Sample: The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa


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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations

1 Introduction: The Middle East and North Africa in Comparative Perspective
Sean L. Yom

Part One: Mashriq
2 Syrian Arab Republic
Thomas Pierret
3 Republic of Lebanon
William Harris
4 Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Curtis R. Ryan
5 State of Israel
Mira Sucharov and Hamed Mousavi
6 Palestine
Glenn E. Robinson
7 Republic of Turkey
Henri J. Barkey and Omer Taspinar

Part Two: Persian Gulf
8 Republic of Iraq
Ariel I. Ahram
9 Islamic Republic of Iran
Mark Gasiorowski
10 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Sebastian Maisel
11 Eastern Arabian States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman
Jill Crystal
12 Republic of Yemen
Stacey Philbrick Yadav

Part Three: Maghrib
13 Arab Republic of Egypt
Joshua Stacher
14 State of Libya
Karim Mezran
15 Republic of Tunisia
Lindsay J. Benstead
16 People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria
Azzedine Layachi
17 Kingdom of Morocco
Gregory W. White

About the Contributors



This eighth edition of The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa represents a major overhaul. Much has transpired in the region during the last few years. The Arab Spring has come and gone, resulting in a dizzying variety of political landscapes—from hopeful democracies and stable dictatorships to revolutionary violence and civil war. New social forces, such as youth movements and women’s rights groups, have mobilized to take their place as popular voices alongside more established actors like Islamists and civil society. Fluctuating oil prices, trade pressures, and global crises have perturbed many national economies. Geopolitical alliances continue to shape diplomacy and foreign policy, as both regional actors and outside powers like the United States pursue often contradictory interests.

Mark Gasiorowski, who took over from David Long and Bernard Reich with the seventh edition, is joined in the eighth by coeditor Sean Yom, who will take over future editions. Mark and Sean also welcome a stable of new contributors who reflect the latest generation of Middle East scholars and experts. Ariel I. Ahram has assumed authorship for the chapter on Iraq; Stacey Philbrick Yadav, for the Yemen chapter; Thomas Pierret, for the Syria chapter; Mira Sucharov and Hamed Mousavi, for the Israel chapter; Karim Mezran, for the Libya chapter; and Lindsay J. Benstead, for the Tunisia chapter.

The rewritten introduction to this volume (Chapter 1) gives a comprehensive overview of the Middle East and North Africa from geographic and historical perspectives. It explores the different types of political regimes and electoral institutions in these states. It further investigates the regional economy, with emphasis on oil, taxation, poverty, and growth, before engaging social issues like human development, youth freedom, and women’s rights. The subsequent chapters cover the domestic politics and foreign policy of all countries in the region, as well as the Palestinian Authority. Each chapter follows a common format for the reader’s benefit by rigorously analyzing each country’s historical background, political arena, social and economic issues, and foreign relations. These chapters also contain country maps, fact boxes with key details, and annotated bibliographies with references for further reading.

Mark Gasiorowski would like to thank his wife, Mary Clark, and daughter, Elena Gasiorowski, for their continuing love and support. Sean Yom would like to thank his wife, Jessica, for her unflagging hope and love.

Chapter 1

Introduction: The Middle East and North Africa in Comparative Perspective

Sean L. Yom

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) never stray far from global headlines. In recent years, stunning images of both drama and trauma in the region have saturated Western media. They have captured an almost unthinkable range of events, from triumphant democratic revolutions to ferocious authoritarian repression; from the humdrum holding of elections to the absolutist power of monarchies; from ongoing peace negotiations to bloody civil wars; from opulent oil wealth to persistent rural poverty; from holy monuments and cities to mega-malls and fashion shows; and from ardent activists on the street to youths glued to Facebook at home. Beneath these modern images lurk classic stereotypes about the exotic Orient—the flying carpets and shimmering deserts of Disney movies or, alternatively, the bearded terrorists and voluptuous belly dancers of Hollywood blockbusters.

How does one make sense of it all? Together the Middle East and North Africa form a critical region at the crossroads of three continents that includes nearly two dozen states and various stateless peoples. Our entry point into this complex region is politics, or the exercise of power and authority between governments and societies. The study of political order is thus intrinsically crucial: how states rule over societies and interact with other countries is the bread and butter of political science and international affairs. Yet this perspective also draws upon ideas from other fields, such as history, culture, religion, sociology, and economics. Indeed, this initial chapter introduces readers to the MENA by exploring not just the dynamics of government but other defining regional characteristics—geographic backdrop, historical context, ethnic and religious composition, economic production, demographic trends, and contemporary social issues.

MAP 1.1 The Middle East and North Africa

MAP 1.1 The Middle East and North Africa

All of the chapters that follow are dedicated to different countries, authored by leading experts, and follow a similar format. They begin with historical overviews and then address the general social and physical environment in which politics takes place. They next investigate the political structures and institutions of these countries, including the most relevant actors, social forces, and events that illuminate how regimes and leaders have governed over time. The chapters end by discussing foreign policy, including external threats, global pressures, and relations with hegemonic powers like the United States. Included in each chapter are a country map, a table of facts, and an annotated bibliography for further study.

This book, now in its eighth edition, works toward three goals. First, by delivering critical information about different countries in a consistent format, it makes a perplexing region more concrete, empirical, and knowable through the universal language of politics. Second, it underscores the diversity of the Middle Eastern and North African states. This region is too often framed as homogenous; in comparative perspective, the MENA appears more as a mosaic than a monolith, featuring many distinctive governments, societies, cultures, histories, and economies. Finally, this book stresses how quickly political landscapes can change. Just five years ago, the Arab Spring inaugurated a wave of revolutionary insurrections that toppled several dictatorships and stirred new demands for democracy and justice, which all the chapters touch upon. Although political scientists are not in the business of prophesizing, this much is clear: we cannot explain, much less prepare for, the future without understanding the past and present.

Defining the Region

As Map 1.1 shows, the Middle East and North Africa region covers a huge swath of countries at the crossroads of three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia—and encompasses tremendous demographic variety. National populations vary from just a few million residents in tiny principalities like Qatar and Kuwait to as many as eighty million people in countries like Egypt and Iran (see Table 1.1). Most countries are also highly urbanized, although Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Iran still have large rural populations. Population density, measured as inhabitants per square kilometer, also varies, from sparsely settled states like Libya and Oman to the extremely crowded Palestinian territories and Bahrain. Most societies are enlarging rapidly due to high birth rates (e.g., Egypt, Yemen) or worker immigration (e.g., Oman, Kuwait). Bahrain’s population growth rate of 0.9 percent, the lowest in the region, is more than double that of most advanced industrialized countries. Cross-border flows of refugees fleeing violent conflict have also swollen some national populaces. For instance, millions of Palestinians have lived in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria for decades, while recent civil wars have forced millions of Syrians and Iraqis to leave for more peaceful destinations.

TABLE 1.1 Demography of the Middle East and North Africa, 2014

TABLE 1.1 Demography of the Middle East and North Africa, 2014

In everyday speech, this entire geographic area is simply referred to as the Middle East or Mideast. While this book follows this convention, it bears mentioning that the phrase “Middle East” itself has Western origins, as it was popularized by American strategists in the early twentieth century. Only in recent decades has the Arabic media begun using the literal translation of Middle East, al-Sharq al-Awsat, as an idiom for the region. For centuries, Arab scholars instead referred to the Arabic-speaking lands (the current Mideast minus Israel, Turkey, and Iran) as al-Alim al-‘Arabi, or the Arab world. Likewise, until 1935 Iran was called Persia, a term that derives from classical Greek. The main land area of Turkey is still known as Asia Minor or Anatolia, the latter term also descending from Greek.

The MENA encompasses two subregions. First, North Africa stretches across the uppermost zone of the African continent and includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, and Sudan. Of these, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya share the closest social, cultural, and historical ties; in Arabic, these four countries are called the Maghrib, which means literally “sunset” and figuratively “west.” Second, the Middle East proper stretches from Egypt to Iran and from Turkey to Yemen. This area includes Israel, the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip), Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, much of Iraq, and the countries residing within the Arabian Peninsula—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Oman. Mirroring the Maghrib, this subregion is known in Arabic as the Mashriq, which translates as “sunrise,” or “east.”

The Mashriq has several internal divisions. The French-derived term “Levant” comprises Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. This region enjoys a common ancient history, and today the term Levantine can describe shared cultural products, such as Levantine cuisine or Levantine archaeology. Westerners have used the term Palestine to describe those lands between the Mediterranean Ocean and the Jordan River, today known as Israel and the Palestinian territories; politically, “Palestine” now denotes the Palestinian territories only. Finally, the Arabian Peninsula, or Arabia—bounded by the Red Sea in the west, the Persian Gulf in the east, Jordan and Iraq in the north, and the Arabian Sea in the south—has become more strategically prominent in recent decades. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Yemen share long-standing historical and cultural ties, and in Western discourse they are called the Gulf states. In Arabic media, these countries are collectively termed the Khalij (literally, “gulf”) and are increasingly considered a distinctive third subregion. Iraq and Iran are often considered part of the Khalij as well, due to their geographic proximity and economic interactions with the Arabian Peninsula.

Physical and Social Geography

The MENA demonstrates how physical space and climactic constraints can influence the most basic patterns of human life. Geographically, this region’s defining characteristic is aridity. It contains nearly two-thirds of the world’s driest twenty-five countries, none of which receives more than ten inches of precipitation annually. The most sun-parched countries—Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia—receive barely two inches. When rain or snow does fall, it tends to be highly irregular and concentrated during cooler winter months. Such aridity exists because the region overlaps with the two largest deserts on Earth, outside the Arctic and Antarctica. The larger of the two, the Sahara, stretches across the Maghrib, Egypt, and Sudan, and extends southward into Africa; it is the size of the United States. The Arabian Desert occupies most of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the peninsula. At its heart is the Rub‘a al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, which is the world’s longest contiguous sand desert. Another dry zone is the Syrian Desert, which includes parts of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and northern Saudi Arabia. Smaller deserts include the Sinai and Negev, which overlie the border between Egypt and Israel, and the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut Deserts in Iran.

