You know, it’s hard choosing where to begin when it comes to breaking down a Fareed Zakaria article. His usual argument for explaining the lack of democracy in the Middle East falls along the lines of “culture” and “religion.” Sometimes a combination of the two. His arguments have become quite predictable, yet the sheer amusement I get from watching him work his way through his warrant is unmatched.
Read below as he seeks to explain the authoritarian nature of the region by referencing the geopolitics of the Middle East from the 7th century. (Ignore the fact that he unironically cites Montesquieu and Bernard Lewis):
As it happens, a Harvard economics professor, Eric Chaney, recently presented a rigorous paper that helps unravel that knot. Chaney asks why there is a “democracy deficit” in the Arab world and systematically tests various hypotheses against the data. He notes that such majority-Muslim nations as Turkey, Indonesia, Albania, Bangladesh and Malaysia have functioning democratic systems, so the mere presence of Islam or Islamic culture cannot be to blame. He looks at oil-rich states and finds that some with vast energy reserves lack democracy (Saudi Arabia), but so do some without (Syria). He asks whether Arab culture is the culprit, but this does not provide much clarity. Chaney points out that many countries in the Arab neighborhood seem to share in the democracy deficit—Chad, Iran, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan—yet they are not Arab.
Then Chaney constructs a persuasive hypothesis based in ancient history—and modern economics. He notes that the democracy deficit today exists in lands that were conquered by Arab armies after the death in A.D. 632 of the Prophet Muhammad. Lands that the Arabs controlled in the 12th century remain economically stunted today. This correlation is not simply a coincidence. Scholars from Montesquieu to Bernard Lewis suggest that there was something in the political development of the Arab imperial system that seemed to poison the ground against economic pluralism. Arab imperial control tended to mean centralized political authority, weak civil society, a dependent merchant class and a large role for the state in the economy. Chaney documents the latter, showing that the government’s share of GDP is 7% higher on average in countries that were conquered by Arab armies than in those that were not. He also finds that countries in the first group have fewer trade unions and less access to credit, features of a vibrant civil society.
Fareed, really though? How do you jump from the 600s to the 12th century in one sentence without mentioning ANYTHING that happened in between!
But I like this: “Arab imperial control tended to mean centralized political authority.” How do you explain the extension of the Umayyad dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula during the dominance of the Abbasid’s in Iraq and Persia, then the later emergence of the Mamluks in Egypt and the Levant, eventually expanding into the Hijaz? And how do you plan to factor in the historical evidence that suggests many tribes, especially throughout North Africa, remained largely autonomous until European colonialism?
It’s okay, Fareed. Your commentary is cute. Enjoy applying the conditions of 12th century Arabia to the Gulf today. I’ll sit and watch. Because there was this one tiny thing that was not discovered during the 12th century and it kinda changed things: petroleum.