Accueil Discipline (Sciences politiques) Revue Numéro Article

A contrario

2008/1 (Vol. 5)

  • Pages : 192
  • ISBN : 2889010059
  • Éditeur : BSN Press

Article précédent Pages 102 - 113 Article suivant

The now famous dictum that « war makes states » has received renewed interest in recent years with the experience of state-collapse and state-failure in many parts of the Third World [1]  Charles Tilly, « War Making and State Making as Organized... [1] . Historical studies have shown that the activity of war-making was an essential ingredient in the process of state-formation in early modern Europe [2]  Charles Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States... [2] . These studies claim that the ability to get ready for war and then actually wage war requires power holders to engage in actions that are very frequently conducive to state-formation. This includes the effective extraction of resources for the purpose of war-making. Extraction activity presupposes state control, which in turn requires an efficient bureaucracy [3]  Otto Hintze, « Military Organization and the Organization... [3] . In cases where there was nothing or little to extract from society, war-making also required the promotion of capital accumulation which in turn made war-making possible. This activity also required the growing strength of a centralised bureaucracy [4]  Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States,... [4] .


This paper analyses the history and dynamics of state-formation and state-building in the Middle East and argues that « oil rentier states » [5]  Oil rentier states are those states in which revenues... [5] defy the « war makes states » theory. The Middle East as a region has seen many inter-state wars and violent conflicts, and war is perhaps even a defining feature of the region [6]  John Waterbury, « The State and Economic Transition... [6] . This paper shows that rentierism generally serves as an obstacle to the formation of strong and legitimate states, since stability rests on an implicit social contract through which consent is bought via material welfare. Where military capacity is in addition paid for by rulers’ rents and war-making employed as a strategy of state-making, as in Iraq, state-formation has nearly the opposite effects from ruler-subjects struggles that characterised early modern Europe.

Rentier States


The notion of the rentier state grew out of the study of the modern Middle East [7]  Hossein Mahdavy, « The Patterns and Problems of Economic... [7] . Rentier states derive most of their revenues from the outside world and the functioning of their political system depends to a large degree on accruing external revenues that can be classified as rents. Rentier states rely on allocation and redistribution (allocation states) and hence show a remarkably different political dynamic than other contrasting states (production states). Rents have been defined as « the income derived from the gift of nature » and are usually understood to be income generated from the export of natural resources, especially oil and gas [8]  Hazem Beblawi, op. cit., p. 85. [8] . The rentier effect in the Arab world concerns both oil-exporting states and non-oil exporting states. A significant extent of the rents of the oil states has been recycled to all Arab states through migrant workers’ remittances, transit fees and aid. The oil phenomenon has thereby « cut across the whole of the Arab world » and propagated a new pattern of behaviour : rentier behaviour [9]  Ibid., p. 98. [9] . Furthermore, external rents can also be conceived of as bilateral or multilateral foreign-aid payments, such as foreign development assistance or military assistance, and are hence sometimes termed strategic rents. These strategic rents form the majority of state revenues in many small states in the global South and produce rentier state behaviour [10]  Mike Moore, « Revenues, State Formation, and the Quality... [10] .


Generally, the rentier model of statehood is stable as the abundant availability of resources helps to preserve traditional loyalties through generous welfare allocations and thereby renders state-formation into a legitimate process. Political support is bought off – following the notion of « no taxation, hence no representation » – and material legitimacy created. Resting on the economic function of the modern state in providing welfare and wealth to its citizens, this model of statehood remains stable as long as state and society adhere to an implicit social contract between regime and society, through which political rights are substituted for state-provided welfare. Where citizens trust the state institutions to progressively provide these public goods, they correspondingly tend to be more allegiant and less antagonistic to the regime. Where citizens sense an appropriation of the state by a self-serving elite, trust in the beneficial use of the natural resources of the country is lost, opposition emerges and violent conflict ensues [11]  Rolf Schwarz, Rule, Revenue and Representation : Oil... [11] .