Yet other physical landforms exist. Vegetated steppes mark the transition between desert and well-watered areas. Several major river basins support productive valleys and lush ecosystems, such as the Tigris and Euphrates River System running across Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—the famed Fertile Crescent. The Nile Basin waters much of Egypt and Sudan, and the Nile delta, where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, has a subtropical climate. Coastal ranges and elevated areas that receive moderate rain include the portions of Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Syria near the Mediterranean; the northern part of Morocco; the western highlands of Yemen; northern Iraq; areas of Turkey adjacent to the Mediterranean and Black Seas; and parts of Iran facing the Caspian Sea, as well as its Zagros and Alborz mountain ranges. Other mountain ranges include the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; the Taurus and Pontic mountains of Turkey; the Asir and Hijaz ranges of Saudi Arabia; and Yemen’s Hadramaut Mountains.

Over time, peoples across the MENA have become highly adapted to its arid topography. Until the mid-twentieth century, most rural populations adopted one of two communal structures: peasant villages clustered around common agricultural estates, or semi-nomadic migration between oases and grazing grounds, such as was practiced by the Bedouin. (One exception was the Persian Gulf littoral in what are now Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE, where small coastal communities engaged in maritime pursuits like fishing, pearling, and shipbuilding.) The agronomic divide between farming and pastoralism, peasants and tribesmen—fellahin and badu in Arabic—left indelible marks upon society. For instance, tribal kinship still influences social and political networks in Libya, Syria, Jordan, and the Gulf countries, even though most tribes have long settled and urbanized.

In addition, this geography meant that, until recently, most major cities were clustered around coasts and river valleys due to greater water accessibility. Baghdad, founded in the late eight century CE, lay in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Dating back millennia, Istanbul straddles the Bosporus Strait and enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Cairo, more than a thousand years old and now the region’s largest city with more than sixteen million residents, hugs the banks of the Nile River. Modern inland cities have come into their own only because of advances in hydraulic technology. Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh, and Amman—the capitals of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, respectively—are booming metropolises with millions of inhabitants; a century ago, these were dusty towns of barely thirty thousand people each.

Regional History

The Middle East resonates with overtones of antiquity for many Westerners. The region gave birth to the great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and many cities date back more than a thousand years, evoking the glory of empires past, such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Fez, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Mecca. Such deep heritage begins with the Levant, which hosted some of the earliest recorded civilizations during the Bronze Age. The Fertile Crescent in present-day Iraq gave rise to the Sumerian Kingdom after 4000 BCE, while the Nile River nourished Ancient Egypt beginning about 3200 BCE. Other major civilizations included the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Phoenicians. In central Turkey, the Hittite Empire arose after 1600 BCE; after 1200 BCE, Greek colonists flocked to the Anatolian coast. The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged around 1000 BCE, establishing Judaism as the first great monotheistic religion. After 550 BCE, the Achaemenids—the first Persian Empire—rose to prominence and from Iran expanded to the Levant, Turkey, and Egypt. Alexander the Great conquered these lands and left a Greek imprint that would last long after his death in 323 BCE. Further west in present-day Tunisia, Carthage had emerged in 814 BCE to rule over the western Mediterranean until its demise seven centuries later at the hands of Rome.

All these early civilizations achieved milestones in human history. Among them were settled agriculture and the cultivation of wheat; the first written alphabets, languages, and laws; and breakthroughs in mathematics, timekeeping, and metallurgy. The Roman Empire came to rule much of the MENA by the first century BCE, and the Roman province of Judea, which today overlaps parts of Israel and the Palestinian West Bank, was the birthplace of Jesus Christ, whose life and teachings gave rise to Christianity. The gradual spread of this religion corresponded with the waning of Roman authority. In the twilight of Roman power, Emperor Constantine I (r. 306–337 CE) legalized Christianity and moved the empire’s capital eastward to Byzantium, known later as Constantinople (and now as Istanbul). Whereas Western Roman provinces in Europe collapsed by 476 CE, the Byzantine Empire would last in nominal form for another millennium. Its only rival was the Sassanid Empire, also known as the Second Persian Empire, which occupied Iran, Iraq, and eastern Arabia.

The Beginning of Islam and the Arab-Islamic Caliphate

As Europe underwent the Middle Ages, the story of Islam—the last great Abrahamic faith—began. Islam was born in the Arabian Peninsula. Whereas the south (present-­day Yemen) saw small kingdoms come and go after 1000 BCE and the eastern parts fell under Persian influence, the western region, called the Hijaz, escaped external domination. The domestication of the camel around 3000 BCE made possible not only tribal nomadism but also towns like Mecca and Medina, and it was in Mecca in 610 CE that a merchant named Muhammad received a divine revelation. Revealing himself as God’s last messenger, Muhammad and his teachings became the basis of Islam. The year 622 CE saw the migration, or hijra, of the Prophet Muhammad and his believers from Mecca to Medina, an event that also marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The Prophet eventually returned to Mecca and conquered much of Arabia before his death in 632 CE.

This decade begins the epoch of the Arab-Islamic Caliphate, which for the next six centuries featured various dynasties ruling over a massive empire. Imperatively, the caliphate represented not just a form of government but also pan-Islamic unity. The title of the leader, caliph, derives from the Arabic word khalifah, which means “successor”—successor to the Prophet as political and spiritual head of the Muslim community, or ummah. Yet who could succeed Muhammad was hotly debated. Many believed that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, was the rightful successor, whereas others preferred Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin. Most supported Abu Bakr, who became ruler of the first caliphate, the Rashidun (632–661 CE), but discord lingered. Ali ascended as the fourth caliph in 656 CE, but many rejected his authority, creating turmoil and paving the way for a second caliphate under the Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus (661–750 CE). The new leadership rejected calls to allow Ali’s son, Hussein, to become caliph; in turn, Hussein’s faction refused to recognize Umayyad authority, holding Ali’s descendants instead as legitimate successors to the Prophet. From those followers sprang the Shi‘a sect.

At the time of its collapse in 750 CE, the Umayyad caliphate comprised not just the Middle East and North Africa but also much of Spain and Portugal as well as present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. This was an area of six million square miles, or three times the size of the Roman Empire, although frequent rebellions meant that central authority was tenuous. The ‘Abbasid caliphate arose next, based in Baghdad (750–1258). While this Sunni dynasty technically lasted for five centuries, internal fragmentation worsened. The position of caliph was reduced from political ruler to religious figurehead, and smaller dynasties controlled many areas. The Shi‘a Fatimids, for instance, ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171. Despite such strife, the ‘Abbasid era heralded a golden age for Islam. Economic development and commerce facilitated breakthroughs in medicine, science, philosophy, literature, and other fields. The oldest degree-granting university in the world, the University of al-Karaouine, was founded during this period in 859 CE in Fez, Morocco; in 970 CE the Fatimids began Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which still serves as one of Islam’s foremost centers of religious and literary education.

The last ‘Abbasid centuries featured migration and invasions. New Turkic peoples came from Central Asia, with most adopting Sunni Islam. Some bolstered ‘Abbasid rule in Baghdad, while others headed toward Anatolia. Among them were the Seljuks, who captured most Byzantine lands save Constantinople by 1081 and later ruled much of Persia, and the Ottomans, who claimed a modest beylik (principality) in northern Turkey by the late 1200s. More violently, European Crusaders, starting in 1096, pushed into the Levant to create new Christian states, and from the east came the Mongols. Their sacking of Baghdad in 1258 ended the caliphate.

From the Rise of the Modern Middle East to the End of World War I

The story of the modern Middle East begins with the rise and fall of the last great (Sunni) Islamic caliphate—the Ottoman Empire. After 1299, the Ottoman Turks began enlarging their territorial reach in western Anatolia, eventually destroying the last Byzantine remnants. By the time Constantinople fell in 1453, the nascent Ottoman Empire had spread across the Aegean Sea into present-day Greece, Bulgaria, and parts of Romania. Ottoman expansion continued briskly, and in 1517 the ruling sultan proclaimed himself caliph, reviving the ideal of the ummah. At its zenith in 1683, the empire extended from the MENA into central Europe, including the Balkans and Hungary. This period coincided with the rise of the rival Safavid empire in Iran in 1501. Whereas the Ottomans prolonged the caliphate under Sunni Islam, the Safavid shahs (kings) established Shi‘a Islam as the state religion. The Safavid dynasty lasted until 1736; by then, Iran had solidified its status as the epicenter of Shi‘a education and authority.

Ottoman primacy waned starting in the 1700s, due to political infighting and competition from the Safavid and Hapsburg empires. By the 1850s, industrializing Europe had gained technological, economic, and military supremacy. Several sultans attempted to arrest alarming internal decay by ordering the modernization of political institutions, economic practices, legal affairs, and social life—the tanzimat (reorganizing) reforms. Still, the empire relinquished most of its European lands in response to Western pressure and nationalist awakenings, and by 1912 it had lost all of North Africa to British, French, and Italian colonialism. London also took dominion over the Persian Gulf and signed defense treaties with the tribal sheikhs (chieftains) ruling over littoral provinces, such as the Nuhayyan family of Abu Dhabi, the Maktums of Dubai, and the Qasimi line of Sharjah—all forerunners of today’s UAE. Iran suffered similar relegation under outside interests. The Qajar dynasty had arisen in 1794 with great aspirations, but over the following century Russian invasions and British trade pressures thwarted its shahs. Britain deepened its presence in the country after striking oil in southwestern Iran in 1908, the region’s first large-scale discovery.

