This article by Amin Saikal, an Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia, originally appeared in The Strategist on August 2.
In a highly polarised world, authoritarianism thrives in the Middle East. According to a credible survey, a majority of citizens across the Arab world are losing faith in democracy as a system of governance to deliver economic stability. It startlingly indicates a reversal of what the popular uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring demanded more than a decade ago. This will be music to the ears of autocratic rulers but a source of profound dismay to democracy promoters around the world.
The findings come from an opinion survey conducted by the Arab Barometer network for BBC News Arabic. It involved interviews with nearly 23,000 people in nine Arab countries and the Palestinian territories. Most interviewees agreed with the proposition that ‘an economy is weak under democracy’ and therefore democracy was not a high priority for them.This flies in the face of the demand for democratic reforms in the Arab Spring protests that swept several Arab countries in 2011 and 2012. The uprisings caused the demise of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya (though, in the case of the latter, with the help of NATO’s intervention). They triggered a very bloody conflict in Syria and put a number of pro-Western oil-rich conservative Arab rulers on notice. Iran also felt the impact as it provided impetus for opposition to its theocratic order.
Whereas Yemen, Libya and Syria remained mired in bloody conflicts, prompting interventions by outside actors for conflicting geopolitical interests, Egypt rapidly reverted to authoritarian rule, and the status quo forces prevailed over forces of change elsewhere in the region. Tunisia flourished as the only beacon of hope for pro-democracy advocates, but, since 2021, it too has been on a slippery slope towards authoritarian rule. President Kais Saied has virtually demolished the country’s elected parliamentary system in support of strong presidential rule. His actions have outraged pro-democracy forces, but he has justified them on the grounds that the system had not brought about stability and prosperity. He appears to command sufficient support not only from state instrumentalities of power, but also from those pockets of the population that have found a transition to democracy too taxing.
The only Arab segment that has expressed a preference for democracy are the Palestinians in Israel’s occupied territories. Yet, they are isolated, and many analysts would argue that they have been abandoned by most of the Arab countries. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have normalised relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia has forged informal ties with the Jewish state. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel. This is a far cry from the days when most of the Arab states conditioned any form of relations with Israel on an end to its occupation of the Palestinian lands and the creation of an independent Palestinian state out of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
US democracy, not to mention that of its traditional European allies, used to inspire many in the Arab world. But that doesn’t seem to be the case any longer, given the democratic chaos that has come to dominate the American landscape, and the manner in which the US has behaved geopolitically in the region. America’s botched invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and support for the status quo in the Middle East have not only raised serious questions about its reliability as an ally, but also diminished its status as an effective global actor in the face of the rise of China and Russia as formidable rivals.
Many in the Arab domain could see that close-fisted rule has worked in China and Russia in propelling them to new heights. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be very distressful for most of them, but it has also prompted the US and its allies to approach the leaders of the oil-rich Arab states seeking relief from soaring energy prices. US President Joe Biden and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, have found it expedient to forget their past denouncement of Saudi Arabia’s de factor ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and embraced him despite his alleged role in the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.
In this evolving polarised world, the balance is certainly tipping in favour of authoritarianism in the Middle East. This presents a challenge that the US and its democratic allies may not be able to overcome easily. We’re already in the midst of another Cold War between democracies and autocracies, and Arab rulers may continue to reap benefits from it in strengthening their hold on their societies for the foreseeable future.
Amin Saikal is co-author of Islam beyond borders: the umma in world politics and Iran and the Arab world: a turbulent region in transition.