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When to Zoom In and When to Zoom Out: Which Types of Resources are Most Illuminating?

The conundrum of comparative politics is that we are constantly trying to say something general that can fit across numerous specific cases. We know that each region, country, city, and individual will be unique in some capacity. We also know that patterns can be discovered at each of these levels, and these patterns can produce new insights and observations. Yet, we risk making those observations too general if their scope is inaccurately wide. Validity and generalizability are on a sliding scale. We are always trying to apply the most accurate information to the largest sample size possible without compromising that accuracy. Correspondingly, the measures we use to study geographic and cultural regions should serve us in aiming for this sweet spot. 

In studying MENA, history is useful in that it helps us understand both relations abroad and the persistence of authoritarianism. The legacy of European colonialism has bread distrust with foreign Western powers. Whether those Western powers truly have the best interest of these countries at heart is debated, but it is clear that their influence will almost always be met with skepticism. Furthermore, because hardly any of these countries have experimented with regular, functioning democracy, the cycle of authoritarian regimes makes more sense. Part of the difficulty of establishing democracy is building up robust institutions and the trust of the people in the system. When generations are used to a certain form of government, it is logical that they would struggle in moving past it. 

The political economy classifications of the Cammet et al scholarship are suitable for understanding how a regime is able to operate. Whether a country is resource rich tells us approximately how much independent funds a regime has since oil is a major source of income for the region as a whole. In the event that a country is resource rich, depending on the size of its population, it can essentially buy the acquiescence of its people while heavily investing in the coercive apparatus. These regimes are also typically socially conservative and have the might to enforce their ideological beliefs. Resource poor countries must have more clever styles of maintaining power. Whether it is through false promises made to delay progress, the depoliticization and atomization of society, secret police, military control, beneficial ties to other state/s, or another strategy, resource poor regimes must make their capital go farther. 

Single case studies are fruitful in that they reveal something greater about the region. In this instance, there is a higher risk of saying something that can only pertain to the one studied country. Its role can also be in identifying causal relationships in cases where it is not clear which factors lead to a certain outcome. As for Weeden’s examination of Syria, I found it helpful in having an extreme example to compare the rest of the region to in terms of demobilizing the public. It can be easy to think of all forms of authoritarianism as equally brutal, but Weeden demonstrates how Syria was horrific even by regional standards. Beyond that, it was quite narrow in its focus, which is, of course, the nature of case studies. Although it was beneficial to have this severe model as a contrasting tool, I did not recognize many ways in which Weeden’s study generated new ideas for the whole region. 


The Tradeoffs of Monarchical Systems: Why Do They Last? Why Not?

Public outrage and rebellious feelings are not the end all be all for the life of monarchies. In the West, we often associate mass resentment towards government policies with a swift overthrow of the current system, especially when it comes to monarchies. In MENA, this is clearly not the case. Several monarchies have persevered through policy decisions that have angered the populus, though not always by the same means. On the other hand, some monarchies have fallen, whether by circumstances or an insufficient strategy. The next logical step is to uncover which factors have produced these differing results.  

As already established, public outrage does not automatically result in a fallen monarchy. However, this is often the first step in its collapse. What is most important from there is whether the population sees the monarchy as responsible for the undesirable situation. In other words, is there another entity that they can hold responsible for the government’s actions? In the case of non-GCC remaining monarchies, they have established the symbolic position of prime minister. The prime minister has little control over policy details, but they act as a face to the government and therefore receive the brunt of criticism. Under this system, when there is a substantial conflict, the prime minister is outed rather than the monarchy itself, which is actually responsible for the friction. Consequently, the existence of a figurative, ceremonial governing position can divert the public’s displeasure.  

Similarly, the stage of incubation for the public’s anger influences their likelihood of overthrowing the monarchy. The current active monarchies have been able to quell rebellious tendencies by forming bureaucratic committees meant to show the public the government’s intentions to resolve the issue at hand. Jordan and Morocco made use of these tactics, forming reform action committees which somewhat pacified the protesters. Ultimately, these committees had minimal impact, serving as a distraction and stalling the momentum of the rebel forces. Once the worst of the cries for revolt had passed, the committees had fulfilled their role; any immediate threat to the monarchy had weakened. Though minute reforms may have been adopted, this was only with the long-term goal of avoid major reforms.  

