Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 2 Table of Contents
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February-March 2003 

Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit: Part I
Gary C. Gambill

President Bush

Over the last six months, US President George W. Bush has begun introducing a controversial new dimension to American policy in the Arab world - democracy promotion. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 undermined a time-honored assumption in Washington - that outwardly pro-American autocratic governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, can serve as a bulwark against radical Islamist terrorism. The elevation of regime change in Iraq from wishful thinking to national security imperative has been inspired in part by the belief that the rise of a more representative regime in Baghdad (and in the Palestinian territories) will jumpstart democratization across the region. Speaking before the UN General Assembly a day after the one year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Bush looked forward to the day when the people of Iraq "join a democratic Afghanistan and a democratic Palestine, inspiring reforms throughout the Muslim world."[1] Eight days later, he formally unveiled a new National Security Strategy that declared democracy to be "right and true for every person in every society." In February, Bush declared that the "dramatic and inspiring example" of a liberated Iraq will "show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions."[2]

The Bush administration's declared commitment to democratization in Iraq and the Arab world at large has generated a chorus of enthusiastic support from many leading foreign policy experts. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that the goal of regime change in Iraq should be to establish "a progressive Arab regime that by its sheer existence would create pressure and inspiration for gradual democratization and modernization around the region."[3] Michael Ledeen has called for using American "political, moral, and military genius to support a vast democratic revolution to liberate all the peoples of the Middle East from tyranny."[4]

On the other side of the debate, a host of leading experts have challenged the Bush administration's democracy promotion agenda as either overly idealistic or disingenuous (by virtue of the assumption that Republican presidents do not act idealistically). "The notion that Iraq will suddenly emerge as a stable democracy and will change the rest of the Arab world crosses the line between neo-conservative and neo-crazy," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.[5] The underlying objection of most critics was elaborated in an October 2002 policy brief by four democracy specialists at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), who wrote that "the Middle East today lacks the domestic conditions that set the stage for democratic change elsewhere."[6]

This objection was discarded by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in a December 12 speech at the Heritage Foundation: "We reject the condescending notion that freedom will not grow in the Middle East or that there is any region of the world that cannot support democracy."[7]

At first glance, the notion that the Arab world is congenitally unsuited for democracy appears self-evident. As elected governments have proliferated across the globe over the last two decades, the Arab world has stagnated politically. Of the 121 nations classified by Freedom House as electoral democracies in its latest annual report, not one is Arab. In fact, according to the Freedom House criteria, Arab countries are not only strikingly less free than their counterparts elsewhere in the world, but are slightly less so today than they were a quarter of a century ago. During this interim, nowhere in the Arab world has a head of state been removed from office through the ballot box.

However, while this "democracy deficit" has inspired a voluminous body of research by scholars of the Middle East, the contention that democracy has not taken root in the Arab world becuase of unfavorable domestic conditions remains dubious. To be sure, there are plausible explanations for the deficit that attribute the region's uniformly authoritarian political climate to underlying cultural, political and economic factors. But each of the conditions that ostensibly account for ths anamoly are either present to similar degrees in many other countries that have democratized, or are present only in some Arab countries. While each of the explanatory frameworks examined below offers important insights into Arab politics, none of them can be regarded as a sufficient explanation for the persistence of authoritarianism and it is highly questionable whether they can collectively account for this anomaly.

In part, this is a failing of Middle East studies - imaginative and, in some cases, brilliant theorizing is often marred by striking methodological flaws. By and large, however, the empirical record simply doesn't support the any of the arguments below. The only "condition" in the Arab world that has been convincingly linked to the region's lack of democratization is the presence of brutal authoritarian regimes dedicated (both individually and collectively) to preventing it. The fact that underlying conditions in Arab society have not been convincingly shown to have sustained these regimes suggests that the lack of democracy in the region may be primarily attributable to the absence or weakness of external forces that have driven democratization elsewhere (to be addressed in the next installment of this series).

