Why Hasn’t Democracy Worked in the Middle East?


For anyone following the news the past year (or past 60 years), Middle Eastern governments have seemed resistant to the Western ideals of democracy. One might hopelessly come to the conclusion that the Middle East is not susceptible to democratic norms and progressive ideas. However, many overlook the reality that the contemporary Middle-East as we know it is only about 60 years old (give or take).

Thus, like all young states, they are still transitioning and learning. The Arab Spring was an example of the populist backlash against autocratic governance. However, this Arab Spring has now digressed into what seems to be an Islamist Winter. To understand how the Middle East arrived here, we need to look back briefly into early history, and then look closely at the 20th century.

Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: A camel handler exercises his animal along the Nad al-Sheba camel track, in front of the Burj Dubai "New Downtown" construction site in the emirate of Dubai 02 April, 2007. Upon completion, Burj Dubai is expected to be the tallest tower in the world. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Convergence of Arab Cultures

Prior to the Arab independence movements in the 1950s, the Middle East had evolved from a convergence of advanced ancient civilizations: the Egyptians in 3150 BC, the Assyrian Empire in 1000 BC, the Persian Empire and the Byzantine Empire in the beginning AD ages, and later the Ottoman Turks in the 13th century. The cultural exchange, wars, trade, and migration of people synthesized the Middle-East over thousands of years to create Arab culture.


Although there are shared histories, cultures, and values among the different peoples of the Middle East, the longstanding ethnic groups and cultures within various regions developed their own identities and nationalism. Even during the Ottoman Empire, the provinces within the empire were allowed to carry on their religious practices, customs, and languages. This allowed Arabs to still have pride and celebrate their unique national identities. This will become an important lesson in the next section “European Colonialism” and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. 


European Colonialism

During the 15, 16th, and 17th centuries, there were naval rivalries between Spain and the Ottoman Empire, which spurred a shift in attention toward the Middle East and North Africa. Italy The fight against the Barbary Pirates brought France into Algeria, which led to its colonization. Thus began the introduction of European colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East by England, France, and Italy.


The longstanding 600+ year reign of the Ottoman Empire came to end with its defeat in World War I in 1918. Totally weakened, divided, and at the mercy of the victors of WWI, the Ottoman Empire was divided by two white men looking at a map in a hotel room. Pictured above; Sir Mark Sykes (left)(Britain) and Francois Georges-Picot (right)(France) who created the Sykes-Picot Agreement that shaped the boundaries of the modern Middle East. The two had little regard for pre-existing sectarian differences, tribalism, nomadic culture, religious affiliations, ethnic relations, or geopolitics of the region. They simply drew straight lines so that France was to control the north (Syria and Lebanon) and British controlled the south (Palestine (Israel), Iraq, and Transjordan (Jordan).

The Sykes-Picot agreement was a failed attempt to implement western colonialism and introduce the Westphalian state model on a heterogeneous population in the Middle East where no single religious or ethnic group made up more than 50% of the population.


Some of the many examples of how these carelessly drawn borders affected the region include:

  • Lebanon was supposed to be a haven for Christians (especially Maronites) and Druze, but instead turned out to be a total cluster-you-know-what of competing  religious groups (namely minority Christians who encompassed the political elite versus majority Shia Muslims who were excluded from Lebanese government).
  • Rather than addressing and mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the British simply abandoned the province when the area became violent. After independence from Britain and becoming a sovereign state in 1948, Israel and Palestine are still marred in controversy, violence, and division.
  • The Kurds who inhabitated the oil rich areas of Iraq were left with no state of their own following the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Instead, they lived semi-autonomously in Eastern Syria, Northern Iraq, Western Iran, and Southern Turkey. Once oil was discovered in Iraq, the Iraqi government fought the Kurds out of their homeland and into the mountains north of the oilfields.

Oil and the Creation of Petro States

A major turning  in the history in of the Middle East came when oil was discovered in Persia (now called Iran) in 1908 and later in Saudi Arabia in 1938. Oil was soon found in other Persian Gulf states along with Libya and Algeria. A Western dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decline of the British Empire led to a growing American interest in the region.

After the end of World War 2, the colonial powers began decolonizing their territories in order to rebuild their shattered countries back home in Europe. Power was transitioned from the European colonial governors to the trusted elites of each country. America was in the perfect position to pivot its foreign economic policy toward the Middle East in order to capitalize on the oil reserves (thanks to the boom in the auto industry and post-World War II economic boom). This came at the moral expense of befriending countries that were far from democratic. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and UAE; all monarchies and all ruled with an iron fist for the majority of the 20th century.

