During the recent ‘Political Economy’ seminar at the HSE, Тrevor Johnston, a researcher from the University of Michigan presented his report ‘Divide and Distribute: The Political Economy of Minority Sabotage and Authoritarian Distribution’. During this research Trevor Johnston has tried to find out, which mechanisms of social and material goods distribution towards different groups are used by the ruling Qatar regime in order to survive.
Qatar is one of the Persian Gulf states. Power is inherited and held by emirs. Its economy is based on oil and gas production. According to information from the International Monetary Fund, in 2012 in terms of GDP per capita Qatar ranked first place in the world. But living conditions and standards there vary considerably. Prosperous native citizens in Qatar make up only 20% of the population. The other 80% are working migrants from Pakistan, Philippines, India, and other countries. There are also expats from Europe, and the USA.
Mr. Johnston has noticed that working conditions for migrants in Qatar can be compared with those of slaves. For example, it’s almost impossible for a worker to change his employer. Never the less, Qatar still remains a popular country for working migrants. The government doesn’t need to break up strikes and to negotiate with protestors. Meanwhile in other emirates of the Persian Gulf such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, there are from time to time some mass protests that could harm the economy.
In 2008 Qatar agency Barwa Real Estate announced an ambitious plan to build a modern town Barwa Al Baraha for approximately 53000 people and with all necessary amenities, in the suburbs of Doha. The project included the construction of a croquet field, tennis and basketball courts, restaurants, cinemas, modern medical facilities, and shopping malls. More than ten years after the beginning of a rapid increase in prices for energy sources, similar projects in those countries which are rich in energy resources, fail to surprise anyone, notes Mr. Johnston.
Qatar, like other oil emirates, has created a luxurious infrastructure for the governor and its native citizens. But Barwa Al Baraha was planned to be a place for workers. Mr. Johnston mentioned that none of these countries has ever invested such significant funds into the welfare of such a marginalized community deprived of their political rights. It shocked the majority of the supervisors and experts engaged in the problem issues of the region.
Providing marginalized groups with goods, which Mr. Johnston determines as ‘co-optation of the minority’, proves to be a fundamental challenge to canonical theories of authoritarianism. ‘Prevailing models of authoritarian distributional policy imply the fact that autocrats multiply the resources while distributing goods among those, who support the government, and excepting all the others’, explains Mr. Johnston. Qatar acts in precisely the opposite way. The phenomenon of minority co-optation shows the opportunities of the authoritarian distributional policy in a different way.
In order to show, how the government of Qatar use a distribution policy towards marginalized groups, Trevor Johnston has examined the socio-spatial segregation of the population. During this research, the author used information from the geographic information system.
Most of Qatar isdesert. The majority of the population (over 45%) is concentrated in the capital of Qatar, Doha, and its suburbs. At the same time Doha makes up less than 2% of the country’s area. Mr. Johnston has identifiedthat the territory of Qatar can be divided into three areas, those where native citizens’ villas, western expats’ flats, and working migrants’ camps are situated. The area of villa accommodation considerably exceeds the area given over to migrant and expat lodging.
Illustration 1. Minority Segregation
Source: Presentation of T. Johnston.
How does the government of Qatar use the socio-spatial segregation of the population in the distribution of goods? In order to explain this, Mr. Johnston draws analogies with the market. The autocracy represents the buyer, and any group or individual who potentially supports the government is the seller. Any group has the opportunity to enter the market. Anything from clean and accessible water closets to individual bonuses can be regarded as goods.
Taking into consideration the spatial features of Qatar, Mr. Johnston has found out that the regions with native citizens and working zones are provided with basic goods. These goods include transport, schools, hospitals, and drugstores. But after some calculations, the researcher came to the conclusion that in working areas there is a special emphasis on transport services, including sea transport. Workers need to stay in touch with their families who live abroad, explains Mr. Johnston. That’s why a developed transport network is crucial for them.
At the same time there are more schools in the areas where native citizens live. And this is unsurprising since Qatar focuses on the education of its citizens, explains the researcher.
As for the areas for expats, the author found no evidence of specific distribution of goods. But it’s interesting that the government tends not to build mosques in these areas.
As for the distribution of other goods between prosperous native citizens and working migrants, it seems rather more straight forward. Mr. Johnston emphasises that there are typical facilities such as public toilets and currency exchange locations in migrant areas. ‘Access to a quality sanitation system is crucial for the workers that live in camps, where this service is important for common welfare’, states the researcher. He also notes that in working areas there are several police departments, meaning that the native citizens are afraid of migrants.
In contrast with the working zone facilities, more luxurious facilities such as swimming pools, cinemas, and parks are located in the areas that contain villas. Thus Qatar provides its native citizens with a mix of basic and luxury services, while migrants get only basic services and a quality elementary infrastructure.
Why do the government of Qatar treat groups which are marginalized and deprived of civil rights with such consideration when implementing their goods distribution policy? Mr. Johnston admits that the support of migrants is not crucial for the government. ‘As for Qatar we can’t consider migrants from Nepal to be the first and foremost supporters of the regime in the traditional sense’, explains Mr. Johnston. But the threat of sabotage by workers forces the government to take preventive measures to avert strikes and production stoppage.
One of Johnston’s hypothesis states that the dividends to marginalized groups may be increased under the threat of sabotage. The author refers to the theory of James Scot regarding the weapons of the weak (James Scot, Weapons of the Weak, 1985). According to this theory, marginalized groups can influence the economic policy of the state even under conditions of total political and social exclusion. On one hand, the support of elite groups is crucial for the regime. On the other hand, in order to secure this support the government always has to increase rewards for those elite groups. This makes the regime dependent on the processes of goods production and on the people engaged in the process.
Returning to the elite project Barva Al Baraha, the author emphasises the fact that it isn’t a unique evidence of minority co-optation but a reflection of a developing trend. Mr. Johnston points out that the majority of autocrats no longer rely on repressive methods in order to increase their survival chances. They use complex strategies of distributive co-optation instead. The same approach is also used in the other countries of the Persian Gulf. The researcher believes that traditional theories which describe the policy of autocracies should be reviewed.
In the course of further research Mr. Johnston is planning to examine the situation in Bahrain and to find out what role political and economic shocks play in the governing strategy of authoritarian regimes.