Here to stay – Authoritarianism in the Middle East

Civic Action01 Apr 2009Gerd Junne

Expectations were high that authoritarian regimes would not survive the expansion of capitalism. However, in the Middle East there are strong currents that underpin authoritarianism. Trying to impose democracy from the outside will not help. Only changes in economic structures will show results in the long term.

How long can authoritarian regimes survive in a capitalist world? At the end of the Cold War, when socialism crumbled, expectations were high. With the expansion of capitalism to Russia and China, these countries would soon become democracies as well. But in China, the communists have remained in power despite the buoyant capitalist economy, and in Russia under Vladimir Putin the regime has become increasingly autocratic. These two countries have given rise to speculations about an ‘autocratic revival’. Some observers see successful autocracies as not only compatible with capitalism, but even as a rival form of capitalism, while others maintain that ‘ultimately, autocracies will move toward liberalism’.

The discussion has so far focused on the ‘great powers’ Russia and China, but is also relevant for autocratic regimes elsewhere. In some parts of the world, especially the Middle East, there is not so much question of a revival of autocratic regimes. Autocratic regimes have coexisted there with a capitalist economy for half a century or more. And there are some structural factors that help maintain autocratic regimes in the Middle East. Without a good understanding of these factors, any steps to support democratization may be taken in the wrong direction.

In Authoritarianism in the Middle East, Marsha Pripstein Posusney and Michelle Penner Angrist take the reader on ‘a sobering but instructive tour of regime dynamics in the Middle East’. They and other authors have provided much information about the sometimes ingenious regulations that favour incumbents in elections, rigged elections, and the selective co-optation of opponents. Such descriptions of ‘domestic means of authoritarian regime maintenance’ may be relevant, but they do not adequately highlight the structural aspects that ensure the continuation of authoritarian rule.

This article discusses six interrelated factors that serve to underpin authoritarianism in the Middle East. It is an uncomfortable fact that authoritarianism in the region seems over-determined – in other words, even if one of these factors is removed, authoritarianism will still prevail. These six factors are oil (and related) rents, international competition, structural heterogeneity, outside threats, patrimonial networks, and cultural factors.

Income from oil

What is true for Iran is probably also true for many other regimes in the region. The reason why they have proved so successful, according to Roger Howard, is that ‘they have the spare cash to do so, and nearly all of this comes from the proceeds of the sale of just one commodity – oil’. This income made it possible to buy off dissent, ‘to alleviate painful economic pressures’ by large-scale subsidies, ‘to compensate for a lack of social freedom’, and to expand ‘security services to crush any dissent well before it becomes a threat’.

Taking a much broader regional and historical perspective, Isam Al-Khafaji has described how oil rents have led to a form of state interventionism that has stifled industrial development. Oil prices have fallen as a result of the financial crisis, but they are likely to rise again in the future. High oil prices obviously increase the power of those regimes that receive such incomes, but they also generate high expectations, which could result in crises if those expectations are not met. The sudden oil price hike in 2007–2008 was too short-lived to create patterns of expenditure that had to be maintained.

The reliance on oil income – and the ability to finance imports – creates other problems. In particular, oil production for export generates few jobs. Youth unemployment rates in Arab countries are among the highest in the world, averaging about 25%, according to the Arab Labour Organization. As the numbers of youth continue to grow, this could represent a ticking time bomb for the future.

Arab regimes have created all kinds of welfare organizations to soften such problems, but they often differentiate between national citizens and foreigners. In some countries, nationals enjoy some security even if they do not work, while much of the work is done by less privileged foreign migrant workers. The internal tensions arising from the presence of migrants, and their lack of civic rights, is another potential time bomb, and again legitimizes to some extent autocratic rule to keep these tensions under control.

But what would happen if the present economic crisis sparks efforts to ‘green’ the global economy and reduce the demand for fossil fuel? Would that mean the end of autocratic regimes in the Middle East? Or would the structures created with the oil income in the recent past ensure continuing support for such regimes?

International competition

The later a country industrializes, the more state intervention is necessary to make this possible in the face of stiff international competition. The fact that in the past oil money has contributed to the build-up of industries that probably could not survive in a free international market, makes state intervention necessary, even if the regime changes. But at the same time, state subsidies do not usually make enterprises more competitive in the long run, and so the need for state subsidies tends to continue.