Equally important is the military’s level of professionalism. The level of professionalism typically refers to how much of the military is made up of career soldiers rather than elites/patrons. The military system is frequently corrupted as an avenue for generating patronage through handing out symbolic positions to members of powerful families. More professional militaries are less likely to revolt because they are dedicated to the military as an institution. However, when they do revolt, they are typically more successful due to their relatively advanced skills and organization. Moreover, the military is more likely to stage a coup if they see the rest of the military as likely to follow the cause. If the military attacks together, it will be more effective. Therefore, there is greater risk in attacking alone, and perception of unity among the military is another crucial factor.  

Resource abundance is key as the wealth it provides can be used to pay off the population. Many of the GCC countries take advantage of this method in combination with strict coercion, which is made possible by income from rents. A repressive environment alongside a functioning economy gives the populus reason enough to accept the status quo. Moreover, these countries host swaths of migrant workers, who may have genuine concern and wishes for reform. However, their status as a non-national means they have little political power to make their voices heard. Accordingly, those with the most desire for reform typically do not have the agency to express their ideas.  

Altogether, the path for resource rich monarchies is more straightforward since their wealth allows them to pay the population directly and for the coercive apparatus to silence the people. For the others, they must find a way to delay the demands for reforms and a disposable scapegoat. In both instances, the monarchy wiggles out of responsibility and redirects the public’s attention. Without sufficient funds nor the deftness of political diversion, monarchies are left vulnerable. 


Works Cited 

Linda Katib and Ellen Lust. Taking to the Streets The Transformation of Arab Activism. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014. 


Review of A Siege of Salt and Sand: Catharsis of the People

A Siege of Salt and Sand functions as a case study of Tunisia’s ongoing battle with climate change. From lack of water to rising sea levels to desertification, the country is facing a dire situation which is already impacting its economic prospects. The documentary is particularly useful in demonstrating the effects of climate change at the micro level. The severity of the economic damage is more easily understood in how it affects living conditions. Putting human faces to the loss makes it clear how poignant the catastrophe is.  

The documentary’s strength is showcasing the range of climate change ramifications while centering itself in the working class. In the north, Tunisia faces rising sea levels, which disturbs hotels built on the coastline. Similarly, the health of the sea is a major concern, and local fishermen are not able to haul in large quantities of sea life as they previously could. The southern region faces unrelenting desertification and drought, everything being taken over by sand at incredible rates. Both the encroachment of sand and the shortage of water make growing crops and raising livestock nightmarish. Furthermore, the sand physically overtakes homes, forcing families to abandon their households and relocate. In this way, Tunisia faces a type of internal displacement from both geographic extremes in combination with acute food and water insecurity.  

These are the plights of common people. Those in government and with financial and/or political privileges will not suffer the same consequences. A Siege of Salt and Sand has no time for elite double speak. It does not further the narrative of any powerful officials, assuring its audience that the issues are being fully addressed. Rather, it openly lays out the corruption involved and the people’s outrage at this behavior. The documentary notes that officials often talk of climate solutions to pacify the public while living lavishly and unsustainably themselves. This, in combination with pejorative climate education campaigns, only further insults those who bear the brunt of climate change.  

The documentary appropriatly dedicates almost all of its runtime to the trials of the common laborers and those who are actively creating solutions. As a result, the film is compelling and effective, giving the viewer a look at the outcomes caused by climate change as they happen on the ground. Although it includes plans for climate change like sand walls, A Siege of Salt and Sand is never overly optimistic. It is insistent in telling the story of the common people: their fear, their anguish, their persistence, and their fury. Accordingly, it closes with the revolution, a chance for the people to express their frustrations and channel them into governance.  


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

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Rentierism as an Isolated Factor: Effective on its Own?

The rentier model describes a state whose economy relies on outsourcing the advantages of its land abroad. The outside states are “renting” the rentier state’s property because that state does not primarily use its land for itself. The benefits of this land can be either military location or natural resources. In the case of MENA, almost all the rentier states are dependent on oil extraction. The states that are not oil rich export their labor to these states, so the entire region’s fortunes are tied to these rents. 

It is commonly understood that rents have negative impacts on democratization. The rentier model allows the government to have an excess of power while lessening that of the people, whether through the absence of taxes, military repression, or other methods. What is less understood is which specific qualities of rentierism are sufficient to trigger the prevalence of authoritarianism.  