Modernization Theory


Perhaps the most widely researched proposition in political science is the argument that economic development propels societies toward participatory forms of governance. Mass education, for example, is said to produce "a more articulate public that is better equipped to organize and communicate,"[8] while urbanization and communications advances encourage the growth of horizontal civic associations. Higher levels of occupational specialization produce an autonomous workforce with "specialized skills that enhance their bargaining power against elites."[9] Advances in health care and greater income equality are said to promote democratization by satisfying the basic medical needs of citizens, allowing them to embrace post-materialist values, such as freedom and self-expression.

While the validity of these propositions, collectively known as modernization theory, remains the subject of intense debate among political scientists, it is clear that they cannot explain the Arab democratic deficit. Most socio-economic status (SES) indicators in the region are relatively high by Third World standards and have been rising steadily for decades.[10] The only major exception is the Arab world's adult literacy rate, 57% in the mid-1990s, which ranks well below those of East Asia and Latin America and only slightly higher than Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, literacy rates in many Arab states are significantly lower than average relative to per capita income (on this basis, for example, Egypt should have a literacy rate of 70%, rather than 55%). A second, related exception is per capita Internet usage, which is also low, both in comparison to other regions and in relation to per capita income.

Although these indicators appear to correlate somewhat with varying degrees of political liberalization within the Arab world (Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon, where proto-democratic institutions are arguably the strongest, all have literacy rates in excess of 75% and relatively high Internet usage rates), it is doubtful that they are the root of the region's "democracy curse" for two reasons. First, lower levels of both have not blocked transitions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Moreover, there is evidence that low literacy and Internet usage rates are themselves a result of authoritarianism in the Arab world. Although education budgets in the region are very large, much of this allocation is squandered on bloated bureaucracies (itself a symptom of autocratic governance), with little left over for educational materials. In addition, only a few Arab regimes have launched adult literacy campaigns. According to Richards and Waterbury,

In most cases, the explanation seems to be that the government fears the political impact of such campaigns; the young people who will go to the slums and villages to teach may hold more radical political views than the regime. Governments . . . may plausibly fear fostering contact between Islamist students and the large numbers of illiterate adults, many of whom might be sympathetic to the political messages that are usually imparted along with literacy in such campaigns.[11]
Similarly, low rates of Internet usage in the Arab world reflect the fact that most Arab regimes tightly control and censor Internet access. In Syria, for example, it is illegal to access the Internet except through government-controlled servers, and the expansion of government-provided Internet access has been slowed by the need to acquire costly monitoring equipment.[12]

In short, the SES profile of the region does not suggest that Arab states are undemocratic because their populations are economically or socially "backward." Insofar as modernization theory tells us anything about Middle East politics, it is that the region should be more democratic than it is.

Political Culture

The argument that cultural norms substantially condition state-society relations has been prominent in political science since the early 1960s.[13] In scholarship on Middle East politics, the contention that political culture is an inherent obstacle to democratization has long enjoyed pride of place over other explanations. Most scholarship focuses on Islam and primordialism as the key independent variables.


The oldest and most widespread explanation for the absence of democracy in the Arab world posits that the belief system and historical tradition of Islam have inhibited democratization. All principle variants of this argument draw upon the fact that Islam, unlike other major religions, offers explicit prescriptions pertaining to social, economic and political issues, placing them outside the realm of public decision-making. This divine "blueprint," elaborated in a voluminous body of Islamic law (shari'a), is said to inherently undermine the legitimacy of any political system wherein policy decisions are subject to majority rule. Since this conception of divine sovereignty would also appear to undermine the legitimacy of corrupt, despotic rulers, explanations for the persistence of authoritarianism usually involve more precise arguments as to how Islamic culture conditions state-society relations. Most of this literature can be grouped into two distinct and somewhat contradictory lines of reasoning.

