The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on December 3, 2018 to discuss the role of political Islam in the Gulf States. The panel took as its starting point Courtney Freer’s new book, Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies. Through a discussion of the book’s themes and arguments, the panelists explored how Muslim Brotherhood movements shape the social and political sectors in some of the world’s wealthiest oil states.
The panel comprised a group of distinguished experts, including Abdullah Al-Arian, associate professor of history at Georgetown University Qatar; Courtney Freer, research officer at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre; and Daniel L. Tavana, doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Ali Fathollah-Nejad, visiting fellow at the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.
Courtney Freer kicked off the discussion by outlining the issues she explores in Rentier Islamism, which is the first English-language book to trace the history of Muslim Brotherhood movements in the Gulf. She said that the book aims to “de-exceptionalize” the Gulf with regard to political Islam and uses a study of the Muslim Brotherhood in Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in order to re-think rentier state theory. Freer noted that rentier theory cannot be ignored when discussing Gulf states because rentier state characteristics fundamentally shape how Muslim Brotherhood movements work in those countries. In particular, she identified three factors that have been key to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries that do not apply to Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, namely the group’s ability to provide generous welfare benefits, dominate national parliaments, and provide an alternative social network.
In contrast, she posited that the development of Islamist movements in these countries has been driven by ideology, as these movements offer a means to preserve cultural values in Gulf countries that are faced with growing expatriate populations. The Muslim Brotherhood movements in Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE all began with a focus on Islamizing society and have since been able to exercise political capital through informal avenues. In response to a question posed by the moderator, Freer said that the goals of Islamist groups in the Gulf depend on national context. In Kuwait, these groups are merely aiming to have a seat at the political table and tend to contest a small number of parliamentary seats. In Qatar, on the other hand, these groups focus on organizing social activities, rather than on becoming politically active.
Abdullah Al-Arian continued the discussion by noting that, although Islamist movements stem from a common ideological foundation, they cannot be understood except within their national contexts. He added that Freer’s book is an example of the recent movement within academia to explore the role of Islamist groups in their respective countries. Al-Arian then outlined developments in the study of political Islam from the 1980s to the present, explaining how the dominant academic trends focused on the “Islamic resurgence,” the issue of “Islam and democracy,” and securitization, without taking national contexts into consideration.
Al-Arian then discussed the book that he is writing, which looks at six separate Muslim Brotherhood movements through the lens of the nation-state. He argued that these groups’ ideological development, social activist missions, and modes of mobilization and political participation are nationally bounded. Separately, he pointed out that Freer’s book contributes to the existing literature in several key ways: by distinguishing between Islamist movements in the Gulf and other Arab countries; by drawing out the differences between these movements within the Gulf; and by offering new understandings of these movements in Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE.
Daniel L. Tavana provided a theoretical overview of the arguments in Freer’s book, while aiming to problematize various key concepts and ideas related to political Islam. He noted that Freer makes a bold claim in her book, which is that Islamist groups have influence in the Gulf, despite government-provided welfare and social services, because ideas matter. He added that Freer’s book suggests that ideology is not fixed and that there is variation within movements and over time, which begs the question of how ideology can be understood.
Tavana then worked to problematize the concept of ideology, using the example of Muslim Brotherhood voters in Kuwait. He proposed that the group was successful in the country not only because of ideological reasons but also because of its organizational discipline, strategy, and coalition-building with demobilized voters. In response to a question from the moderator, Tavana pushed back against the idea of assessing the “end goals” of the Muslim Brotherhood. He argued that this question would not be asked of other types of political groups, adding that, while the question is important, he does not believe that there is an answer to it. Tavana suggested, instead, that Islamist groups want to know that they are represented and that they are adequately providing for the needs of their supporters.
The subsequent question and answer session focused on the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and the influence of Islamist groups on foreign policy. Al-Arian indicated that there are critical differences between historical and recent crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood. He noted that, in the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood was more insulated in a way that allowed it to resist attempts at its destruction. However, since 2011, the movement has become more visible and exposed, enabling various governments to attack it in ways from which it may have more difficulty recovering. In response to a separate question, Freer claimed that Islamist groups do not have much influence over foreign policy in the Gulf and that she has largely observed foreign policy decisions being driven by pragmatism, rather than ideology.
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