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Enter the Global Gulf – breaking Free from Regional Particularism

Session VIII-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
Is the Gulf so exceptional? From rentier state theory to sectarianism and tribalism through to literature on small states and the prevalence soft power and the Western security umbrella, there has long been an academic tradition to analyze the Gulf countries through regionally determined lenses, pointing to one form or another of Gulf exceptionalism. However, as time passes and Gulf countries establish themselves more firmly on the broader regional stage and within the international order, their behaviors are growing increasingly similar to many other global powers. To be sure, several theoretical frameworks and concepts mobilized to analyze the domestic, regional, and international levels of Gulf politics have already sought to build bridges with other regions or specific countries, be it authoritarianism and neopatrimonialism (particularly with African countries and South Asian countries) or hedging as a small state strategy (for example with Djibouti), for instance. However, there has been little literature building bridges with countries from the Global North – and this is the gap we are offering to start filling. This roundtable will bring together Gulf scholars discussing the idea that, in many respects (both internal and external), the evolution of the Gulf countries has made it easier to analyze them through classical IR and CP tools, making the case to avoid regional particularism.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Considerable scholarship focused on the Arabian Peninsula has viewed it through the lens of security, energy, or regime politics. While undoubtedly important topics, today we see notable developments of the English-language scholarship on the historical and present-day roles of independent domestic political and social actors in these states. When it comes to broader examinations of the international relations, however, most literature on the Arabian Peninsula ignores the potential role of domestic politics and society and instead has linked strategies abroad to energy or security concerns, rather than taking into account foreign policy strategies that transcend traditional realist and neo-realist visions of foreign policy agendas; as such, there is a general lack of literature linking foreign policies with the increasingly examined domestic political and social environments of these states. I would therefore like to explore ways in which political ideologies, primarily pan-Arabism and Islamism, which have been influential domestically, have also affected foreign policies of the states of the Arabian Peninsula, with a view to understanding ways in which these states are unique in how they conceptualize their regional foreign policies.
  • Unexceptional Labor Migration to the Gulf MESA Roundtable Abstract With the exponential increase in the phenomenon of economic migration as a result of the rapid globalization over the more recent past there has been a far greater academic and policy interest in transnational labor migration. The six oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf have become one of the primary hubs of this form of international labor migration, and now on an annual basis draw millions of high skill and lower skill migrants, primarily from developing states in Asia and Africa. Much of the initial scholarly focus on this particular labor migration corridor examined the phenomenon of Gulf labor migration through a highly exceptionalized lens, One of the factors undergirding the conception Gulf migration as unusual or exceptional, has been the fact that traditional understandings of international labor migration posit it as an occurrence that sees flows of workers from the Global South to the Global North, rather than from South to South. Additionally, international migrants typically are assumed to select their migration destination based on a desire for long term and permanent settlement; something that the Gulf States do not offer. As a result, much of the justification for this migration corridor developing and sustaining itself for more than fifty years has been aligned to the particular rentier economic features of the Gulf, and suggest that the region’s unusual demography is solely a consequence of its oil-driven economic conditions. Regional mechanisms for managing inward flows of migrants, such as the kafala, have also long been viewed as being a unique “cultural” feature of the region, rather than an adaptation and adoption of mechanisms of temporary labor migration seen elsewhere around the world. However, more recent migration and citizenship scholarship on the Gulf has pushed back on this continued notion that the region as a unique space for human mobility and labor based on its own logics and unrelated to global migration patterns and global conditions of development. My interjection at this proposed roundtable is to speak specifically on why such exceptionalization to the study of Gulf migration is analytically problematic, and how a comparative and broader lens is necessary to deepen our understanding of regional conditions.
  • Do the international relations of the Gulf really differ from the international relations of every other region in the world? Is sectarianism really a driving force in the rivalry between Gulf powers? It is time to subject this node of concentration in the pattern of international relations to agnostic scrutiny eschewing notions of exception. This is true also of the issue of nuclear proliferation that is best framed as part of proliferation efforts by regional powers around the globe. Finally, issues of dependency and of an America centric Gulf ought to be scrutinized critically. Is Saudi Arabia truly more military dependent on the United States than other major non Nato allies or, for that matter, even NATO countries? This roundtable will be the perfect forum to examine these and other questions in the security, political and economic realms.
  • How unique are the Gulf rentier states? Despite previous efforts to bridge area studies/disciplinary divides, the Arab states of the Gulf are still often treated as outliers that skew quantitative research and subvert patterns dominant in other parts of the world, whether on gender issues, regionalisation, migrant politics, or democratization. Often, this particularism is linked back to the exceptional oil and gas wealth enjoyed by these archetypal rentier states. Yet the attempt to ‘buy’ loyalty through distributions of wealth is by no means unique to the Gulf region, nor to rentier states globally. At the same time, the Gulf states are not only rentier states, but also have other regional characteristics that shape their political economy – a dependence on migrant labour, for example. Is it the combination of these features with rentierism that sets the Gulf states apart – and if so, how can we more accurately describe these states as more than ‘rentier’? My contribution attempts to reconsider the cooptation mechanism in Gulf rentier states more firmly in relation to regional and global comparisons. How unique is the form of rentierism practiced in the contemporary Gulf? Does the nature or just extent of cooptive governance differ between Gulf rentier states and other types of economies (oil-poor autocracies and oil-rich democracies, for example)? What lessons might we draw from broader literatures on cooptation, incumbency politics, and other practices of legitimacy-building through distributions of material wealth, not only in terms of how to conceptualise Gulf politics but also in terms of the outcomes and processes expected as a result of cooptive governance tactics?