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The revolutionary processes in the Middle East cannot be fully understood without an analysis of the role of the Gulf states in the global economy, and as integrated into the regional construction of US power.

Adam Hanieh, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (Palgrave Macmillan 2011), 266pp.

In an Arab world in turmoil and revolution, understanding the role of the Gulf Arab states is more important than ever. The Gulf states are gathered in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional bloc of the six oil-rich Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and five other countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman. The political structure of the six GCC states bear strong similarities. In each, the ruler is an hereditary monarch and power is concentrated in a single family that controls the state apparatus and large strata of the economy. Political repression has been the commonplace in all the GCC states. Except in Bahrain, the GCC states have not witnessed popular movements like elsewhere in the region, other than relatively small demonstrations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

In the Kingdom of Bahrain, the popular uprising was crushed by the common action of state repression and the military intervention decided by the GCC, which was led by Saudi Arabia and backed by Qatar. Nevertheless, demonstrations are still going on today in the country but on a smaller scale. Otherwise, the GCC has granted ten billion US dollars to Bahrain and Oman, which were both repressing protesters, to help them face their political and social crisis. Jordan also received one billion US dollars from Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom cope with its growing financial burdens and the increasing protests. The Gulf countries have not supported the revolutions in other Arab countries and have generally tried to slow or stop the wind of change in the region, while encouraging NATO intervention in Libya, despite the so-called ambivalently positive role of Qatari television Al Jazeera in fostering the various popular movements.

The GCC states are the central concern of this book. Hanieh analyses the process of class formation in the Gulf Arab states, and the role of the state in this process. The local capitalist class is referred to by the term ‘Khaleeji (‘Gulf’ in Arabic) capital’, and Hanieh uses it to analyse the patterns of accumulation crystallising in the GCC, which embody also a new set of internationalised social relations.

Hanieh’s original contribution here in relation to the GCC states is to show the nature of the state there as a particular expression of class formation. The state is understood as a set of social relations that is continually in the process of coming into being, rather than as a separate object, severed from the class relations of Gulf society, such as it usually appears in ‘rentier state’ theory. There the state is seen as a distinct sphere of the political economy, with its own strategies free from the constraints of the capitalist class. This is why Haneih explains that to speak of the autonomy of the state, both on an economic and political perspective, as past and current ‘rentier state’ theory does, is misleading for a full understanding of the GCC states.

The state is understood as an institutional relation of class, and thus it is implied that many of the individual personnel related to the institutions of the state can simultaneously be considered part of the capitalist class. This is actually a pronounced feature of the way capitalism has developed in the GCC, and the capitalist class should be understood as including many state personnel and individuals from the ruling family. The reader can observe a number of examples in the book in which members of the ruling family who hold high ranking state positions clearly act simultaneously as part of the private capitalist class and in a related fashion, where prominent non-royal private capitalists simultaneously serve in the state apparatus.

The World Bank has actually explained that the interpenetration of state and private capital is one explanation for the ‘business friendly’ environment in the Gulf (p.14). Noticing that the private sector in the Gulf included mostly entrepreneurs either from the ruling families or their close associates, it has been observed that the GCC’s political leadership (often extended family members) is large enough to develop the private sector country-wide.

State formation is therefore very much intertwined with class formation and plays an active role in the latter process, as Hanieh explains. He argues rightly that the logic of the ‘rentier state’ model, where the development of capitalism is seen as the outcome of actions and decisions by state elites, ‘needs to be turned on its head’ (p.15). Hanieh’s argument defends the perspective that Gulf class formation has evolved alongside and within the development of a global capitalist system, and is best seen as a specific reflection of the capitalist world market as a whole. He goes on to show the global economy as part of the actual essence of Gulf society itself. The process of class formation in the region needs to be observed as a unique, spatially specific expression of the intertwining of the tendencies underpinning the development of global capitalism.