Taxation and state legitimacy


War-making and the capacity of the state to extract tangible and intangible resources are seen as key indicators of the state’s capacity [12]  State capacity is infrastructural state power, namely... [12] . The existence or non-existence of strong states can hence be measured through the level of tax collection [13]  With respect to the view that taxation capacity is... [13] . Autocratic governments are generally poor at raising direct taxes, since their collection requires widespread voluntary compliance by citizens, as well as an efficient and legitimate bureaucracy [14]  Christine Fauvelle-Aymar, op. cit., p. 406. [14] . Consequently, the more a state relies on direct measures of taxation, the more the collection of taxes depends on an efficient bureaucracy and voluntary compliance. In the absence of voluntary compliance, often linked to a lack of legitimacy, states have to rely on other indirect measures to generate the necessary revenues. Oil-exporting rentier states have the opportunity not to tax their populations or to impose very minimal taxes if need be. In fact, most oil-rich rentier states have relied on a combination of rents and minimal taxation for their state revenues. In the Arab Middle Eastern countries, few states rely on direct taxation but do employ indirect means of levying resources, such as tariffs, sales tax, and licensing [15]  Rolf Schwarz, « The Political Economy of State-Formation... [15] . Where taxation is applied, it is mainly levied on state-owned companies (mainly the oil industry) and foreign companies. In other words, rentier states in the Arab Middle East have levied taxes on themselves (the states’ agencies) and foreign corporations and not from the bulk of the citizenry. Based on its modern history, Iraq is a classical rentier state that fits into the broad Middle Eastern category in terms of non-taxation of citizens.

Iraq : From Rentier State to Failed State


The Iraqi state was created in 1920 in the aftermath of World War I. State-formation in Iraq has followed the path of many developing states in its struggle against a major foreign power (Great Britain) and the attempt to create a modern state administration and representative institutions. Personalised rule, informal relations, and an abundance of oil revenues defined the modern state that emerged. These three elements were inherently linked as the abundance of oil revenues and the distributive capacities of the state allowed for political rule to be personalised and based on patronage networks. Much of independent Iraq’s modern history of state-formation (1958-1980) has followed the rentier state paradigm. The onset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, however, started a new era : the state’s history was characterised by war, violence and ultimately by the state’s deformation. The belligerent Iraqi oil rentier state’s attitude towards war making, marked by an overestimation of its military strength, proved to be particularly catastrophic.


While the early years of independent Iraq were characterised by a reliance on domestic resource extraction [16]  Income taxes were first introduced in 1909 under Ottoman... [16] , the discovery of oil in 1927, its subsequent development and the nationalisation of Iraq’s oil industry in 1961 [17]  In 1927, exploration rights were granted to the Iraqi... [17] , brought Iraq on the path of a rentier state. The fiscal nature of the state changed in the 1950s as oil royalties were no longer treated as extra-budgetary receipts but were incorporated into the budgetary process. This gave the state considerable financial resources, which it ploughed into social welfare through a newly created state agency (the Iraqi Development Board) that was given the task of co-ordinating spending. The change in the fiscal nature of the state brought about the first signs of a rentier economy (over-spending and a decline of the non-oil sector). Oil revenues prior to 1962 were modest and increased to about 60 % of total revenues during the 1960s and 1970s, while domestic revenue extraction continued modestly [18]  Hossein Askari et al., Taxation and Tax Policies in... [18] . From 1973 onwards, however, the Iraqi fiscal system showed clear signs of rentierism, with oil revenues ranging from 56 % in 1972-1973 to almost 86 % in 1977 and taxes falling considerably in percentage relative to total revenues. Taxes were still levied on personal incomes and profits of companies and, in theory, rates were steeply progressive. In reality, taxes were only collected from salaried employees of the state [19]  In the mid-1970s, personal income up to an annual level... [19] . The reach of the state was short and extended only to its own salaried personnel. Agricultural incomes (except for land rentals) were excluded from taxation and in the private sector taxes were only levied inconsistently and inefficiently. In essence, personal income became the burden of a portion of the middle class working in the state administration [20]  In the 1960s an individual had to earn nearly 7 times... [20] .


Apart from the increase in oil revenues from the mid-1970s onwards, Iraq also profited from earnings generated by assets held overseas. While these earnings remained initially minor in relation to total revenues (4 % in 1976), they sharply increased following the second oil crisis in 1979 (the current account surplus stood at 3’360 million dinars in 1979 and at 4’370 in 1980). At the beginning of the 1980s, Iraqi foreign holdings had increased to a level where they represented 45 % of oil revenues and 39 % of total government revenue [21]  Hossein Askari et al., op. cit., p. 111. [21] .