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - NOVEMBER 3: Khalid Abdulla Alhajeri looks at a natural gas pipe November 3, 2002 in Manama, Bahrain. The country was the first in the Arab side of the Gulf to discover oil. The country is the home port for the United States Navy's 5th Fleet, the battle group that patrols the Gulf. The kingdom is a crucial link in any war with Iraq. The Navy has had a base there since 1948. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


So Why Doesn’t Democracy Work?

A lesson in rentier economies and the resource curse

  1. Colonial legacy and its modern day influences  

When the French, British, and Italians colonized their spheres of influence, they appointed Arab men who they believed could best govern in their stead. However, due to the shallow monetary intentions of the Western powers, they failed to implement democratic ideals into their spheres of influence.

Western greed was contagious due to the seemingly huge rewards through oil and ruling with brute force. These practices carried on in ensuing regimes rather than creating open-ended competition in politics and diversifying state economies. Any rival parties were jailed, overthrown, or killed. A byproduct of this were longstanding rulers who ruled for decades and passed down their power through appointments or blood-heirs.

  1. Dependence on oil economy

After the discovery of oil, the elites of Middle East states knew there would fortunes to be made. Rather than use their oil to diversify their economies, they used it as a tool to create an autocratic rule of law. This was due to foreign investment or what some scholars call “rents” (See:  Rentier Economy). In other words, the state does not produce revenue for the country. Foreign investment funds the state’s coffers. I will go into detail about how this relates to governance in the following points.

3.     Opaque government      

Resource-rich countries’ government and elites adopted an indifferent attitude towards their citizenry because they do not rely on the population for tax revenues. In economies like ours; governments will tax citizens, who in return demand that they receive representation, benefits, and rights from the government.

In countries whose economies are dominated by natural resources, however, rulers don’t need to tax their citizens because they have a guaranteed source of income from natural resources. Because the country’s citizens aren’t taxed by the government, the government believes they have less reason to care about how the government spends money.

Corrupt politicians within the regimes may work with resource extraction companies in order to create laws that favor the companies. Moreover, these laws usually disregard any objections made by affected citizens. The United States Foreign Relations Committee report entitled “Petroleum and Poverty Paradox” states that “too often, oil money that should go to a nation’s poor ends up in the pockets of the rich, or it may be squandered on grand palaces and massive showcase projects instead of being invested productively”.

4.    Lack of civic participation                                                      

In addition, those benefiting from mineral resource wealth may perceive a watchful civil service and civil society as a threat to the benefits that they enjoy, and the government will take measures to silence them.

5.    Large security apparatus                                                            

As a result, citizens are often poorly served by their governments. If the citizens raise protest or complain, revenues from the rentier economy enables governments to pay for armed forces to keep the citizens in check. It has been argued rises and falls in the price of petroleum correlate with ebb and flow of human rights in major oil-producing countries.

Today: 2011 Arab Spring turns into 2014 Islamist Winter

The reaction to 60+ years of authoritarian rule came in the form widespread protest in 2011 when a young man lit himself on fire in Tunisia because there were no opportunities to move ahead in life. The domino effect that spread across the Middle East gave the world hope that this was the Middle East’s moment for democratic reforms. However, as any historian will tell you, “Revolution is easy. Creating governance is hard”. Especially when you are going against former military elites, political elites, and steadfast Islamist parties (who have been marginalized since the beginning of Arab Nationalistic movements). All of which are vying for power in a vacuum of chaos and disorder once the autocratic rulers were ousted. ISIS has proven itself to be a worthy alternative to the corrupt and failing Arab states.



There are glimmers of hope. The catalyst country of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, was a success story of peaceful transition into democracy. The ensuing failures of the Arab Spring can be attributed to the unyielding devotion of the military apparatus and ruling elites to their regimes. Strong military-government relationships resulted in protestors being dispersed, shot at, arrested, or killed. Understanding these trends can help future movements succeed when the time comes for action. Egypt has experienced 3 transitions and is still in a state of revolution due to their unwavering desire for democracy.

To say that the people of the Middle East don’t want democracy is a farce. The Arab Spring, Libyan civil uprising, and Syrian civil war are prime examples of people rising against their governments for the hope of a better life and democracy. They are living and dying for the chance of freedom.


The defeat of the Ottoman Empire allowed the victors, Britain and France, to carve up the Middle East with arbitrary borders that had no consideration for different ethnicities, religious affiliations, tribes, and sectarian divides. Compounded with this was the discovery of oil in 1908, which brought American interests into the Middle East. Thus, the colonial rulers (Britain, France, USA) created provinces and governments founded on narrow economies derived from one or few resources (namely oil and minerals).

