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Thursday, 19 April 2012

Why Does Arab World Mean No Democracy?

Have you wondered why the Arab world lacks democracy? Why, a year after the Arab Spring, things still seem to be stuck in the same ole quagmire in those nations?

Of course, some answers spring to mind readily: theocratic nations, lack of vibrant civil infrastructure, a powerful military, oil wealth ... But how do these factors add up? And between Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia lies a vast gulf, surely?

Today while on the cross trainer, which I use to work the grey cells as well as muscles, I came across a very interesting article by Fareed Zakaria in the Time: A Region At War With Its HistoryZakaria discusses a paper by a Harvard economics professor, Eric Chaney, in which he has asked the question: why is there a democracy deficit in the Arab nations? Chaney posits this question against existing hypotheses, such as:

- Is Islam the cause?

No, since majority-Muslim nations such as Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia have functioning democratic systems

- Is oil to blame?

Nope again, since democracy can go missing even in countries with no significant oil resources, such as Syria

- Is Arab culture the culprit?

Not alone, since even the Central Asian Stans - Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan - and Iran and Chad, distinctly non-Arab countries, are not democratic either.

Instead, Chaney presents a very interesting hypotheses by examining the history of these lands. He notes that democracy deficit exists in lands that were conquered by Arab armies after 632 AD upon the Prophet's death. Thereafter, lands that the Arabs controlled in 12th century are the ones which show a democracy deficit to this day.

This isn't a spurious correlation and it isn't the first time that scholars have negatively correlated the Arab imperial system with economic pluralism. Chaney states that in Arab lands the government's share of GDP is 7% higher on average than in other countries that weren't conquered. Arab countries also have fewer trade unions and less access to credit - all important features of a vibrant civil society.

You may not agree with Professor Chaney, or may want to investigate this hypothesis further.You can read the professors's paper here.

Meanwhile, it does provide an interesting scaffolding on which to hang the various factors that go into the equation of why Arab world does not equal democracy.

What do you think?


  1. "The truth is out there, Neo. It's looking for you and it will find you, if you want it to.
    from Matrix, the movie.

    That said, the answer is rather bland and I am afraid, it is politically incorrect too. Islam is not conducive to democracy.

    1. Interesting, the way you juxtapose the Matrix quote. Perhaps what you say is correct. I am equivocal on that though. Islam, or its practice today, is not as monolithic as we might believe. There are versions of Islam - the SE version is definitely tempered with multicultural influence. It's the 12th century medieval Wahabbised version propagated by Saudi Arabia that is inimical to contemporary world.

      As always, no easy answers. Sigh!

    2. Wahhabism is an 18th century movement..

  2. why indeed???...and quite an interesting hypothesis!!

    1. Isn't it? As I mention in the post, it provides a framework, at least.


  3. Manreet, I can't comment on why there is deficit of democracy in so many countries of Arab world, but I am not convinced with the logic of the arguments of Chaney.

    For example the reason to the question "is arab culture is resoponsible" and the answer says no because "Not alone, since even the Central Asian Stans - Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan - and Iran and Chad .." - but if there are other reasons in other cultures, it does not disapprove the argument that it could be arab culture ..

    Actually, I don't think it is arab culture, but I mean that as a logic it seems flawed.

    1. I think when Chaney asks 'Is Arab culture responsible' he means as 'is it a necessary condition' ? Clearly not, as he proves then by the example of the Central Asian 'Stans' and other non-Arab non-democratic nations.

  4. Interesting findings..I guess we have to differentiate between GCC and the Arab world. The oil rich GCC nations are relatively young nations with history of 50-100 odd years only. Before that they were just small clans....Democracy is still in nascent stages, its evolving slowly including in our own country, in far east Japan, Korea and not to forget China !

    1. True. And Arab culture, in Saudi Arabia definitely, has ossified at the medieval times.

  5. Most of the lands that you do refer have been conquered with bloodshed, and also probably by nomadic tribes.. who turned these lands into greater fiefdoms.. A probable but possible cause.

  6. may be they just wanted to be different from the entire they gave up on democracy :P