Statehood in the Middle East: In Search of New Models

Among Arab political scientists and politicians, much as in the circles of Middle East experts across the world, the political processes in a region that has seen multidirectional dynamics since 2011 continue to be hotly debated.

Regime changes in four Arab states (Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria) were followed by protracted civil wars and humanitarian disasters unprecedented for the 21st century. The sharp drop in oil prices in 2014-2015 had severe socio-political implications for the entire region, especially for the Arab oil-importing countries, largely dependent on the distribution of oil super-profits. In 2018-2020, a new wave of mass protests swept across the region (in Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq and Sudan under the slogan of overthrowing the local rulers and elites – “all, means all”), then the COVID-19 pandemic switched into high gear, and natural disasters broke out. In other words, the region’s states have been under stress from a multitude of crises superimposed one upon another throughout the entire period.

Academic terms such as “failed states”, “fragile states”, “dispensable states”, “deep state”, and others have become too common in the lexicon of political scientists. The flatness of these stock phrases raises legitimate questions, though. Especially if we take into account that the 30-year period from the late 1970s to the beginning of systemic upheavals after 2011 was a time of evolutionary development, with irreplaceable ruling elites consolidating their grip on power. The threat of large-scale hostilities at the interstate level was virtually eliminated. The development issues that had previously remained in the shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict came to the fore. The front lines began to be drawn internally, with no due response elicited for quite some time. So those Arab leaders who failed to build a state capable of performing its basic functions, such as providing a decent standard of living for the majority of citizens, employment, equal access to education, health and social services, internal security – can be considered “failed” in a way.

Be that as it may, the Middle East is familiar with two approaches to reform, the Algerian and the Syrian ones. Algeria, under the presidency of Chadli Bendjedid between 1979 and 1992, chose the path of unlimited political liberalization and gradual market reforms, which were certainly overdue. The one-party regime of the National Liberation Front was rapidly losing its social base to Islamist movements. But its transformation was haphazard by nature, akin to Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet Union. In Syria, too, Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power inaugurated a period where the young president, heir to his great father, relaxed the rigid centralization of power, initiated economic reforms, opened channels of dialogue with the opposition and introduced limited civil liberties. This brief period of cultural and political activism, dubbed the “Damascus Spring,” did not last long (2001-2002). By 2005, the hardline of maintaining the status quo had prevailed among the Baath Party and security forces. No acceptable alternative to the hasty reforms had been proposed. As a result, both the Algerian and Syrian cases led to civil war and massive casualties. In Algeria, this time is referred to as the “black decade.”

In the meantime, the Arab world has made progress towards integration into the global economy, even though market reforms in most countries, where the public sector retained its dominant role, faced ubiquitous resistance from a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy, as well as rigid and archaic social structures. On the eve of the 2011 mass popular uprisings, the region demonstrated the highest economic growth rates and best macroeconomic indicators for the past three decades. It even outperformed many developing nations in South Asia and Tropical Africa, as regards the living standards, especially in urban areas. But all those remarkable achievements did not translate into a higher quality of life for much of the population.

The fruits of the reforms were mostly enjoyed by a narrow group of people from the circle of those in power, the state bureaucracy and the new oligarchy. With an outwardly democratic facade, authoritarian methods were conserved, acquiring an increasingly pronounced clan-based nepotistic character. In other words, the laws of domestic explosion started to work when the evolutionary path of development turned into authoritarian stability, backed by forceful methods and imitation of democratic institutions.

State-building and modernization of political systems had never been completed. Tribal, sectarian and inter-ethnic ties proved stronger than the national identity and civic identification with national interests.

And now the Greater Middle East, which has entered a protracted phase of restructuring, is under pressure from radical internal uncertainty and an unfavorable external environment. New and “old” rulers alike have to adapt to the rapid changes in the global balance of power.

The events of the recent decade, while heterogeneous across the board, have raised a number of serious questions about what lies ahead: the limits of democratization in the Arab world, centralization and decentralization, an outlook for new and old parties, organizations and movements, the possibility of inclusive governance, the role and place of “political Islam,” the extent to which resurfaced sectarian relations have an impact on politics, and the army’s role in the emerging political structures.

It is worth noting that assessments of this transformational period vary considerably in the world. At a closer look, three trains of analytical thought can be distinguished.

The first approach unequivocally suggests that the revolutions have not achieved the goals sought by millions of rebels, as the root causes have not been eliminated, which results in a situation that will sooner or later trigger new explosions. A “new authoritarianism” is rampant in the region, the institutional dominance of intelligence services is substituting modern-state governance, with corruption and nepotism flourishing amid growing social inequality and poor political representation. Trust in socio-political institutions is in a deep decline, especially among those under 30, whose total number is close to 70% of the population.

