In her book Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies, Courtney Freer provides a comprehensive study of the emergence and evolution of branches of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf. The author examines the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in three super-rentier states: Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In doing so, Freer aims to develop a new conceptual model, namely rentier Islamism, “for understanding how Muslim Brotherhood movements influence policies in super-rentier states”.
The book consists of three main sections, seven chapters and an introduction. In the first section, Chapter 2 delves into the main literature on rentier state theories (RSTs) and the conceptual knowledge of political Islam. One of the main premises of RST is that in rentier states the formation of political opposition is not likely, so long as the citizens’ share of the finances is secured. The literature on political Islam underlines the effect of socio-economic deprivation motivating Islamist mobilization. Freer argues against both economic determinism of RST and the existing conceptual framework of Islamist politics developed outside the context of the Gulf. The author also highlights the shortcomings of the two bodies of literature and demonstrates how Islam is a powerful and politically relevant factor in Gulf politics. In this respect, the third chapter provides useful background information on systems of government and civil society in the three super-rentier states and examines their similarities and differences.
Chapter 4 investigates the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood branches in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. It looks at the social and educational spheres of the 1950s and 1970s, with a focus on the rising tide of Arab Nationalism in the Gulf. Chapter 5 continues by examining the post-Arab Nationalist era and the different development paths of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist political and social agenda from the 1970s to the 1990s.
In the last part of the book, Freer assesses the development of what she terms “rentier Islamists” during the 2000s and after the Arab Spring. Switching her focus to state policies and reactions to the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, Freer argues that Islamists have become, and are likely to remain, relevant political actors thanks to their ideological appeal in super-rentier states. In the concluding chapter, Freer brings together her arguments and establishes Rentier Islamism as a distinct theoretical framework which can be employed to understand the Muslim Brotherhood’s political activities in the Gulf.
Freer presents her arguments in a consistent and convincing manner. She begins by attempting to break the link between taxation and representation and the alleged autonomy rentier governments have from their societies. Freer continues by demonstrating that even in the absence of taxation and the need for social welfare services provided by Islamists elsewhere, Islamist political opposition in the Gulf have found avenues to exert their influence over society and the state.
In the second part of the book Freer presents an excellent account and analysis of how Ikhwan pursued social and political opportunities available to them and demonstrated the adaptability of rentier Islamists with respect to domestic, regional and international developments. She effectively utilizes primary sources and interviews to illustrate the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the face of the rise and fall of Arab Nationalism and its repercussions in the Gulf region.
The conceptualization of ‘Rentier Islamism’ also contributes to studies beyond those focused on the Gulf. Moving outside the deterministic assumptions of both rentier state theories and Islamism literature, Freer successfully provides a holistic understanding of the topic. She identifies three different types of relation between Islamists and the super-rentier states in 21st century: co-optation in Kuwait, cooperation in Qatar and confrontation in the UAE. Consequently, Freer reminds us of the shortcomings and pitfalls of generalizations about Islamic movements in the Gulf.
Two minor shortfalls of Freer’s book are her lack of reflection upon what Matthew Grey calls “Late Rentierism” and her blurring of the line between political capital of Islam itself and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the first instance, Freer reviews a large selection of well-known literature on rentier state theory, but does not take into consideration the more recent revisions on the theory, which go some way to supporting the her reservations about RSTs. In 2011, Grey highlighted the transformation in the political economies of the Gulf states during the 1990s and the 2000s and labelled this phase ‘late rentierism’. Grey argued that, “Late rentierism accepts the broad validity of the principles of RST, but also allows for both domestic imperatives and external influences to have impacted the wealthy Gulf States, bringing significant changes to their political economies”. One of the most prominent features of later rentierism is the development of a responsive government to basic societal needs with modest expansion in the political sphere. This point could have lent support to Freer’s insights about Islamist movements in the super-rentiers.
In the second instance, Freer clearly points out the ideological appeal of Islam and that in the Gulf, “as long as states continue to politicize Islam, which seems likely as a legitimation strategy, political Islam will remain relevant”. However, Ikhwan is not the sole contender in Islamist politics and in this sense, it is an open question as to how far Ikhwan can maintain its social and political position amid contending Islamist groups in the Gulf.
All in all, Freer delivers well-written and well-organized research on political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf region. Her examination of the different paths of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in these super-rentier states is a significant academic contribution to Islamist movements in the Gulf, offering an alternative approach to the phenomenon. Given the dramatic shifts in regional and domestic dynamics since the Arab Spring, Rentier Islamism is a timely work for those interested in Gulf studies, political Islam and domestic politics in rentier states.