By World War I, the Ottoman Empire comprised just Turkey, the Levant, and parts of the Hijaz, while political squabbling consumed Constantinople. Few Muslims still saw the sultans as true caliphs with political and religious authority as successors to the Prophet. Qajar authority in Iran was also greatly weakened. World War I sealed their fates. Despite declaring the war a jihad, or holy struggle incumbent upon all believers, the Ottoman leadership failed to rally many Muslims to its cause as it joined forces with the Central Powers. It targeted Christian minorities for mass deportation and genocidal killings, with Armenians especially victimized. Meanwhile, Ottoman authority in the Levant waned due to the Western-backed Arab Revolt that began after British liaisons, including legendary figure T. E. Lawrence, persuaded tribal sheikhs to rebel against Ottoman rule. Among these was Hussein bin Ali, the sharif (steward and protector) of Mecca, whose Sunni clan—the Hashemite dynasty—descended from the Prophet Muhammad. Sir Henry McMahon, a high-ranking British diplomat, promised Sharif Hussein that Britain would support an independent Arab kingdom after an Ottoman surrender.

However, Britain and France instead colluded in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide these Ottoman lands among themselves. After the war, the 1920 San Remo Conference carved the Levant into mandates sanctioned by the League of Nations. The French assumed authority over Lebanon and Syria, while the British invented Iraq and Transjordan (later renamed Jordan) and administered Palestine (now Israel and the Palestinian territories). Britain chose two of Sharif Hussein’s sons, Faisal and Abdullah, to be the new monarchs of Iraq and Jordan, respectively. Mandatory Palestine was another matter, as tensions rose over Jewish and Arab settlement. In the 1880s, the Jewish nationalist movement known as Zionism encouraged European Jews to immigrate to Palestine with the dream of creating a Jewish homeland. In 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour pledged support for that goal. Following the war, British administrators allowed for Jewish immigration, but internecine violence escalated between Zionist settlers and the larger Arab population. After World War II, Britain turned over the crisis to the United Nations, which partitioned Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states in May 1948. Several Arab armies invaded shortly afterward; this first Arab-Israeli War ended with the independence of Israel, unsettled scores, and the exodus of seven hundred thousand Arab refugees—the Palestinians—many of whom settled in adjacent countries like Jordan and Lebanon.

1920s to the 1990s: Western Imperialism, the Postcolonial Middle East and Regional Strife

Such events encapsulated a wider pattern of political reformation from the 1920s to 1940s. In some cases, internal disturbances swept away previous dynasties. In the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia, Kemal Ataturk led national resistance against the imperial government. Abolishing the Islamic caliphate, Ataturk established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and pledged a new age of popular sovereignty, secular culture, and Western-style industrialization—key components to an ideology that would become known as Kemalism. In Iran, army officer Reza Khan deposed the enfeebled Qajars in 1921 and enthroned himself as shah of the new Pahlavi monarchy. By contrast, the Arab world fractured into states through Western imperialism. A few were claimed as colonies by European powers that governed them directly and opened them to settlement, such as Italian Libya, British Aden (in Yemen), and French Algeria. Most Arab countries, however, began as protectorates, with self-rule negated by a European patron withholding territorial rights like military basing, safe transit, and oil concessions.

Western imperialism left profound legacies. First, it often etched out new boundaries without regard to preexisting ethnic cleavages and sectarian rifts. The hodgepodge societies of Iraq and Libya are testament to such map-making. Western powers also favored certain groups in divided societies, as the British did by privileging Bahrain’s Sunni Khalifah family over the island’s Shi‘a majority. Second, European powers radically transformed domestic politics. For instance, in this pre-oil era, the small tribal dynasties of eastern Arabia like the Thani family of Qatar and the Sabah family of Kuwait had long scuffled with nearby tribes and rival merchants. By signing exclusive defense treaties with the Thani and Sabah clans, the British lent them international recognition and thus boosted their power. The French similarly transformed the Alaouite monarchy of Morocco, pacifying the last Berber rebellions by the 1920s and thus guaranteeing an otherwise weak royal dynasty’s future.

Third, imperial policies prioritized stability over all else. In Algeria, French administrators poured resources into policing and settlement, displacing many local communities; in British protectorates like Jordan, the first national institutions were not universities and hospitals, but armies and bureaucracies designed to maximize social control. Colonial administrators also gave little thought to economic development. Hence, agrarian countries like Iraq and Morocco not only remained impoverished but also suffered from extreme land inequality, with a wealthy elite owning most rural land. Finally, oil exploration took off, thanks to major finds in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the sultanate of Muscat (in present-day Oman). British and American companies controlled most oil production and lent their support to local rulers. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia formed in 1932 after its founder, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, conquered other tribes but survived afterward through American recognition and royalty payments from US-run oil companies.

These legacies made postcolonial state formation less than promising. Some Arab countries gained independence before World War II, such as Egypt (1922) and Iraq (1930), but most became internationally recognized states afterward. World War II brought intense fighting to North Africa and the Levant, while Russian and British forces occupied Iran to secure its oilfields. In the end, the war decimated European imperial powers, forcing them to abandon their overseas empires. In the Middle East, among the first to earn international sovereignty were Jordan and Syria (1946); the last were Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE (1971). North Yemen was already an independent kingdom, but South Yemen resulted from the British abandoning the crown colony of Aden in 1967. Not all decolonization was so anticlimactic: France fought a vicious but unsuccessful war to retain Algeria during 1954–1962, resulting in a million deaths.

At this postcolonial dawn, the kings and presidents of the Middle East and North Africa eagerly joined the new international order. Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Saudi Arabia were among the UN’s founding members in 1945. The Arab League was also founded that year. Yet the real threats to political order in the region would come not from the outside world but from within. While most MENA countries had the external appearance of statehood, internally many rulers stood on precarious ground and lacked mass support. Imperial habits meant they were more accustomed to upholding internal security through iron fists than to allowing democratic participation, fostering economic development, or rallying popular sympathies.

The result was instability starting in the 1950s, when a new wave of secular leftist and nationalist movements mobilized across the region. These movements drew upon the new urban middle class, such as army officers, teachers, students, lawyers, and engineers, who desired to unify the Arab world, promote economic justice, and end subordination to the West. They targeted not only Israel but also enduring reminders of foreign intrusion, such as Franco-British ownership of Egypt’s Suez Canal, British military basing in Jordan, and Libya’s lopsided oil concessions to Anglo-American firms. A watershed moment came in 1952 when, in Egypt, Arab nationalists led by Gamal Abdel Nasser upended the monarchy and seized power; four years later, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, leading Israel, Britain, and France to launch an unpopular invasion. Nasser’s Egypt became the charismatic vanguard of Arab resistance against Western hegemony. Over the next two decades, more coups and revolutions would create new republics in Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Libya, and North and South Yemen. Oman nearly broke apart during the Dhufar Rebellion, while Iran’s Pahlavi monarchy survived only with American help.

During the Cold War, superpower interventionism was rife in the region, as the United States and Soviet Union sought to woo different regimes with offers of diplomatic, economic, and military support. The Iranian case is especially instructive here. Mohammad Reza had become shah in 1941 upon the death of his father, Reza. In the early 1950s, his regime retook power from a popular opposition front thanks to assistance, aid, and arms provided by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration that feared Iran’s leftist and nationalist groups would facilitate Soviet subversion of this oil-rich country. The stakes were high in this game of geopolitical clientelism and included the security of Western Europe, naval control over the Mediterranean, and the fate of Arabian oil supplies. Generally, the Arab nationalist regimes aligned themselves with the Soviet Union, which also supported the Palestinians, while the monarchical states looked toward the West. Neither superpower promoted democracy, and both accepted the autocratic abuses of their client states.

Amid these ideological clashes, Arab conflict with Israel remained a constant. The Arab-Israeli War of 1967 had titanic consequences. Israel defeated a much larger pan-Arab force and began receiving significant US economic and military aid. Three Arab states lost lands they had occupied since 1948: Egypt lost the Gaza Strip; Jordan, the West Bank and Jerusalem; and Syria, the Golan Heights. Another Palestinian exodus occurred, with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Jordan and Syria. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War ended in a stalemate that further inflamed regional tension. Magnifying such tension was ongoing terrorism by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and other militant groups against European and Israeli targets. Israel’s pursuit of the PLO led to its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, then suffering from a vicious civil war amplified by Arab and Western interventions.

Notably, Iran and Turkey played relatively minor roles during the Cold War. Iran, aligned with the United States and quietly supporting Israel, concentrated on Persian Gulf security and its own development. Turkey had made great economic and military strides under Kemalism, and it served as a pro-Western bulwark as part of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey’s foreign policy also turned away from the Arab world, focusing upon immediate security threats in Cyprus and the bordering Soviet Union. The Turkish military protected this posture, given its status as the guardian of the state, another outgrowth of Kemalist ideology; indeed, it would undertake several coups from the 1960s through 1980s against civilian governments deemed threatening to national interests.

The 1970s and 1980s saw deepening entanglements and blowback. The Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo against America in 1973 as retaliation for supporting Israel. As economic downturn struck the United States, the region’s oil exporters experienced unprecedented wealth—fortunes that would reverse when oil prices crashed a decade later. Shortly after the embargo, the Jimmy Carter administration nonetheless managed to shepherd the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978 and set a precedent for direct negotiations. A more ambitious multilateral round of Arab-Israeli peace talks followed in the early 1990s, resulting in the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO and the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.

The greatest shock wave in this period, however, came from the 1979 Iranian revolution, which overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy and inspired Islamist mobilization across the region. Arab nationalism and leftist movements had begun losing their allure in the 1970s, as past promises of a pan-Arab state, Palestinian liberation, and economic prosperity stumbled against the backdrop of wars and stagnation. Nasser’s passing in 1970 was also a blow. The urban middle classes turned to Islamism, which held that political and social renewal required restoring conservative religious values and rejecting Western influences. The new Islamic republic in Iran embodied this trend, and it called for Islamist takeovers elsewhere in the Middle East. Initially, many secular Arab regimes reacted by repressing religious organizations. Yet Islamists were not all the same. Moderate groups advocated peaceful and lawful reforms; today, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement are exemplars. More radical varieties pursued change through violence and terrorism. Hizballah and Hamas are infamous examples that emerged during the 1980s, the former from the Lebanese civil war and the latter from the 1987–1991 Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation.