The economies of the Middle East flourished with oil, but this gave way to major disparities in wealth and didn’t allow for diversification of industries (good luck finding work if you wanted to be an ad exec or if you lived far away from the capitol). In order for governments to protect their oil assets, they created massive security apparatuses to legitimize their regimes and quell any civilian dissent. Soldiers and top brass were paid handsomely to serve the regime and obey any command (even if that meant kidnap, torture, and/or killing fellow citizens). If a regime was nice enough or rich enough, a way to ensure their citizens’ loyalty was for the state to disperse benefits and raise income at the expense of civil freedoms. And thus, people went about their lives rarely unable to participate in governance, politics, or civic society due to the regime’s opaque governance.




What Do You Think?

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  • anthony l. jacobs says:

    I was hoping the article would have more specificity regarding the history of specific tribes and the conflict between them; and how the middle east could have been divided more effectively and intelligently by Sykes and Picot, hopefully in cooperation with Middle East leaders —- who were the Middle East leaders? If any?

  • yvette m martinez says:

    At last the truth surfaces. I hope we find a way to correct it for the people.

  • John Broomfield says:

    Handing a people democracy may cause them not to value democracy as much as those people that shed blood to establish their democracy.

    Expect a great future for Syria if the brightest and most determined refugees return to build their country.

  • Hassan Moola says:

    1) ‘Power was transitioned from the European colonial governors to the trusted elites of each country…….’

    1b) Those ‘trusted elites’ – are the stooges & puppets who WORK for the Western DEMOCRATIC governments – whose task it is, to ensure their Masters commands are carried out to the letter, failing which, they themselves will be replaced by coups & assassination…..Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi

    2) ‘This came at the moral expense of befriending countries that were far from democratic…..’
    2b) ‘moral expense’ ….thats a crock of SHIT…..the West ( governments & business) have colluded to STEAL the oil from the Muslim World & bolster their own economies while keeping the Muslims in a state of slavery / submission / poverty.
    The USA could NEVER have become a super power, without the Petrodollar & the subsequent advantage it created by forcing international trade to be conducted in US dollars…..

    3) ‘Thus, the colonial rulers (Britain, France, USA) created provinces and governments founded on narrow economies derived from one or few resources (namely oil and minerals)….’
    3b) These colonial RULERS ….. ensured & perpetuated the oppression & subjugation of Muslims, the world over {2 Billion people}, through politics/ economics/ wars & the United Nations.

    4) ‘However, as any historian will tell you, “Revolution is easy. Creating governance is hard”. Especially when you are going against former military elites, political elites,….’
    4b) Thaaaaats CRAP…..any historian worth his salt will tell you…..Islam as a religious, political, social & economic ideology was by far, the MOST {democratic} system in practice since the 7th century, long BEFORE anything equivalent in ALL of Europe. Least you forget….There was a time when Europe was in the DARK AGES…….it was Islams conquest of Spain that shone LIGHT on Europe……actually….I could confidently suggest….that had it not been for Muslims translating & learning of Greek literature, democracy could have taken many more centuries to take root in Europe, if ever.

    On a personal note, NO disrespect intended, I had read and appreciated your article to a great extent. It is closer to the truth (from my perspective) than anything I have read, recently. I thank you for your contribution and look forward to your correspondence.

  • Tristan La Roche says:

    Agreed. Two of the key tribes in the development of the current Middle East are Saud and Shammar of Arabia. Another is the Hashim now the Jordanians. The Shammar moved into the north of Arabia from Yemen very early in the first century, they are descended from the Tavy. They claim Dinah, sister of the son’s of Jacob as an ancestor. They also come down from the princes of Ishmael, as do many Mid East peoples today.

    After the founding of Wahhabism by Ibn Wahhab and his joining with Ibn Saud in the 18th century ( a building of church and state if you will) they took their religion by force to many tribes, some fell, some like Shammar stood against it. Led by Al Rasheed they refused this new doctrine. In 1921, with help from the British (Philby and Cox) the Saud took the Shammar/Al Rasheed capital of Ha’il by force and crushed the Shammar into silence and took their lands, not surprising the bits containing lots of oil. The Shammar Tribes (today around 18 million strong) are found in Syria, North Arabia, Iraq and scattered through the Gulf States and Kuwait. It is their lands ISIL have been running rampant on, and their cities (Mosul etc) they have been destroying. Under the Al Rasheed Kingdom they operated an open and co-operative society now silenced by the Saudis. They were a step or two away from democracy of a type.

    Today they are going through the process of reuniting the tribes under what they call “Political Tribalism” in order to set a Human Rights platform to bring democracy to Arabia. Currently a suicide mission, but they will prevail, I am sure.

    Like you I enjoyed the article. There is a lot of room for debate, however should you wish to see what is happening with Shammar, check out my site… in truth Euphrates should as well. The Lord bless us all.

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