As Ross’s article explains, rentierism, though conceptualized by MENA experts, is not exclusive to the MENA region. Other regions, namely sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, have large oil deposits and states which fit into the rentier model. Ross’s article makes clear that the negative effects of rentierism are highly general. In other words, they are not limited to any one region; they apply universally. Income prior to the discovery, not geographic location, of oil wealth is the factor that has the biggest impact on negating the authoritarian effects. Nevertheless, it is notable that Latin America had a wave of democratization in the 20th century, which MENA was resistant to. The question then becomes: is there something specific about MENA oil rents which cause its perpetual authoritarianism? Or is there something else in combination with rentierism that yields this result? Personally, I tend to think the latter.  

Another key principle in Ross’s article is the idea that mineral exports are particularly prone to promote authoritarianism. He tests these minerals against agricultural exports and finds that they do not produce the same outcomes. One theory behind this phenomenon is that agriculture’s labor intensity lends itself to higher employment levels and increased specialization. Conversely, oil extraction employs few and does not require specialized labor. Moreover, agriculture does not enrich the government to the extent oil does. In this way, agricultural exports increase the power of the workforce and limit that of the government. The Middle East is restricted in this area, not able to produce large quantities of agricultural goods due to its topography.

This is not to say that its lack of airable land has caused MENA’s reliance rentierism nor that the presence of farmable land would deter such practices. Rather, this points to factors unique to MENA which drive it to rely so heavily on oil, in turn causing enduring authoritarian. More plainly, it is impossible to study rents in a vacuum. Though their effects may be generally applicable, what triggers them or makes them so severe is more difficult to grasp. Many things which may initially be perceived as outside factors can be explained by rents. For example, as previously discussed, unemployment and a lack of specialization are tied to rents through oil’s low labor requirements. However, land quality is one characteristic that is innate to the region and cannot stem from rents. It therefore functions as a useful example of a confounding factor in the rentier model and its consequences. 

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

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The Consequences of Ideological Colonization: Projecting Western Values onto the Middle East

Lisa Anderson’s 2006 article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East” pieces together the works of various scholars to explain the misconceptions political scientists had about the Middle East in the past several decades. The main issue she describes is the West’s tendency to project its own values and expectations universally.  

While her diagnosis is most explicitly about the Middle East, it applies to Western political academia as a whole. In the West, the natural model of progression is independence, economic modernization, social mobilization, then the inevitable: democracy. Every step in this model is seen as causing the next, a logical evolution. However, as the Middle East has demonstrated, this pattern is in no way fixed. Middle Eastern states grew their economies, but the rentier model did not lend itself to passive rulers willing to allow a peaceful transfer of power. Even though they modernized, civil society could not be understood through the Western lens because loyalties were still based locally rather than nationally. The West took its understanding of politics and forced it onto regions it did not (and perhaps refused to) understand. 

Anderson attributes this insistence of democracy to the political atmosphere during the Cold War. During this period, there was a bipartisan push to embrace democracy wholeheartedly, both as a tool of foreign policy and a principled conviction. Such an environment not only affected government behavior but the ideology and approaches of individual political scientists as well. As she puts it, U.S. political science was designed to study and find democracy. Whether by true faith or social pressure, it is undeniable that the scholars of this time were prone to see democracy everywhere and as the only solution.  

Middle Eastern leaders were paying attention to the democratic pressures of the West, but rather than adopt democratic processes, they simply copied and misused the language of democracy. Pretending to run fair elections and advocate for human rights became the norm as it was a new way to claim legitimacy. It pacified Western political actors who hoped and expected these leaders would take the necessary steps towards democratization. Instead of investigating the validity of the democratic rhetoric and institutions, political scientists were satisfied with accepting vague indications; it was presumed that modernization made eventual democratization unavoidable. 

In this course, we should avoid replicating these mistakes, seeing the world only through the eyes of the West. We cannot look for democracy wherever we wish it existed but must remain impartial observers, open to shaping our ideas around the region rather than the other way around. We must understand the Middle East on its own terms instead of forcing democratic verbiage and systems onto it.  

The 2011 uprisings make it clear that the public is not a passive actor in politics. They are mobile and influential, even if Arab civil society is not identical to that of the West. Yet it is impossible to simply say the Arab public galvanized to insist on democracy. A major part of the uprisings was economic matters and perceived corruption, concepts which can be understood as separate from regime types as they apply to everyday life. The uprisings do not demonstrate that the people will revolt until they get democracy. They show that public opinion cannot be disregarded by any ruler. Even authoritarians cannot afford to constantly squash rebellions if they are to remain in power. 

Works Cited 

Anderson, Lisa. 2006. “SEARCHING WHERE the LIGHT SHINES: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9 (1): 189–214 

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