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Review of “A Siege of Salt and Sand,” – an Autocratic Government at Practice

The primary concern of autocratic regimes is not to actually govern or accomplish anything, but rather to appear to be doing some form of governing. In the present day, one of the most consistent global dilemmas governments face involves dealing with the effects of human-induced climate change. The documentary “A Siege of Salt and Sand,” chronicles the devastating impact that global warming has had on citizens of Tunisia on the island of Kerkennah. The documentary elucidates the very real and extremely perilous consequences of climate change and its effect on humans.

Tunisians are seen as being infected with lesions all over their body and many of the people have severe scarring. People ranging from young girls to older men are all depicted as having been physically effected in some way by the changing climate. Multiple Tunisians are interviewed throughout the documentary’s entirety. They describe the droughts, the heat waves, and all the disease that has followed the rising temperatures of the region’s climate.  And as you watch the video you’ll notice the frustration of the Tunisian people is very strong. The people describe the awareness of the effects of climate change is consistent throughout much of their society, “even people who have never heard of climate change,” as one individual remarks.

The Tunisian schoolteacher who is interviewed in the documentary stressed, “we have no seasons, only summer.”

https://ipad.fas.usda.gov/highlights/2010/06/Tunisia/

But the Tunisian government has largely been absent in their efforts to aid their ailing population. Tunisians have organized demonstrations and protests in order to incite some action or aid from their government. But despite sandstorms and crippling heat continuing to wipe out Tunisia’s agriculture and ostensibly its entire domestic economy, the Tunisian government did little to help. Local farmers emphasize that there is no appeal for the government to help boost domestic agriculture because of the warming climate, describing it as a “wasteful investment.”

The visible effect of climate change on the island of Kerkennah is demonstrated through the significant decline in their agriculture from the immense heat and dwindling water supply. Wells are no longer a place for water, but rather the citizens say that they are trashcans now. Additionally, the Tunisians being interviewed describe the “green” home they remember as being just a distant recollection. The arrogance and indifference of the regional policymakers directly led to the downfall of this part of Tunisia.

Also, the video depicts individuals who speak Arabic, French, and English. French is spoken by men who appear to be either in the technological field or in some form of well-trained profession. Arabic is spoken by most of the regional farmers and merchants who are interviewed. It is also noteworthy to point out that different dialects of Arabic appear to be spoken in the video, one as a formal type and the other a little more colloquial. This demonstrates the caste system of language of the entire Middle Eastern Region – Arabic is not a language of highly skilled labor.

In sum, the documentary demonstrates the very real and very extreme effects that climate change has had on human beings in the region. The Tunisian government’s failure to provide aid or sufficient remedy to the situation has only compounded the problem. Climate change in the case of Tunisia has a directly negative effect on both the economy and the society of Tunisia.

 

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An Analysis of the Anti-Democratization of Oil Rich Countries in MENA

A widely accepted phenomenon in political science involves the increased level of a state’s “democraticness,” that occurs as a result of income that state may generate. Simply put, more money coming into a state has a positive democratic effect on the state’s political and social makeup. But scholars have found in the case of the Middle East and Northern Africa, rising income levels are not always associated with an increase of democracy. These countries, although extremely wealthy due to their unparalleled oil resources, suffer from what political scientists call the “resource curse.” So we can say that when the rising levels of a state’s income occur from oil and particularly “oil rents,” which I’ll elaborate on shortly, that state’s democraticness is damaged as a result.

Oil renting is a process that occurs when a state possesses control of valuable resource (oil), which in turn may be used by external actors (other countries or businesses) to generate revenue for the resource rich country. States that receive substantial rents from foreign individuals are what political scientists call, “rentier states.” Minerals generate rents in the form of export taxes, and extracting minerals such as oil requires little labor. It is very well known that in terms of oil on a global scale, the MENA region possesses an unparalleled abundance of some of the cheapest to produce and purest oil in the world. The issue with such an abundance of resource wealth, particularly in the case of oil, is that it pits the interests of the labor force against those of the elites in the private sector.

Michael Ross, a political scientist and MENA expert, argues that the consequences of oil rents are democratically negative on the political makeup of MENA countries. Furthermore, Ross asserts that oil wealth makes the state less democratic and oil-wealthy governments do a poorer job or promoting economic development. Ross emphasizes that oil wealth may lead to greater spending on patronage, which by nature is inherently undemocratic, in what he calls a “spending effect.” But another important point to note is that although rising income revenues have a positive democratic effect on non-Middle Eastern countries, a majority of MENA countries have been highly authoritarian since their gaining independence. Ross argues that states that fund themselves internally through taxes, services, etc., are naturally more democratic because an autonomous state is not accountable to any external societal interest.

