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From Rentier Economy to Rentier Mentality in the Arab World

El Jadida - Ibn Khaldun defines rent in his prolegomena (2005 edition) as revenue cumulated without producing effort not only by leasing property but also by commercializing natural resources or taxing their trade.

El Jadida – Ibn Khaldun defines rent in his prolegomena (2005 edition) as revenue cumulated without producing effort not only by leasing property but also by commercializing natural resources or taxing their trade.

According to him, rent originated in the Arab world from the economy of conquest and capture of booties in that the masses sweated over wealth that was lavishly captured by the minority in power. He referred to historical events delineating how tribes raided upon other tribes and captured their properties.

Ibn Khaldun also alluded to how Arab elite regarded labour as shameful in agriculture or industry (p. 340), and concluded that in the Arab mind the prestige of wealth was not associated with effort, sweat and labour but with gift-exchange or usurpation cultural models. He pointed up that rent-based economy would not lead to social development. It is production-based economy instead that could infuse a social “habitus” with effort-oritented ethics of labour and secure the survival of a harmonic social fabric.

There are some social scientists and economists who distinguish between “rentier state” and “rent-based economy,” although others may use the terms interchangeably. The term “rent-based economy” is broader in meaning and presupposes the implication of the “rentier state” but the difference between them lies in the degree of the involvement of state institutions.

In a rentier state, the public institutions alone are rentier; in a rent-based economy, both state institutions and private sectors are rentier (see Hafez 2009). Thus, rentier economy has a larger scope. According to Hazem Beblawi (1987), there is no “pure” rentier economy. Rentier aspects exist in every economy. It is a matter of perspective. Rent based economy evinces a preponderance of rent elements. In rentier economy, the labor force may utilize and distribute wealth while the minority of capital owners may generate it though Beblawi is not decided on this point.

Sometimes, the economic roles are switched or intermixed. What is new in Beblawi’s theory of rentier state is that governments are the initial force that sets the rentier economic machine in motion, especially with the redistribution of state revenues. What deepens the rentier state roots is the inherent preeminence of tribal segmentary social structures. The state uses its source of revenues to co-opt tribal loyalties and redistribute favors to its faithful subjects and servants. Hence, the role of the welfare state based on taxation is obfuscated and the role of the charitable ruler is polished in society through the political practice of endowment.

From a cultural perspective, it is not rent that should be censured and dismantled but the culture it produces. Rent dismisses the imperative of work and effort to make profit. It spreads a rentier mentality, according to Beblawi, that promotes the capture of booties and accruement of assets with the least effort. The main characteristic of this mentality is the reversal of the conventional ethics of labour based on effort and risk-taking.

Rentier ethics ruptures the causal relationship between work and earnings. Revenue becomes a hit-and-miss affair of chance and special circumstances. In Morocco, for instance, the rentier ethics are expressed through cultural idioms rooted in rentier-submerged maraboutic thinking. The notion of baraka, luck (zhar), divine allocated provision (rzaq), charity, and divine distribution of wealth (Allah created the poor as he created the rich) are all local meanings that disregard personal effort and human agency which can bring social change. They rather uncover a popular cultural worldview at work constructing local social identities in terms of mystic forces being capable of steering the wheel of fortune.

Another example from Moroccan history about rentier ethics is the Sufi ethos of labor. Sufis draw upon the concepts of dependence (tawakkul) and cause (sabab) to earn their daily bread. Dependence (tawakkul) means for them the trust in God to facilitate their sustenance. Cause (sabab) – in the sense of taking the initiative – is regarded as subsidiary even if some Sufi groups permit work for their members to allow them to provide for their families. In most cases, work is not important in their opinion. It should not seduce the Sufi away from his meditation and worship.

Historically speaking, many Sufis’ preaching did not consort with their practice. In 10th and 16th centuries, a number of Sufis worked as fellahs, tailors and merchants to provide for their families (Shadili 1989, 196-7). In reality, Sufi lodges (zawiya-s) lived on revenues such as gifts (hadaya), tribute (ziyara), donations (hibat), and were also exempted from taxes by Sultanic decrees of honor and respect. A tribute typified the gift individuals or tribes annually offered to the zawiya to which tribes lived in devotion and gratitude. It was compulsory in that the Moroccan tradition dictated it. It was socially inconvenient for someone to refuse giving his due annual tribute to the zawiya which he was closely related to.