Such assessments are mainly characteristic of political scientists in the West who reflexively view the processes in the Arab world from an ideological angle, as a dichotomy of autocracies and democracies.

The second school is not so straightforward in their assessments. As it seeks to grasp the changes taking place, it focuses not so much on the characteristics of “failed states”, as rather on the extent to which states and societies in the Middle East have learned from the revolutionary changes, and on how to build a new social contract that ensures sustainable development. Nor do these scholars ignore the fact that reforms in societies, where regime change has occurred or civil conflicts persist, are limited by the objective capabilities of those nations. Countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, where external debt accounts for more than 80% of their GDP, are going through an acute financial crunch. Syria, where, according to the UN, more than 80% of citizenry live below the poverty line, is an even worse case. Too abrupt movements amid slowed growth and contracting financial investments by oil exporters are fraught with new social and political cataclysms.

The third camp is dominated by political scientists and experts who do not agree that pessimism is the easiest and most infallible way to explain dynamics in the Middle East. They are characterized by a more positive vision of the prospects for stable development, especially in the longer run, as generations change each other in natural succession. A process of national self-identification is gradually unfolding in the region. “Democratic illusions” are giving way to more down-to-earth approaches. Many Arab political analysts wonder whether “we are ready for democracy” and what development model may take root in the Arab East. All known regional models – Egyptian, Turkish, Saudi, Iranian – have been discredited. “Political Islam”, at the current stage, has failed and is in a state of critical self-analysis, even though it cannot be disregarded altogether. Advancement along the path of liberal democracy seems unlikely, especially after the political system imposed on Iraq has yielded an explosion of terrorism and a degradation of the very foundations of statehood. Democratic values in their Western sense do not fit the social psychology and political culture of Arab societies.

With this background, the term “hassiya Arabiya” – “Arab singularity” – has become popular. For now, it is difficult to predict how this singularity may play out. Apparently, the content of this “peculiarity”, or separate identity, will still be a certain average model of illiberal democracy with a strong central authority, a kind of “new conservatism.” In the Arab public consciousness, this supreme, often charismatic, power is not perceived as autocratic.

In view of choosing new or hybrid models, state-building in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf are certainly worthy of attention. Five years ago, with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia embarked upon a path of structural reforms accompanied by a gradual replacement of religious ultra-conservatism with a moderate version of Islam, combined with local nationalism and openness to the outside world. Such policies, as follows from opinion polls, are in step with the sentiments of the youth majority in Saudi Arabia and the entire region.

In our opinion, consistent evolutionary top-to-bottom reforms are one of the options for development along the path toward a modernized system of public administration that encourages private entrepreneurship and allows for the traditional social system and structure to be retained. However, as the past shows, reformers who have chosen this path face dangerous challenges. The renewed Saudi state will have to walk a fine line between changing the terms of the social contract with a society accustomed to paternalism and the resistance of traditionalists and Islamic fundamentalists to any reforms.

A new external environment is also pushing the Middle East governments towards the search for their own development paths. Ideological centers of attraction, which existed in the bipolar world, have vanished. The nations of Eastern Europe had the experience of bourgeois-democratic development and are largely building their identity on their rejection of communism, perceiving the European Union as their guidepost. Yet, the European model does not fit the regional specifics too well. While the communist ideology has failed and the evolutionary model of the post-Soviet Russia has not yet produced an attractive alternative, the system of liberal democracy in the United States and the European Union has revealed serious flaws and institutional bottlenecks. Currently, most states in the Middle East are gravitating toward adaptive policies, as they try to avoid a one-sided orientation in the unfolding global confrontation. The recent trend towards new regional alliances, including normalization of relations with Israel, plays well into this context.

Nations in the Greater Middle East are willing to foster favorable conditions for solving their internal problems without foreign interference. The significance of the hour is that the negative implications of the geopolitical confrontation in the 21st century are acutely felt in the region. Dual military tensions in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific divert the world’s resources from development, spurring a new round of the arms race. Furthermore, the Middle East is no longer what it was two or three decades ago. From an object of geopolitics, it has turned into a serious actor that world powers have to reckon with.

Realistically assessing the capabilities of all regional players, Russia should be wise enough to assume that cultivating relations with the nations of the Middle East on anti-American grounds would unlikely have any realistic prospects, even if they reject the American jackboot. Their interests concur with those of the U.S. in various areas. The messianic plans of the Biden administration to create an “alliance of democracies” in the Middle East seem unfeasible, too. Understanding this would make it much easier for Russia and the major regional players – Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – to make their constructive contribution to the solution of global problems.

From our partner RIAC

Aleksandr Aksenenok
Aleksandr Aksenenok
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation, RIAC Vice-president