Table 1 - Oil Revenues 1955-1977 as a Percentage of Total Revenues [22]  Source : John Waterbury, « From Social Contracts to... [22] Table 1

This drastic increase in additional resources allowed the Iraqi state to embark on a state-building project based on large-scale spending implemented in a top-down fashion and largely divorced from societal demands. The massive influx of oil revenues during the 1970s enabled the Iraqi regime to pursue a policy of « guns and butter » – extravagant spending on expanding its military-security machinery and on welfare benefits (social development) [23]  The welfare benefits allocated to society in the form... [23] . Internally, expanded military-security expenditure was designed to strengthen the power of the ruling Ba’thist regime. On the external front, it was used to engage in aggressive foreign policies, which led to the outbreak of war with Iran in 1980.


Given the massive flow of oil revenues, the costs of a war with Iran seemed easy to bear. Surplus funds also came in the form of strategic rents (foreign military aid) from neighbouring states. During the first two years of the war, Iraq’s economic situation was comfortable. It used its oil exports of 3.5 million barrels a day and an annual oil income of 30 billion US$ to finance the war effort [24]  Isam Al-Khafaji, « War as a Vehicle for the Rise and... [24] . As the war dragged on, Iraq’s economic position began to deteriorate as a result of the partial destruction of its oil-export facilities in the Persian Gulf (Mina al-Bakr and Khawr al-’Umayya), the decline in world oil prices [25]  The price of a barrel of oil dropped from 27 US$ in... [25] , and the closing of a pipeline by Syria running through its territory to the Mediterranean Sea. The total costs of the war, which lasted from 1980-1988, are estimated at 452.6 billion US$ for Iraq and 644.3 billion for Iran [26]  Kamran Mofid, The Economic Consequences of the Gulf... [26] . These numbers exceed the total amount of oil revenues both countries have accrued since they started selling their oil by a total of 678.5 billion US$ [27]  Peter Sluglett, Marion Farouk-Sluglett, « Iraq Since... [27] .


During the war, the failing Iraqi economy was maintained by strategic rents coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In public rhetoric this foreign aid was downplayed or denied, and official reports of the Ba’th party stressed the boldness of the Iraqi leadership in standing alone against Iran [28]  Isam Al-Khafaji, op. cit., p. 273. [28] . This official government propaganda explains why Iraq prolonged its war effort despite growing human and economic losses. The regime of Saddam Hussein was convinced that it would achieve victory single-handedly, while the costs of the war were shared by the neighbouring Arab states, particularly the oil monarchies in the Gulf. Iraq insisted that no official debt arrangements should be made to accommodate the war effort. In short, war seemed an economically rewarding activity, a vision, which in hindsight could not have been more off the mark.


By the end of the war, Iraq was faced with many economic difficulties, not least the problem of demobilising almost 750’000 soldiers. Furthermore, it became impossible to accommodate such a large number of soldiers that depended on government-guaranteed jobs and welfare benefits. The state could no longer deliver on its implicit social contract established during the boom of the rentier years. War had fundamentally altered the situation and redefined the terms of normality. Unemployment, already felt during the war due to the privatisation measures enacted in 1986-1987, but aggravated thereafter, became widespread in Iraq and young people were deprived of previously guaranteed careers in the civil service. The only solution seemed to keep them in the public sector, not in a civilian function but in the military service.


The Iran-Iraq war undoubtedly eroded the fiscal basis of the state. Probably, a few years of peace and normal oil-production would have brought Iraq back to pre-war levels, but instead of using an inward-looking strategy of coping with the fiscal crisis brought about by the Iran-Iraq war, the Ba’thist regime of Saddam Hussein chose a belligerent strategy of rent acquisition [29]  Peter Sluglett, Marion Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit. [29] .


Through much of Iraq’s modern history, the Ba’th party had dominated almost all facets of life. The party’s stated aim has been to unify the Arab region between the southern edge of the Taurus and Zagros mountains and the Gulf of Basra, the Arab Sea, the Abyssinian highlands and the Sahara in the south ; between the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean. It was a shrewdly calculated project of pan-Arabism under the hegemony of the Ba’thists. While in theory this was understood to encompass peoples of different religious and ethnic origins, such as Shiites or Kurds, it translated in reality into the emergence of two Ba’th parties, one in Syria and one in Iraq, both claiming to be the legitimate successor of the original party. When in 1968 the Ba’th party seized power, it tried to consolidate its grip on the state by presenting a Pan-Arab ideology that minimised the religious and ethical divisions in Iraqi society.