Islam and Political Quietism

The first line of reasoning is that Islamic political culture promotes political quietism. According to Bernard Lewis, one of the most prominent proponents of this view, medieval Islamic jurists, seeking to stave off the periodic revolts which marred early Islamic history (or, more plausibly, please the sultans at whose whim they served), decreed that obedience to political rulers, even unjust ones, was a religious duty - hence the famous admonition of Al-Ghazali: "Better one hundred years of the Sultan's tyranny than one year of the people's tyranny over each other." As a result, writes Bernard Lewis, "the political experience of the Middle East under the caliphs and sultans was one of almost unrelieved autocracy, in which obedience to the sovereign was a religious as well as a political obligation, and disobedience a sin as well as a crime."[14]

As a result of this political tradition, quietism is said to have become more or less an article of faith in Islam. Sociologist Morroe Berger writes "the [Arab] villager's apparent happiness stems from his sense of resignation regarding the way things are . . . his acquiescence in what has been ordained by God."[15] The Muslim, according to G. E. von Grunebaum, "deeply feels man's insignificance . . . and the omnipotence of the uncontrollable power above him," and is therefore "more readily prepared than the Westerner to accept the accomplished fact."[16]

Islam and Political Radicalism

When the rise of religious fundamentalist movements throughout the Islamic world during the late 1970s and 1980s appeared to belie the claim that Islam promoted political quietism, a second argument gained currency, positing that Islam inhibits the emergence of democracy by encouraging, rather than eschewing, resistance to political authority. Daniel Pipes contends that Islam, "alone among universalist religions" in endorsing detailed political ideals, has ensured that no government can be viewed as wholly legitimate by sincere Muslims.[17] According to Patricia Crone, early Islamic jurists instilled a hostility to political authority in Islamic law: "Kings were rejected as Pharaohs and priests as golden calves, while God's community was envisioned as an egalitarian one unencumbered by profane or religious structures of power below the Caliph, who was himself assigned the duty of minimal government."[18]

Much of the debate over the validity of these (and related) propositions has centered around the question of whether Islam is less suited to participatory forms of governance than other religions - a scholastic dispute which will not be settled here. Most of these propositions suffer from significant methodological flaws common to nearly all culturalist arguments in political science. However, the most serious problems with the argument that Islam inhibits democratization, whether by making populations politically quiescent or ungovernable, are empirical.

Whatever the impact Islam may have on contemporary political outcomes, it clearly cannot account for the Arab world's democracy deficit. Democratization has progressed significantly in a number of non-Arab Islamic states (e.g. Turkey, Indonesia and even Iran). Indeed, two prominent experts on democracy contend that, "contrary to widely-held belief, most of the world's Muslims already live under democratically elected governments."[19] While this reckoning may take into account that a small minority live in Western democracies, it underscores that the broad uniformity in state-society relations that exists today in the Arab world cannot be attributed solely, or even primarily, to Islamic culture.

To be sure, radical Islamist opposition groups that espouse ideas inimical to democracy[20] are very popular in most Arab countries, but it is by no means clear that this is primarily an outgrowth of culture. The absence of institutionalized channels of political participation always makes it easier for underground radical movements to gain support from disaffected sectors of the populations. Oppression by secular authoritarian regimes naturally enhances the attractiveness of untried Islamist rule as an alternative. It is significant that the one Muslim country in the world where Islamic fundamentalism in on the decline is Iran - where Islamist rule has been tried (and rejected by most of the population) as an alternative.

Moreover, it is not clear that the anti-democratic views and popularity of radical Islamist groups in the Arab world pose a major obstacle to democratization. In the aftermath of World War II, most European countries had Marxist-Leninist parties that espoused an ideology fundamentally opposed to liberal democratic ideals and commanded the loyalty of a substantial portion of the electorate. By and large, these parties abided by the rules of democracy, even after repeated failures to win majorities in elections.

Even the argument that radical Islamic groups inhibit democracy by providing authoritarian governments with a pretext to rule with an iron fist is questionable. Variation in the political and military strength of Islamist groups, both between and within countries over time, does not appear to correlate closely with the level of political and civil liberties permitted by Arab governments.[21]


A second category of cultural explanations attributes the persistence of authoritarianism in the Arab world to the continuing saliency of extended kinship ties. The most plausible rendition of this argument is discussed below, but one particularly unconvincing version is first worthy of mention because it appeared in a widely-cited (and otherwise insightful) article written in response to the Bush administration's democracy initiative. Adam Garfinkle argues that "the Arab regards as destructive to community" the freewheeling clash of political views characteristic of Western democracy, a trait that he attributes to the region's tribal legacy: "For thousands of years," he writes, "Middle Easterners lived in villages of several dozen to perhaps a few hundred people whose organizing principle was usually that of clan or tribe . . . where the dangers posed by other tribes, and the prospect of natural disaster and epidemic disease were very real. This put a premium on preventing serious rifts within village society." The Middle East, of course, was far more urbanized than Europe for most of recorded history (well into the 15th century, Baghdad and Cairo had nearly three times the population of Europe's largest city), but even more puzzling than this historical error is his unsubstantiated observation that "when [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak or [Syrian President] Bashar Assad wins 95% of the vote in an election - which we usually interpret as an empty act of egomaniacal perversity - it does not strike a typical Egyptian or Syrian as odd."[22]

