Andrea Teti: Middle East – political reforms, regional powers and external actors

Introducing Andrea Teti

Andrea TetiDr Andrea Teti (Naples, 1973) is Lecturer in International Relations at University of Aberdeen. His teaching focuses on Middle Eastern history and politics, and on political theory (particularly post-structuralism). Dr Teti studied for his MA (Hons.) and PhD at the University of St Andrews.

In this interview, he elaborates on some of the key challenges for the Middle East in the 21st century. Two other parts of the interview can be read here:

Interview

Politics in the Middle East

In which countries are political reforms most likely during the next decade?

This is extremely difficult to tell, both because the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) comprises a great variety of political systems, and because political and economic reform is dependent on a series of factors ranging from internal power balances to a permissive global context. The best chances for liberalising –if not democratising– political reform would see the conjunction of both sets of factors, but history suggests this is unlikely.

Leaving aside the tainted fruits of reform by ‘regime change’, which present a different set of problems and in any case seem very unlikely in the current political climate, internal factors are crucial: reforms, by definition, risk undermining ruling elites’ position and therefore make ruling regimes extremely sensitive to pressures to open up. Basically, there is an argument to say that to have any chance of success, reform must somehow include ruling groups.

The international context is also crucial, but insofar as it requires the convergence of several actors with differing if not divergent interests, it may make reform harder rather than easier. Already there have been Russian regional forays, particularly connected to oil and gas (not to forget Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow), and China has become an increasingly important actor simply because of its growth as a trading partner and its interest in energy supplies from the Gulf and from Central Asia.

For liberalising and democratising reforms to work, each major power with influence in the region would have to make short-term sacrifices in the notoriously difficult balance between short-run political stability which provides incentives against reform and for ‘stability’, and the long-term positive consequences which are expected from the development of democratic and economically developed states (à la Democratic Peace thesis).

As if that weren’t already difficult enough, ‘democratisation’ is a word now tainted by the second Bush Administration’s (ab)use of it: it will be no small task to disentangle democracy-promotion from the counter-insurgency or indeed neo-liberal free marketeering agendas to which it has been bound over the past few years – a task which has hardly even begun.

A frequently underestimated dimension is the impact of the kind of democracy being promoted. Typically, democracy-promotion efforts, particularly by Western governments’, IOs and state-linked organisations, have focused on the institutional framework and processes (parliaments, elections, etc.). But aside from a degree of commitment to ‘rule of law’ and human rights defence – a commitment often first in the line of political fire when supposedly greater ‘national interests’ are at stake – these same programmes typically eschew issues of social and economic justice (as does much literature on democratic transitions, incidentally). The funding and political attention given to, say, workers’ rights or welfare provisions is absolutely dwarfed by money and coverage elections receive, for example. These issues, however, are crucial for the stability and legitimacy of any democratic post-transitional order, and without them any pro-reform efforts from both within and from outside are likely to be more politically vulnerable and less credible.

Finally, the pursuit of reform is conducted in the West with the assumption that reform will (and should) lead to a kind ‘polyarchic’ liberal democracy, and that these will be ‘naturally’ aligned with the West. And yet, even setting aside the myriad objections and problems which such a purely procedural understanding of democracy raise, despite the best efforts of the defenders of the Liberal Peace Thesis, it is far from obvious that this direction of reform and strategic alignment are demonstrably the case. In fact, if anything, the most interesting dimension of those reforms which have taken place since 1991 is another kind of convergence, namely the frequent points of similarity and overlap with their Western counterparts, rather than the supposedly glaring differences between the ‘West’ and the ‘Islamic world’ (analytically empty concepts which should be avoided in any case!). Examples abound, but just think of the articulation of the relationship between security and civil liberties by most states particularly after ‘9/11’.

This is only the briefest of sketches, but as you can imagine, if we’re trying to evaluate the prospect for some kind of progressive reform in the region, for all these elements to simultaneously align is highly unlikely, so what we can expect is, at best, a patchwork of reforms and retrenchment: if trends over the past few decades are any indication, reform will be gradual, and often messy.

Which countries in the region will be most powerful during the 21st century?

This will very much depend on the outcome of the reform/retrenchment dynamics we just outlined, but it seems difficult to imagine a region in which Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will not continue to be influential in the medium term at least. Longer term ‘predictions’ are notoriously difficult to make, and in terms of what configurations of formal and informal alliances will emerge a lot will depend on a series of factors such as the emergent multipolar configuration of global politics (i.e. on how US, EU and Japanese interactions with Russia, China, and India play out, for example), the future of energy sources and technologies, and of course population trends.

Of course, it’s interesting to speculate on a question like this –not only interesting, it is unavoidable from a policy point of view, and this has given rise to a highly profitable cottage industry of pundits and analysts in academia, think tanks and of course governments commissioning research– but the truth is that of course most of the time predictions are either generic to the point of platitude, or they tend to turn into the academic equivalent of embarrassing baby pictures!

I would argue it’s more interesting – or at least, as important – to think in terms of the possible ways in which the regional (and global) system(s) as a whole will evolve, i.e. to ask what kind of international politics we are likely to see in the medium- to longer-term. From this vantage point, the prospect for substantial novelties is less than encouraging: dealing with a series of difficult crises from energy to environment, and in what appears to be an increasingly conservative and defensive political climate in the ‘West’ (e.g. on immigration), Western governments seem to have either been far too slow (e.g. environment) or far too defensive (immigration, civil liberties and security). This regression suggests a very rocky near future in terms of prospects for progressive politics either at the local level or internationally.

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