By Andrew Leber
12 September, 2018
Yet one issue has cleaved apart what was
once a relatively unified bloc: The appropriate role of political Islam in Arab
Islamism - a "political movement that
favours reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by
Islam," as per the Associated Press - has been championed by Qatar as an
integral part of the region's (ostensibly democratic) political future, and
attacked (and criminalised) by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as a
terrorist organisation bent on toppling existing political regimes and imposing
totalitarian control over society.
Much as a shifting international context
since the Arab Spring (and the election of President Trump) has brought these
tensions to boiling point - as seen in the ongoing GCC rift - focusing too much
on the present obscures the long and tangled history of political Islam within
the GCC itself.
As Courtney Freer notes in her timely and
groundbreaking volume, Rentier Islamism, political Islam in the Gulf is no less
varied than its manifestations elsewhere around the world.
Freer situates her study within the
predictions of rentier theory - a sprawling body of social science that argues
(in some forms) that citizens in natural-resource-rich countries are less
likely to make coherent political demands of their rulers when governments fund
social services with "rents" derived from the sale of natural
resources rather than taxes extracted from the populations they govern. No taxation,
no need for representation.
Yet the efforts of organised Islamist
groups in the Gulf would seem to challenge this view, as they strive to see
their views on society represented in government policy. This is especially
true in three of the most oil-rich countries in the world - Qatar, Kuwait, and
Freer sketches out potential motivations
and mobilising potential rooted in the ongoing culture clash between economic
modernisation and "traditional" values in the three monarchies.
Islamist groups across the region have
spoken out against the one-time prevalence of Arab nationalism as an
ideological force in the region; the growing presence of expatriates,
particularly from western countries; liquor stores and bars a stone's throw
away from mosques and Islamic institutions.
In time, they have added more causes to
their repertoire, such as advocating for more representative politics in closed
political systems (as in the UAE) or more robust political freedoms where
meaningful elections exist (as in Kuwait).
Strategy and success have, broadly
speaking, have been determined by two factors.
Different political institutions shape the
efforts of Islamist organisations to acquire influence, while their day-to-day
fortunes depend in no small part on the shifting alliances of Gulf rulers with
In Kuwait, for example, electoral
competition has provided a focal point for Islamist organising.
Dating back to 1951, the Kuwaiti Muslim
Brotherhood (now known as Islah, or "Reform") invested early on in
the schools (and school organisations such as student unions), prayer circles
and cultural organisations that have allowed Islamist thought to endure
organisational schisms and government intervention.
In a recurring story across the Gulf, efforts
by the ruling Al Sabah family to sideline secular opposition helped kick-start
an organised Islamist presence in the elected National Assembly from the 1980s,
only for the growing political clout of Islamists to prompt ruler efforts at
"divide-and-rule" by siding against Islamists' conservative social
Since the Iraqi occupation and the
re-establishment of parliament, the quasi-party Islamic Constitutional Movement
(ICM) has served as the political arm of Islah. Typically holding three to five
seats in the parliament, the ICM now plays a double game of pursuing policy
aims in the short term while preserving its ability to contest elections in the
In years past, it has variously sided with
yet-more-conservative Salafi parliamentarians to advance conservative social
policies or a broader range of opposition blocs to promote the further
democratisation of the Kuwaiti political sphere (including boycotting two
elections in 2012-2013 to protest unilateral changes to the electoral law).
Elsewhere, Islamist organisations have
faced a more uncertain path to policy influence. The establishment of the
Qatari Muslim Brotherhood in 1975 brought formal organisation to a loose
community of like-minded individuals active in educational institutions and
Yet while the Qatari government would go on
to cement a relationship with prominent Islamist exiles such as Sheikh Yusuf
al-Qaradawi of Egypt, the local Brotherhood affiliate struggled to gain much
popular traction or elite patronage and voted to disband itself in 1999.
"Nobody will listen to any radical
ideas when their needs are fulfilled," argues former Brotherhood member
Jassim Sultan, who now pursues Islamist aims through smaller-scale cultural
Yet Freer presents other, darker views from
around the Gulf that the group disbanded strategically in order to avoid
government attention and eventual repression - as would happen in the UAE.
Freer's account of the Islamists in the UAE
- also known as Islah - is likely the volume's most valuable contribution.
Dating back to 1974, the organisation's
growth was fueled by the return of Emirati students from hubs of Islamist
thought in Kuwait and Cairo, as well as the arrival of Egyptian expatriates
hired to fill out rapidly proliferating state offices in the UAE (especially in
the education sector).
Islah, primarily based in the UAE's poorer
constituent Emirates, such as Ra's al-Khaimah, gained access to government
offices high and low as the Emirati membership recruited its membership for
their educational backgrounds as much as their ability to project a
"conservative and Islamic image" for the young country.
Yet the growing influence of Islah -
particularly in the judiciary and the educational system - led the Emirati
government to restrict the group's activities over the course of the 1990s,
with an even stricter response in the wake of 9/11.
The relationship between Islah and the
Federal government in Abu Dhabi grew particularly acrimonious in the wake of
9/11, with "Muslim Brother" allegedly the "worst epithet
possible" in the vocabulary of Muhammad bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the
Islah's ambitions of political reform
(rather than just social change) ultimately prompted a campaign of state
repression in the wake of the Arab Spring - their past and present influence in
the Emirati bureaucracy taken as evidence of a threatening plot rather than the
historical legacy of state-building in the UAE.
As with any work seeking to break new
ground, some subjects addressed by Rentier Islamism might benefit from further
exploration in future work.
First, while Freer provides considerable
insight into the often transnational nature of Islamism in the Gulf, as well as
the interplay between Gulf foreign policies and Islamism in the region, the
country-by-country structure of the volume's chapters can make these complex
interactions a challenge to follow.
Likewise, the rich descriptions of
organisations and political manoeuvrings can obscure when and where Islamist
groups have succeeded in getting markedly "Islamist" policies into
official policy. It is not immediately clear what "Islamist" policies
the ICM has been able to enact across its 25-year existence, for example,
despite widespread perceptions among some Kuwaitis that Brotherhood (and
Salafi) dominance of the National Assembly have contributed to the
"Islamisation" of Kuwait.
Still, these are small concerns with a book
that provides important insights into a region that has historically attracted
far less academic interest than its present importance in the regional politics
of the Middle East and North Africa warrants.
Given the difficulties of fieldwork in the
Gulf, Freer is to be commended for the personal interviews and original
material that informs this work. Present and future students of Gulf politics
will be grateful for the considerable ground covered in Rentier Islamism.
Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard
Opinions expressed in this article
remain those of the author