Possible reasons for the absence of 'democracy' in post-colonial Middle East.
“Ten years from now, twenty years from now, you will see: oil will bring us ruin … Oil is the Devil’s excrement”. Former Venezuelan Oil Minister and OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo
The puzzling mosaic of the Middle East’s political framework has emerged from a challenging range of historic international influences and strategic elitist transactions. The current state system in the region is the remnant of what was wedged in place by colonialism and is laboring to redefine itself. The modern struggle to justify new forms of self governance and the surge in aims to realize self determination are directly related to the multi faceted and aging consequences of these influences and transactions.
At the turn of the last century, the geo-politics of the Middle East was a key element in the necessity to control the region. From an economic perspective at the time, the Ottoman Empire was in decline and the need for oil to fuel wars, and indeed the growing industrialization and urbanization of Europe, was a significant concern. Agreement on trade routes, pipeline crossings, transit fees, and access to the Persian Gulf resonated through international relations and accords. Just as Russian influence around the Caspian Sea and the development of the Railway line to Baghdad contributed to diplomatic engagement and the relationships between the Arab states with their neighbours and Europe.
The Sykes Picot Agreement and subsequent Treaty of Versailles effected the carve up of the Middle East region, and the creation of a map of artificial mosaic States, which each faced multiple challenges to the fabric of their social order as they re-defined the dynamics of relationships with their colonizing draftsmen. Fluid demographic boundaries within the territories meant that diversity of language, ethnicity, culture and religious dimensions compounded fragmentation. The colonial dogma of ‘divide and rule’ had succeeded in creating a melting pot which struggled to define itself as there were no common frameworks within each community from which to garner loyalty to emerging hierarchies.
Whether what can be regarded as the Western narrow, monolithic, understanding of the Middle East, is a contributing element in how we interact with them or contra-versely whether this is an influence upon them in how they deal with us, it is certainly an element in socio-economic and political relations between the West and Middle East. Typically, self-portrayed as superior colonists; the European reductionist opinion of the region was translated into a desire to govern and dominate the area.
Through the original lens of Social Darwinism and the British labeling system, this arcane voyeuristic view has infused a long history of fearful, negative representations of the unfamiliar and dangerous Muslim world in the West. As a result, this ignorance in turn contributed to a guarded and suspicious response, and the inevitability of complicated diplomatic and economic interaction.
The persistent opposition and regional resistance to European occupation, (most notably Britain in Egypt and Palestine, and France in Algeria, Syria and Morocco), through the following decades, and the multiple revolts against Imperialism, eventually succeeded in effecting a gradual relinquishing of control and decline of many layers of colonial influence from the end of WWII and into the 1960s throughout much of the region.
Mandates and protectorates were used as agencies in order to maintain strong economic influences for natural resources and trade in the region. However it was necessary to appoint administrations which were sure to protect the interests of the holder of the mandate and who could be trusted to repress internal opposition or civil unrest. This form of absentee rule has proved significantly successful with the authoritarian and single party regimes who administered the region since the end of the Cold War.
Throughout the history of the last century economic interests were secured though oil prospecting concession grants, as in the cases of Lord Curzon and Baron de Reuter, and through payoffs, such as the annual gratuity paid by the British to the warlord Ibn Al Saud who signed an agreement with them in 1915 to encourage compliance and prevent his vision of expansion into other territories of imperial interest. Incidentally after 1924 when Al Saud went to war with the Kingdom of Hijaz, he was permitted free reign to hammer out his own Kingdom, which the British ignored as they naively saw nothing of value in the interior.
Administrative supremacy in the Middle East region is largely distributed between single party regimes or ruling families of monarchs, descended from imported ruling Tribes and their hierarchy of Sheikhs or Emirs. Parliamentary participation depends on ones kindred relationship to a monarch or regime architect. These prominent, and well financed, individuals were originally tame and corrupt ‘placemen’ put in power by Britain or France, who did nothing to challenge the dominance of Imperial control but who formally did the bidding of neo-colonialist rule.
They now justify their positions of authority by merit of their historic family virtues of noble lineage, claims of descent from the prophet, or by gaining personal recognition for honored military deeds and tribute for leadership qualities. These elements of buttressing the genealogical records are significant in answering the question of how notorious regimes have survived so tenaciously for generations.
