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The Return of the State: Revisiting State Formation in the 20th Century Gulf

Panel XIII-6, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel revisits state formation in the twentieth-century Persian Gulf in light of the so-called “return of the state” in contemporary world politics. Euro-American commentary casts the worldwide state responses to ongoing ecological, economic, and public health crises as novel, but how do they appear from the perspective of a region like the Gulf where the state never seemed to go away? Inspired by such debates, here we present new research on state interventions in regimes of land and property, family planning, and finance in diverse historical and institutional contexts from across the twentieth-century Gulf. The first paper looks at agrarian reform efforts in late Hashemite Basra, and explains how these attempts to alienate state land helped consolidate the landlord role of the Iraqi state in the country's southern resource frontier during its transition from date agriculture to oil extraction. The second paper moves to 1950s Khuzestan, arguing that domestic technocrats and foreign advisors to the Pahlavi regime pursued agrarian and industrial development policies in this province that had the unintended effect of expanding rather than constricting the regulatory powers of the Iranian state. The third paper zooms out to the regional scale in looking at family policy in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar, to investigate how parallel legal and policy efforts to promote a nuclear family model affected the influence of tribal ties in the twentieth-century Arabian Peninsula. The fourth paper uses the history of financial development in Kuwait between the 1950s and 1970s as a case study for discussing the relative autonomy of "small" states in the Gulf, identifying the political-economic and geopolitical pressures that led to the international orientation of domestic business groups and state-led investments in finance. This panel has two goals. First, it seeks to identify what was common to state intervention and statism as a social phenomenon and political project in the region, as well as what was distinct between Gulf states. Second, it aims to historicize the institutional features that scholarship operating in developmentalist and rentier-state theory modes take as explanatory factors for the contemporary dominance of Gulf states.
  • How could attempts to privatize state land end up with that land back in the hands of the state? This paper engages with that puzzle by revisiting agrarian reform efforts in Iraq before the 1958 Revolution. I look specifically at the areas of date cultivation in Basra province in the 1940s and 1950s, during which time local administrators, landlords, and cultivators sought to alienate state-owned land amid the agrarian crisis of late Hashemite Iraq. In their aspiration, such attempts anticipated the agrarian reforms that republican regimes would undertake ostensibly to eradicate feudalism. In practice, they helped consolidate the landlord role of the Iraqi state during the transition of the Basra resource frontier from commercial agriculture to oil extraction. Attempts to transfer state-owned date gardens in Basra into the hands of landlords and cultivators took both administrative and popular forms in the late Hashemite period. National parliamentarians and local state officials alternately cast property transfers necessary to disseminate Iraqi nationality among borderland cultivators, maintain commercial date production, and prevent rural out-migration. In parallel, though often in advance, relatively small landlords and uniquely powerful tenant-cultivators in Basra asserted effective proprietary and financial control over state-owned agricultural land. Yet amid the general decline in agricultural productivity and profitability in Basra in this period, many claimants to state property were unable to sustain their position materially and either withdrew from the land or returned effective control to the state. Hence in Basra, if agrarian reform before the revolution failed on its own terms, it nevertheless positioned the Iraqi state as a key landlord at precisely the moment that land became important for oil extraction rather than date cultivation. Drawing on agricultural property records and Interior Ministry reports from Basra, the paper recovers some of the ideological concerns and political economy that distinguished agrarian reform efforts in the province from the larger land settlement process ongoing in Hashemite Iraq. In doing so I depart from older scholarly accounts of land settlement before 1958 as solely an instrument for entrenching a parasitic and conservative class of large landowners loyal to the monarchy. Revisiting agrarian reform before the 1958 Revolution can help us understand the social and institutional origins of an Iraqi state capitalism otherwise associated only with the authoritarian rentier regimes of the Baʿth period.
  • 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.
  • This paper seeks to investigate how the institutions of marriage and family have evolved, shifted, and adapted over time with the expanded influence of the nation state on various communities across the Arabian Peninsula. Prior to the discovery of oil, people lived with extended family members or entire tribes. Losing the protection and support of one's tribe, up until the last century, meant being in jeopardy of losing your life. In the contemporary context, the nuclear family prevails in Gulf societies. Does this necessarily translate to shrinking influence of tribal ties and alliances? How has the state promoted this model of the nuclear Gulf family, and in what form(s)? What does it imply when the state allows its male citizens to pass on citizenship to their children, and not its female citizens? The state has a number of policies in place that produce specific forms and types of families, with male citizens' families legally recognized as a 'Gulf family' before the state, and female citizens' families (in cases where they marry non-Gulf men) considered to be foreign, and occupying a 'gray area' to borrow the term of a civil society group in Kuwait advocating for the rights of children of Kuwaiti mothers. Drawing on reports from the Doha Family Institute, the Family Affairs Council in Saudi Arabia, and the newly established Ministry of Women and Children in Kuwait, alongside primary sources from American and British missionaries in early twentieth century Arabia, as well as local media sources, this paper will lay out the stages of evolution and development of the Gulf family in reaction to modernity, state-building and citizenship decrees, and major political events such as the first Gulf War.
  • The Pahlavi state has variously been described as despotic, developmentalist, and rentierist. In this paper, I argue that these characterizations marshal the same arguments domestic technocrats and foreign advisors made from the 1950s on to explain Iran's outsized reliance on oil: i.e., that the state was not overzealous, but zealous in the wrong ways. The Pahlavi state, according to the liberal model of development its postwar advisors prescribed, was correct to build the infrastructure (roads, dams, and irrigation canals) needed to attract private investment, but erred in delaying its withdrawal from the economy, which was needed to produce positive outcomes (i.e., the predomination of normal market relations). Rather than argue that the state refused to withdraw from the economy, which the above definitions variously do, this paper attempts to ask after the conditions that made state withdrawal difficult. Taking Khuzestan’s encounter with the fossil fuel industry at the turn of the twentieth century and the midcentury development of its hydroelectric and agrarian potentials as my point of departure, I argue that the emergence of Iran's oil industry and foreign oversight of it necessitated an elaborate system of regulations regarding land and money, while climbing oil revenues generated the possibility of agrarian reform and industrial modernization. Reading midcentury investment reports by international financial institutions like the World Bank alongside American, British, and Iranian diplomatic records, I argue that while Pahlavi officials and their advisors imagined that after the construction of infrastructure and land reform, a capitalist market would replace state development, the political economy of oil extraction and development exacerbated inequality and enlarged the role of the state. The state, for instance, needed to do more than legislate land reform; it needed to construct the canals and dams that would irrigate land and create the credit lending arrangements that would allow the benefits of agrobusiness to flow down. The fossil fuel industry thus not only informed the possibilities imagined for Iran’s future but also provided precedent for thinking about and legislating the relationship between people, land, and the state, which underwrote both land reform and agrarian industrialization in the 1960s. The modernist ideal of the ameliorist, rationalizing, technocratic state that intervenes to address social and economic ills, I conclude, was less a prescriptive piece of Cold War ideology and more an outcome of the legal frameworks and developmental imaginations oil generated.