The Iranian revolution also foreshadowed more than a decade of regional war. The Islamic republic soured to neighboring Iraq, then led by the leftist-nationalist Ba‘th Party under Saddam Hussein. The 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War killed nearly a million people and financially drained a region already struggling from low oil prices. America intervened by protecting vital oil tankers in the Persian Gulf against attack from both sides; indeed, confrontation with Iranian ships drew the United States into its largest naval battle since World War II. A hobbled Iraq then invaded Kuwait in 1990, precipitating the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States led an international coalition that liberated Kuwait and imposed harsh UN sanctions on Iraq. Meanwhile, the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 was quickly devolving into civil war, with the United States and Saudi Arabia backing different sides. More hopeful was the 1989 Ta’if Agreement, which had ended the Lebanese civil war. All these conflicts cost the region well over $2 trillion and put the regional economy into a tailspin that would last until the late 1990s.

1990s to the Present: America’s Hegemony in the Middle East and the Arab Uprisings

Another geopolitical earthquake occurred with the Cold War’s sudden end in 1991. America, now with broad hegemony over the Middle East, became more assertive in regional affairs, as exemplified by its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The United States helped guide the Oslo agreement, which implemented a negotiated peace process while allowing for self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with the creation of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Yet the Bill Clinton administration and both Bush administrations failed to advance a viable two-state solution due to indivisible disagreements between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, such as the status of Jerusalem and territorial boundaries. Frustrations boiled over during the bloody second Intifada in the early 2000s and resulted in Hamas’s triumph in the 2006 parliamentary elections, which fractured the Palestinian government. Such internal deadlock combined with Israeli apathy also prevent the Barack Obama administration from making progress toward peace.

Unfortunately, America’s greater visibility also made it a target. Al-Qaida, a radical Islamist network founded by Arab veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War, orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. In response, the United States and its allies launched a global war on terror to destroy al-Qaida and its affiliates, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan, where many were based. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, claiming Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction; when few such arsenals were found, the war’s justification shifted to the need to promote democracy, as occupying forces replaced Saddam’s dictatorship with an elected government. This democratic experiment faltered over the next decade due to sectarian and ethnic violence. Iran also began flexing greater muscle, pursuing nuclear enrichment programs while supporting Hizballah in Lebanon, Palestinian Hamas, and Shi‘a factions in Iraq. Perceiving such ambitions as a threat, the United States, its Arab allies, and Israel responded by intensifying international sanctions against Iran.

Yet in a recurrent trend, the real threats to most MENA countries’ stability came from their own societies—specifically, from frustrated citizens desiring democratic reform of recalcitrant governments. In June 2009, fraudulent presidential elections in Iran elicited a youth-driven opposition movement that held the largest protests since the Iranian revolution. Then in December 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor immolated himself in response to police harassment; that sacrificial act of defiance sparked an unprecedented wave of domestic uprisings known as the Arab Spring. By 2012, rulers had fallen from power in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. The Bahraini monarchy narrowly avoided revolution thanks to Saudi military intervention, while in Syria spreading insurrections threatened to overrun the Asad regime.

What began as blooms of people power, however, turned into a darker winter. In 2013, a military coup in Egypt toppled the elected Islamist government. Libya’s fragile new democracy splintered, resulting in civil conflict. The Asad regime not only held on but fueled the violent rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, whose conquests in Syria and Iraq in turn prompted external military intervention and fueled sectarian tension between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. As of 2016, while US-Iranian negotiations have tentatively commenced Iran’s reintegration into the regional and international economy, Israel remains wary as ever, with the peace process stalled and civil wars raging in the Levant.

Ethnic and Religious Composition

The Middle East is an ethnic and religious tapestry. Some 62 percent of the region’s residents speak Arabic as their primary language and can be considered Arabs. Outside the Arab world, Arabic speakers comprise small minorities in Israel, Turkey, and Iran. Turks are the next largest group, constituting 16 percent of the region’s population and nearly three-quarters of Turkey’s. The Turkic language tree is expansive and includes minority tongues spoken among Turkic peoples like the Azeris of northwestern Iran, the Qashqais of southern Iran, and the Turkmen of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The next largest group are Persians, who represent 10 percent of regional population and two-thirds of Iran’s. The fourth largest are Kurds, who surfaced as a cohesive people during Islam’s golden age; at 6 percent of the region’s population, they live in adjoining areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Another 4 percent are Berbers, who live in Morocco and Algeria and speak the Amazigh languages. Hebrew-speaking Jews make up about 1 percent of the region’s population but 75 percent of Israel’s, with Palestinian Arabs comprising most of the remainder. Beyond this are other small but notable communities such as the Armenians in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran; Circassians in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel; and the Baluch in Oman, southeastern Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The predominant religion in the Middle East is Islam, but the region includes only 20 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Within the Middle East, some 92 percent of the population is Muslim, and more than two-thirds follow Sunni Islam. In Turkey and most Arab states, Sunni Muslims form the overwhelming majority. Islam has no organized church, emphasizing instead spiritual equality—all believers may read the holy Qur’an and worship the divine without intermediary. Muhammad himself was just a messenger, not a priest or vicar of God. All of Islam also shares five ritualistic pillars, such as the Ramadan month of fasting and zakat (alms-giving). What divides the faith are doctrinal disagreements. Sunni Islam abides by the original Prophetic succession, beginning with Abu Bakr, and holds that the hadiths (sayings) and sunnah (teachings) of Muhammad provide ideal guidelines for religious praxis. Beyond this singular tenet, many different schools of law and practice exist. For instance, both Saudi Arabia and Jordan are mostly Sunni, yet the former enforces a puritanical interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism that bans social acts like the mixing of men and women outside the home, while the latter country is far more tolerant and liberal, with few Islamic “rules” intruding into public behavior.

Between 15 and 20 percent of the region’s Muslim population follows Shi‘a Islam. Three Middle Eastern countries have Shi‘a majorities—Iraq (65 percent), Bahrain (70 percent), and Iran (over 90 percent)—while sizable Shi‘a minorities reside in Lebanon, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Shi‘a Islam has different schools of expression. The largest is Twelver Shi‘ism, which venerates as Muhammad’s rightful successor his son-in-law, Ali, and eleven other male descendants, and sees most other caliphs as usurpers. The Alawis are a subsect of Twelver Shi‘ism based in Syria. Non-Twelver branches include the Isma‘ili and Zaydi, with the latter representing 40 percent of Yemen’s Muslims. Beyond the succession issue, most Shi‘a diverge from Sunni Islam in their interpretation of the hadiths and sunnah, devotion to non-Prophetic religious figures, and belief in the Mahdi, or messianic savior of humanity.

Crucially, Sunni-Shi‘a conflicts are the exception rather than rule in Islamic history, which runs against the prevailing image of sectarian rivalry portrayed by the popular media. Yet it is important to recognize that sectarian strife flows less from ancient hatreds and more from the strategic manipulations of leaders. For instance, no Shi‘a rebellion has shaken majority-Sunni Kuwait because the Sabah monarchy has long treated the Shi‘a as equals rather than enemies. The opposite dynamic characterizes Bahrain, where the Khalifah dynasty’s marginalization of its Shi‘a has bred frequent opposition and uprisings. Furthermore, not all of the region’s Muslims are Sunni or Shi‘a. For instance, 75 percent of Omanis follow the ancient Ibadhi offshoot of Islam. Sufi mystical orders also abound, although they are not tolerated everywhere.

Most of the region’s remaining population is Christian. The largest denominations are Copts, who constitute 10 percent of the population in Egypt and 1 percent in Sudan and Libya; Maronite Catholics, who comprise about 25 percent in Lebanon; Syriac Christians (Assyrians), who made up around 2–3 percent in Syria and Iraq prior to 2011; and Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities in the Levant. Lebanon has the highest proportion of Christians, at 40 percent. The region’s Jewish population is also diverse. Within Israel, 10 percent are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox); the rest range from religious Zionism to secular. Before World War II, 750,000 Jews also lived in a thriving diaspora across Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Yemen, and North Africa; most emigrated after the creation of Israel. Regionally, other Abrahamic minority faiths exist as well, such as the Druze of Lebanon and Israel.

Political Regimes

The study of politics rests upon several foundational concepts. States are mostly synonymous with countries: a state is an organized political community living within a finite territory that enjoys sovereignty. Sovereignty implies exclusive authority. Thus, states are sovereign insofar that they can (1) formulate their own foreign policy toward other states, (2) determine their internal structures of political and legal authority, and (3) regulate social and economic affairs within their territory, such as policing and taxation. Most MENA countries existed as colonies or protectorates without these attributes before becoming sovereign states in the mid-twentieth century.

Every sovereign state must have a government or regime, defined as the institutions and rules that determine access to key offices of state power. Regimes come in three broad categories: democratic, authoritarian, and hybrid. Democratic regimes entail free, fair, and regular elections with full adult suffrage for those who will hold offices of executive power (that is, those who may make and execute policy); these regimes also promise the protection of civil liberties—such as religious, expressive, and press freedoms—under the rule of law. In addition, there may not be any unelected tutelary body—generals, priests, kings—with power to overturn elected officials and directly promulgate laws. Finally, the levers of coercion, such as the civic police, intelligence services, and armed forces, are held accountable to policymakers. Authoritarian regimes, or autocracies, by contrast, lack meaningful competition for executive power. Elections are absent or so restricted that incumbent leaders and parties will always win, often by absurd margins. Opposition is banned outright or limited to weak parliamentary or advisory legislatures that cannot check executive prerogatives. Civic freedoms are severely curtailed. The absolutist monarchs, presidents-for-life, and military juntas ruling such systems utilize coercion to repress all threats. Hybrid regimes combine institutional qualities of democracies and autocracies. Electoral contestation and civic freedoms nominally exist, and opposition may run for office. However, the playing field is unfair due to conditions such as widespread violence or ethnic discrimination, or because power holders engage in abusive tactics, such as intimidating voters or manipulating elections. Systemic change is difficult in hybrid regimes, but not impossible. These are also called competitive autocracies.