The countries these entrenched regional monarchies govern are akin to ‘acquisitions of property’ bequeathed to them by the colonists, and the populations are merely occupants with whom there is no duty to enter into any form of social contract. The democratic problem of mutual dependence is eradicated by the use of resource income as a ransom of pacifying deterrence. Over half of the revenues generated by the governments in the Persian Gulf and surrounding states have come from the sale of oil.
Lingering regime control has broadly embittered the people of the region who are not associated with the ruling class themselves. As the recipients of large amounts of money in payment for oil and resource extraction, and access through territories for transportation, the governments build wealth for their own purposes without having direct responsibility to the community who experience a far lower standard of living and no access to authority.
Civilian political interest is controlled and opposition party formation is suppressed through a range of both aggressive-authoritarian and passive-coercive methods so that the ability to form cohesive opposition and an audible voice for change is obstructed.
On the one hand, because oil wealth yields incredibly lucrative budgetary contributions in the Middle East region; social patronage of public services, health care systems, and basic education, has heretofore been translated into diminished pressure for democracy and urgent aspirations of political participation. In the event of a strong resource economy, the campaign for democratic engagement is weakened from both perspectives, governments have no need to promote economic expansion and there is no vibrant labour market required to support the extraction of the resource, so there is no opportunity to create grounds for social bargaining around policy and accord.
The formation of opposition political parties and independent social groups is deterred through conduits such as student scholarship and grant schemes, state sponsored and co-opted or controlled women’s groups, trade unions, medical and legal bodies, and religious organisations, where the boards of directors or committees are regime appointed, which implies a lack of credibility within the community but satisfies international images of progressive modernity.
Modernisation is not necessarily an element of change that works though the state, but through exposure to media influences, a rise in education and indeed access to international education and personal contact with or interaction with western ideology. Of greatest importance is education which produces awareness of strategies to communicate, inform and mobilize and to articulate observances, grievances and solutions.
Education also arms the populace by empowering them and transforming them from what has been typically known as a weak industrial class into a ‘work-force’ thus equipping them with ‘value of self’ in the form of labour as a commodity that can be used to negotiate with the establishment, and in turn appropriates influence and access to power.
The rise of the popular Arab Nationalist movement in 1952 saw a revolutionary social change. The people opposed the monarchies and declared sovereignty, striving for an independent Arab State ideal of unity, liberty and socialism. Although the movement was short lived and quickly crushed, it planted seeds of popular protest and ambitions for change that have resonated periodically through the decades since.
Current international political opinion and methods continue to cause alarm both amongst those living in the region and concerned individuals and NGOs who are on the outside looking in. There are inconsistencies in foreign policy in how interventions are exercised, most notably with Britain, the United States and France, which are a source of concern as although they remain manifestly self serving, they are unpredictable in their approach, which can have brutal consequences, such as the current contrasting policies surrounding interventions in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
While the United States campaigns against countries selling arms to Syria and lobbies for embargos against her, they are at the same time seeking to sell weapons to the Bahraini regime who are engaged in a vicious crackdown on their own opposition protestors. There is an element of serial interventionism in the Middle East by powers outside of the region, which serve only to undo populist regimes that may threaten Western interest and inevitably result in a redistribution of oil rights.
In Western society governments tax the populace, who have then theoretically ‘bought’ themselves the right to question authority and expect the benefit of a competent and considerate government. This social contract between the rulers and the ruled is well established and taken for granted in a democratic system.
In a Rentier system which depends on oil rent income or payments for territorial access to a countries natural resources, there is no tax liability for ‘tenants’ and they have no ‘right’ to question either what the government is doing with the income, how it is spent, or to have any say in how the country is administrated. In other words, they are not entitled to political participation and there is no access to democratic decision making as this dilutes the autonomous power of the regime.
Regime supporters would be suspicious that a civil service would pose a threat to their power as they are likely to be held accountable for their activities and spending, and if resource wealth were dispersed in a more socially balanced manner the sliver of pie afforded to national interest would certainly be exposed in the broader context as national abuse, the impact of which would be devastating.
Even in an instance of concession to constitutional monarchy in regime states, the vision for political plurality must be decreed by the King or national leader, which in itself reinforces top down politics and insults the principles of democracy and plurality, demanding acknowledgement of the primacy of the monarch and serving superficially to appear progressive while there is no actual power transfer or hegemonous challenge.