Inventing a state ideology and a distinct Iraqi identity detached from tribal, ethnic and religious considerations, proved to be very difficult. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein a clear and conscious design of « intellectual and political reorientation towards Iraq » was pursued [30]  Adeed Dawisha, « Footprints in the Sand : The Definition... [30] . This included the attempt to portray Iraq as an Arab state and particularly that Iraq’s territory formed part of the Arab homeland. By emphasising Iraqi territory and not the Iraqi nation, an attempt was made to pay tribute to the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of the country. In a speech to Iraqi Officers in 1978, Saddam Hussein made the following declaration :


« We should support our theory by referring to ancient history and should stress that the history of the Arab nation [al-umma al-’arabiyya] extends to ages long past. All basic civilisations that developed in the Arab homeland [al-watan al-’arabi] express the personality of the sons of the nation stemming from the same offspring (…) and if these civilisations have a national specificity [al-khususiyya al-wataniyya], this is part of the more general and encompassing national characteristic [al-sima al-qawmiyya al-a’amm wa-al-ashmal]. » [31]  Ulrike Freitag, « Writing Arab History : The Search... [31]


By using the term watani for both the Arab homeland and a smaller distinct entity (the Iraqi territory and not the Iraqi people), Saddam Hussein laid the basis for an ideology attached to an Iraqi state. In another speech he underscored the crucial distinction that Iraq was part of the Arab homeland, and not that the Iraqi people part of the Arab nation [32]  Idem. [32] . This political strategy of creating a national ideology attached to the Iraqi territory was used in spite of the Second Gulf War (1990-1991) and the ensuing Kurdish uprising. During the Gulf War period Saddam Hussein appealed to Kurdish leaders to co-operate with his regime by stressing 6’000 years of common history of the « Iraqi territory and people » [33]  Ibid., p. 32. [33] . The continuous link between modern Iraq and the ancient civilisations that had resided in the same land was also diffused through cultural programmes that eulogised the achievements of Sumeria, Akkadia, Babylon, and Assyria, as well as through archaeological works that reconstructed such ancient cities as Hatra, Assur, Nineveh, and Babylon [34]  Adeed Dawisha, op. cit., p. 129. [34] . This equation between modern Iraq and ancient Mesopotamia continued into the 1990s with, among other things, the publication of the best-seller novels (suspected to have been written or sponsored by Saddam Hussein himself) depicting the Iraqi ruler as a king in the tradition of the great kings of Mesopotamia [35]  Ofra Bengio, Saddam’s Word : The Political Discourse... [35] .


With the domestic fiscal crisis of the 1980s compounded by the external war with neighbouring Iran and the invasion of Kuwait, this political strategy came to be questioned from within, namely through the Kurdish revolt in 1991. An extended, parallel political strategy employed by the regime of Saddam Hussein included a novel emphasis on the religious roots of Iraq as an authentic Islamic state, the reconstruction of the ancestral root of Saddam Hussein as a descendant of the family of the Prophet Mohammad, and finally a return to traditional elements such as tribal loyalties and the Iraqi heritage of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein emphasized Iraq’s adherence to the fundamental principles and canons of Islam. For instance, one of the country’s newspapers, al-Thawra, attacked the Iranian leadership for accusing Iraq of being un-Islamic :


« We tell you that Iraq is a true Islamic state, and the people of Iraq, as well as its leaders, believe in God and in the teachings of Islam as a religion and as a heritage. Indeed, President Hussein’s regular visits to the holy shrines and his continuous efforts to provide for these shrines is a clear proof of his deep and his unequivocal belief in the glorious message of Islam. » [36]  Al-Thawra, 16.01.1982, as quoted in Adeed Dawisha,... [36]


Other references to Islam and the unity of Iraq were constantly made during the Kuwait crisis and the subsequent Gulf War in 1991. In November 1990, Saddam told a CNN reporter that :


« It is impossible for us to capitulate to those who bring together 400’000 soldiers against us, because we put our trust in Allah […] ; Saddam Hussein is an Arab citizen, a servant from among God’s believing servants ; he struggles [yujahid] for justice [haqq] and rejects oppression [zulm] and fears only God. » [37]  Ofra Bengio, op. cit., p. 183. [37]


