The ‘Authoritarian Bargain’ in the Middle East

Posted: February 22, 2011 by Zeddington in Middle East
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Raj M. Desai of The Brookings Institute has written a number of papers, analyses and articles about the ‘authoritarian bargain’, and how it is starting to unravel in the Middle East. The spark was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26 year old Tunisian who set himself on fire in frustration, after police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he had been selling without a permit. For Bouazizi, a university graduate with no steady job and no other means of supporting his family, this was the final straw. By setting himself on fire, he also set alight the passion of millions and millions of Arabs who have been living under brutal and dominating authoritarian regimes for decades. High unemployment, inequality and corruption reigned supreme under the watch of the dictators, which brutal police forces dealt swiftly with those who dared to raise their voices against this. With Bouazizi’s self-immolation, something snapped, and an act borne of frutration and despair triggered the biggest social upheaval the region has seen in decades. Tunisia’s Ben Ali fell in 23 days; Egypt’s Mubarak fell in ‘only’ 18. And now we see demonstrations in Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Who will fall next*?

Desai descibes the ‘Arab authoritarian bargain’ as a situation where Arab leaders maintain their power through providing public services, such as education, healthcare, government jobs, and other such benefits to their citizens. In return, those citizens hand over political involvement, democratic mechanisms, and the right to criticize those leaders, or act against them in any way. To see a dictatorship simply as a system of extreme repression is too simplistic – even Libya, one of the harshest dictatorships under Gaddafi (who doesn’t really hide the fact that he won’t stand for criticism), provides free and compulsory primary education, as well as scholarships for some high school graduates to continue their education abroad.

However, while it is clear that Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were already on the brink, countries in the Gulf are less so. Populations in the Gulf still enjoy a high rate of government expenditure, and a growing standard of living. In countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Oman, small populations and high oil revenues allow for a high income per capita, and masses of imported labourers mean that most locals don’t need to work very hard to build up their countries – that job is outsourced. For the average Joe – or Khalifa – there is a government job waiting. What is there to protest about?

At least, that used to be the case. High unemployment is still an issue in the Gulf, despite government efforts, and a burgeoning youth population that cannot enter university for lack of places, or find jobs, will get increasingly frustrated. Add to that a growing political awareness amongst the young middle class, a growing awareness of the importance of human rights and treating everyone, even foreign workers, with respect, and persistent inequality (figures are hard to come by for a reason), and you have a growing concern that instability may be on the way. And this, by David Cameron, will be of no reassurance to the Arab rulers either.

Don’t expect the revolutions in North Africa to spread to the Gulf anytime soon, however. While problems exist, they are essentially still in their infancy. Unrest takes time to foment discontent; and by and large, Gulf nationals are content. Sure, there is unemployment for some, there are issues of women’s rights, human rights, minority’s rights, corruption, inequality, and a lack of political rights. But unless these problems remain unresolved over the longer term, Arab rulers will not be sweating over their own positions too much**. Concessions will need to be made, but by and large we should not expect a Gulf revolution any time soon.


*hint: the smart money’s on Libya right now.


** Bahrain is a special case, and is due more to sectarian discontent. The ruling family are sunni, whereas some 66% of the Bahraini population are shia. The shia believe they are discriminated against when it comes to employment, housing, etc.


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