TABLE 1.2 Political Regimes and Executive Power, 2015

TABLE 1.2 Political Regimes and Executive Power, 2015

Democracies, autocracies, and hybrid regimes vary across one common institutional dimension—the structure of executive power, or who commands supreme authority. Most countries in the world today are republics, where the heads of government are public officials theoretically chosen by society to rule according to a constitution. In parliamentary republics, an elected legislature chooses a cabinet-based government whose head (i.e., the prime minister, premier, or chancellor) is held constantly accountable. The executive and legislative branches are tied together. A ceremonial president may represent the country to the outside world but has little internal weight. In presidential republics, the head of government (i.e., president) is directly elected to office and wields the preponderance of power. The legislature is institutionally separated but serves to check and balance the power of the executive. The United States has such a system. Finally, some republics feature parliamentary governments as well as popularly elected presidents who share policymaking powers in a compromise; these are semi-presidential systems. Table 1.2 shows how regime types and structures of executive power interactively align in MENA countries.

Democratic Regimes

In the postcolonial era, democracy has been quite scarce in the MENA region. Table 1.3 reveals Freedom House scores for political rights from 1976 through 2014. While no quantitative metric is perfect, Freedom House’s political rights index helps capture long-term regime trends by taking into account the regularity and fairness of elections, the breadth of political inclusion, and the effective functioning of government institutions for each country. The scale runs from 1 through 7, and lower is better: scores from 3 to 1 denote democracies of improving quality, while 5 and above identify more closed dictatorships. The MENA scores show that Israel has consistently qualified as democratic, while Turkey has sometimes slipped out of that range due to military coups and repressive backsliding. They also convey how the Arab Spring yielded Tunisia’s democratization and improvement in Libyan political rights. Minor variations over the decades in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait reflect periodic reforms that broadened civic freedoms but also allowed unelected rulers to hoard power. Algeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have long been the least democratic states in the region.

What explains this pattern? Arguments that Islam inherently encourages despotism are ethnocentric and false: the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and third largest democracy is Indonesia. Within the Arab world, polling organizations like the Pew Research Center and Arab Barometer have run batteries of public surveys that show the vast majority of Muslims prefer democracy to all other regime types—something also confirmed by the Arab Spring protests, which demanded dignity and freedom. In truth, the longevity of authoritarianism has little to do with cultural ­incompatibility with democracy, reflecting instead the matter-of-fact strategies and resources leaders have employed to survive. Among these are geopolitical support from international actors, the profundity of oil wealth, and political institutions designed to squelch opposition. The earlier discussion on the region’s history traced the effect of external support for ruling families, while the next section on economics touches upon the oil curse. Here, the institutional variable comes into focus.

Israel and Turkey are parliamentary republics led by prime ministers chosen by popular legislatures, while Tunisia’s post–Arab Spring semipresidential system balances duties between a president and premier—a constitutional reaction to its authoritarian past, when presidents-for-life wielded power. These countries feature meaningful elections and civic freedoms, although they are not perfect. Grappling still with issues of religious and national identity, Israel’s laws continue to treat Arab citizens differently. Turkey features healthy multiparty competition; an Islamist actor, the Justice and Development Party, has governed since 2002. However, politics still transpire under the shadow of military coup and the Kemalist legacy. Tunisia is the most recent democracy, a result of the 2011 revolution, but its liberal constitution and pluralistic institutions have yet to be tested by time.

TABLE 1.3 Average Freedom House Scores, Political Rights Index at Five-Year Intervals

TABLE 1.3 Average Freedom House Scores, Political Rights Index at Five-Year Intervals

Authoritarian Republics

Within the camp of authoritarianism, republics in Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen revolve around dominant presidents who leave office only upon death or deposal. Prior to 2003, Iraq fell into this category; before the Arab Spring, so did Tunisia and Libya. In such systems, parliaments lack the capacity to curb the executive and his control over the so-called coercive apparatus. Some dictators inherit their office. In Syria, Bashar al-Asad came to power in 1999 after the death of his father, Hafiz. Others seize power through coups, as Muammar al-Qaddafi did in Libya in 1969, or sometimes through questionable elections, as Ali Abdullah Salih did in North Yemen in 1978. Once ensconced, however, they do not leave quietly. They refuse to hold elections (as in Libya, Syria, and Tunisia for decades) or sabotage ballot boxes with massive fraud and opposition disqualifications. Former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt swept his reelection in 2005 with nearly 90 percent of the vote; President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria secured his 2004 bid with 85 percent. One exception occurred in 2012 with Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, the result of the revolutionary toppling of Mubarak the year before. The army, however, squashed the elected Islamist government the next year.

Iran’s Islamic republic, the product of its 1979 revolution, represents a special case of theocratic presidentialism. The constitution allows for competitive parliamentary and presidential elections, but such contestation is nullified by the tutelary power of Shi‘a jurists who may screen candidates, dismiss the president, and, above all, select the rahbar (supreme leader)—the highest political and religious authority in the land. This dualistic system ensures that even if opposition forces win elections, hardline clerics will retain superlative power over society.

Two institutions anchor republican dictatorships: hegemonic political parties and the coercive apparatus mentioned above. In the postcolonial Mideast, most presidential dictators have headed party organizations that descended from the leftist and nationalist movements of the 1950s and 1960s. On paper, these parties existed to mobilize voters for elections, but as elections had little import, they supported the leadership in other ways. Ruling parties rallied popular opinion, unified bickering elites, and distributed patronage to supporters. For instance, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia ruled for more than two decades through the Democratic Constitutional Rally, which had dominated politics under different names since the 1950s. After its rise, the Ba‘th Party became deeply incorporated into Iraqi and Syrian state institutions and was integral to the decades-long tenure of Presidents Saddam Hussein and Hafiz al-Asad. In Algeria, similarly, the officious National Liberation Front was the only party allowed legal status until 1989.

The other institution crucial to repressive regimes is the coercive apparatus, in particular the intelligence services and the armed forces. The intelligence services (in Arabic, mukhabarat) have eliminated regime threats through surveillance and intimidation at all levels—within universities, businesses, homes, even the ruling party. Not all methods are violent; detention, harassment, and legal prosecution often prove sufficient to suffocate troublesome critics, such as human rights activists, religious groups, and trade unions. Dictators lavish heavy spending and untrammeled authority on the intelligence directorates, which in turn answer to them personally. The armed forces also play an integral role. Inspired by Turkey’s Kemalist ideology, many militaries in the postcolonial Arab world saw themselves as guardians of the state and above all reproach. That praetorian mentality meant that many presidents would come from military ranks, most famously Nasser of Egypt. Other officers-turned-leaders include al-Qaddafi of Libya, Salih of Yemen, Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, and Mubarak of Egypt. The current Egyptian president, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, was also a general.

For this reason, most Arab militaries have been deluged with special privileges, expensive arms, and big budgets. Tunisia under Ben Ali during 1987–2011 was a rare exception, as he drew upon intelligence services rather than the army for support. Closer to the norm are Algeria and Egypt, where the militaries enjoy their own domain of economic interests and political authority and can veto civilian decisions. When necessary, the armed forces safeguard their republics by cracking down on large-scale threats. During the 1991–2002 Algerian civil war, the military waged unending battles against Islamist militants, with nearly 150,000 perishing in the violence. In Syria, the military besieged the town of Hama in 1982 to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood, killing 10,000. (Its continuing brutality explains why the Asad regime remains in power today, as of late 2016.) Most recently in Egypt, the army under President Sisi liquidated the Muslim Brotherhood after overthrowing the newly elected government in 2013, killing thousands of protesters.


Aside from the republics stand eight Arab monarchies. In such systems, while there may be an elected parliament with a cabinet-based government led by a prime minister, the ruler (kings, emirs, or sultans) hold executive authority, make policies by decree, and reign until they die or are toppled. Royal authority is inherited through familial succession, not contested through public elections or accountable to a popular legislature. Abdication is rare, with one example coming from Qatar’s al-Thani monarchy in 2013, when Emir Hamad vacated power in favor of his son, Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad. Otherwise, succession lines are agnatic (that is, based upon the male line), but vary. In Saudi Arabia, the throne has circulated among the sons of the kingdom’s founder, Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, since his death in 1953. In Oman, Sultan Qabus appropriated his position in 1970 from his father, Sultan Sayid bin Taimur. More familiar to Western audiences are succession lines in which the crown naturally passes from father to son. In Morocco, King Muhammad VI ascended to the throne in 1999 upon the death of his father, Hassan II, who had succeeded his own father in 1962. Outside the MENA region, most other monarchies are constitutionalized because the royal head of state no longer brandishes executive authority.

Like their republican counterparts, monarchs keep tight rein over the coercive apparatus. They differ, however, in one major respect: because monarchs, whose power is inherited, cannot be voted out of office, they also cannot head political parties, as doing so would imply their power could be contested through elections. Instead, they must reach out to supporters through other institutions. In Jordan, the king’s court (diwan in Arabic) has long functioned as a shadow government, with a bureaucracy that absorbs elite allies and liaison offices that reach out to tribal sheikhs. Within the larger royal families of the Gulf, rulers also employ the strategy known as dynasticism, or appointing relatives to high-ranking positions across the government and economy, which cements ties of familial loyalty. Within the region, the UAE presents a unique monarchical form, as it is a federation of seven monarchies that collectively rule through a rotating council.

Parliaments can coexist with monarchies. The advisory assemblies in Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia do not count, as they play only consultative roles and are mostly unelected. Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman have more substantive legislatures whose elections can be spirited, with opposition blocs running boisterous campaigns. Yet these parliaments serve mainly to enrich monarchical allies—businessmen, tribal leaders, political brokers—rather than perform a constitutional function. For instance, they cannot nominate and form the government. Instead, monarchs appoint the prime minister directly, which ensures the exclusion of opposition figures. The rulers of Bahrain and Kuwait keep the premiership within the family, assigning the position to a senior prince. Further, though legislators can debate bills, they have little control over the budget or the coercive apparatus. In Morocco, the parliament cannot form committees to investigate palace spending, military affairs, or other secretive domains. And when all else fails, monarchs can suspend parliaments and rule by decree, as Emir Jabir of Kuwait did between 1976 and 1981 and again from 1986 to 1992.

