Approaching Authoritarianism in MENA

Studying authoritarianism and change in the Middle East and North Africa requires a comprehensive approach, considering various tools and factors. Herein we will explore key elements for understanding the dynamics in the MENA region.

Regime type analysis is fundamental for understanding authoritarian governance. For instance, examining the role of the military in Egypt’s political landscape highlights the military’s strong influence, shaping the country’s political institutions and power dynamics. Similarly, the ruling party’s dominance in countries like Syria underscores the importance of party structures in maintaining authoritarian rule.

Resource endowments play a crucial role, as seen in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia. The vast oil wealth has enabled the Saudi government to implement generous social welfare programs, contributing to social stability and the regime’s longevity. However, it also raises challenges related to rentierism and economic dependency.

Historical factors, exemplified by the confessional system established during the French mandate in Lebanon, showcase the enduring impact of colonial legacies on political structures in the Middle East. The confessional system, shaped by historical decisions, allocated political power based on religious sects and has contributed to persistent challenges in state governance, evident in the country’s ongoing struggles with state-society relations and political stability.

Social and cultural dynamics, such as sectarianism in Iraq, significantly influence political alliances and conflicts. The Sunni-Shia divide has played a pivotal role in shaping the country’s political landscape, with sectarian tensions affecting governance and exacerbating political instability.

Economic conditions, illustrated by Tunisia’s experience, demonstrate the interplay between economic factors and political change. The Arab Spring was sparked, in part, by economic grievances, reflecting the impact of high unemployment rates and economic inequality on political discontent.

International relations are evident in the external interventions in Libya. The NATO intervention in 2011 significantly altered the country’s political trajectory, highlighting the role of external actors in shaping political outcomes in the MENA region.

Methodological approaches, exemplified by Lisa Wedeen’s single case study on Syria, provide an in-depth understanding of local dynamics. By exploring the everyday practices that sustain authoritarianism, Wedeen offers insights into the mechanisms through which power is maintained. On the other hand, region-spanning studies by Cammett, Diwan, Richards, and Waterbury, such as their analysis of economic policies across the region, enable broader generalizations and comparisons.

In conclusion, a multidimensional approach to studying authoritarianism and change in the MENA region is essential. Examples from specific countries highlight the significance of regime type, resource endowments, historical factors, social and cultural dynamics, economic conditions, and international relations in shaping the region’s complex political landscape.


Cammett, Melani, Diwan, Ishac, Richards, Alan, and Waterbury, John. 2013. A Political
Economy of the Middle East. Boulder: Taylor & Francis Group.

Wedeen, Lisa. 2015. Ambiguities of Domination.

Royal Realities in MENA

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, monarchs find themselves contending with an exceptional set of challenges. These challenges, arising from the interaction of political, economic, and social factors, pose a significant threat to the continuity of monarchical rule. However, MENA monarchies also have instruments and mechanisms at their disposal that enable them to navigate these challenges. Here, we will delve into some of the factors challenging the preservation of their rule, as well as assets that empower these regimes to effectively manage and counter these obstacles.

Foremost among these challenges is the issue of economic sustainability. The economies of these monarchies are deeply tied to oil revenues, making them susceptible to global oil price fluctuations. A prime example of the economic challenge was Kuwait’s experience following the Gulf War, which showcased the economic turbulence that external shocks can trigger. Yet, it’s essential to recognize that their substantial financial reserves and resource wealth have served as a buffer, allowing them to withstand economic storms and maintain stability.

Another profound challenge they face is the task of managing social pluralism. Middle Eastern monarchies actively encourage social pluralism, tolerating political pluralism and even fostering social mobilization among diverse social groups. Like, the Saudi monarchy traverses this web of interest groups and  power centers within its society to maintain the status-quo, yet still at points have faced difficulties because of this.

Intriguingly, political liberalization, often used as a tool to preserve regime stability, can paradoxically lead to heightened demands for political participation and democratic reforms. The initial phases of political liberalization in countries like Kuwait and Morocco sparked increased calls for broader public involvement in the policy-making process, reflecting aspirations for more political openness.

The close relationships that Middle Eastern monarchies have nurtured with global superpowers, primarily the United States, introduce yet another layer to this situation. The example of Kuwait, which reclaimed control with U.S. aid following the Gulf War, emphasizes how these close ties with foreign powers have upheld the current situation while also generating criticism of the monarchies for prioritizing foreign interests over their own citizens’ needs.

