What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Gender inequality: The role of oil vs. that of Islam in the Middle East

A Washington Post article drew my attention to a recent study by Michael L. Ross, a major contributor to the literature on the political economy of natural resource extraction. It came out in the American Political Science Review in February, 2008, and currently it can be downloaded from here. It's titled Oil, Islam, and Women.
Read it in full if you have the time. Ross lays out a model of the effect of oil rents on gender differences (as an example of the so-far not too extensively studied impact of oil rents on social structure beyond e.g. the impact on income differences), and he then empirically verifies two hypotheses based on it. The "oil rents" variable affects both "female labour force participation" and female political representation and participation in various ways.
Just for illustration, not as a comprehensive summary of Ross' argumentation: as a result of an oil boom, there are new jobs mostly in areas like retail trade or the construction sector, where occupational segregation may prevent women from working. An export-oriented textile industry, which usually employs many women, tends to suffer. And it's less likely to be protected by the government. Also, "unearned income" tends to rise for women, as households may receive government welfare transfers, and because male employment-seekers, in e.g. retail trade, or in construction, are more sought after, and so male wages rise as well. And so on. A curious effect is how women, structurally more and more restricted to having to identify with their household roles, and less and less able to politically mobilise, begin to approve of strict cultural norms regarding their roles more. Partly to do with being deprived of the means to effectively demand something else, partly with rational strategies to achieve success on the marriage-market where there is competition for the unearned income (which in other words actually has to be earned, e.g. by loyalty to a disadvantageous opportunity structure that reinforces itself in vicious circles).
What will make Ross' work oft-cited is of course the one-liner, that he offers proof that not Islam, but oil is the main factor hindering democracy and women's rights in the Middle East. An important - and also partly debatable - insight, but of course the article is worth more than that.
Now, my blog is definitely not an Area Studies blog about the wider Middle East. So why should one bring up this article here at all?
I'll let Ross' words give you the answer, or rather point out to you the way towards it.
"The region’s oil wealth also helps explain some of the outliers. Even though Yemen, Egypt, and Jordan have little or no oil, they have fewer women in the labor force (Figure 3) and parliament (Figure 5) than we might expect. These anomalies may be partly the result of labor remittances: from the 1970s to the 1990s, these countries were the largest exporters of labor to the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf, and received enormous remittances from them in turn."
Middle Eastern countries as units of analysis are of course not at all really separable from each other. The Gulf's oil revenues have an impact in the entire region and beyond. And in more ways than one: not just through workers' remittances. Saudi oil revenues distributed for all sorts of objectives, through state as well as private channels, played and continue to play just as important a role. For example, the Saudi leadership matched the CIA's spending on the Afghan issue dollar for dollar in the 1980s - in fact, Saudi sources altogether paid even more, as many wealthy Saudis gave money on their own or through charities and so on, to back the cause of both religious education and the Afghan guerrilla war. And there is now impact to show for that.
So, women in Afghanistan were themselves also affected by the oil wealth accumulating in the Gulf. Though of course one should go into a more careful analysis/description of the mechanisms of that effect. Ross for his part discussed a rent-focused model of mostly economic mechanisms. In Pakistan and Afghanistan that effect was more complex, political, and less direct. And Saudi wealth flowing there wasn't the only contributing factor. Yet it is worth noting this as sort of a footnote to Ross' study.
One Middle East-relevant remark added finally. Ross does get to discuss the potentially positive counter-influence, against the effects of natural resource bonanzas on gender inequality, of secular, left-of-centre leaderships that usually care more about women's rights and may even officially promote them. I don't want to point this out as though Ross would have omitted this, but actually Iraq's path would also have been interesting to analyse in more detail here.

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