In any event, kinship ties are politically relevant throughout the Arab world - specific families or clans directly control eight of the twenty-one Arab states,[23] and monopolize political power in several others.[24] Moreover, as James Bill and Robert Springborg note in a highly influential textbook on Middle East politics, formal associations often exist as "extraneous facades or general structures" within which real power is exercised by "particular individuals and kinship structures."[25] Politics is a family business in most Arab countries.

However, while it is clear that tribal solidarity tends to coincide with weak horizontal social networks, this alone is not evidence that the former produces the latter. The proposition that tribalism is a principle cause of weak civil society institutions and the lack of democratization is plausible only if it can be shown that tribal solidarities remain strong independently of whether political conditions are conducive to the formation of cross-cutting social ties. However, the contention that primordial solidarities remain salient in the face of sweeping socio-economic change because of innate cultural orientations seems implausible.

A number of scholars argue that the saliency of primordial loyalties in the Arab world stems less from inherent cultural predisposition than from the oppressive conditions of authoritarian rule. Sociologist Halim Barakat points out that most Arab governments have deliberately "cultivated religious, sectarian, and tribal orientations" in order to legitimize their authority.[26] More importantly, according to Barakat, government suppression of autonomous civic associations has forced citizens to rely on primordial affiliations to articulate their interests: "The destruction of those modern institutions that exist outside the framework of full state control (such as secular political parties, labor unions, popular movements, and voluntary associations) has left the people with very limited options except to seek refuge in their traditional institutions (that is, religion, sect, tribe, family, ethnicity) to express their discontent."[27]

Other scholars have demonstrated that the failure of most Arab governments to achieve sustainable economic growth and provide adequate social services has reinforced primordial ties. Since the Arab state has not met the challenge of economic development, "society has resorted to its prenatal ties as a solution."[28] Thus, as a result of government oppression and economic mismanagement in the Arab world, modernization has reified, rather than weakened, primordial identities, and has inhibited the development of crosscutting allegiances.[29]

Apart from the specific weaknesses of arguments attributing authoritarianism to Arab religious beliefs and kinship ties , the idea that culture is the root cause of the region's democracy deficit is undermined by the poor track record of cultural explanations in explaining cross-country political trends in other regions. The contention that norms of hierarchical authority and group solidarity in the Confucian tradition are inherently conducive to authoritarianism has recently been belied by democratization in South Korea and Taiwan. Until the late 1970s, the failure of democracy to take root in Latin America, Spain and Portugal was often attributed to Catholicism, but the last twenty years have completely overturned this claim. In Africa, primordial kinship and religious ties are said to seriously undermine loyalty to the state,[30] yet democratization in this region far surpasses that of the Arab world.

Political Economy

A third category of explanations for the Arab democracy deficit focuses on structural aspects of economic development and their impact on state-society relations in the region.

Fluid Class Structure

A large body of literature attributes authoritarianism to the fluid class structure of Arab society. The most widely cited "irregularity" in this class structure is the absence of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie of the kind that brought about political liberalization in Europe. Tight control over urban markets and guilds by medieval and Ottoman sultans is said to have obstructed the emergence of a commercial bourgeoisie, while the fact that private property rights were not recognized until the nineteenth century obstructed the rise of an agrarian bourgeoisie.[31] Some have attributed the weakness of the urban commercial classes to European economic and political penetration of the region.[32] This fragmented class structure precipitated the rise of highly interventionist states in the Arab world (with the exception of Lebanon). Under such conditions, "states assume entrepreneurial functions, giving birth to technocratic, managerial and technical groupings that do not owe their existence to private property."[33] As land reform and nationalization further marginalized private sector elites, economic activity became dominated by a new "bureau-technocratic elite" or "state bourgeoisie" that came "to achieve an inordinate importance as a social base of state power and to occupy a strategic field in the economy and politics of their countries."[34] According to Simon Bromley, a fundamental precondition for democracy is a substantial degree of separation between the "institutions of rule" and the "mechanisms of domestic surplus appropriation," in the absence of which "the dominant class has a direct material stake in opposing democratic control of the state."[35]