Hanieh demonstrates how oil should not be considered as a ‘thing’, but as a commodity embedded in a set of globally determined social relations. The book reminds us of the way Marx warned how commodity fetishism itself encouraged attempts to explain patterns of social development through the presence or the absence of a commodity, rather than through understanding the significance given to that commodity by the social relations within which it is situated. It is these social relations that need to be identified and traced if the nature of oil is to be understood. This is why, Hanieh argues, primacy needs to be placed on the wider motion and tendencies of the capitalist world market that confer a particular meaning to oil as a commodity, centrally located within the reproduction of the system as a whole.

Two key features for understanding the development of Khaleeji capital are internationalisation and financialisation. Throughout the book, it is made clear the way the development of the global economy, in which both tendencies, internationalisation and financialisation were present, was reflected in the nature of class formation in the GCC. Concretely, this appears in the patterns of cross border investment flows, intra GCC trade, joint ventures, the establishment of branches and representatives offices, and so forth, while Khaleeji capital observed and participated in the growing financial flows of credit, debt and derivatives (pp.89-90).

These processes of internationalisation and financialisation have been ongoing in the Gulf Arab states since the end of the Second World War. The book traces the successive deepening of capital internationalisation through this period, focusing in particular on the continuing expansion of accumulation, leading to the intermeshing of production and consumption across the globe, and the growing significance of finance. The finance circuit actually shows its most developed expression in the GCC accumulation structure.

Another important component of the book is its analysis of migrant labour in the Gulf. He observes the specific character of the formation of the working class in the GCC, which is overwhelmingly constituted by temporary, migrant workers with no citizenship rights. He shows how at a general level, the nature of class in these societies came to be structured around temporary migrant labour flows from surrounding peripheries, overlaid by a relatively privileged layer of citizens. The book repeatedly emphasises the strong link between the rise of Khaleeji capital and the very deep exploitation of non-citizen labour. The 2008 financial crisis showed for example how the GCC states dealt with migrant workers: they could be deported legally and with relative little protest, avoiding any of the potential social dislocation that unemployment produced in other countries.

The book shows also how the development of Gulf capitalism occurred alongside and as part of the region’s ascension as a core zone within the global economy, therefore being integrated into the regional construction of US power. This process indicates that the formation of the Gulf capitalist class has been subordinated to and integrated with the extension of US power at the regional scale. The deepening financialisation and internationalisation of Khaleeji capital have only helped to consolidate the domination of US power on the Gulf.

The political implications of Khaleeji capital’s increasing economic and financial power in the region has been witnessed in many aspects. Throughout the Middle East, national economies have been strongly penetrated by both state and private capital from the GCC. The penetration of the regional space by GCC capital flows has been accompanied, and this will likely to continue in the future to an even higher degree, by measures to open up economies to these flows and to encourage neoliberal policies. The development of class and state throughout the Middle East is therefore more and more deeply wrapped up in the formation of Khaleeji capital and the processes of internationalisation in the Gulf.

Finally, the book assesses the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis on the GCC states and its structures of accumulation, confirming the importance of Khaleeji capital to a full understanding of the GCC political economy. Hanieh shows how the GCC reacted to the crisis by actually reinforcing the position of large conglomerates and further strengthening the tendencies underlying the development of Khaleeji capital.

Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States is the first work to be published in English that gives a full understanding of the formation and development of the Gulf capitalist class. Hanieh reminds the reader that the state was and is an essential tool in this process. The state is an essential feature of the economic rule of the class, and therefore of the constitution of the class itself. In other words, it is not a distinct or separate sphere that is external to the ruling class as the ‘rentier state’ theory pretends. This book allows the reader to see the important role played by GCC countries in the process of economic liberalisation in the region, alongside other international institutions, and its increasing influence in the political economy of each country of the region. The book is a must read for those wishing to understand the weight of the GCC in the current attempts at counter-revolution, with the assistance of the US, and against the will of popular movements to continue the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tagged under: Class Middle East

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