From Rentier Economy to Rentier Mentality in the Arab World, part 1

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.

*Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco