Studying Authoritarianism in MENA

When studying a topic as broad and complex as authoritarianism and change in MENA, the way a professor approaches it is important to their students’ comprehension and retention of knowledge, as well as their ability to synthesize it at the end of the class. Throughout this course, I have gained a better understanding of the factors that are more important to focus on to understand authoritarianism in the region. 

It is important to focus on historic factors in the region, leading into regime type and the nature of the regime. This helps the student get a better sense of state behavior and how certain regimes stay in power. Virtually all modern nation states in MENA were carved out of or influenced by the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman state building and governing institutions lended its way to the governance of early Islamic states. When European colonialism reached the region, Islamic states collapsed and were run by imperialists, exacerbating ethno-religious tension in the region, creating authoritarian ruling regimes, and leaving detrimental effects on the economy. Decolonization of MENA happened fairly recently, throughout the mid-1900s, so the states in the Middle East are fairly young. This legacy of colonialism, as well as historic influences of the Ottoman Empire, has left marks on states, which is important to recognize when studying the nature of regimes. 

Regime type, whether it is a monarchy, republic, or democracy influences the way authoritarianism takes shape in a certain state. Take Morocco for example, exercising the linchpin monarchy model of rule. In Morocco, the ruling family solely participates in political institutions, and not in the bureaucracy. It also exercises political liberalization to stay in power, as seen in Morocco’s tolerance of social pluralism and implementation of temporary democratic bargains, such as the creation of commissions. Commissions allow the monarchy to compromise with subjects while acting as a play for time until everyone cooled off. In reality, the commission reinforces the power of the monarchy. Syria, on the other hand, advertises itself as a pluralistic republic, but effectively governs as a single-party system with most of the power in the hands of the president. Understanding the structures of different regime types, as well as the way they present themselves contrasted with the way they actually govern, allows for better comprehension of the sustained authoritarianism in the region.

It is also essential to understand resource endowments of states in the context of a regime type. The Middle East holds two thirds of the world’s oil, allowing governments to take advantage of oil rents. The presence or absence of oil rents helps explain how regimes maintain authoritarian control of a nation, as governments use them to relieve social pressures that might otherwise lead to demands for greater accountability. They also allow governments not to tax their citizens, so citizens have fewer ways to hold them accountable. 

Additionally, the ratio of coercion to legitimacy that a regime implements in society helps to understand how a population remains repressed or gains the resources to rebel. Here, military power is exceedingly important. The Middle East spends the most money on coercive apparatuses compared with any other region in the world, largely funded by oil revenues. The structure of the military, whether it is professional or corrupted, is one of the ways to determine whether or not it will defend the regime if an uprising occurs. 

Statista research department, Military spending in the Middle East and North Africa in 2021

Geopolitics is also an important factor to understand the persistence of authoritarianism in the region, as there is not a lot of outside pressure on governments to transition. Many North American and European states are comfortable doing business with authoritarians and won’t speak out against them. An example of this is the United States refusing to condemn Egypt after the Rabaa massacre.

Studying the historical factors, regime types, resource endowments, coercive apparatuses, and geopolitics in MENA allows the student to get a comprehensive understanding of authoritarianism in the region from multiple perspectives. To achieve this kind of approach, it is beneficial to supplement more encompassing region-spanning studies, such as that of Cammett, Diwan, Richards, and Waterbury, with a single case study, like that of Wedeen. This allows the student to understand the broader forces at work in the region, while also getting insight into the intricacies of a regime. It would be impossible to cover all of the details of every authoritarian regime in MENA in one semester, so just looking at a few case studies is beneficial in this sense. 


Works cited:

Cammett, Diwan, Richards, & Waterbury. 2018. A Political Economy of the Middle East Fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Ross, Michael L. “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001, pp. 325–61. JSTOR,

Webb, Ed. 2023. Class lectures, Authoritarianism and Change in the Middle East and North Africa, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, August-December 2023.


The Survival of Monarchies in MENA

As waves of democratization have happened around the globe, monarchies have largely disintegrated. However, in eight countries across MENA monarchies remain in power. As we investigate the persistence of monarchical authoritarianism in the region, we must investigate what factors challenge the continuation of monarchical rule and what assets this regime type has in confronting these challenges. 

Citizenship, corruption, demonstration effects, and new media are common reasons subjects choose to revolt or mobilize against their monarchies. In monarchical rule, there is a significant difference between being a citizen and being a subject. A citizen usually considers themselves to have certain rights and responsibilities within a government, whereas a subject is more dependent on the whims of the monarchy. Those who seek rights in a government may feel impassioned to revolt against their monarchy.

Corruption is another reason why subjects may choose to mobilize. Pervasive patrimonialism upsets those whose opportunities have been taken away, especially in countries with a youth bulge and significant numbers of unemployment. When the government doesn’t have enough resources to support their population, the population becomes unhappy.

Another important challenge to monarchies is demonstration effects. This occurs when the population of one country sees learning across borders and realizes that they can adopt similar behaviors, whether that be protests or something else.

Finally, new media, such as Facebook, and mass media, such as satellite television, are used as a tool for the amplification of issues and the mobilization of people. These factors are challenges to the continuation of monarchical rule in MENA. 

Monarchies respond to these factors in various ways, depending on the resources they have available. Violent repression can be used, as seen in Bahrain’s suppression of protestors during the 2011 Arab Uprisings, but it is unpopular due to its cost and inefficiency. Instead, to survive, monarchies usually capitalize on splits within their populations and adopt policies of political liberalization. 

Geographic and social splits within a population can drive a wedge between people, preventing their mobilization. An example of this is seen in Bahrain, where the ruling government is Sunni Muslim and the population is largely Shiite. During the 2011 Arab Uprisings, the government framed protests as purely sectarian, delegitimizing them and making Sunnis less likely to become involved. Properly manipulating splits in a population such as this one isolates a population from each other, preventing mass mobilization.

Stepnout, Protesters camped out infront of the Pearl Roundabout on March 4th 2011, days before it was destroyed on March 18th 2011. 

Additionally, political liberalization is a common survival strategy for authoritarian monarchies. This is commonly seen in monarchies’ tolerance of social pluralism and temporary democratic bargains. An example of this is in Morrocco, where in response to the 2011 Arab Uprisings the Morrocan king created a commission to explore constitutional reform. This commission allowed the monarchy to “hear” everyone’s opinions and “compromise” with subjects while acting as a play for time until everyone cooled off. In reality, the commission didn’t achieve much besides keeping the king in power. This is also known as tanfis, or allowing a small amount of opposition to depressurize the population. 

Magharebia, Young people turn out en masse to lobby for a role in the nation’s future

It is important that as new challenges arise, we continue to study the responses of monarchs in MENA, observing how their actions allow their monarchies to survive or fail. In doing so we gain a greater understanding of political forces in the region and the dynamics of different regime types.

Works Cited:

Russell, Lucas. 2004. “Monarchical Authoritarianism: Survival And Political Liberalization In A Middle Eastern Regime Type” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, 1: 103-119

Webb, Ed. 2023. “The Monarchies’ Responses to the Arab Uprisings of 2011”, Class lecture, Authoritarianism and Change in the Middle East and North Africa, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, October 26, 2023.

“A Siege of Salt and Sand”: The Drastic Effects of Climate Change on MENA

In the Middle East and North Africa, water and food security is a pressing issue. It is harder to supply water and support agriculture in this region because most of its environments are arid. This is exacerbated by the region’s political instability and conflict, which can impact supply chains and further reduce access. Policy change, such as land reform, has been implemented in the region, but with varying levels of success. As governments are working to solve these problems, they must also face critical issues in the coming decades. These include water scarcity, water quality, population growth, and climate change. 

Climate change is magnifying food and water scarcity in the region. This takes different shapes in different countries. The short film, “A Siege of Salt and Sand” by St.McNeil and Radhouane Addala focuses on climate change in Tunisia. Through interviews with locals and clips of widespread destruction, the film illustrates two causes of damage, the sea and the desert. 