Even if a new regime were democratic, it would still have to protect the national economy. Democracy and free trade on the one hand, and autocracy and protectionism on the other, do not necessarily go together. As the experiences with import substitution in the 1960s have shown, providing continuous protection of the national economy in a liberal world order requires a degree of control that would hardly be compatible with a fully democratic system. An autocratic regime leads to an economy run by cronies who will not make it more competitive, and an uncompetitive economy needs protection by a regime that controls the flows of goods, people money and ideas.

Structural heterogeneity

Autocratic governments are not only a reflection of international inequality, which creates demand for protection against more competitive economies abroad. It is also the internal inequality and diversity that give rise to authoritarianism. Within countries in the Middle East there are several different modes of production. Some people live in traditional ways that have remained unchanged for centuries, while others live in a hyper-modern world. The different mental frameworks that go with these different forms of production can make it difficult to find mutually acceptable compromises. Much was written in the 1960s and 1970s about ‘structural heterogeneity’, especially in Latin America, and some could still be relevant for a region like the Middle East.


According to the liberal narrative, diversity leads to democracy. As noted by Deudney and Ikenberry, however, ‘modern industrial societies are marked by an explosion of complexity and the emergence of specialized activities and occupations, thus producing a plural polity rather than a mass polity. The increasing diversity of socioeconomic interests leads to demands for competitive elections between multiple parties’. But the complexity of society can be so great that there are few common denominators. As a result, the losers of competitive elections would not peacefully accept the outcome, but contest it through armed struggle.

In the Middle East, not only do traditional and modern ways of life coexist, but there are numerous other cleavages – between Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, Shiite and Sunni, religious and secular movements, pan-Arab groups and nationalists, conservatives and liberals, as well as between regions. They may have lived together peacefully in the past, but in a situation in which such groups (such as Shiite and Sunni Muslims) collide on a global or regional scale, dormant identities are redefined, acquire new importance, and are used to mobilize groups in violent conflicts. Authoritarian regimes then use the possibility that conflict could happen to legitimize their control over such mobilization.

The recent experiences in Lebanon and Iraq demonstrate to neighbouring countries the violence that can ensue if competition among different groups is not controlled. Many people may not like their government, but they still prefer it to the chaos and violence that would probably occur in countries like Syria or Saudi Arabia if their regimes were to fall. The relative certainty and physical security that an autocratic government offers may, despite the suppression, be preferred to uncertain freedom and the danger of violence (and physical destruction). In such a situation many people behave as if they support the regime.

Outside threats

In the official rhetoric, threats are presented as coming from the outside rather than inside. External threats are used to fuel nationalism, which is then used to enforce internal allegiance. Opposition groups are discredited as foreign agents. Faced with external threats, real or perceived, societies have always entrusted more responsibility to their leaders. Outside threats thus often determine internal politics. Outside threats can be real or fabricated (or a mixture of both). In the Middle East, with the existence of Israel, the massive US intervention in the region, and the general perception of an adversarial West, the threat from the outside is easily invoked. With the demand for oil still rising, outside interest in the region will continue, and so will outside interference. The possibility of such interference justifies high military expenditures, and the armed forces usually form patrimonial networks that support autocratic rule, although not necessarily a specific autocratic ruler.

Patrimonial networks

The income from oil has financed old and new patrimonial structures that determine people’s life chances to a large degree. Most of the networks that depend in some way on the regime would not benefit from regime change. Religious foundations in Iran, for example, are estimated to account for 35% of total GNP, and control about 40% of the non-oil sector of the economy. Thus, rather than looking only at state income (oil revenues), it is also necessary to examine state expenditures on patronage and material co-optation. These apply not only to the army, but also to the large middle-class employed by the state, as well as the intellectuals and the entrepreneurs who benefit from the expenditures of these groups.

Patrimonial networks are an important aspect of culture. They are typical not only of state-financed structures and private enterprises, but also of civil society organizations. Leadership is highly personalized and largely unquestioned. In a society in which all kinds of organizations form autocratic structures, it is unrealistic to expect that politics would be organized otherwise.

