The Tunisian domino puts the rentier theory to the test

By: Ingrid Krüger

As the question of a Tunisian domino effect is raised, it is time to discuss the explanatory power of the rentier theory anew. Last week, BBC put up a regional map marking which of the regimes in North Africa and the Middle East could be challenced next.[1] Leaders of all North African countries from Morocco to Egypt were marked as potential candidates. Furthermore, BBC had marked both Jordan and Yemen on their map, but the domino chain was cut off between these latter two countries; none of the highly undemocratic regimes in the Gulf Region would be challenged, according to BBC. Since the number one demand that has spread across the Tunisian borders is a demand for democratization, why exclude the possibility that widespread civil unrest will take place in the Gulf States in the near future?

Although similar in terms of suppression, the economic conditions are different in the Gulf Region. Here we find some of the most extreme examples of rentier states, defined as governments receiving substantial amounts of external rents on a regular basis.[2] According to the rentier theory, the external oil revenues provide these governments with the tools they need to avoid political dissent from surfacing. According to the rentier theory, by bribing citizens through the unconditional distribution of oil revenues, potential pressure groups will not voice demands of political participation.

The Tunisian domino effect puts the rentier theory to the test. Will the rentier theory prove itself weak or may the degree of preemptive domestic distribution of oil revenues help predetermine the extent of the Tunisian domino effect? Will the decades long provision of direct economic benefits in the Gulf Region be sufficient to silence potential upcoming demands of democratization? According to the rentier theory the distribution of oil revenues helps secure regime durability. However, “what is frozen is not necessarily peace, but conflict; not freedom, but oppression’’.[3] Will the regimes in the Gulf Region be forced to give substantial political concessions in the near future despite their decades long preemptive distribution of oil revenues?

[1] BBC (February 3, 2011). `Mid-East: Will there be a domino effect?’,

[2] Mahdavy, H. (1970). `The Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran,’ in M.A. Cook, ed., Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East, Oxford University Press.

[3] Luciani, G. (1987).  `Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework,’ in Beblawi, H., and Luciani, G., eds., The Rentier State, Croom Helm.

3 Responses to “The Tunisian domino puts the rentier theory to the test”

  1. 1 Chris Guest June 10, 2011 at 11:35

    Hi, fairly general question – but I was wondering, briefly, how or if your views have changed regarding the validity of the rentier theory over the last 4 months? I ask because I began planning for my university dissertation/thesis in January/February which asks pretty much the same question as this blog.


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