MENA monarchies are commonly said to have traditional legitimacy. However, dynastic absolutism has little cultural or religious resonance in the modern era. In 1950, almost all the region lived under some kingship. Yet over the next thirty years, coups and revolutions upended royals in Egypt (1952), Tunisia (1957), Iraq (1958), North Yemen (1962), Libya (1969), and Iran (1979). Moreover, when citizens flooded streets during the Arab Spring, they called for democracy by elections, not a return to hereditary rule. Royal absolutism also does not automatically flow from Islamic ideals. While the Hashemites and Alaouites descend from the Prophet, and the House of Saud acts as custodian to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, not even they claim a divine right to rule. Under Islam, the heavens do not appoint kings, who can no more speak to Allah than peasants. Leadership must instead be qualified on pragmatic grounds—to protect Muslims against external attack, for instance, or ensure fair commerce and markets.

Hybrid Regimes

Hybrid regimes have the electoral backbone of democracy but are hobbled by institutional conditions that impede political change. Four countries reside in this gray zone. Iraq, Lebanon, and Libya are parliamentary republics, while the Palestinian National Authority governing the Palestinian territories qualifies as semipresidential. The possibility that these countries will transition entirely toward either democracy or authoritarianism rests on various factors, such as institutional reform now under way, foreign pressures, and internal conflicts.

Hybrid regimes in Lebanon, Iraq, and Libya are burdened with endemic violence. Lebanon’s parliamentary republic allows for regular elections, with the legislature selecting the mostly symbolic president and forming the cabinet-based government. Because of the risk of internal strife, however, the system embodies confessionalism by disproportionately allocating state offices to different ethnic and religious groups to maintain a delicate social balance. The president is customarily a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shi‘a Muslim. Parliamentary seats and other positions are likewise distributed among these groups, the Eastern Orthodox, Armenians, Druze, and other minorities. Political contestation occurs within these communities but not across them. Many believe that overturning this system would spark communal warfare, such as the 1975–1990 civil war that killed 150,000. Until the past decade, Lebanon also suffered from foreign occupation, with Israel withdrawing in 2000 and Syria in 2005.

Iraq and Libya recently adopted parliamentary democracies after the downfall of aging republican autocracies. Foreign powers played a central role. The United States led the Iraqi invasion of 2003 that put an end to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, while NATO organized the bombing of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces during the Arab Spring, precipitating his end in late 2011. However, in both cases, institutional frailties led to civil wars. In Iraq, hostilities between the Shi‘a majority, Sunni minority, and Kurds were never resolved after the first postwar elections in 2005, resulting in an exceedingly frail government characterized by abuses of power. Similarly, Libya’s civil conflict unfolded through armed hostility between Islamists and the elected parliament that has left some areas closed and dangerous and others relatively stable and democratic as of late 2016.

The future of the Palestinian National Authority depends not just on internal politics but also the external actions of Israel. Under the 1993 Oslo agreement, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza established a self-governing body featuring an elected president and parliament that split major duties. Elections have returned varying results; the secular Fatah party, the PLO’s largest faction, won in 1996, while Hamas took the 2006 parliamentary contest. Internal divisions resulted in Hamas controlling Gaza and Fatah dominating the West Bank. Enduring hostilities between Hamas and Israel preclude the Palestinian unity necessary for democratic compromises. Further, institutional consolidation is difficult due to Israel’s territorial mastery, which has enabled four hundred thousand Israeli settlers to remain in the West Bank, disrupted economic and trade flows, and contributed to flare-ups of violence like the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

Economic Conditions: A Survey

Until recently, MENA economies were dominated by the state. Like other “late developers,” Middle Eastern countries sat on the global periphery when they attained sovereign statehood, economically lagging more than a century behind Western powers. The region’s mostly agrarian economies lacked capital, skills, and infrastructure. Into this gap stepped political leaders, who a half century ago vowed to catch up with the West and modernize their societies. For this “big push,” they would use the machinery of government to reorganize the economy. Among them were the redistribution of rural lands, subsidies to keep food and gas cheap, nationalization of companies (including foreign oil firms), widespread public employment, rapid educational expansion, and new industries protected by trade barriers and monetary policy.

Economic Boom and Bust from the 1960s to the 1990s

Though such preferences for state planning over free markets may seem anticapitalist, most developing countries embraced it as they advanced. Before World War I, Russia and Japan embarked upon state-driven industrialization; in the interwar decades, Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina implemented similar reforms, as did Kemalist Turkey; and after World War II, states like Japan, South Korea, and Singapore embraced extensive central government planning. In the Arab world, such state-oriented policies were part of a broader social contract that traded loyalty to the authoritarian state for security, prosperity, and jobs. Such a contract brought stunning dividends during the 1960s and 1970s. (See Table 1.4, showing MENA countries’ average national growth rates for gross domestic product [GDP], representing the total value of all goods and services.) Many states enjoyed double-digit growth during these early, halcyon decades. Indeed, the region’s entire GDP grew by a world-leading annualized average of 5 percent during the 1960s and 1970s—double that of Europe, the United States, and Latin America and higher than even East Asia (3.15 percent).

The 1980s, however, heralded economic depression, as GDP growth plummeted in almost every single country. The region’s collective GDP grew by just 1.3 percent from 1986 to 1990—a far cry from the searing 6.2 percent recorded between 1976 and 1980. Several factors contributed to crisis. The price of oil plummeted from more than one hundred dollars per barrel in 1980 to about thirty dollars per barrel in 1986, throwing the major exporters into chaos. Demographic booms and urbanization had generated bigger and younger workforces, but cash-strapped governments burdened by the cost of war, insufficient tax revenues, and foreign debts could no longer create enough jobs. Finally, state-oriented economics itself hit a logical plateau: creating new industries, companies, and universities from scratch was one thing; sustaining their long-term maturation and making them competitive on an international scale was something else.

The result was fiscal emergency. Many bankrupt governments, like those in Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, turned to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for emergency loans. Government overspending and flimsy currency policies caused inflation rates to spike in many countries: Turkey reported 140 percent inflation in 1980, Syria 60 percent in 1987, and Israel a whopping 450 percent in 1984. Some regimes attempted to reform their bloated economies by privatizing inefficient state-owned firms and cutting back public expenditures, such as food and gas subsidies. However, sudden layoffs and a sharp rise in living costs often caused violent protests from citizens frustrated with their broken social contract; intense riots rocked Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. One survival strategy was political liberalization, as embattled presidents and kings attempted to counter unrest by offering reforms that improved civil freedoms but left them in ironclad control of executive power. Thus after the 1980s, new parliamentary elections transpired in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Yemen, while Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia enjoyed periods of greater tolerance for dissent and opposition.

The regional bust finally ended in the 1990s, and some countries emerged with healthy overall fundamentals. Israel transitioned from state-oriented development to a more diversified private-sector economy thanks to careful management, foreign aid, and technological investments (especially in arms and software). Turkey has also liberalized its economy and established a customs union with the European Union (EU), balancing its agricultural exports with diversified manufacturing such as automobiles and electronics. However, such transformations eluded the Arab world and Iran, where autocrats understood that drastic economic shifts could have painful political costs. Here the urgency of addressing underlying problems diminished when the hydrocarbon market recovered, and average crude oil prices rocketed from less than $16 per barrel in 1998 to nearly $150 in 2008, an all-time high—manna from heaven for the major Gulf producers and Iran, as well as Algeria and Libya. Yet such easy money could not obscure two dilemmas afflicting many of the region’s economies: chronic unemployment and reliance upon oil and other rents.

TABLE 1.4 Average GDP Growth Rates by Decade, 1960s–2010s

TABLE 1.4 Average GDP Growth Rates by Decade, 1960s–2010s

The Current Regional Economy

The current regional economy appears a patchwork of variation (Table 1.5). When adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) (i.e., differences in living costs across countries), GDP per capita diverges markedly from poorer countries like Yemen to successful reformers like Israel to major oil and gas exporters like Qatar. Indeed, Qatar’s 2014 per capita GDP of $146,178 is the highest in the world, outpacing Western and Asian leaders like the United States ($54,600) and Singapore ($82,500). Turkey’s numbers skew downward partly due to its larger population and rural poverty, but the country still has one of the world’s twenty largest economies. Importantly, per capita GDP refers not to actual salaries but to relative income. For instance, Kuwait’s per capita GDP of nearly $77,000 does not mean most Kuwaitis earn that much annually, but it does indicate they enjoy more affluence than, say, the average Moroccan or Egyptian. Yet despite the presence of fairly low GDP per capita in some MENA countries, economists do not consider this the most impoverished region. Figure 1.1 compares extreme poverty—defined by the World Bank as subsisting on an average daily consumption of $1.25 or less, adjusted for PPP—in the Middle East to that in other regions. In the MENA, only 2 percent of the population is rated as living in extreme poverty, dwarfed by sub-Saharan Africa (41 percent in extreme poverty) and South Asia (18 percent).

FIGURE 1.1 Percentage of Population in Extreme Poverty by Region, 2013

FIGURE 1.1 Percentage of Population in Extreme Poverty by Region, 2013

However, the lack of extreme poverty does not mean the absence of struggle. What concerns the Middle East is less absolute privation befalling entire societies (e.g., large-scale starvation) than relative deprivation affecting certain social forces. Revolutionary uprisings like the Arab Spring are led not by famished peasants but by middle-class citizens who have enough education and mobility to realize their worth but are foiled by laggard economic and political opportunities. Such deprivation shows in widespread unemployment. Excluding the Gulf littoral hydrocarbon exporters with tiny populations, Table 1.5 also exposes double-digit joblessness in most Middle East countries. The Palestinian territories, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have the highest rates—unsurprising given their disruptive violence—but even more-stable states like Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey suffer from this problem.

The official unemployment rates also underestimate because they do not count informal and menial labor, and they ignore those who have stopped seeking work. In addition, domestic unemployment is high despite the fact that many countries have seen hundreds of thousands of workers emigrate, leaving the labor market altogether. Such labor migration results in considerable remittance flows, or cash transferred by expatriate workers to their home countries (e.g., a Lebanese teacher working in Kuwait who sends his salary back to his family in Beirut), and remittances benefit households in labor-exporting Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories (see Table 1.5). However, remittances also signal how many workers have left their countries due to lack of viable jobs. Should those emigrants return home, unemployment would rise even further.