However, colonialism has not condemned other regions of the world to perpetual autocratic rule. Fluid class structure and the deep involvement of the state in economic affairs may well have inhibited the evolution of participatory political institutions in the Arab world by "crowding out" the bourgeoisie, but this state of affairs once prevailed throughout much of the developing world.[36] Outside of the Middle East, however, this state of affairs did not last. Beginning with the debt crisis that hit the developing world in the early 1980s, economic stagnation eroded the ability of Third World statist regimes to maintain the continued support of elite coalitions and/or key sectors of the population at large and forced them to liberalize their economies as a means of attracting foreign investment and debt relief loans from the international community.

Although the precise relationship between economic liberalization and political liberalization is debatable, it is clear that free market reforms have generally increased the bargaining power of private sector elites hitherto excluded from the decision-making process. However, the development of relatively liberal economies in some Arab states does not appear to have produced much of a democratic "spillover," even when there is a large middle class. In Egypt, notes Roger Owen, businessmen "are more concerned to use their government contacts to protect themselves individually against bureaucratic interference or inertia rather than as a way of lobbying for major innovations" in government policy."[37] Even businessmen who are not dependent on state contracts or protection find it difficult to coordinate. Many Arab states deliberately make it virtually impossible for businesses to operate without violating certain laws, which are selectively enforced to punish those who organize autonomously. The Syrian government, for example, frequently used currency laws, "which most businessmen cannot avoid circumventing and which generally are not enforced," to punish merchants.[38]

The Rentier State

Perhaps the most significant contribution to political science by Middle East area specialists is the concept of the rentier state.[39] This term, originally coined by early twentieth century economists to describe European states that extended loans to governments in the underdeveloped world, was revived in a 1970 study of Iran by Hussein Mahdavy to denote a state that receives large amounts of rent from "foreign individuals, concerns or governments."[40] Hazem Beblawi later refined the term to mean a state in which large amounts of rent accrue directly to the government from foreign actors and "only a few are engaged in the generation of this wealth, the majority being involved only in the distribution or utilization of it."[41]

The Arab gulf states and Libya are rentier states par excellance - not only are citizens not obliged to make a substantial financial contribution to the state, but most are dependent, either directly or indirectly, on government expenditures. The wealth of citizens is primarily derived not from their own productive activity, but from the state. Although only in the above-mentioned "petrocracies" is the preponderance of government revenue derived from oil, petroleum exports are a significant source of foreign exchange earnings in Egypt, Algeria and Syria.

Some Middle East specialists have argued that oil rents are "recycled" to poorer Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, through remittances from workers living in the Gulf, generating a similar political dynamic. Unlike oil revenue, however, worker remittances do not accrue directly to the state, but flow into the private sector. Like any other private sector financial flow, the state can tax this money, but this would be expected to generate the same demands for accountability as any other form of direct taxation. Oil remittances should not, according to the logic of rentier state theory, inhibit democratization - indeed, they should empower citizens vis-a-vis the state. A number of scholars have argued that democratization in the Arab world has also been impeded by infusion of "strategic rent" from foreign powers, in the form of economic and military aid, debt write-offs, low conditionality loans, etc. According to Lisa Anderson, the desire to "draw resources from the international system" virtually overrides all other concerns in the foreign policies of some Arab states."[42]

While exogenous rent has undoubtedly played a role in the persistence of authoritarianism in some Arab states, the contention that it accounts for the enormous "democracy gap" between the Middle East and other regions of the world is disputable on several grounds. First, while case studies of oil exporting states,[43] as well as a rigorous quantitative test by Michael L. Ross,[44] strongly suggest that abundant petroleum revenues do impede democratization, there is also evidence that this impact varies according to other social, political and economic factors. According to some studies of Iran's 1979 revolution, oil wealth undermined the stability of the Shah's regime by fueling rapid socio-economic change.[45] In Venezuela, oil revenue constitutes around 52% of the government income and tax revenue has steadily declined for 30 years,[46] yet the state is not congenitally undemocratic. In fact, some have argued that oil wealth contributed to democratization in Venezuela.[47] Heavy government dependence on oil revenue is not unique to the Middle East, yet there are no "petrocracies" outside of the Arab world.

