While popular and geopolitical discourse on Persian Gulf states (Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar) emphasize the “vulnerable” and “small” nature of these states, scholars of state formation in the region have tended to do the opposite by ascribing tremendous autonomy and strength to these states. Adopting oil-based rent extraction, monarchical authoritarianism, British and American imperial power, and to a lesser extent, local and transnational class formation as central guiding concepts and frameworks, studies of state formation have produced two variations on the theme of state autonomy. On the one hand, Persian Gulf states are seen as highly autonomous from all sectors of society due to the existence of external rents. On the other hand, ruling and capitalists classes that constitute the state are indistinguishable from one another and autonomous from societal opposition.
Using the history of financial development in Kuwait as a case study, I discuss the political-economic and geopolitical pressures specific to “small” states in the Persian Gulf to explain their otherwise assumed relative autonomy. Rather than dismissing state size and vulnerability or taking it totally at face value, I focus on some important features common to these small states: small agrarian sectors, limited domestic markets, relatively small political coalitions, and histories of existential security threats. By focusing on their “small” size, I help explain the development of key aspects of state formation and political economy, such as the tilt toward finance and real estate, the international orientation of domestic business groups and state-led investments, geopolitical hedging, and uneven institution building. In doing so, I argue that the relative autonomy and strength of these small states are historical outcomes, rather than explanatory factors, of domestic and global political economies and international politics.