In two case studies shown in the film, Kerkennah and Djerba, rising sea levels are impacting the landscape. This affects food security by killing plant species and destroying the landscape. 65% of Kerkennah’s date palm trees have died from drought or sea encroachment. When the sea floods the land, its salinity dries out the roots of the palms and kills them. Rising sea levels are also predicted to divide Kerkennah into islets. Similarly, Djerba has faced 25-30 cm of sea level rise in the past few decades, which is projected to increase. This island risks the submersion of its shores if action is not taken. 

Desertification is another threat to the country’s food security, destroying fertile land. Many valuable fertile areas are becoming arid because of hotter temperatures and sand encroachment. Sand covers fertile lands, preventing agricultural productivity and paralyzing economic development. It also attacks homes, schools, and roads, making daily life harder. 64% of Tunisia’s surface is threatened, leading most people to migrate to urban areas. In a region that struggles to maintain food and water security, climate change intensifies the problem while drawing away resources from food security and towards climate change mitigation.

Issam Jawadi, Carthage Magazine

Some points in the film that I found interesting were the actions citizens take to mitigate the effects of climate change, such as the building of sand walls and dunes. These walls act as barriers to stop sand encroachment without using many extra resources. Additionally, Tunisia became the third country to include climate change in its constitution passed in 2014. The constitution’s preamble mentions ensuring a sustainable environment for future generations. It is empowering that Tunisia is the third country to do this because it shows a commitment that many developed countries have not yet made.

Although the impacts of climate change are becoming more visible, most people tend to ignore it. However, in places like Tunisia, it cannot be ignored. Combining its arid landscape with climate change, environmental destruction is more potent. Not only does it magnify food and water insecurity, but it poses problems for all areas of life. The rest of the world should look to Tunisia as a warning and act to mitigate climate change. 


Works cited:

“A Siege of Salt and Sand”. Directed by Sam McNeil, produced by Sam McNeil and Radhouane Addala, 2014.

Cammett, Diwan, Richards, & Waterbury. 2018. A Political Economy of the Middle East Fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Government and Economic Interactions with Rentierism

Oil rents are an important concept in Middle Eastern politics, due to their impacts on various political and social outcomes in states. Simply explained, rents are what a state can extract from something just because they own it, which in this case is massive oil reserves. Frequently in this region, rents are used to maintain authoritarian control of a nation. Although their unusual size plays a factor in the repression of a population, it is largely the interaction of those rents with other factors, such as the government and economy, that allows authoritarian leaders to stay in control. 

U.S Chamber of Commerce Global Energy Institute

The way that Middle Eastern governments use oil rents allows authoritarian regimes to stay in power. The Rentier Effect explains this precisely; governments use oil revenues to relieve social pressures that might otherwise lead to demands for greater accountability.

For example, because Middle Eastern governments derive so much wealth from these rents, they don’t have to tax the population. Taxation is an important part of government accountability, so without it the government acts in its own interest rather than that of its population. Another way governments use rents to stay in power is through spending on patronage. Again, instead of using the wealth derived from rents to benefit the population, governments engage in greater spending on patronage which lessens pressures for democratization. Similarly, governments can use oil rents to prevent the formation of social groups that would be able to mobilize and hold governments accountable. These are all key examples of governments manipulating rents to maintain control of a population. 

The Repression Effect also shows how governments interact with rents to produce negative outcomes. Resource wealth allows governments to spend more on internal security, such as the military, and block democratic operations. This is seen in the Mukhaberat state, or intelligence agencies, that constantly monitor citizens’ actions. An example of this is Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in which opponents of the regime were detained and assassinated. 

Outside of rents’ interaction with governments, they also interact directly with the economy. The expansion of the oil sector reduces the price of foreign currencies, hurting productive sectors exposed to foreign competition. This can hinder the development of an efficient private sector, which means performing poorly in agriculture and manufacturing, high levels of macroeconomic instability and inflation, low levels of job creation, and high levels of unemployment. These economic effects create public dissatisfaction, which can lead to social unrest.

