- Qatar: Politics and the Challenges of Development by Matthew Gray
Matthew Gray’s book is a welcome contribution to a rapidly growing body of literature on Qatar.1 This serious scholarship is especially welcome since a great number of secondary sources, especially through news outlets, tend to distort big media events tied to Qatar — from the World Cup 2022 to Al Jazeera America — while missing the story of Qatar itself. Indeed, Qatar and the Qatari leadership have been more adept at [End Page 649] managing the news than being the object of scrutiny. It is the difficult task of historians, economists, and political scientists to piece together the puzzling contradictions of Qatar even when most of the puzzle pieces are either hidden from view or highly distorted. In this respect, Matthew Gray’s work — as with any work on the Gulf — must be read with both caution and appreciation. Attempting to strike a balanced approach, he states that “too often, too many scholars are keen to play Cassandra and be the first or most assertive to have predicted a problem, failing, or even a political or economic collapse, while many policymakers and businesspeople … are too keen to brush aside potential problems …” In this respect, Gray has struck a reasonable balance.
While he makes some valuable comments on history, culture, and society, the main thrust of the book is economic. His argument provides a vigorous and important analysis of Qatar and “late rentierism” — a concept Gray has used in other writings on the subject that suggests an update to the classic rentier state theory developed in the 1980s). A rentier state is one that derives most of its rent, or revenue, from natural resources such as oil or gas. By thus reducing the rulers’ need to rely upon popular taxation, it enables them to avoid ceding real power to democratic institutions. For Gray, late rentierism is similar to classic rentier theory but with the possibility of external influences impacting the Gulf states even as elite ruling families have become more entrenched. Even as the Gulf dynasties have faced challenges to their position, they have, in fact, been able to further consolidate their power. Far from challenging the basic assumptions of rentierism, late rentierism could be seen as a rather concentrated form of economic determinism, or, possibly, economic opportunism on the part of Gulf rulers such as Shaykh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Gray is correct, however, to find Qatar an exception as much as a confirmation of economic theory. Qatar has a “uniquely ambitious and activist approach to globalization” and has “adroitly developed” various economic sectors. Also, he has rightly, though too briefly, discussed the challenge of nationalism and cultural identity in Qatar. But many of these developments are the result of good management or even the hiring of the right consultants and well-paid technocrats. In addition, many of Qatar’s highly visible foreign policy actions of late have seemed much less stage managed and much more problematic than the past. The recent denial by Qatari foreign minister Khalid al-‘Attiya that his country supported the Muslim Brotherhood is a case in point.2 It seems possible that the house of Al Thani’s status as a neutral broker could be compromised. This is problematic not just for foreign affairs but for the maintenance of domestic allegiances. The main domestic challenge of the Gulf states may in fact not be economic in nature at all. Instead, the traditional basis of power, face-to-face consultation, and other informal systems of expressing popular will may begin to break down as the late rentier model concentrates power in a potentially brittle clique. Rentierism does not guarantee power. Instead, power must make allegiances beyond the tangible demands of the market. Ideas such as “the nation,” “culture,” “faith” and even “the future” have no monetary value, but are still, of course, extremely valuable. They are questions of identity that scholars such as Marc Valeri of Exeter University and Miriam Cooke of Duke University (the latter who has wrestled with...