Cultural traditions

A directly related aspect of culture can be seen in patriarchal family structures, which frame expectations with regard to leadership from early childhood on. Fred Lawson warns against cultural explanations of authoritarianism, since concepts like ‘patriarchy’ are quite vague. Family structures are changing quickly in the Middle East and are becoming similar to those in the West. But there is one indirect impact of culture and its perception that is still relevant.

Patriarchal family structures survive in (usually faith-based) societies where there are large families, relatively large numbers of children, and where there is usually a male heir. Recently, family size in the Middle East has declined quickly, albeit at different rates in different countries, to the extent that family structures in Iran are no longer so very different from those in France. Smaller families, with a greater chance of a female heir and fewer household chores may lead to more equal rights for men and women. While some expect that this would undermine autocratic rule, this may not necessarily be the case (although Muslim women tend to be more supportive of democracy than men).

An often heard argument is that Islam would not be compatible with democracy. However, a recent analysis of Muslim attitudes to democracy in 32 countries has shown that ‘personal experience and perceived benefits of democratization play an important role in shaping’ these attitudes, and that ‘Islam is [only] one of many environmental factors shaping attitudes about democracy’. ‘Islam is widely known to be more pluralistic than many other religions.’ Many texts from the Quran mean different things to different people. ‘[I]n most cases the balance of political power in a society determines the outcome of any religious debate’. The causality may thus run in the opposite direction – Islam does not preclude democracy; it is the political regime that determines whether or not a specific (democracy averse) interpretation of Islam prevails.

The causality between cultural tradition and the maintenance of autocratic governments is probably much more indirect than is often thought. Many opposition Islamist groups in Middle Eastern countries belong to the most fervent supporters of democracy. The fact that these are Islamic groups, however, reduces Western enthusiasm to press for more democracy in the region, because it might bring more explicitly Islamic parties and movements to power – as is feared in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Palestine.

The continued Western support to non-democratic governments makes Western calls for democracy in the region less credible. Outside interventions that have been legitimized as contributing to ‘democratizing the Middle East’ have also given ‘Western-style democracy’ a bad image. ‘Western democracy’ is not so much understood as power held by the people, but as power held by traditional classes maintained in power (against the people) by foreign countries. ‘Liberal democracy’ does not have the same connotation as it does in Western countries. Inconsistencies in the Western approach to democratization thus lend some legitimacy to autocratic rulers.

Consequences for democratization

What, then, are the implications of these factors for policies to support democracy in the Middle East?

It would probably be helpful to start with some reflection on why past efforts have been largely unsuccessful – and may have had negative consequences in the form of a shady image of the notion of ‘democracy’ itself. A second step would be to open up to Islamic organizations, instead of assuming that their enthusiasm for democratic rule will vanish as soon as they are in power. A third step would be to strive for peace in the region. Any success in bringing more peaceful relations would also strengthen the chances of democratic development (but not necessarily vice versa).

The structural economic basis of autocratic regimes would have to be addressed. That would imply support for policies of diversification to make economies (and governments) less dependent on the income from oil, and more on local production. International cooperation could help to improve competitiveness in non-oil sectors, although this would not always be welcome to the competitors. Such efforts would certainly also be criticized for supporting existing regimes.

As well as addressing international imbalances, the policies should aim to reduce horizontal inequalities within countries by improving opportunities for development in neglected regions that often provide the power base of autocratic rulers. Another aspect might be support to the development of social security systems, which might help to free people from their dependence on patrimonial networks.

What could be the role of civil society, and of external civil society support? The more structural the factors that maintain an autocratic regime, the more limited the role of civil society probably is likely to be. One important role that remains, of course, is fighting extreme forms of power abuse and suppression. While the creation of independent civil society networks will probably be difficult, more cooperation with existing (often religious) organizations may be possible. Direct outside support may be seen as (and perhaps is!) outside interference. But genuine cooperation that addresses common problems may be mutually rewarding. Any contribution to improving understanding between different population groups may initially be welcomed by the rulers (as long as it does not challenge their ‘divide and rule’ approach), and may help to reduce the fear that the only alternative to autocratic rule is total chaos.

Policies that take these structural factors into account have to focus on the long term. Those who hope for rapid change – after an election, as a result of an economic crisis, or following a change in leadership – are likely to be disappointed.

This article is based on the results of the Hivos project on state–society relations in western Asia.

A response to the article by Gerd Junne

  1. The democratic credentials of the region are indeed not very strong. What may matter more than Islam are the oil endowments in many countries of the region. Three important caveats should, however, be kept in mind. First of all, measures like Polity democracy scores are heavily biased towards process, and are not an outcome based measure of for example, governance or human development. The paucity of elections and the absence of written checks and balances will lead to a low Polity score for many countries in the region. Traditional Arab consultative practices are widely unknown or misunderstood in the West.Secondly, the apparent undemocratic nature of the region could be attributed more to its geo-political salience for the West. Western interests in this region may be better guaranteed by absolutist-dynastic rule, especially in the light of the potential anti-Western policies that democracy may generate.

    Thirdly, some point out that the lack of gender empowerment in the region may also hinder democratic transitions. There are many ways of measuring gender empowerment, such as women’s participation in paid employment, and the proportion of female legislators. A leading study demonstrates that Islamic culture does not retard women’s participation in the labour force and in politics, but once again the presence of oil lowers women’s involvement in politics and work outside the home or farm. Another, more fundamental way of looking at women’s empowerment is the male-female population ratio. While the MENA region may not be viewed favourably in terms of gender rights, this part of the world is not notorious for ‘daughter’ elimination, unlike in many parts of India or China.

  2. The region has the lowest incidence of abject poverty based upon the international comparison of US $ 1 a day per person in purchasing power parity terms (PPP).Once the level of income and inequality are controlled, the MENA region has its actual poverty level significantly below what would be predicted in a statistical study.
  3. Despite widespread prejudice to the contrary, the cultural values of the region may not be inimical to broad based development with equity. Gradstein, Milanovic and Ying (2001) show that across the diverse cultural/religious types of the world, the strongest built-in inequality aversion exists in Muslim majority countries. They conclude this after considering per-capita income levels and democracy scores, high levels of which both tend to reduce inequality. They attribute this intrinsic inequality aversion to cultural features favouring redistribution in both Islamic and East Asian cultures (but more strongly in the former), which they argue promotes greater equality even when there is the absence of democratic political pressures favouring redistribution as in the Judeo-Christian world.

Murshed Syed Mansoob (2008) Development despite Modest Growth in the Middle East, Review of Middle East Economics and Finance, Vol. 4 , No. 3, Article 1, 2008, DOI: 10.2202/1475-
Gradstein, Mark, Branko Milanovic and Yvonne Ying (2001) ‘Democracy and Income Inequality: An Empirical Analysis’, World Bank Policy Research Paper 2561.

Syed Mansoob Murshed (mailto:


Al-Khafaji, I. (2002) Tormented Births: Passages to Modernity in Europe and the Middle East, Dissertation, University of Amsterdam.

Courbage, Y. and Todd, E. (2007) Le rendez-vous des civilisations, Paris: Seuil.

Deudney, D. and Ikenberry, G.J. (2009) The myth of the autocratic revival: Why liberal democracy will prevail, Foreign Affairs, 88(1): 77–93.

Fattah, M.A. (2006) Democratic Values in the Muslim World, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Gerschenkron, A. (1962) Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Howard, R. (2007) Iran Oil: The New Middle East Challenge to America, London/New York: Tauris.

Lawson, F.H. (2007) Intraregime dynamics, uncertainty, and the persistence of authoritarianism in the contemporary Arab world, in O. Schlumberger (ed) Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, Stanford University Press.

Pioppi, D. (2007) Privatization of social services as a regime strategy: The revival of Islamic endowments (Awqaf) in Egypt, in O. Schlumberger (ed) Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, Stanford University Press.

Pripstein Posusney, M. and Penner Angrist, M. (eds) (2005) Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Regimes and Resistance, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Pratt, N. (2007) Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Rakel, E.P. (2009) Power, Islam, and Political Elite in Iran: A Study on the Iranian Political Elite from Khomeini to Ahmadinejad, Leiden: Brill.

Richter, T. (2007) The political economy of regime maintenance in Egypt, in O. Schlumberger (ed) Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, Stanford University Press.

Schlumberger, O. (ed) (2007) Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, Stanford University Press.

Sluglett, P. (2007) The Ozymandias syndrome: Questioning the stability of Middle Eastern regimes, in O. Schlumberger (ed) Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes, Stanford University Press.

Wedeen, L. (1999) Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria, University of Chicago Press.