On another occasion, in November 1990, Hussein spoke in a reassuring vein :


« Do you know why the Iraqis are confident ? Because they are a people who believe in God, and they are sure that justice is on their side. He who walks along the path of justice, God is with him ; and he who has God on his side, what would he fear. » [38]  Idem. [38]


Furthermore, there were continuous references to the 1990-1991 Gulf war as a Jihad (struggle in the path of God) fought in the name of God. Strikingly, this reference emerged immediately after the invasion of Kuwait and even before actual hostilities erupted [39]  Ibid., p. 187. [39] . The Islamisation process peaked on the eve of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein ordered the famous Islamic chant Allahu akbar (God is the greatest) to be inscribed on the Iraqi flag.


New forms of political legitimacy under Saddam Hussein included also the cultivation of a personality cult, including the emphasis on the noble origin of President Hussein’s family and his ancestral root in the ancient land of Iraq. As an illustration of the former, it was reported that in August 1990, a few days after the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein sent a message to President Mubarak of Egypt, indicting him for aligning with the United States and Saudi Arabia against Iraq. In this indictment, Saddam Hussein alluded to Mubarak’s underclass origins from a peasant family not connected with the families of Egypt’s historic rulers. He contrasted this with his own origin from a most illustrious family ancestrally traceable to the Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet Muhammad ; Saddam Hussein even claimed direct descent from the Prophet’s grandson Husayn [40]  Ibid., pp. 79-80. [40] . There were also several examples of Saddam Hussein’s use of rhetoric equating himself with Iraq, with Iraqis and with Arabs everywhere. Some of these expressions include : Saddam al-Arab (the Saddam of the Arab) ; Saddam al-Fath (the Saddam of conquest) ; Baba Saddam (Father Saddam) and Abu al-Iraq al-jadid (Father of the new Iraq) [41]  Ibid., p. 78. [41] . While such rhetoric was meant to evoke feelings of closeness, others were conceived reverence and idolize Saddam Hussein (e.g. his alleged descent from the Prophet Muhammad), elevating him to the realm of the superhuman and the supernatural [42]  In official speeches, Saddam Hussein switched between... [42] .


Finally, the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein invoked other more traditional identities and images of the state in order to legitimate its rule. These included a renewed emphasis on tribal elements and the portrayal of modern Iraq in the tradition of ancient civilisations such as Assyria or Babylon. On 29 March 1991, after the violent suppression of the local revolts in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein received a delegation of tribal leaders for the first time. The timing of this visit in the context of the evolving politicisation of tribal identity was not arbitrary : it reflected the regime’s need for societal support [43]  Amatzia Baram, « Neo-Tribalism in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s... [43] . The following years saw an emphasis on tribal values, such as the new-found justification for the invasion of Kuwait in terms of tribal honour (al-sharaf al-ashairi), and an increasing reliance on tribal justice over the state’s legal system [44]  In the realm of tribal justice, one can speak of the... [44] .


As these examples show, Iraq represents a remarkable case of how an image of the state was created in order to legitimise the political rule of an authoritarian leader who faced economic and fiscal crises due to extravagant policies of social welfare and war-making during the oil boom. Most striking in this regard is the constant presence of the past and the shift from a secular idiom to a language dominated by Islamic and tribal rhetoric. Similar tendencies of religious legitimacy of political rule are discernable elsewhere in the Middle East, notably in Saudi Arabia and Iran.


In sum, the case of Iraq prior to the dismantling of state institutions in 2003 demonstrates how a chain of reaction caused the deformation of the rentier state : initial war-making (the Iran-Iraq war) led to overstretched state capacity ; and the ensuing fiscal crisis led to a further weakening of the state and pushed the regime to bellicosity – the annexation of oil-rich Kuwait to shore up Iraq’s rentier resources. The concerted military action by the international community and the subsequent regime of United Nations’ sanctions left the Iraqi state crippled. Having lost the first Gulf War to the United States-led multinational force, the government of Saddam Hussein was hamstrung with multiple international sanctions and as such could only exercise limited domestic sovereignty. The weakened Iraqi state had to re-create new forms of legitimacy by resorting to Iraqi nationalism based on tribal affinities and Islamic religion, to counter the persistent surveillance and encroachment of the powerful external adversaries led by the USA. This bellicose public discourse proved counter-productive in the long term, as Iraq’s supposed military capacities were one of the reasons for the violent regime change in 2003 and the total collapse of the state in the aftermath of the invasion.