Second, exogenous rent has not produced a significantly lower tax burden in the Arab world. While tax rates in Arab countries are lower than those in developed nations, the Arab world is not under-taxed relative to other areas of the developing world. In fact, it is the most heavily taxed. During the period from 1975-1985, tax revenue as a percentage of GNP averaged 25% in the Middle East, compared to 12% in Latin America.[48] Although most of this taxation has been indirect (e.g. tariffs, sales tax, etc.), this is not in itself surprising - autocratic governments are generally poor at raising direct taxes, since their collection requires widespread voluntary compliance by citizens and an efficient bureaucracy.

Third, steep declines in the flow of exogenous rent into the region have not decisively undermined authoritarian political institutions in the region. Oil rents have declined considerably since the early 1980s and, apart from Egypt and Jordan, Arab states have received lower amounts of strategic rent since the end of the Cold War. Although investment shortfalls generated by this decline led Arab governments to court the private sector and pursue a limited wave of political liberalization, these openings proved to be fleeting and a wave of "deliberalization" soon followed. Had exogenous rent been a central foundation of authoritarian governance in the Arab world, democratization would have advanced much further than it has.

Other "Internal" Explanations

In addition to these three main "schools" of thinking, a variety of other arguments attributing the Arab democratic deficit to underlying domestic conditions are worthy of mention. Some studies have focused on ethnic and sectarian diversity as the key explanatory variable. Although many of these blend in political culture arguments (with regard to specific subnational identities), in its most pristine form this argument attributes authoritarianism not to a cultural orientation, but to a structural feature of the Arab world - the multiplicity of racial, linguistic, and sectarian fissures. There is no question that such diversity poses a special challenge to democratization in the absence of a strong overriding national identity, but ethno-sectarian diversity in the Arab world as a whole is comparable to that in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. While it is true that relatively homogenous Arab states, such as Egypt and Tunisia, have escaped the legacy of internal strife experienced by Lebanon and Iraq, they have not been able even to approach the threshold of democratic transition. Differing degrees of heterogeneity in the region may account for variation in the nature and oppressiveness of authoritarianism within the region, but they cannot explain the democracy deficit.

The Arab world's lack of previous experience with democracy is another ailment commonly said to make democracy promotion difficult. While countries that have had a democratic system in the past are clearly better suited to successfully democratize in the present (e.g. central Europe), this has hardly been a prerequisite for democratization - indeed, at some point or another, all of the world's 121 electoral democracies evolved from non-democratic systems of government (unless they were born democracies). Moreover, the Arab world is not starting from scratch - apart from a handful of oil-rich monarchies, autocratic regimes in the Middle East have paid considerable lip service to democracy. Citizens of Arab states are much more familiar with political parties and elections (albeit sham elections) than were Eastern Europeans at the end of the Cold War. Democracy has become enshrined as a principle of political legitimacy in the region - it simply hasn't been practiced.

The security climate in the Arab world is also said to be a decisive factor inhibiting democratization,[49] at least in the frontline states bordering Israel. According to this reasoning, bloated armies and oversized internal security forces strengthen the state vis--vis society, while external threats provide a pretext to clamp down on dissent in the name of national security (though the CEIP report's claim that the Arab-Israeli conflict creates "a measure of solidarity between Arab leaders and their citizens" has hardly been the case.[50]). However, the existence of major external security threats has not blocked democratization in countries such as India, South Korea, and Taiwan, which have powerful military establishments and face external security threats comparable to the frontline Arab states.[51] In fact, it has been argued that security threats have actually fueled democratization in some cases. The advent of democracy in Taiwan was, according to one scholar, most likely permitted by the dictatorship to "mobilize international support against the threat from China." [52]

A related factor is the absence of what the CEIP report calls a positive "neighborhood effect" - peer pressure, so to speak. Whereas democratizing Latin American countries have collectively imposed sanctions on those who leave the flock, Arab states have intervened in each other's affairs to derail liberalizing experiments (e.g. Saudi support for southern Marxists in the 1994 Yemeni civil war). But this suggests that that outside intervention can get the ball rolling by, say, imposing a representative government in Iraq committed to political liberalization.

