Persistence of Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa

Rentierism: A Paradigm in Distress?

Scientific Essay, 2009

12 Pages, Grade: 75%



The region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) appears to be an exception when it comes to the persistence of authoritarianism. Whereas most other regions in the world have embarked upon a path of democratisation, trends in the MENA appear to be adverse. Not only is the MENA’s record appalling in terms of electoral democracies, but the region, on average, has not experienced an improvement in civil liberties and political rights for the last thirty years (Bellin 2004). This paper will look at two aspects concerning the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. The principal aim will be to analyse what the principle cause for the persistence of authoritarianism in the MENA is. A secondary objective will be to establish whether the term MENA exceptionalism is applicable, or whether the persistence of authoritarianism in the region can be explained through general theories on the subject.

In terms of defining the MENA, there are a number of complications. Not all academics writing on the subject use the same definition; e.g. some include Israel, others claim it is socially and politically to divergent, similarly some scholars include Iran, whilst others claim Iran should not be included as it is not Arab. This paper uses the definition employed by Freedom House, one of the most prominent organisations with regard to classifying levels of democracy (Freedom House 2007).

The paper is structured in the following way: the next paragraph will look at the reasons why scholars deem the MENA to be exceptional, and which variables they believe contribute to the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. The same paragraph will then attempt to refute most of those arguments, arguing instead that rentierism is the principal independent variable with regards to the robustness of authoritarian regimes in the MENA. The third paragraph will focus on the concept of rentierism in general and more specifically its relation to oil rich countries. The fourth paragraph looks at how oil poor countries also benefit from rents and how it is possible that levels of authoritarianism in oil rich countries are not hugely affected by oil price fluctuations.

MENA Exeptionalism?

When academics refer to MENA exceptionalism, specifically in relation to the persistence of authoritarianism in the region, they generally mean the trend towards authoritarianism in the MENA, which is in contrast to that of other regions in the world, who are becoming more democratic (Lust-Okar 2003). A number of scholars claim that the MENA can not be applied to general theories concerning authoritarianism and democratisation. This in part has led to the marginalisation of the region in comparative studies (Hudson 2001) and general studies on political transition (Posusney 2004). This paper focuses on the importance of the effects of rent seeking on the persistence of authoritarianism. Therefore the following paragraph will primarily focus on the other proposed variables contributing to the persistence of authoritarianism in the region and attempt to refute them.

The reasons given for this seemingly paradoxical trend are many and varied. Richter (2007) identifies four overlapping theoretical perspectives; the Arab-Islamic political culture, a high degree of state coercion, high amounts of external rent revenues and inclusion or co-optation of key social groups. Bellin (2004) adds to this; weak civil society, large portions of the economy being in state hands, MENA countries being far removed from the epicentre of democracy and the poor, uneducated, unequal nature of these societies. Lust-Okar (2003[1], 2004) and other academics argue that the strength of authoritarian governments in the MENA lies in their ability to weaken the opposition either by co-optation or by fostering resentment and mistrust between secular and Islamic sectors of society.

Richter’s first point is largely based on Edward Said’s “orientalism”, which argues that Islamic values are incompatible with democracy, the conflation of religious and political authority and the subordination of civil society to that authority (Posusney 2004). This position has been reiterated by prominent scholars such as Huntington (1984). With regards to civil society, Norton (1993) notes that many scholars argue that civil society is insignificant or absent in the MENA. Quoting Gellner (in Norton 1993: 212): "[Muslim societies] are suffused with faith, indeed they suffer from a plethora of it, but they manifest at most a feeble yearning for civil society." Civil society is also linked to the degree of privatisation. It is claimed that incumbent rulers in the MENA have a strong desire to resist privatisation as a result of immediate costs of reform and change to the existing social contracts that flow forth from the status quo (Yousef 2004). The other variables given above will be explored in more detail in the next paragraph.


[1] Another variable put forward in Lust-Okar’s paper is the ‘Israel effect’ which is said to give authoritarian regimes greater legitimacy for propping up their military/coercive apparatuses.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Persistence of Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa
Rentierism: A Paradigm in Distress?
Dublin City University
International Relations
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ISBN (Book)
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An original excellent essay. Very well conceived, analytical and based on a substantial reading list. (first class honors)
Authoritarianism, MENA, Rentierism, Democratisation, Exceptionalism, Oil
Quote paper
Ralph Myers (Author), 2009, Persistence of Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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