Conversely, these monarchies boast strengths that bolster their resilience. Their substantial wealth, primarily hinging on oil and natural resources, grants them with significant financial capacities for economic stability. Furthermore, their institutional flexibility allows them to introduce incremental reforms or adapt to shifting circumstances without risking regime collapse.

These regimes maintain a firm grip over their security apparatus, with royal family members frequently holding key positions within the military. This ensures domestic stability and helps contain potential opposition. Jordan is a strong example of this, wherein important posts within the security apparatus are held by royal family members and trusted aides.

Additionally, there’s a deeply entrenched monarchical identity in the Middle East that fosters allegiance among their subjects, rooted in historical and cultural significance. This identity symbolizes continuity and tradition, further fortifying these regimes.

In essence, the survival and stability of these regimes are the resultant of their distinctive characteristics and adaptability. These factors enable them to effectively address and counter the numerous challenges they face. As calls for democratization persist in the region, the MENA monarchies have demonstrated their capacity maintain their grip on power, using their distinct advantages.



Battaloglu, Cihat & Fadi Farasin. 2017. “From Democratization to Securitization: Post-Arab Spring Political Order in the Middle East” DOMES: Digest of Middle East Studies 26, 2: 299-319

Geddes, Barbara. 1999. “What Do We Know About Democratization After Twenty Years?” Annual Review of Political Science 2: 115-44

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

A Siege of Salt and Sand – Response

“A Siege of Salt and Sand” is a documentary that plunges viewers into the harsh realities of Tunisia’s climate crisis. Through candid conversations with everyday individuals, farmers, and laborers, a personal portrayal of the challenges confronting those at the forefront of the environmental catastrophe is presented. It focuses on the micro-level repercussions of climate change, making the economic and environmental devastation feel pressing. It personalizes the issue by presenting real-life stories of the losses endured by these communities.

The narrative revolves around the struggles of Tunisia’s working class, spotlighting their battles with water scarcity, advancing sea levels, and unyielding desertification. In the northern regions, rising sea levels disrupt coastal businesses and undermine the livelihoods of local fishermen.

The encroaching sea is an existential danger. It erodes the shores, inch by inch, undermining the very foundations of these enterprises. It forces businesses to grapple with the reality of relocation and the potential loss of their economic lifelines. Down south, unremitting desertification and enduring drought have transformed previously fertile lands into arid wastelands. The productive soil now resists cultivation.

Further, this documentary avoids engaging in the rhetoric of the privileged and steadfastly refuses to sugarcoat the issue. Instead, it lays bare the corruption within the government and highlights the stark contrast between officials’ promises of climate solutions and on ground policy implementation. This incongruity fuels the frustration and indignation of those who bear the brunt of this crisis.

This documentary serves as a powerful reminder that the climate crisis is not an abstract concept but a very real and immediate threat to the lives and livelihoods of countless people. It doesn’t offer deceptive optimism, rather it accentuates the immediate necessity for action and ends on a note of hopeful determination, depicting the collective drive for change.

Democracy and Oil

The conventional narrative attributes MENA’s unique political and social condition solely to the size of its oil rents, a closer examination of Michael L. Ross’s study, “Does Oil Hinder Democracy?” reveals that the situation is far trickier. Here we will delve into the multitude of factors at play in MENA, going beyond the sheer magnitude of oil rents to explore how they interact with various elements to shape the region’s destiny.

MENA’s reputation as an oil-rich region is well-deserved, but its socio-political intricacies stem from more than vast oil revenues. The distinction lies in the interactions between the oil revenues and a host of other factors. Michael Ross introduces three pivotal causal mechanisms—the rentier effect, the repression effect, and the modernization effect—that exhibit how oil rents engage in a dance with elements like taxation, government spending, military budgets, education, and urbanization.

