and so they tend not to resemble Brotherhood groups in other Middle Eastern states and can more easily exist underground. Their social influence, however, has had and will continue to have political consequences, particularly in countries of the Gulf where modernization has been accompanied by a considerable degree or Westernization and secularization.


Excerpt from the Book:

Scholars have struggled for decades to understand the role of political Islam in the Middle East, and a large body of literature has emerged on this topic. The study of political Islam, however, has primarily been confined to an examination of the region’s more democratic states – those in which Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (also referred to as Ikhwan, the Arabic word for brothers) can participate in parliamentary elections – or those states in which such organizations either provide much-needed social welfare or more broadly constitute powerful social movements. Existing literature on political Islam in such environments does not apply to the wealthy monarchical states of the Arabian Peninsula.

The body of scholarship on political life in the Gulf has similarly overlooked the role of Islamist movements in that region. Since Hussein Mahdavy introduced the theory of the rentier state in 1970, many scholars have deferred to this framework to explain the domestic politics of states accruing substantial oil profits, or rents, in the region. Numerous studies, both qualitative and quantitative, have demonstrated the reality of a ‘rentier effect,’ distinguishing these states from those without large external windfalls. In describing the government systems of such states, taxation is emphasized as spurring citizens’ demands for representation. According to leading scholar of rentier state theory Hazem Beblawi, ‘with virtually no taxes, citizens are far less demanding in terms of political participation.’ The simple formula ‘no taxation, no representation’ is thus often considered to describe the extent of political life within rentier states. The reality, as this work demonstrates, is far more complicated.

This book will examine the role of political Islam in the Gulf through the study of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in three of the least-examined rentier states of the Arabian Peninsula: Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). We will trace how Muslim Brotherhood movements, the most powerful independent voices in the Middle East, originated in and currently influence government policies in states that allow few institutionalized means of political participation, at least outside of Kuwait. Muslim Brotherhood movements in [what I call] the super-rentiers are able to influence government policy decisions, yet function differently from Ikhwan affiliates elsewhere in the region due to their context within oil-wealthy states. Significantly, there exists variation even among the cases examined here, as political participation is institutionalized in Kuwait through parliamentary elections yet remains far more personalistic in Qatar and the UAE. By examining the unique properties of Muslim Brotherhood activities in super-rentiers, this book will thus fill a gap in the existing literature on political Islam. Neither the body of scholarship on political Islam nor the academic work on rentier states adequately explains the political role of Islamist groups in the oil monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula [….]

This book will shed light on why and how Muslim Brotherhood branches have emerged as important social and political actors in the wealthiest oil monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. By examining the three super-rentiers of the region, we demonstrate the degree to which rentier state theory underestimates the complexity of domestic politics in states that benefit from large amounts of oil wealth. The variation among these cases in and of itself illustrates the inadequacy of a single theory to describe them all this book also reveals the shortcomings of the prevailing literature on political Islam, as it fails to account for the presence of politically relevant Brotherhood movements in the Gulf monarchies and thus does not describe how their function differs from that of the Ikhwan in other parts of the region. As will be shown, Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the Gulf are politically influential entities in terms of shaping government policy. It is important to note, however, that these groups often shape cultural and social ideas as readily as political notions; they promote the implementation of conservative social policies while also often advocating for major reforms to government apparatuses and changes in domestic and foreign policies. The division between the social and political sectors is often blurred in the atmosphere of socially conservative states of the Gulf, as political actors operate through channels that are not institutionalized, due to the informal and underinstitionalized nature of such political systems more generally, excepting Kuwait. Simply because politics is underinstitutionalized in such states does not mean that it is underdeveloped; rather, political opportunity structures are altered, and the informal realm holds considerable political capital. In the super-rentiers, social policies form a major part of local Ikhwan discourse, and opinions about appropriate social practices inform citizens’ views of the correct role of the government more broadly. As Kitschelt explains, “[P]olitical opportunity structures influence the choice of protest strategies and the impact of social movements on their environments,” allowing for the different shape of movements in otherwise similar states.

There is undoubtedly a social element to political trust within the super-rentiers, and Brotherhood movements have managed to use the links between the social (i.e., personal networks) and political (i.e., government institutions) to gain influence in policymaking in such states. In the case of Kuwait, the Muslim Brotherhood wields substantial political capital in the domestic arena, as it forms the most organized political bloc in the country. The Qatari case, however, demonstrates that, even when a formal Brotherhood branch does not exist locally, Islamist ideology is influential domestically in social policy and has affected the government’s posturing abroad to a limited extent. In the case of the UAE, the local Brotherhood’s involvement in domestic politics and criticism of local policies led to the government crackdown in 2012-2013. Today, the Emirati Brotherhood is vilified, yet its ideology remains influential in some circles. Despite the variety of outcomes in these stats, they are critically similar in that the Ikhwan is politically significant even in the presence of vast hydrocarbon reserves and with limited institutionalized political openings [….]

Rentier Islamism is a domestic political arrangement in which Muslim Brotherhood affiliates exercise political capital through informal and gradual means, despite (or perhaps due to) the presence of hydrocarbon wealth. In the super-rentiers of the Gulf perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, ideological affinity is powerful, and social capital translates into political influence. The presence of oil rents does not mitigate Islamist complaints, nor does it make such voices politically irrelevant. In fact, the availability of capital grants rulers of super-rentiers more opportunities to co-opt the religious sphere and to attempt to impose their own ideologies gradually. Emirati rulers are particularly attuned to the political influence held by their domestic Brotherhood movements and even consider the Ikhwan an existential threat not just domestically, but regionally as well. Kuwait and Qatar, on the other hand, have granted the Ikhwan more freedom, reflecting these leaders’ beliefs that cooperation and containment are more effective than crackdown. Perhaps due to the precarious nature of the UAE’s unequal union of emirates, the state has been more concerned about the emergence of ideological politics. States that seem similar from the outside, then, have very different considerations when formulating policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood. [….]

With the Muslim Brotherhood unlikely to disappear from the political or social scene, as it can maintain its position in the social sphere, a strategy of co-optation or cooperation is more sustainable than one of crackdown. Because they gain appeal primarily through an ideology unaffected by the presence of wealth, Islamist organizations, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, will not become any less influential in the Gulf in the coming years, despite campaigns against them. Rather, they will take on different forms, depending on the political freedom afforded them. Further, because Ikhwan groups in the super-rentier do not need to provide goods and services, as they do in poorer states like Egypt and Jordan, they have more freedom in terms of structural appearance.

Rentier Islamists will continue to hold sway primarily through the informal sector. The means through which such Islamists gain support is not threatened by changes to the Ikhwan’s strength elsewhere in the Middle East due to the power of their ideological message. Furthermore, as long as the state continues to politicize Islam, which seems likely as a legitimation strategy, political Islam will remain relevant. The super-rentiers of the Gulf have never been, nor are they likely to become, purely secular states, and so Islam will remain a political force. When it comes to political Islam in the super-rentiers of the Gulf, ideas matter; people matter; and faith prevails. To think that the political weight of faith is contingent on the presence of hydrocarbon wealth is misplaced cynicism and grossly simplifies politics in the super-rentiers.

Courtney Freer, Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).