One of the emerging grievances of communities currently struggling for self determination against dictatorial regimes in the Middle East is the extent that the governments go to in order to influence, control and gag the media. State run television channels, newspapers, radio stations and even social media are each manipulated to reflect the benevolence and fairness of the regime and its economic and diplomatic partners to its own people, emerging technologies, new business ventures and arguably, most disingenuously, its involvement in ‘humanitarian relief projects’.
The forceful removal and detention of opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, photographers, poets, cartoonists, artists, bloggers, and social media activists, as threats to the regime; severely impacts freedom of speech and the accurate flow of information into the international forum. There are rigorous and collaborative efforts to attack the integrity of these social contributors and to besmirch their reputations.
Most sinister is the kidnapping, detention, torture and sentencing in military court of Doctors and Medics who treated casualties injured in the crackdown against protestors in Bahrain earlier this year. As the first witnesses to regime brutality, and having been filmed by international television networks during the chaos at Salmaniya Medical Complex, they were accused of criminal and felonious charges and formidable efforts have been made to silence them.
The contemporary weapon of words has changed the dynamic of ‘war’ and how civilians are battling with their governments regarding their grievances, and this is having startling consequences. The crackdowns in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and most recently elements creeping into Saudi and Kuwait, are being reported by independent ‘civilian journalists’, whose prolific exploitation of twitter, Facebook and YouTube are giving voice to atrocities perpetrated against them and their resolute determination to force positive change in how they are governed. The characteristic tools of age-old propaganda have been inverted to become tools of revolution.
With the wealth of a nation, comes the necessity to protect it. Equilibrium must be maintained in order not to upset the status quo, which is in a constant state of flux in the Middle East, given the nature of minority rule and sectarian issues between Sunni and Sh’ia ruling and ruled classes, and the potential for regional proxy wars between the Arab super powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In the case of Bahrain for example, civil unrest has 'necessitated' the artificial rebalancing of citizenship which has been achieved by the regime importing non-national Sunnis from neighboring states and providing them with national status to complement the Bahraini Sunni minority. The economic implications of this demographical fabrication are felt most keenly by Sh’ia Baharna who were expelled from colleges or fired from their jobs during measures to crush opposition dissent. Their positions have been appropriated by these new ‘nationals’, many of whom do not have the qualifications of the individuals that they have displaced.
There are efforts on the part of the ruling class in each state to create sectarian division between communities who have traditionally cohabited in peace, in order to emulate the divide and conquer doctrine of their colonial fathers. Religion is universally exploited as a mechanism for division and there are arguments that the influence of Islam is anti-democratic, but noticeably politics and religion are largely separated in Muslim history. Nonetheless, although the mosque is used as a forum for grievance, so too is the church in the West. The rhetoric of opposition is certainly often religious in nature, but it too is no more so than the equivalent Christian rhetoric of Western society. Although many countries in the West export democracy as part of their foreign policy, so too The Muslim Brotherhood actively support respect for human rights, freedom of the press, independent judiciary and democratic principles.
Even more ominous than demographic doctoring, and fabricated sectarianism, is the importation of thousands of foreign militia from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states, who police the country and terrorise the citizens, crushing all displays of public protest and forcing submission to the regime. This is common in each of the countries where opposition is displayed and is a familiar tactic of repression employed by governments whose own army and police forces are unwilling to mete out malicious subjugation on their fellow citizens. These soldiers of fortune are recipients of the favours of the monarch who pays for their services and allegiance using oil as currency.
Perhaps most damningly, it is suggested that the tightly gripped control that authoritarian regimes wield in the Middle East, is in reality far more fragile than they could ever admit. Because they pay for their might, the experience of institutional frameworks and cohesive working partnership is simply not there to support them. They lack true power in that they do not possess the institutional agency required to organise and influence society by bureaucratic, and as a consequence, democratic means.
Upon reflection, the greatest asset in the Middle East is no longer its oil and resources, but the virulent and powerful Youth Movement, young men and women, who have educated themselves and who see past the clutching claws of crumbling despots, who will not be silent witnesses to unjust dictatorships and who are empowering and already self determining themselves as masters of their own destinies and the authors of their future.
Tara O'Grady, 2012