One barrier to job creation comes from the structure of economic sectors. Analysts filter GDP into three constituent sectors: agriculture, which is labor-intensive and usually export oriented; industry, such as mining, manufacturing, electricity production, and construction; and services, such as administration, education, finance, and health care. As Table 1.5 shows, only a few MENA countries have sizable agricultural sectors. Most rely upon industry and services, but these figures are deceptive. All industrial sectors that comprise more than 40 percent of GDP are dominated by the extractive production of oil, gas, and other natural resources. Inversely, excepting Israel and war-stricken Iraq, Libya, and Syria, all service sectors are driven by public employment—an upshot of state-oriented development and its social contract.

Herein lies the dilemma. Extractive industries like oil are highly mechanized and so employ few workers, but labor-intensive industries like manufacturing and textiles see only inconsistent growth. At the same time, most Middle East countries can no longer expand their public sectors to soak up excess labor; civil services, administrative bureaucracies, educational institutions, and other government-related organs are already saturated with employees and burdened with retirement pensions. Autocratic regimes also cannot lay off policemen and soldiers en masse, as doing so would be politically risky and potentially destabilizing. In such situations, orthodox economists prescribe enlarging the private sector and developing competitive markets, but this is easier said than done. Private-sector growth requires attracting foreign investment, encouraging entrepreneurship, enhancing trade, spurring gender equality, and eliminating the allure of public-sector work. Such reforms are not impossible, but they require transcending the region’s entrenched social contract.

TABLE 1.5 Selected Economic Indicators, 2014

TABLE 1.5 Selected Economic Indicators, 2014

Oil and Rentierism

Is petroleum the answer? Many see oil and gas reserves as black gold. And indeed, casual visitors to Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE observe how these wealthy hydrocarbon exporters hand out to citizens guaranteed jobs, free education, health care, and other cradle-to-grave benefits. Unemployment is seldom a problem, given that oil revenues can finance the massive expansion of government, and thus generate public-sector jobs. Indeed, these states have long attracted millions of expatriate workers from other countries in order to fill worker shortages in the private sector where citizens prefer not to work, such as low-level service and household jobs. Such countries that derive substantial revenues from selling natural resources to the outside world are known as rentier states. Rent in the macroeconomic sense signifies the differential value of untapped resources in nature, such as oil fields, gas deposits, and gold veins. Some economists also consider foreign aid as rent, insofar as it often represents income that regimes receive from donor states in exchange for strategic cooperation and compliance.

However, rents can be as much a curse as a blessing. Table 1.6 indicates a negative correlation between hydrocarbon dependence and domestic taxation. When governments accrue most of their income from oil and gas exports, they have less need to collect money from citizens. Thus, while most MENA countries have corporate taxes, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE have virtually no individual income or sales taxation. By contrast, states without hydrocarbon rents, such as Morocco, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan, have much higher tax burdens. As a yardstick, tax revenue within the EU represents 19 percent of GDP; in the United Kingdom, it figures 25 percent. Although at first glance, low taxation rates seem inarguably beneficial, they can have perverse side effects. Citizens who must surrender money to government desire political rights in exchange—“no taxation without representation,” as the American Revolution put it. But if they do not pay taxes in the first place, citizens have little leverage with which to bargain for greater freedoms. Another peril is that unforeseen volatility in global markets can slash hydrocarbon revenues and trigger crisis. For example, Saudi Arabia’s GDP per capita peaked at about $18,000 in 1981, well exceeding that of the United States; by 1989 its GDP had plummeted to $6,000—the same as Portugal’s or Malta’s. There is grave uncertainty about the viability of these countries in the globalized economy if they can no longer rely upon oil and gas exports, or if they run out.

TABLE 1.6 Taxes, Oil, Aid, and Arms, 2014

TABLE 1.6 Taxes, Oil, Aid, and Arms, 2014

Foreign Aid

Foreign aid is not the solution either. As Table 1.6 shows, most oil-poor states receive substantial economic and military assistance from foreign powers. Iraq still obtains significant external aid despite its oil revenues, due to weak institutions and internal violence. In the Middle East, little foreign aid is humanitarian, such as famine relief. Instead, aid takes the form of grants and loans to stabilize allied regimes, regardless of whether they are democratic or authoritarian. For instance, the bulk of Israel’s foreign aid comes from the United States as an annual military package exceeding $3 billion that includes top-shelf arms and technology. The United States has also delivered immense financial and military grants to Jordan since the 1950s and to Egypt since the Camp David peace accords. The logic of giving foreign aid to bolster regimes rather than to advance humanitarian goals dates back to the Cold War. From 1946 to 1990, the United States delivered $92 billion in economic and military aid to its Mideast allies, nearly double the amount it donated to sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America combined. France has similar aid ties with Morocco and Tunisia, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms have given billions to Egypt, Yemen, Morocco, and Jordan since the Arab uprisings.

Yet aid reliance can spawn fiscal dysfunction. Besides depressing incentives to improve domestic taxation, it encourages regimes to spend heavily on their coercive apparatus. Military spending as a percentage of GDP, shown in Table 1.6, partly turns on the availability of external rents. The regional average of 6.7 percent is the highest in the world, far exceeding that of the EU (2 percent), Latin America (1.3 percent), East Asia (1.8 percent), South Asia (2.4 percent), and even the United States (3.5 percent). Expenditures for weapons, salaries, equipment, and other military items mean fewer funds for infrastructure, health care, and other public goods. In the Middle East, such securitizing began in the 1950s and rose with repeated wars and conflicts. It peaked in 1980, when military spending represented 15 percent of the region’s total GDP and nearly 40 percent of all arms sold worldwide ended up in MENA countries.

Despite these economic problems, the Middle East does have an untapped source of great potential—its human capital. Today, two-thirds of the MENA population is under twenty-five years of age. On the one hand, as the World Bank points out, this means that the regional workforce will reach 185 million by 2020, requiring the creation of millions of new jobs. On the other hand, the young generation can act as a spark for economic innovation, especially educated young people with the desire to transform their societies. The economic reforms needed to restructure different sectors cannot proceed without greater participation from the people.

Social Conditions: Human Security, Youth, and Gender

Three forces contour the social terrain of the Middle East today: human security, the youth generation, and the gender gap.

Human Security

Table 1.7 displays three indicators of human development—infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy. As the most developed states in the MENA region, Israel and the Gulf countries rival the EU and North America. On the opposite end is Yemen, whose status resembles poorer regions like sub-Saharan Africa. Most MENA countries, however, match Latin America and the lower-income European and Central Asian states. Significantly, countries with the largest rural populaces perform worse due to inadequacies in health care, infrastructure, and other public goods. Such patterns find validation through two common indices used to evaluate social development. The first is the UN Human Development Index (HDI), a composite score measuring longevity and health of life, education, and income, where 1 is the highest and 0 the lowest. In 2013, among the top performers were Norway (.944) and South Korea (.891), while the lowest tier comprised sub-Saharan African states like Liberia (.412) and Niger (.337). Much of the MENA region falls in the middle tier.

These rankings accentuate the Middle East’s status as a middle-income region. However, they also obscure the problem of relative hardship. It is one thing to starve without housing; it is another to eat but not regularly, to work but only seasonally, and to sleep under a roof but without sanitation. Thus, many countries calculate their own poverty rates based upon what they determine are minimally acceptable standards. In 2014, for instance, 14.5 percent of all Americans lived under the federal poverty line established by the US Census Bureau. In Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey, internal estimates suggest that real poverty afflicts over 20 percent of the populace. In Jordan, 14.4 percent of all residents experience year-round poverty, but another 19 percent endure transient poverty due to seasonal income and temporary housing.

Another human-development indicator is inequality. Table 1.7 shows results from the Gini index, which measures income distribution within a society. Gini scores fall between the hypothetical extremes of 0 (perfect equality, where everyone earns the same income) and 1 (perfect inequality, where a single person earns all income). In 2014, the most unequal countries included South Africa (.63) and Honduras (.58), and the most egalitarian states included Sweden (.23) and Belgium (.26). Inequality does not hinge upon GDP; the United States (.45) has a Gini score comparable to Iran and the Philippines. Most Middle East countries have moderate inequality, with Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey representing the worst cases. However, the region has not shown much improvement since the 1990s.

In sum, most governments in the region struggle to provide the goods and services necessary for greater human development. One reason is the prevalence of armed conflict. Wars since the 1950s have not only generated persistent violence but also justified high military expenditures that squeezed funds for basic services like health care and education. Another cause hampering development is food and water insufficiency. In the past, the region’s extreme aridity meant that many areas suffered from the specter of famine. Today, most countries import most of their food, and governments must spend considerably to keep it affordable. Water tells a similar story. The MENA possesses less than 1 percent of the world’s renewable freshwater resources, and its 673 cubic meters of water per person ranks below every other region’s. In agriculture, grand irrigation schemes such as damming have failed to generate year-round farming while wreaking environmental havoc. Meanwhile, aquifers and riparian zones are shrinking due to industrialization and urbanization. A visceral example is the Jordan River, which Israel and Jordan have long exploited. During summers, Bethany Beyond the Jordan—the holy site on the river, where John the Baptist baptized Jesus Christ—becomes little more than a muddy trickle.

TABLE 1.7 Selected Social Indicators for MENA Countries and Global Regions, 2014

TABLE 1.7 Selected Social Indicators for MENA Countries and Global Regions, 2014

Youth Bulge

The MENA’s second social challenge is the bulging youth generation. Table 1.8 shows that the very young, those aged 0 to 14, represent a huge segment of most societies in the region. In Iraq, the Palestinian territories, and Yemen, the very young compose 40 percent of the population, with only tiny Qatar and the UAE having proportions less than 20 percent. For comparative perspective, 29 percent of the MENA’s total populace is aged fourteen or under; this percentage exceeds every other region’s except those of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. For all of today’s difficulties, the future may augur greater crisis, as today’s youngest grow up, finish school, and pursue employment.