Delving into the rentier effect, we uncover a phenomenon that transcends the notion of oil wealth solely enabling governments to maintain low tax rates and generously fund social programs. Kuwait serves as a striking example of this. The government’s reliance on oil revenues diminishes the necessity for imposing heavy taxes on its citizens. This fiscal situation alters the social contract between the state and its people. While citizens enjoy robust social programs, they have less leverage in holding the government accountable due to reduced dependence on domestic taxation revenue. However, it is not merely the size of oil rents that dictates outcomes but rather the wielding of these resources

In such nations, governments frequently allocate substantial resources to enhance their military capabilities. This phenomenon is referred to as the repression effect. A compelling case in point is Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s military prowess, fueled by its oil-driven economy, assumes a central role in maintaining internal stability, suppressing opposition movements, and ultimately perpetuating authoritarian rule.

Modernization, the trajectory of democracy and the overall social fabric are shaped by the entanglement between national revenue and factors encompassing occupational diversity, education, and urbanization etc. However, this is anything but straightforward, and in some cases, oil revenues can lead to adverse social outcomes while acting as a deterrent to democratic progress. In Qatar, investments of oil revenue have indeed accelerated progress towards modernization. The nation has impeccable infrastructure, quality education, and advanced healthcare, contributing to modernization. However, this has not necessarily translated into a flourishing democracy. The Qatari government’s centralized control has led to limited political freedoms and restrictions on civic participation. Simultaneously furthering harmful social consequences, such as constrained civil liberties and political pluralism.

In essence, while the size of oil rents undeniably contributes to MENA’s realities, it’s the interplay with power structures and accompanying socio-economics conditions that truly shape the region’s unique challenges.


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















Lisa Anderson Reflection

Understanding the political forces at play in the Middle East has long been a challenging task for scholars and policymakers alike. The aim here is to provide an analysis of the issues highlighted by Anderson and explore ways for mitigating these challenges. This can be accomplished while also evaluating the extent to which the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 have reshaped the discourse on the region.

Lisa Anderson’s critique draws attention to several fundamental issues that hinder an all-encompassing comprehension of the region.

One of the central problems identified by her is the extensive use of Western-centric models of democracy and governance when assessing the Middle East. This often leads to the inappropriate application of Western benchmarks to the region, such as competitive elections and multiparty systems. Such approaches fail to consider the uniqueness of Middle Eastern societies, including deeply entrenched authoritarian power structures and the significance of tribal and religious affiliations. For example, the belief that free and fair elections will inevitably lead to Western-style democracy overlooks the role of religious and sectarian identities in shaping electoral results. Countries like Iraq and Lebanon have shown that election results can deviate significantly from Western expectations due to the influence of religious and sectarian affiliations.

Another significant challenge lies in the essentialist view that Middle Eastern societies are inherently resistant to democracy due to cultural or religious factors. This perspective often characterizes the entire region as monolithic, disregarding the great diversity within and among the nations. These societies encompass a spectrum of attitudes toward democracy, ranging from fervent advocacy for secular democratic reforms to support for democracy with Islamic principles. The Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 illustrate this diversity, as different countries within the region experienced varying outcomes, from democratization to civil conflict.

A third challenge highlighted by Anderson is the overemphasis on democratization as the sole lens through which to analyze the politics of the region. This limited scope can overshadow other factors that shape the region’s landscape, including state-building, governance, and identity politics. For instance, the enduring monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states challenge the presumption that democracy is the inevitable result of political development. The coexistence of authoritarian regimes and widespread welfare provisions in these monarchies highlights the intricacy of governance in the Middle East.

The Arab uprisings have undeniably transformed the conversation on Middle Eastern politics. These uprisings, driven by popular mobilization and grassroots movements, have reshaped the region’s politics, and challenged the resilience of authoritarian regimes. While the outcomes have been diverging, with some countries experiencing limited democracy and others descending into conflict, these uprisings emphasize the significance of civil society and popular movements in catalyzing change in the region. This has led to a shift in academic pursuits, which are more nuanced and explore multiple facets rather than taking recourse to homogenous ideation.

To address these challenges a context specific approach is essential. Instead of applying preconceived notions of democratization to the region, we should engage in an analysis of its historical legacies, acknowledging the persisting impact of imperialism, colonialism and post-colonial state-building processes on institutions and societal structures. We must also realize that the events unfolding in the region presently and in the past are full of contradictions and ambiguity which must be embraced rather than oversimplified through broad generalizations.


Reference: Anderson, Lisa. “SEARCHING WHERE THE LIGHT SHINES: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9, no. 1 (June 1, 2006): 189–214.

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