Low production costs equal high rent levels for resource rich countries. The countries are able to use the rent they get to then essentially buy off their populations. This often appears in the form of tax breaks, import labor, or cash transfer programs. But this has a deteriorating effect on the relationship between a state’s citizenry and its government as the public has very little oversight on resource allocation or on government spending. This is the reason for the anomaly of Middle Eastern renterism, in that a state that exports its resources and imports its labor with little regard for the will of its society does not bode well for the political efficacy of that state’s society.  The process of renterism encapsulates the capitalist principle of concentration of wealth, which oil-rich states use to yield concentration of power and essentially de-democratize their societies. The size of the oil rents is irrelevant. The anti-democratic effect is due to the state’s disregard for any form of domestic labor or to promote an internal economy. An angry, unemployed, and politically frustrated citizenry is the result of a government that does not seek to better its domestic economy. Any government, such as those in MENA, that works to raise its GDP but not its domestic economy; results in a society that is angry, unemployed, and politically frustrated – in what will ultimately be a less-democratic state.

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Anderson Reflection 2/3

Anderson, Lisa. “Searching Where The Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9, no. 1 (2006) 189-214.

Lisa Anderson’s 2006 work “Searching Where The Light Shines” examines, and subsequently criticizes the political scholarship of the Middle Eastern region. The defining characteristic of Anderson’s argument is her assertion that the field of modern political science has developed a system of governmental and political understanding that is not universally applicable. Primarily “Western” political scientists have conducted much of the scholarship involving a process they label as “democratization.” Anderson warns that this type of Western-focused thought would “distort” the understanding of the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. As a result of this intermingled scholarship, Western theories regarding democracy and society do not apply to the situation in the Middle East – and as a result western political scientists are unable to make sense of the social and political developments that have occurred in the Middle East. The reason for this distortion of political knowledge is due primarily with the West’s infatuation with using democracy as a generalized political gauge for measuring the societal welfare of certain countries. As Anderson remarks, “the theories of democratization that the field of political science has put forth do not apply to the situation in the Middle East.” (Heydemann)

Martin Kramer, another Middle Eastern scholarship skeptic, argues, “Trying to fit the Middle East into the restrictive terms of political science would rob the field of its potential to contribute to present and future debates.” (Kramer) Anderson emphasizes that the Middle Eastern region contributes nothing to the democratization theory, in that the developments of the region are not clear-cut steps towards democracy. The shortcoming in applying the democratization theory to the Middle East is due to the fact that the languages of political Islam cannot be generalized and understood in a western context. (Mitchell) Furthermore, Anderson asserts that few scholars have, or even are willing to garner a firm enough understanding of the Middle East in order to make an accurate translation into “western political science.” Political science began its scholarship in the Middle East in 1963 in order to provide “the policy maker and the public an analytical foundation for judgment.” This set the course for the severely flawed comparative measure of political science in the Middle East. Special attention must be given moving forward, to the justification and the goal of political scholarship in this region.

In order to accurately assess the political makeup of the Middle East, Anderson asserts that three different categories need to be taken into account. These include firstly the effect of European Imperialism, the role of international competition, and the informal regional economies all have a unique effect on politics in the Middle East. The states of the Middle East are very new, but the societies that make up them are farm from such. For much of the political history of the Middle East, the societal participation has been relatively low and much of the developments that have occurred have had a directly economic effect. However, following the 2011 “Arab Spring” protests the Middle Eastern region demonstrated growing levels of civilian participation in politics – a main pillar to the democratization theory. The Arab uprisings pose issues for skeptics such as Anderson, as it serves as one of the first examples of Middle Eastern democratization. Nevertheless, students such as us must stop looking for signs of democratization as a means for measuring the welfare of a Middle Eastern state. It is essential for the accuracy of political science that when Middle Eastern scholarship is conducted, all western notions for political measurement must be ignored. No universal process of change exists, social science must constantly (and separately) be rewritten. The main takeaway from Andersons article ought to be that going forward it is important that when one is studying the Middle East, they are examining a different language, region, culture, people, and ultimately a different world – and scholars need to be cognizant of that fact.

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