Looking Outside the Box

In short, the major problem with conventional explanations for the lack of democratization in the Arab world is that none of the independent variables examined above are unique to the region and most vary greatly within it - they are either present to a similar degree among democratizing states outside of the Middle East or, in the case of oil revenue, present only in some Arab countries.

Since endogenous cultural and economic conditions in the Arab world cannot account for its highly anomalous pattern of modern political development, it is important to consider whether exogenous factors have played a role. In order to determine whether external conditions can account for the discrepancy, one must first establish whether governments in the Arab world have faced external conditions relevant to democratization which differ significantly from those faced by their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Part II of this study, to be published in the March 2002 issue of MEIB, will examine this question.


[1] George W. Bush, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, 12 September 2002.
[2] President George W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 20 September 2002; President Discusses the Future of Iraq, 26 February 2003.
[3] New York Times, 18 September 2002.
[4] Wall Street Journal, 4 September 2002.
[5] USA Today, 11 November 2002.
[6] Marina Ottaway, Thomas Carothers, Amy Hawthorne, Daniel Brumberg, "Democratic Mirage in the Middle East," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Brief 20, October 2002, p. 3. download in pdf format
[7] Colin L. Powell, The US-Middle East Partnership Initiative: Building Hope for the Years Ahead, Heritage Lecture #772, 12 December 2002.
[9] Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 163.
[10] See Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East, 2nd Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998).
[11] Ibid., p. 120.
[12] See Gary C. Gambill, Bashar's Controlled Experiment with the Internet, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, September 2000.
[13] The seminal works in this area were Gabriel A. Almond and James S. Coleman, The Politics of the Developing Areas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), and Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).
[14] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East and the West (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), p.48.
[15] Morroe Berger, The Arab World Today (New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 156-157.
[16] G.E. von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961), p. 70.
[17] Daniel Pipes, Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 62, 70. See critique in Yahya Sadowski, "The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate," Middle East Report 183 (1993).
[18] Patricia Crone, Slaves on Horses: The Evolution of the Islamic Polity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 62-63.
[19] John Richardson And Richard C. Rowson, "Back civic education worldwide; For democracy," International Herald Tribune, 6 December 2002.
[20] Indeed, even after winning the first round of Algeria's parliamentary elections, leaders of the FIS were unwilling to unequivocally state that they would hold future elections upon assuming control of the Algerian government.
[21] For example, the outbreak of Islamist violence in Egypt during the early 1990's, which sparked the government's rollback of democratic reforms, was largely suppressed by the end of 1995, but political de-liberalization in Egypt continued.
[22] Adam Garfinkle, "The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy," The National Interest, Fall 2002.
[23] Saudi Arabia is ruled by the Al-Saud family; Kuwait by the Al-Sabah family; Bahrain by the Al-Khalifa family; Qatar by the Al-Thani family, Oman by the Al-Abu Said family. The United Arab Emirates is ruled by a collection of families, such as the Al-Nihian (Abu Dhabi), Al-Maktum (Dubai), and Al-Qassimi (Shariqah). Jordan and Morocco have been ruled by dynasties dating back to 1920 and 1664, respectively.
[24] For instance, the Iraqi regime is dominated by Saddam Hussein's Takriti clan; Syria is dominated by the Assad family.
[25] James A. Bill and Robert Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Glenview IL: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown, 1990), p. 88.
[26] Barakat (1993), p. 274.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Bassam Tibi, "The Simultaneity of the Unsimultaneous: Old Tribes and Imposed Nation-States in the Modern Middle East," in Philip Khoury and Joseph Kostiner, eds., Tribes and State Formation in the Modern Middle East (Berkely: University of California Press, 1990), p. 149.
