Posted on February 26, 2007 in Washington Watch

Measuring the Middle Class

Public opinion research is not only an important tool in measuring attitudes, it can also be useful in defining social realities.

McKinsey & Co. recently contracted with Zogby International (ZI) to conduct surveys in three Arab Gulf states in an effort to better understand the role and attitudes of the middle class in this region’s developing economies. Given their pivotal role as consultants, McKinsey had a keen interest in defining such a phenomenon. They also had some working assumptions and concerns about the middle class which they sought to test with our survey. Among these were the importance of the middle class as an indicator of a country’s stability, prospects for future growth, and the impact of privatization on the vitality of this socioeconomic grouping.

As we began our examination, I initially confronted the conceptual problem of how to define the “middle class” as it existed in these countries. The concepts “upper, middle, and lower” class, after all, were largely developed in Western sociology in reaction to the more deterministic Marxian concept of economic class. As such, they have always been rather loose terms, subject to a variety of definitions, involving amorphous measurements of consumption patterns, expectations, etc.

Given the traditional nature of their social and governing structures in the Gulf and what has been described as the “rentier” nature of much of their economies, more Western definitions of middle class did not seem to apply. In addition to the “royal” or ruling families that govern, there are to be sure, wealthy merchant families who play a significant economic role. Tribal structures remain important in social organization, but with rapid urbanization, economic growth, and the expansion of government bureaucracies, clearly, a new group of urbanized employees has emerged. The question to be asked here is does this group constitute a class and, if so, how do we define them?

Consulting the rather sparse academic literature available proved futile. A “Google” search using keywords: “Saudi Arabia”, “UAE”, “Bahrain” and “middle class”, yielded tens of thousands of citations in articles about each country, but no clues as to how to define what constitutes the middle class in this part of the world. Actually the most interesting discovery I made while “googling” was the wide variety of contradictory adjectives used to describe the Arab Gulf middle class. It was alternately described as “growing” or “shrinking,” “energized” or “distressed,” “empowered” or “threatened.” In the end, however, these impressionistic renderings revealed more about the predisposition of the authors of the various pieces than they did about the undefined object of their interest. Still searching for parameters, I consulted a number of regional experts who gave us such a wide range of answers as to offer little clarity.

Since we, at Zogby International, are pollsters who trust public opinion, we decided to let the people speak for themselves. We polled almost 2,400 Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini citizens. In addition to asking them about their jobs, families, attitudes and concerns, we asked how they defined their social class. They were remarkably forthcoming.

The wealth of information derived from this polling not only provided deep insights into each society, it also allowed the opportunity to define the characteristics of their social classes. We found significant differences not only among the three countries, but also among the attitudes and concerns of the self-identified classes within each country.

In each of the three countries surveyed, for example, about two thirds of the respondents described themselves as “middle class.” Upon reviewing the data, a more detailed description of the middle class emerged that reinforced this self-identification. For example, whether employed in the public or private sectors, those who describe themselves as middle class were largely salaried workers. Except for those who were in the military, most were in what would be described in the West as “white collar” professions (professionals, teachers, healthcare and office workers and sales). In each of the three countries, the salaries of those who self-describe as middle class workers fell roughly in the middle-- between the incomes reported by those who describe themselves as members of the “higher class” and those who said they were in the “lower class”. More interestingly, their attitudes fell in the middle, as well. In almost every one of the areas measured in the survey, the answers given by those who called themselves middle class fell, in fact, right in the middle of the spectrum of attitudes of those in the higher and lower classes. For example, whether in response to questions about job security, their attitudes toward their country’s health and educational systems, or whether or not they have enough leisure time and the income to enjoy it, the attitudes of those in the middle class were, invariably, in the middle. There were differences, to be sure, but sharing the middle ground is what the Emirati, Saudi and Bahraini middle classes have in common, and establishes them at least normatively as a self-described class.

For the rest, more work needs to be done. Our snapshot in time, which is what polling gives you, can describe and help define a social phenomenon. Is this phenomenon growing or shrinking? Only future studies will be able to reveal that.

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