This paper has provided a case study of rentier states in the Middle East and has argued that it is oil rents and not war-making, as often assumed, that is the driving force of state-formation and state-building. Generally, oil rents serve as an obstacle to the formation of strong and legitimate states, since stability rests on an implicit social contract through which consent is bought via welfare provisioning. Where oil rents have been used, as in Iraq, for war-making and where military capacity was paid for by rents, state-formation had nearly opposite effects from the ruler-subjects struggles that characterised early modern Europe. The abundance of oil revenues in the case Iraq facilitated an unsustainable degree of militarization that was not matched by the economic and institutional strength of the state beyond the rentier windfall. The overestimation of its rent-dependent military capability and the consequent over-stretching of its military capability in actual war-making rendered a destructive blow in the Iraqi context. The combination of rentierism and war-making was particularly deadly to the Iraqi state, as it contributed to the deformation and collapse of the state.


Theoretically, this paper has made the case that the role of institutions of organised violence in the process of state-formation (war-making as state-making), the rentier nature of most Arab states (rentierism), and the interplay between domestic pressures for state-formation and external influences are intertwined. Focusing solely on the war-making capacity and orientation of states has the danger of trivializing other important dynamics linked to the rentier nature of the states in the Arab Middle East [45]  Charles Tilly, « War and State Power », Middle East... [45] . Based on the notion of « no taxation, hence no representation », most rentier states of the oil-rich Middle East rely on oil rents and not on domestic sources of resource extraction (taxation). We have shown elsewhere that the more a state relies on direct measures of taxation, the more the collection of taxes would depend on an efficient bureaucracy and voluntary compliance of citizens [46]  Rolf Schwarz, 2008, op. cit. [46] . Tax paying citizens invariably seek to hold the state to a high level of accountability, and in addition, make demands for greater political rights and civil liberties. The non-tax revenue base of Middle Eastern rentier states tends to hinder an active engagement with the citizens and with society, based on the principle that revenue extraction invariably provokes demands for political rights and responsive representation. The resulting state structures are therefore largely divorced from society ; they are as such not strong enough to actively cope with societal demands in times of crises. Only if concrete policies to attract non-oil revenues are pursued in the long run can the rentier bargain be overcome and effective state structures created. In the absence of this, rentier states may turn into failed states, as evidenced in Iraq. ■



Charles Tilly, « War Making and State Making as Organized Crime », in P. B. Evans et al. (eds), Bringing the State Back In, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 170.


Charles Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1975 ; Thomas Ertman, Birth of the Leviathan : Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1997.


Otto Hintze, « Military Organization and the Organization of the State », in F. Gilbert (ed.), The Historical Essays of Otto Hintze, New York : Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 178-215.


Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States, AD 990-1990, Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1990.


Oil rentier states are those states in which revenues from oil exports contribute well over 40 % of the state’s overall revenues (Hazem Beblawi, « The Rentier State in the Arab World », in G. Luciani (ed.), The Arab State, London : Routledge, 1990, pp. 85-98 ; Giacomo Luciani, « Allocation vs. Production States : A Theoretical Framework », in G. Luciani (ed.), The Arab State, op. cit., pp. 65-84).


John Waterbury, « The State and Economic Transition inthe Middle East and North Africa », in N. Shafik (ed.), Prospects for Middle Eastern and North African Economies : From Boom to Bust and Back ?, Houndmills : Macmillan, 1998, p. 168.


Hossein Mahdavy, « The Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States : The Case of Iran », in M. A. Cook (ed.), Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East, London : Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 428-467 ; Hazem Beblawi, op. cit. ; Giacomo Luciani, op. cit.


Hazem Beblawi, op. cit., p. 85.


Ibid., p. 98.


Mike Moore, « Revenues, State Formation, and the Quality of Governance in Developing Countries », International Political Science Review, Vol. 25, N° 3, 2004, p. 305.


Rolf Schwarz, Rule, Revenue and Representation : Oil and State Formation in the Middle East and North Africa, Dissertation, University of Geneva : Graduate Institute of International Studies, 2007.


