The Gendered Resource Curse

My co-author, Yu-Ming Liou, and I wrote this for the ISQ blog when we published our article on the gendered resource curse, Oil, Autocratic Survival, and the Gendered Resource Curse, explaining how oil rents can lead to worse political outcomes for women. But I don’t think ISQ ever used it, so I’m using it now.

Generally, increasing gender equality accompanies economic development. Figure 1 shows this relationship: as GDP per capita increases (rightward along the x-axis), gender inequality tends to decline (downward along the y-axis).

Social scientists and casual observers have long recognized that oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia form an important exception to this rule. As Figure 2 demonstrates, autocratic countries that receive more than $1,000 per capita in income from oil and natural gas (shown in red) tend to have greater levels of gender inequality at nearly every level of income.

Why does oil income affect gender equality differently than other sources of wealth? We argue that this discrepancy results from a set of policies that oil-rich autocrats pursue to consolidate their hold in power. As we explain more below (and in the paper), the greater rulers’ dependence on political elites who value ideological fidelity, the more likely rulers are to enact the ideologically-informed policies they demand—even when those policies harm national welfare and make it harder to pay off supporters demanding more traditional forms of patronage.

Our theory differs from earlier attempts to explain the gendered resource curse. Some have highlighted the role of cultural factors, like religion or lingering tribal networks, in explaining repression in oil-rich countries. Another school of thought holds that the export of oil both destroys the export-oriented industries that might otherwise employ women while also funding government spending to households that reduces women’s need to work outside the house. Since women do not leave the house to join the workforce, they never have a chance to form the connections that would later allow them to organize for economic and political life.

Although both schools of thought offer some insights, neither fully explains what we observe. Many societies with the same cultural values as oil producers have allowed women greater freedoms. Moreover, the degree of repression within oil-rich societies tends to inversely vary with the price of oil. (Our theory suggests it’s no surprise that modest Saudi liberalization on women’s rights has coincided with plummeting prices of crude.) Finally, neither theory can account for why government policies on women’s rights coincide with broader agendas of cultural conservatism that aren’t linked to economics—or why governments with different ideological leanings (like Iran under the Shah compared to the Islamic Republic) pursue very different policies toward women despite having the same cultural heritage and economic positions.

We think it’s important to be precise about how oil affects women’s role, status, and autonomy. Understanding whether and how oil affects women’s lives matters directly to tens of millions of people. Perhaps most obvious, it matters greatly to women who live in resource-rich countries like Saudi Arabia. The kingdom remains one of the world’s richest countries (and its largest oil exporter) but also, despite recent liberalizing moves, imposes one of the most oppressive policies towards women of any government on earth. One recent study puts the long-term cost of gender gaps in Saudi Arabia at nearly 45 percent of the kingdom’s income.

These policies impose costly burdens on countries. They decrease economic growth by restricting women’s right to work and require hiring millions of immigrants to substitute for women’s labor. Why engage in such self-destructive behaviors? We think the answer lies in the political incentives that face rulers of oil-rich countries. Repressive policies can help solve important commitment problems for autocrats who can afford them.

To sustain themselves in office, rulers need to keep the loyalty of prominent elites. In most cases, those elites’ loyalties can be bought (or at least rented) directlyby showering them with oil-derived patronage. In some cases, the payoffs that elites demand come in less material forms. For culturally conservative groups, for instance, increasing adherence to tradition and blocking the expression of other religions might be more important than a new Bugatti.

Paying off those elites requires leaders to impose the policies these intense policy demanders prefer. In this context, women form a natural target for repression, since cultural repertoires for restricting their behavior are both well-understood and often viewed as desirable in themselves by culturally conservative elites. Consequently, rulers beholden to such groups will be more likely to adopt policies that exacerbate gender inequalities. The unique properties of oil rents—especially their scale and the secrecy that surrounds the precise amount that rulers receive from their sale—explain why this strategy proves more durable in oil-rich states. In autocracies without such rents, relying on public compliance with tax collection imposes at least a minimal degree of responsiveness to the public. Tax reliance also gives autocrats an incentive to make their countries more productive, even if only to increase the amount they can extract from the state, making costly repression less attractive.

We demonstrate the empirical basis of our theory in a battery of quantitative tests and case studies of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Our research matters for understanding the likely trajectories for oil-rich autocracies in the Gulf and elsewhere in a period of low oil prices. With oil prices suffering from production gluts, rulers of oil-dependent economies will be strapped for cash and face incentives to relax some repressive policies to improve the wellbeing of their subjects.

We caution, however, that these measures will meet with disapproval from conservative elites, who will worry that their own position and privileges will be threatened. Thus, low oil prices may portend both promise and peril: the promise of reform may simultaneously imperil regime stability. As Tocqueville noted, the most dangerous moment for an authoritarian regime is when it begins to reform.