The Problem of Democracy in the Middle East Part 2

By | November 8, 2021

4: Authoritarian developing states

Most republics in the Middle East are characterized by decades of nationalist and socialist state-driven development. In the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionary leaders came to power through military coups with promises of “liberation from colonial rule” and economic progress. The leaders initiated large-scale state-run modernization programs that in the short term provided industrial development, mass education, welfare development and greater female participation in working life. They claimed to act on behalf of the people and formally established democratic institutions. However, the real impact from below was minimal.

According to clothesbliss, the leaders had taken power under very tense conditions and feared counter-coups and interventions from outside. As they saw it, progress was threatened by “reactionary forces” that would exploit internal divisions to reintroduce colonialist and feudal control. To protect the nation from this, the leaders subjected society to close state control . The officers imposed restrictions on the right of association and assembly, censored the press and suppressed political opponents. Civil society activities such as party politics, trade union work and the like were only allowed to take place in strictly regulated forms. In many cases, the rulers also introduced martial law, which gave the secret police the authority to imprison people without trial, with reference to “the security of the kingdom.”

In recent decades, most republics in the Middle East have abandoned the state-driven development model and opened up to a degree of pluralism. However, the legacy of the authoritarian modernization phase continues to complicate democratization. A first problem is that the “formative years” brought the military into politics. The revolutionary leaders had their background in the military apparatus and used the army as their most important instrument of power. The long-term consequence is high military spending and an overabundance of military officers in positions of power. In many cases, the officers are even leading economic actors.

5: Oil-driven modernization

In the monarchies, the pattern of development was somewhat different because revolutionary anti-imperialist nationalists never seized power through military coups. The monarchs played to a greater extent on teams with traditional elites, defending socialism and maintaining a better relationship with the West. The population’s influence on political decisions did not increase for that reason. Unlike the republics, the monarchies did not claim to be a people’s government and for a long time had no parliaments, political parties or elections. The region’s kings, emirates, sultans and sheikhs rather legitimized themselves to rule in line with Islam and tradition. Also in the monarchies, however, the state took a leading role in ensuring economic development. Especially in the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula, the state apparatus grew at a rapid pace.

The Middle East – especially Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the Emirates – has the world’s largest oil and gas reserves with close to 2/3 of the world’s known oil reserves and approx. 40% of the gas reserves. In countries with such large state-controlled natural resources, the balance of power between state and society becomes extra unbalanced . The reason is that the state has a source of income that does not come from the work of the population, but from the sale of oil or gas to the world market. The state becomes largely financially independent of society, with the result that the citizens lose the opportunity to use economic means of pressure against the rulers in the struggle for democracy.

The monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula have also established generous welfare schemes for their citizens as “substitutes” for political influence. Citizens of the Arab Peninsula monarchies do not pay taxes to the government, but enjoy free health care and education and heavily subsidized commodities such as water, food, housing, fuel and electricity. The rulers’ “gifts” are meant to convince the people that their rule is for the good of the nation. Those who rebel risk losing access to the goods. The individual citizen thus has personal financial incentives to refrain from criticizing the regime.

The oil deposits in the Middle East have also given Western powers great interest in regime stability in the area. The British were the first to see politics in the Middle East through this lens, but after World War II, the United States has emerged as the foremost “oil well protector”. The great powers often disregard the abuse of power against the population as long as the rulers ensure the free flow of oil to the West. The United States’ long-standing strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia has never been linked to democracy or human rights issues. In Iran, in 1953, the United States and Britain punctured one of the Middle East’s most promising democratic movements by carrying out a coup against the elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq. The Prime Minister’s “crime” was to have nationalized the country’s oil reserves. The wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 were also significantly motivated by oil interests.

6: Prospects for democratization?

The problem of democracy in the Middle East, as we have seen, is rooted in an unbalanced balance of power between the state and society. The pattern of modernization in the region has not provided the inhabitants with the means to force the rulers to share their power. Many hoped that this would change when privatization and economic liberalization from the 1970s took over the Middle East. In the absence of openness, independent courts and democratic control, however, rulers have used the transition to capitalism to strengthen their private networks. The leaders’ relatives and loyal supporters have gained special advantages in the liberalized economy, which has prevented the emergence of an economic “counterpower”. If we add that the regimes have large police and military forces, heavy intelligence and most often external support, authoritarianism seems to be strong in the region.

However, the differences from country to country are large. Positive development trends in some cases allow for cautious optimism. Next to Israel, Turkey is the country in the Middle East that has come the furthest in the direction of democratic practice. The absence of oil, a strong private sector, EU adaptation and a well-established ideological project have helped Turkey in the process. In neighboring Iran, an active and resourceful civil society offers hope for democracy development in the long run, and in Morocco, political and civil rights have been increasing in recent years. Kuwait, like Lebanon, has a well-established parliamentary practice, and in Bahrain and Qatar, leaders have introduced assemblies, elections and women’s suffrage. Much remains to be done before these states can be classified as democracies, but should the framework conditions for authoritarianism change, much can happen.

The Problem of Democracy in the Middle East 2