To appreciate this looming dilemma, consider that the next oldest segment, those aged fifteen to twenty-four, is highly literate, with most having at least primary education. As Table 1.8 shows, only Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen have youth literacy rates under 90 percent. However, young people in this category make up an extremely high proportion of the labor force without work, with only Israel, Qatar, and the UAE having unemployment figures below 10 percent. The MENA’s average of 30 percent youth unemployment is the highest in the world, with most other regions hovering between 10 to 16 percent. Given this proportion of educated yet disenfranchised youths, it is little wonder why the Arab uprisings spread like wildfire.

What also amplifies the potential for youth-based change is the ubiquity of information and communication technologies. Table 1.8 shows the number of mobile phone subscriptions and Internet users per 100 people per country. These figures correlate with economic development and territorial size, with residents of poorer, larger countries like Yemen and Syria having less access to these tools than residents of wealthier, smaller countries like Israel, Kuwait, and Qatar. On average, though, the MENA is an extremely connected region. Its average of 111 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people far exceeds those of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and even beats that of North America. Its rate of 38 Internet users per 100 people represents half the EU’s average but is comparable to that of East Asia and the Pacific.

Such technological connectedness crucially affects politics, as it allows citizens to circulate ideas and mobilize social networks despite repression. This is especially pertinent in dense urban areas, where the middle classes have long supported popular ideologies and social movements that have transformed their states. The MENA has nearly forty cities with more than a million residents, and many became sites of tenacious protests during the Arab Spring. These urban communities not only thirst for greater economic development but also suffer from common infrastructural shortcomings, among them housing crunches, air and noise pollution, sanitation problems, and power shortages. Paving over old cityscapes with expensive Western-style projects like gated neighborhoods and high-rise towers—as in the satellite suburbs of Cairo, parts of metropolitan Tel Aviv, and the megacity of Dubai—is not the answer, as these schemes ignore existing slums, exploit migrant workers, and reduce services available to other neighborhoods.

TABLE 1.8 Youth Demographics, Mobility, and Technology, 2014

TABLE 1.8 Youth Demographics, Mobility, and Technology, 2014


The final social variable reshaping the MENA is gender. In comparative perspective, the Middle East is a middle-ranking region in terms of gender inequality, faring better than South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa but worse than other regions. Across countries, economic development serves as a helpful predictor of women’s advancement. Table 1.9 provides corroborating data. Yemen and the Palestinian territories have the highest total fertility rates, while more affluent states like Qatar and the UAE are among those with the lowest. Most countries, however, have experienced fertility decline since the 1990s, due to rising education and diminishing infant mortality. Female literacy rates show a similar pattern; poorer and more rural countries like Yemen and Algeria have lower rates, while countries like Israel and Jordan have literacy rates that mirror those in the West. Female enrollment in tertiary education (i.e., colleges and universities) is less predictable. One of the lowest rates, of 12 percent, occurs in both oil-rich UAE and underdeveloped Morocco, whereas half or more of appropriately aged women enter higher education in countries as diverse as Bahrain, Turkey, and Lebanon. Notably, the MENA average of 36.6 percent exceeds even East Asia and the Pacific and represents a quadrupling of its 1990 rate of just 9 percent.

Many other social indicators of women’s rights exist, such as maternity-leave policies, civil status and divorce codes, and protections against sexual assault; most would show similar patterns of cross-country variation and would situate the Middle East as a middle-ranking global region. Where the MENA truly underperforms is in the economic and political engagement of women. With few exceptions, the region suffers very low female participation in the workforce (see Table 1.9). Across the region, just 21.6 percent of women ages fifteen and older enter the workforce, far below not only the West but also sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Indeed, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, and Jordan rank among the worst in the world in this regard. The situation improves slightly when comparing the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments and advisory assemblies. Despite the reality that most legislatures under authoritarian regimes do not hold real power, the gender breakdown in these institutions does help indicate the political visibility of women. Again, the Middle East’s average of 16.1 percent lags behind other regions. However, rates vary from countries that lack almost all female representation (e.g., Qatar, Oman, Kuwait) to those where women hold a greater proportion of legislative seats than even the top-performing countries of the EU (Algeria and Tunisia). A handful of countries also mandate quotas to ensure that women receive a minimum number of seats, such as Morocco and Jordan.

TABLE 1.9 Gender Inequality, 2014

TABLE 1.9 Gender Inequality, 2014

What accounts for gender inequality in the Muslim-majority Middle East? In historical terms, the region commands no monopoly on patriarchy. Since antiquity, almost all human civilizations have been characterized by institutionalized male domination. Only in the last hundred years have gender issues become part of the wider discourse of human rights, and women around the world have been able to attain political, economic, and social rights that approach those held by men. Some Western countries began this process earlier, but the gender gap lingers. In the United States, women still earn only 78 percent of men’s pay for equivalent work; few democracies anywhere exceed 40 percent female legislative representation; and most countries still await their first woman president or prime minister. Within Muslim societies, too, talk of gender equality is neither new nor taboo, and civic organizations and social movements devoted to furthering the dignity and rights of women have existed for the past century. In recent decades, many governments have also launched campaigns to champion gender equality in collaboration with the United Nations, World Bank, and other multilateral organizations. During the Arab Spring, women’s groups participated in many revolutionary protests.

Historical context reveals the struggle for women’s rights in the MENA as diverse and complex. Western imperialism brought with it deep prejudices against Islam, and many local voices resisted by advocating the authenticity of preexisting social practices such as veiling. However, secular activists also began mobilizing during the early twentieth century, pursuing greater educational access, legal rights, and suffrage. During the 1950s and 1960s, young women became core members of the leftist and nationalist movements that swept the region, and dramatic improvements came during these decades, as state-oriented development strategies expanded social services and public-sector employment. Such gains benefited urban more than rural communities, however, and linked gender advancement with the problematic issue of authoritarianism. During their heyday, autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Iraq, and Syria all championed women’s rights as a way to deflect pressures for greater democracy and prove that they were more modern than Islamist alternatives—an argument that is still made today.

Now even basic symbols of gender empowerment have become highly contested in some areas. For instance, prior to the rise of Islamism, many secularists saw veiling as repressive. The first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, took inspiration from Turkey’s Kemalism in banishing religion to the private sphere and virtually prohibited women from wearing the hijab (veil) in public venues. Today, however, many Islamists are women and see the veil as a form of empowerment against the repressive practices of secular authoritarian regimes. Indeed, societal debates over gender equality are now highly politicized, with women’s rights activists often taking opposing sides on issues. Such dynamism, however, disproves one of the oldest stereotypes about the Middle East—that unchanging cultural or religious values have locked women into positions of permanent subordination where they are unable to question or challenge their status. Far from this picture, the landscape of women’s rights in the region has been in constant flux for a century.


The Middle East and North Africa constitute a vast and ancient region. Yet it is not unknowable: the economic structures, political institutions, and social forces shaping these countries today can be analyzed systematically, as this introductory chapter has made clear. Each country in the region is distinctive in its own right, but common religious ties, geographic linkages, and historical legacies all characterize these states as uniquely Middle Eastern.

This volume now shifts from the general to the specific. Building upon the foundation of regional knowledge laid out here, the following chapters delve into specific countries and are ordered by subregion: the Mashriq, Gulf, and Maghrib. Leading experts explore history and politics in finer detail, describing the development of each state while illuminating each culture and society. Patterns of contrast and comparison will become visible, revealing the diversity and complexity of the modern Middle East.


For thorough histories of the Middle East, see Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Peter Mansfield, A History of the Middle East, 4th ed. (New York: Penguin, 2013); William Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 5th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2012); and Eugene Rogan, The Arabs: A History, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2012). For modern political overviews, see R. Stephen Humphreys, Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Roger Owen, State, Power, and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2006); Michelle Penner Angrist, ed., Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013); and Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, eds., Democratization and Authoritarianism in the Arab World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

For work on the region’s geopolitics and international relations, see Louise Fawcett, International Relations of the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics, and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Tareq Ismael and Glenn Perry, eds., The International Relations of the Contemporary Middle East: Subordination and Beyond (London: Routledge, 2013). Studies of US foreign policy include Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); David Lesch and Mark Haas, eds., The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics, and Ideologies, 5th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2013); and Joel Migdal, Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

For analyses of the Arab Spring, see Marc Lynch, ed., The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); Mehran Kamrava, ed., Beyond the Arab Spring: The Evolving Ruling Bargain in the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Fahed al-Sumait, Nele Lenze, and Michael Hudson, eds., The Arab Uprisings: Catalysts, Dynamics, and Trajectories (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015); and Lina Khatib and Ellen Lust, eds., Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

For comparative surveys of the regional economy, see Melani Cammett, Ishac Diwan, Alan Richards, and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015); Roger Owen and Sevket Pamuk, A History of Middle East Economies in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Rodney Wilson, Economic Development in the Middle East, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2010); Clement Moore Henry and Robert Springborg, Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Paul Rivlin, The Israeli Economy from the Foundation of the State Through the 21st Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

For deeper analysis of social conditions, including the roles of youth and women, see Edmund Burke and David Yaghoubian, eds., Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Asef Bayat, Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, 2nd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Valentine Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013); Bahgat Korany, ed., Arab Human Development in the Twenty-First Century: The Primacy of Empowerment (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 2015); and Mahmood Monshipouri, ed., Human Rights in the Middle East: Frameworks, Goals, and Strategies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

For studies of Islam, see L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005); John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Michael Cook, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014). For work on political Islam, see Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994); Fawaz Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and Roxanne Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, eds., Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and Contexts from Al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

For websites on regional affairs, see the Middle East Institute (, Human Rights Watch’s MENA division (, Freedom House’s MENA section (, Al-Bawaba portal (, and Menassat ( For news and analysis, see the New York Times’s Middle East section (, the Washington Post’s Middle East section (, BBC News Middle East (, Middle East Online (, and Al-Monitor ( For updated reference information, see the CIA World Factbook ( and the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection (

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The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa

Eighth Edition

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