[29] See Milton Esman, "Ethnic Politics: How Unique is the Middle East?" in Milton Esman and Itamar Rabinovich, eds., Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).
[30] See Goran Hyden, No Shortcuts to Progress: African Development Management in Perspective (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983).
[31] See Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London, New Left Books, 1979), pp. 361-377.
[32] See Samir Amin, The Arab Nation and Class Struggle (London: Zed Books, 1982).
[33] See Dale L. Johnson, "Class and Social Development: Toward a Comparative and Historical Social Science," in Dale L. Johnson, ed., Middle Classes in Dependent Countries (London: Sage Publications, 1985), pp. 14-17.
[34] Nazih Ayubi, Overstating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995), pp. 177.
[35] Simon Bromley. Rethinking Middle East Politics (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), p. 165.
[36] Indeed, Bromley himself claims that broad separation between political and economic power is specific to "the advanced capitalist world." Ibid., p. 186.
[37] Roger Owen, "Socio-economic Change and Political Mobilization: the Case of Egypt," in Ghassan Salame, ed., Democracy without Democrats: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1994), p. 192. According to Owen, an independent stratum of businessmen and entrepreneurs is likely to challenge the regime "only if the legal system protecting private property and private economic activity were enormously improved." (p.194)
[38] Raymond A. Hinnebusch, "State, Civil Society, and Political Change in Syria," in Augustus Richard Norton (ed.), Civil Society in the Middle East, Vol. 1 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), p. 232.
[39] Although the term rentier state is most prevalent in contemporary usage, an array of synonymous expressions have been employed by scholars, such as allocation state, distributory state and circulatory state.
[40] Hussein Mahdavy, "The Patterns and Problems of Economic Development in Rentier States: The Case of Iran," in M.A. Cook, ed., Studies in Economic History of the Middle East (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 428.
[41] Hazem Beblawi, "The Rentier State in the Arab World," in Hazem Beblawi and Giacomo Luciani, eds., The Rentier State (New York: Croom Helm, 1987), p. 51.
[42] See Lisa Anderson, "Peace and Democracy in the Middle East: The Constraints of Soft Budgets," Journal of International Affairs 49, 1 (Summer 1995).
[43] See Jill Crystal, Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Mordechai Abir, Saudi Arabia in the Oil Era: Regime and Elites; Conflict and Collaboration (London: Croom Helm, 1988); Dirk Vandewalle, Libya since Independence: Oil and State-Building (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univesity Press, 1998).
[44] Michael L. Ross, "Does Oil Hinder Democracy?" World Politics 53:3 (2001).
[45] See Theda Skocpol, "Rentier State and Shi'a Islam in the Iranian Revolution," Theory and Society 11 (1982); Afsaneh Najmabadi, "Iran's Turn to Islam: From Modernism to Moral Order," Middle East Journal 41,2 (Spring 1987).
[46] Petroleum World, 13 March 2002.
[47] Terry Lynn Karl, "Petroleum and Political Pacts: The Transition to Democracy in Venezuela," Latin American Research Review Vol. 22, No. 1 (1987).
[48] World Bank figures, cited in John Waterbury, "Democracy without Democrats?: The Potential for Political Liberalization in the Middle East," in Ghassan Salame (ed.), Democracy without Democrats: The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World (London: I.B. Tauris, 1994), p. 29.
[49] For that matter, so too is physical climate, but this varies sharply within the region. Wittfogel's concept of the "hydraulic civilization," for example, is consistent with the rise of autocratic institutions in Egypt and Iraq, and studies of the impact of aridity on political development may shed some light on authoritarianism in the Arabian peninsula, but climate cannot explain the absence of democracy throughout the region. (See Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957; Manus I. Midlarsky, "Environmental Influences on Democracy: Aridity, Warfare, and a Reversal of the Causal Arrow," The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 39, No. 2. (Jun., 1995), pp. 224-262.)
[50] Ottaway et. al., p. 4.
[51] This comparison to India and South Korea is made by John Waterbury, "Democracy without Democrats?: The Potential for Political Liberalization in the Middle East," in Salame (1994), p. 27.
[52] Przeworski, et al., p. ???

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