State capacity is infrastructural state power, namely « the capacity of the state to actually penetrate civil society and to implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm » (Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1993, Vol. 2, p. 55)


With respect to the view that taxation capacity is the key test for state capacity, see Michael Barnett, Confronting the Costs of War : Military Power, State, and Society in Egypt and Israel, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1992 ; Christopher Hood, « The Tax State in the Information Age », in T. V. Paul et al. (eds.), The Nation-State in Question, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 213 ; Christine Fauvelle-Aymar, « The Political and Tax Capacity of Government in Developing Countries », Kyklos, Vol. 52, N° 3, 1999, p. 391.


Christine Fauvelle-Aymar, op. cit., p. 406.


Rolf Schwarz, « The Political Economy of State-Formation in the Arab Middle East : Rentier States, Economic Reform, and Democratization », Review of International Political Economy, 2008. As historians of taxation have shown, this distinction is indeed an important one : « The true magnitude and significance of the tax load have in the past been concealed from the people. The fiscal principle would have to yield to the economic principle ; the direct method of raising state revenues should become the rule and the indirect method the exception ». See Knut Wicksell, « A New Principle of Just Taxation », in J. Gwartney, R. Wagner (eds), Public Choice and Constitutional Economics, London : Jai Press, 1988, p. 128 ; John Waterbury, « From Social Contracts to Extraction Contracts : The Political Economy of Authoritarianism and Democracy », in J. Entelis (ed.), Islam, Democracy, and the State in North Africa, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1997, p. 171.


Income taxes were first introduced in 1909 under Ottoman rule. After World War I they were abolished and an income law was only reinstated in 1927. Modifications and refinements came through laws no. 36 of 1939 and no. 63 of 1943, and the passing of an intermediate law no. 85 in 1956 and eventually a regular tax law no. 44 of 1968. Up until the 1960s, income taxes contributed modestly to the ordinary budget, ranging from between 3.4 % to 5 % depending on the year (Siham Sharif, « Income Tax in Iraq », Bulletin of International Fiscal Documentation, Vol. 22, N° 12, 1968, p. 543 and p. 549).


In 1927, exploration rights were granted to the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), which despite its name was a British oil company. Questions of nationalisation came to the forefront after the revolution of July 1958 ; in December 1961 the Government seized 99 % of the IPC and in 1973 it become fully nationalised.


Hossein Askari et al., Taxation and Tax Policies in the Middle East, London : Butterworth, 1982, p. 108.


In the mid-1970s, personal income up to an annual level of 500 Dinars was theoretically subject to a 5 % tax, gradually increasing for income between 500-1’000 Dinars to a 10 % tax. The tax drastically increased for the richest of society, where income above 15’000 Dinars was taxed at 75 % (Idem.).


In the 1960s an individual had to earn nearly 7 times the per capita income (based on the year 1963) before being subject to a personal income tax. For a married man with dependants under the age of 18, earnings would have to exceed 14 times the per capita income before tax assessment would occur. Furthermore, about 91 % of all personal income tax paid came from residents of the province of Baghdad. The concentration of income tax payers was so extreme that in 1966 less than 1 % of the entire population paid any income tax (Siham Sharif, op. cit.).


Hossein Askari et al., op. cit., p. 111.


Source : John Waterbury, « From Social Contracts to Extraction Contracts : The Political Economy of Authoritarianism and Democracy », in J. Entelis (ed.), Islam, Democracy, and the State in North Africa, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1997, p. 155.


The welfare benefits allocated to society in the form of state-provided jobs have been enormous. At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the civilian branch of the state employed 21 % of the working population and 40 % of Iraqi households depended directly on government payments (see : Toby Dodge, « US Intervention and Possible Iraqi Futures », Survival, Vol. 45, N° 3, 2003, p. 107).


Isam Al-Khafaji, « War as a Vehicle for the Rise and Demise of a State-Controlled Society : The Case of Ba’thist Iraq », in S. Heydemann (ed.), War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East, Berkeley : University of California Press, 2000, p. 273.


The price of a barrel of oil dropped from 27 US$ in 1985 to 15 in early 1986.


Kamran Mofid, The Economic Consequences of the Gulf War, London : Routledge, 1990.


Peter Sluglett, Marion Farouk-Sluglett, « Iraq Since 1986 : The Strengthening of Saddam », Middle East Report, N° 167, 1990, p. 20.


