Middle East - regional review Featured

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MIDDLE EAST: Sykes-Picot no more

To the question ‘What’s wrong with the Middle East?’ the obvious answer has to be ‘Quite a lot’. But serious commentators need to go beyond the obvious. Perhaps the place to start is, as always, with the economy. As the Euro-zone debt crisis has shown, weak economies have a habit of producing discontent. Citizens in the Middle East need to work, eat and provide for their families. But as populations increase faster than gross domestic product (GDP) governments – autocracies – risk getting left behind. The choice, in societies where the state employs a large proportion of the population is between reform or repression. The plot thickens; in the Middle East, autocratic regimes faced with uprisings have tried to change their economies not for the benefit of the populace, but as a means of hanging on to power. A study by the political scientist Oliver Schlumberger (of Tubingen University in Germany and author of Debating Arab Authoritarianism: Dynamics and Durability in Nondemocratic Regimes) suggests that what reforms there have been did not, as it turned out, introduce free market competition. Instead, the reforms buttressed what Dr Schlumberger calls ‘patrimonial capitalism’. In the Middle East the effect of patrimonial capitalism has resulted in reforms being seen as means of further enrichment or, not to put too fine a point on it, further corruption. Patrimonial capitalism has also resulted in increased government employment. In 2012 Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, in an overnight initiative to assuage public discontent, announced the creation of no less than 40,000 jobs. In March 2011 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had announced the creation of 60,000 new security ‘jobs’ as part of a US$93 billion package. He also announced the construction of 500,000 new homes – costing a total of US$67 billion. In many Middle East countries, public employment is the preferred path to a job. Dr Schlumberger describes it as ‘bribing the population into quiescence.’ This form of bribery had also been the default response in Jordan (increased subsidies), in Yemen (higher public sector salaries). In Libya the ousted Qadafi had sought not only to raise public employees’ salaries by as much as one hundred and fifty per cent, but also to give every Libyan family a hand-out equivalent to US$400. This almost Pavlovian response risked weakening whatever tenuous grip the rulers may have retained on their citizens. It was a rather obvious revelation that the one thing most governments could still deploy, short of violence, was hard cash. At the same time it suggested that if there was money, it had not been used for the benefit of the people. Instead it had been siphoned off and sent to Swiss bank accounts. On the Transparency International Corruption perceptions Index of the 174 countries surveyed, only two Arab countries – Qatar and the UAE – made the top 50. Seven managed a ranking in the top 100 and nine – including Egypt and Lebanon – ranked below 100. Bottom of the pile were Sudan (173) and Iraq (169). Sadly, the process of reform, where it exists, has unnecessarily (but perhaps inevitably given the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood) come to be seen as a conflict between Islamisation and modernisation. Deposing tyrants is one thing. Replacing them with an acceptable alternative has turned out to be quite another.

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