Although resource-rich countries in the region directly feel the effects of oil rents, resource-poor countries are also affected by rents. Even though resource-poor labor-abundant countries may not have high amounts of oil wealth, they still send their labor force to resource-rich labor-poor countries, intertwining them and affecting them indirectly. 

Therefore, although the size of oil rents plays a considerable role in the control and repression of a population, it is mostly the relationship of rents with other factors that allow for poor outcomes in the region.

Works cited:

Cammett, Diwan, Richards, & Waterbury. 2018. A Political Economy of the Middle East Fourth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Ross, Michael L. “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” World Politics, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001, pp. 325–61. JSTOR,

Lisa Anderson Article Reflection: The Problem With How We Study the Middle East

In her article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”, Lisa Anderson addresses the problems with the ways that scholars attempt to understand the political dynamics of the Middle East. Anderson explains that many political scientists exclusively engage in Western discourse, projecting American institutions onto other areas of the world. These people view democracy as the ideal path for every nation, so they are obsessed with why the Middle East is so lacking in it. Taking this Western-focused approach fails to address greater historical and cultural factors at play and hinders political scientists’ ability to understand why certain political phenomena happen in the Middle East.

The Economist

A specific area where this has consequence is scholars’ misinterpretation of Islamism. Being so prevalent in the region, understanding Islamism is essential to get an accurate picture of social and political life. However, many of the intricacies of Islamic culture are brushed over when scholars engage in Western discourse to study them. One scholar precisely describes this phenomenon in an assessment of Middle East studies, where he writes, “the languages of political Islam, for example, can appear in Western scholarship only through a process of translation that enables them to speak in terms of the modernizing discourse of the West” (Mitchell 2003, p. 24). This is not productive when analyzing the role Islam plays in democracy and political trends between different Arab nations. 

This type of Western discourse towards the Middle East was especially prevalent after World War 2. After the war, most Middle Eastern countries were gaining independence from European imperial powers and had therefore only been recently reorganized in a European image. This caused many people to see the Middle East as if societies were starting from scratch, overlooking vast historical influences on the region. Anderson writes, “…the novelty and frailty of the European-style states of the region and the continuing importance of local, nonstate political forms and dynamics would prove to be a powerful but largely neglected feature of Middle East politics for most of the second half of the twentieth century” (Anderson 192). Instead of analyzing these factors, many assumed that modernization was expected to produce political democracy and economic prosperity, similar to the United States in the 1950s. For the most part, this was not accomplished. 

Additionally, political scientists have given external actors, namely the United States, too much power with respect to the Middle East. Karawan writes that “The field of Middle Eastern studies suffers from an excessive preoccupation with the United States and its policies toward the region,” and then explains how underdevelopment, the absence of democracy, the role of military elites, the rise of fundamentalism, and the persistence of Saddam Hussein in power have all been attributed to U.S. actions and desires (2002, p. 101). Again, this approach is too narrow and brushes over the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. 

More recently, the Arab Uprisings of 2010-11 are of great interest to political scientists because they challenged authoritarianism deeply entrenched in the region. The causes and effects of the Arab Uprisings are still studied today, although frequently through a Western lens, as these protests were perceived to be centered around democracy. Although democracy was one factor, it wasn’t the only reason for mobilization. Economics, including perceived inequality, had a large impact as well. Understanding the mass mobilization of people against authoritarian regimes not strictly in terms of democracy brings political scientists and students closer to comprehending the details that shape politics in the region. 

Protesters gather in Tahrir Square on February 1, 2011. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Image

In this course, it will be important to challenge our understanding of Western institutions and norms with regard to the Middle East. We must move away from these Western-centered conversations and take a greater look at the history of Middle Eastern countries, especially in regard to the Ottoman Empire and European imperial powers that dominated the region. We must also examine Islam, its culture, and its relationship to politics. In doing all of this, we will begin to understand the complexities of politics in the region.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Lisa. “Searching where the light shines: Studying democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 189–214,