Isam Al-Khafaji, op. cit., p. 273.


Peter Sluglett, Marion Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit.


Adeed Dawisha, « Footprints in the Sand : The Definition and Redefinition of Identity in Iraq’s Foreign Policy », in Sh. Telhami, M. Barnett (eds), Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2002, p. 129.


Ulrike Freitag, « Writing Arab History : The Search for the Nation », British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 21, N° 1, 1994, p. 31.




Ibid., p. 32.


Adeed Dawisha, op. cit., p. 129.


Ofra Bengio, Saddam’s Word : The Political Discourse in Iraq, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1998 ; Ofra Bengio, « Saddam Husayn’s Novel of Fear », Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 9, N° 1, 2002, pp. 9-18.


Al-Thawra, 16.01.1982, as quoted in Adeed Dawisha, op. cit., p. 133.


Ofra Bengio, op. cit., p. 183.




Ibid., p. 187.


Ibid., pp. 79-80.


Ibid., p. 78.


In official speeches, Saddam Hussein switched between Modern Standard Arabic and Iraqi dialects in order to create a sense of closeness with the people and his listeners. One such example is given in Nathalie Mazraani, « Functions of Arab Political Discourse : The Case of Saddam Hussein’s Speeches », Zeitschrift für Arabische Linguistik, Vol. 30, 1995, pp. 22-36.


Amatzia Baram, « Neo-Tribalism in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s Tribal Politics 1991-1996 », International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 29, 1997, p. 7.


In the realm of tribal justice, one can speak of the existence of a parallel legal structure. Tribal law included compensations for murder (diya or blood money) or disgraceful acts (hasham) and became a common feature in some part of Iraq, thereby supplanting state law (M.N. Kadhim, Reaction to Crime under Tribal Law and Modern Codification in Iraq, D. Phil. thesis, Oxford University : St. Catherine’s College, 1961 ; Amatzia Baram, op. cit.).


Charles Tilly, « War and State Power », Middle East Report, Vol. 21, N° 171, 1991, pp. 38-40.


Rolf Schwarz, 2008, op. cit.



It is widely recognised that wars have been an essential ingredient in the process of state-formation in early modern Europe. This article analyses the history and dynamics of state-formation in the Arab Middle East and argues that oil rentier States defy the « war makes states » theory. Rentier States in the oil-rich Middle East rely on oil rents and not on domestic sources of taxation. Their non-tax revenue base hinders an active engagement with their citizens and society, as taxation invariably provokes demands for political rights. The resulting state structures in the Arab Middle East are therefore largely divorced from society ; they are not strong enough to actively cope with societal demands and show their weakness in times of crises. In the absence of effective state structures, rentier States may turn into failed States if they engage in wars, as evidenced recently in the case of Iraq.


La plupart des travaux académiques traitant de la formation des États en Europe occidentale soulignent l’importance des guerres dans la création d’États forts et légitimes. S’il est plausible que ce processus ait fonctionné en Europe occidentale, les guerres ont eu au contraire des effets plutôt néfastes pour la majorité des États au Moyen-Orient. Il est par conséquent nécessaire d’expliquer pourquoi ces deux éléments – l’exercice de la guerre et le développement de structures étatiques fortes et centralisées – ne fonctionnent pas ensemble dans les pays du Moyen-Orient contemporain. La réponse que nous proposons dans cet article met l’accent sur la nature des États rentiers, dont la majorité des finances provient des exportations de ressources naturelles, et qui ne ressentent donc pas la nécessité d’extraire des ressources de la société. Par conséquent, le processus par lequel le domaine militaire est mis sous contrôle du domaine civil, à travers la nécessité d’acquérir des capitaux au sein de la société pour la continuation de l’activité de guerre, ne se produit pas dans les États rentiers. En l’absence de structures étatiques fortes, les guerres ont eu des effets plutôt néfastes et ont produit des États défaillants (failed states), tel que l’atteste l’histoire récente de l’Irak.

Plan de l'article

  1. Rentier States
  2. Taxation and state legitimacy
  3. Iraq : From Rentier State to Failed State
  4. Conclusion

Pour citer cet article

Schwarz Rolf, « From Rentier State to Failed State : War and the De-Formation of the State in Iraq », A contrario 1/ 2008 (Vol. 5), p. 102-113

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