Justice, Charity, and the Common Good: In Search of Islam in Gulf Petro-Monarchies
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Justice, Charity, and the Common Good:
In Search of Islam in Gulf Petro-Monarchies

The article probes the effects of Islamic doctrine on the allocation of hydrocarbon revenues and vice versa and the significance of this relationship for politics. It explores two areas of (state-directed) distributive activity—government subsidies and charitable giving—in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. It demonstrates how both oil revenues and Islamic doctrine are mobilized to consolidate state authority and how both have been manipulated and deliberately interconnected as tools of state power.

The discovery and subsequent exploitation of oil in the Arabian Peninsula from the mid-20th century drastically transformed politics and society in that region. Indeed, an important body of scholarship examines the multiple ways that the fossil fuel economy has impacted Gulf states, particularly the relationships among resource exploitation, infrastructural development, and the expansion of state power and authority.1 This article contributes to that scholarship by elucidating one under-explored aspect of these oil-induced transformations: the relationship between Islamic norms and the circulation of oil wealth in Arab monarchies of the Gulf, and the significance of that relationship for politics and governance.

Given the critical importance of both Islam and oil in contemporary Gulf society and political economy, I begin by asking how, if at all, has Islam, as a normative system, shaped the allocation of oil revenues in Gulf states and how, if at all, have oil revenues impacted religious doctrine, its juridical interpretations, or practices? Although Gulf rulers insist they adhere to Islamic norms, wealth circulation practices do not align with principles of the faith.2 How, then, are resources distributed and norms manipulated and for what purposes? [End Page 563]

I explore these questions in relation to government distribution of resources and charitable giving in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman—four of the six member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (known as the GCC, based on its original name, the Gulf Cooperation Council).3 I argue that not only (oil-financed) distribution, but also religious doctrine and the related notion of community, are instrumentalized to manage and dominate society by favoring family, friends, and loyalists, co-opting real or potential adversaries, and punishing (or, at least, snubbing) difference, distance, and dissociation. In exploring the connections between oil revenues4 and Islamic norms through an examination of government distribution and charitable giving, I show that regime behavior is not merely detached from religious principles, but more importantly, it distorts norms or reshapes normative interpretations for the sake of narrow interests. Maintaining dynastic states is the priority; Islam and oil are its principal tools.

I begin with a brief overview of key political-economic features of GCC states and the theoretical underpinnings of this inquiry. I then broadly outline how the relationship between Muslims and their resources is conceived in the normative Islamic tradition. I then consider oil-financed distribution, focusing on government subsidies and other transfers, in the four aforementioned countries. Next—citing interviews from my fieldwork in the Gulf in April–May 2008, January–June 2012, October–November 2013, and March–May 2015—I probe societal responses to such distribution to understand how Gulf Arabs evaluate government behavior with regard to the circulation of wealth. In a similar fashion, I discuss charitable giving, which is also an Islamic duty. Finally, I clarify the relationship between Islam and oil and what it suggests about politics in Gulf petro-monarchies.


As rentier states, the four countries specified above were, until recently, absolutely dependent on their narrow resource bases and the international arena: their petroleum sectors account for the majority of exports and government revenues. Rising oil and gas prices during the periods of 2000–2008 and 2009–14 facilitated lucrative foreign investment and the creation of important savings funds.5 Because oil rents accrue directly to the state, distribution is a primary task of national governments and a source of their legitimacy. Furthermore, while GCC states have among the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, they have relatively small numbers of citizens. The combination of low populations and vast...