Tribute was usually associated with supplication and was channelled through a gift-exchange cultural model. Individuals and tribes took their gifts to a particular zawiya in the hope that its saint would endow them in return with his baraka, either by chasing away a sickness and malediction or by solving a social problem. De Foucauld wrote in 1883 that the zawiya Sharqawiya in Bja‘d (Tadla) received annual tributes each year from all the nearby tribes. Other tribes from Shawiya and the Great Atlas also used to give their own annual tributes. The value of those tributes was 1/10 of the harvest. In 1905, Ait ‘Atta in Wad Dar‘a gave a tribute to the shurfa of Tamsluht in the sum total of 1 sheep per flock of 100 heads, 1/30 of corn harvest amount, 1/8 of henna amount being the main commercial produce of the oasis, and 0.5 franc per new-born and newly-purchased horse. (cit. in Michel, 2001, p. 103).

Another historical example is the shrif Mulay Ali l-Wazani who received gifts from different parts of Morocco and beyond. He received henna and dates from visitors from Tafilalt, male and female slaves from visitors from the Sahara, fabric and mules from visitors from the Orient, iron equipments from mountaineers and olive crops from visitors from Demnat – needless to mention the gold (from 10 to 500 drachmas) and money he received from his followers (1989, pp. 198-9).

In nineteenth century, Sufi lodges received, within a gift-exchange cultural model of cooptation, donations in the form of land property offered to them by Sultans to exploit in return for the support they might offer them in pacifying dissident tribes, seizing power, or combating crusaders. Such donations (in‘am / hibat) usually reinforced zawiyas’ allegiance to the Sultan and polished the latter’s symbolic image of guardianship (ri‘aya/ himaya) and charity (ni‘ma) (Hammoudi 2000, 76-7). Thus, zawiyas amassed capital through the donations they received from Sultans in the form of mortmain land (aradi l-waqf) like the Zawiya Nasirya which benefited from mortmain land, mortmain salves and houses (Shadili, 1989, p. 206). Also, there were zawiyas that benefited from charity (sadaqat) and alms (zakawat) given to them by nearby adherent tribes.

Zawiyas also gained more land by virtue of giving protection and subterfuge to fugitive peasants overwhelmed by heavy taxation and persecuted by the Makhzen. Those who fled qaids’ oppression, or were unable to work or join combats, all sought the protection and immunity of saints and offered their land to the shurfa (the descendents from the noble lineage of the prophet) in return for being sheltered, fed and protected for life. Zawiyas also benefited from volunteer workforce; men who zealously offered their hand labor to shurfa by working in their fields unpaid, and by giving harvest tributes to the Seigneur (Halim, 2000). The Makhzen was aware of those conditions and sustained their reproduction to keep manpower under saints’ social control and derive profit from honorary service (Laroui 2001, 19).

Hammoudi (1997) in Master and Disciple framed this maraboutic mechanisms of sultan-subject relationship within a gift-exchange model characterized by complex dynamic power relations though the author seems to neglect the rentier dimension of the transaction. The sultan’s acceptance of the gift from his loyal servants and his presence in front of them are expressions of gift-return. The presence of the sultan fulfills the compulsion culture dictates when one is given a gift. When the sultan offers gifts to loyal subjects, it is staged as an act of benevolence that expresses his satisfaction (rida) with his loyal servants; when he does it to win his adversaries, it is regarded as an act of condescension to pardon miscreants.

We have argued in previous research that this gift-exchange model rooted in maraboutism may be transferred to other social arenas like the domain of education, labour, family or administration. But like our predecessors, we skimped over the rentier basis of the maraboutic model that seems to be a latent strong indicator affecting the formation of loyal political alliances in Morocco. It is obvious that maraboutism, sultanism, and broadly political culture appear to be structured by the rentier economic system the Arab States have generally inherited for centuries and which has extensively affected both the state and citizen in the Arab World.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy