Middle East events as a mirror for experts

Development Policy09 Mar 2011Paul Aarts, Stephan de Vries

Let us start with a confession: in the last couple of months we both wrote articles and made statements claiming that most Arab regimes – including the Gulf monarchies – were still steadily in control for some time to come. Regarding such statements, we found ourselves in good company. The notion that authoritarian Arab regimes, especially the existing monarchies, are quite resilient, gained traction in recent years. Authoritarian regimes, the theory goes, are able to ‘upgrade‘ themselves by adapting to changing circumstances and by learning from the experiences of their counterparts. Compared to republics, monarchies are supposed to have even more means at their disposal and are therefore in a more comfortable position to allow a controllable degree of political liberalization. And yes, apparently monarchs have proven to be adroit at handling what Huntington once labeled as the ‘king’s dilemma’.

Of course, these notions possess elements of truth: despite so-called waves of democratization and repeated predictions of Arab uprisings, the existing regimes time and again proved to be more resilient than presumed. and the first regimes to collapse as a consequence of recent uproar were republics, not monarchies. Besides, in a sense it was comforting to notice that barely any political scientist saw these revolts coming, let alone with the velocity and impact characterizing the uprisings in North Africa. Until the uprising in Tunisia, hardly any scholar assumed that political change would be led by disorganized, youth-led masses.

However, it is only fair to admit that some experts were somewhat on the right track all along. One strong example is Asef Bayat’s sociological insight on ‘non-movements’ and ‘the quiet encroachment of the ordinary’, as expounded in much of his work and most recently – and most explicitly – in his Life as Politics (2010). And there were others warning that the hopeless economic circumstances mixed with corruption and repression would backfire on the incumbent rulers sooner rather than later. For the greater part however, experts on the Middle East all seemed to agree that the existing regimes would not go anywhere soon (see for example Gerd Junne ‘Here to stay‘ in The Broker in April 2009).

The downfall of Ben Ali and Mubarak, together with the faltering position of Qaddafi, prove such claims to have lost their viability. Although protests in Morocco and Jordan did not immediately give cause to fundamentally impugn the ‘monarchy thesis’, recent developments in Gulf countries like Bahrain, where protests have intensified and – more importantly – Saudi Arabia, raise concern. It would imply that monarchies, mostly based on paternalistic models of power, are subject to revolutionary currents after all. At the same time, such a situation would entail a potentially huge problem if one of the consequences turns out to be a major decline in Saudi Arabia’s oil exports – with oil prices going through the roof.

Such a stage has not been reached and it is not clear yet if it ever will. Nevertheless, with the downfall of two non-democratic rulers in an astonishingly short time frame, events have already gone way beyond what most experts would have dared to dream up. Of course, in retrospect we all line up to underscore the seemingly obvious finding that during the rule of authoritarian regimes their collapse appears inconceivable, while after they have fallen, their demise suddenly appears to have been inevitable.

Perhaps that finding says it all: possibly all that we can do – even the so-called experts – is to reflect upon events after they have happened. Scholars are not fortune tellers and, as the political scientist Robert O. Keohane once said in an interview, should not aspire to make predictions. What they have to do, he continued, is to look for the understanding of the underlying dynamics and structures that are shaping and constraining the relevant actors, who are acting strategically with one another in a competitive situation. In order to do so they need to somehow order these events, and that is what makes theories indispensable.

Although scholars need to make such theories explicit before using them as analytical tools, they will always turn out to be puzzling: a theory never fits reality. The world, in all its complexity, keeps changing and for scholars and experts the challenge is to rectify the theory in order to explain disjunctions between presumptions and reality.

Following Keohane’s insights it is not disastrous to come up with the finding that our beloved theories turn out to fit reality only partially. Regarding the Middle East, it is necessary for experts to keep adjusting their theories and to keep analyzing the situation as it unfolds: not as the new ‘revolutionary’ (or in Bayat’s words ‘refo-lutionary‘) fad but as a continuity of past events. That is what experts do. Without a doubt, the uprisings in the Middle East will lead the region into an uncertain but at least considerably changed future. Whether these changes will result in genuine democratization (in whatever form possible) or not, they will have potentially tremendous consequences for all those actors with an interest in the region. Every one of them will be forced to come up with new policies.

Especially for a hesitant West, with its vital interests in the region, this will turn out to be rather difficult and probably painful. For the pundits it is not too late to dust off and lead the way. In order to do so however, flexibility and – more importantly – modesty should function as leading principles. May the recent Middle East events function as a mirror for experts to reach that insight.