During democratization’s so-called third wave, democracy ceased being a mostly Western phenomenon and “went global.” When the third wave began in 1974, the world had only about forty democracies, and just a few lay outside the West. By 1995, that number had shot up to one hundred and seventeen (three of every five states), and a critical mass of democracies existed in every major world region save one: the Middle East. Moreover, every one of the world’s major cultural realms had become host to a significant democratic presence, albeit again with a single exception, the Arab world. Fifteen years later, this exception still stands.

The continuing absence of even a single democratic regime in the Arab world is a striking anomaly—the principal exception to the globalization of democracy. Why is there no Arab democracy? Indeed, why is it the case that among the sixteen independent Arab states of the Middle East and coastal North Africa, Lebanon is the only one to have ever been a democracy?


The most common assumption about the Arab democracy deficit is that it must have something to do with religion or culture. After all, the one thing that all Arab countries share is that they are Arab. They speak the same language (at least to the extent that they share the lingua franca of classical Arabic), and it is often suggested that there are cultural beliefs, structures, and practices more or less common to all countries of the region. Moreover, they share the same predominant religion, Islam.

Yet if we ask which regimes meet the minimum test of electoral democracy (free and fair elections to determine who rules), we find that there are eight non-Arab Muslim-majority states rated by Freedom House as democracies today, and zero Arab ones. Similarly, Freedom House scales show a substantial gap in the level of freedoms between the Arab and non-Arab Muslim-majority states. So much for religion, but what about culture?

Outside the Arab world a number of countries with Muslim political traditions have had some significant experiences with democracy. So why has modern democracy taken hold in a number of countries in Africa and Asia for which there really were no precedents, but not in the Arab world? Why has democratization remained an insurmountable obstacle in the Arab world but not in large swaths of the rest of the world that had once also known only authoritarian rule? It is clear that ethnic or religious differences do not pose a more severe obstacle to democracy in the Arab world than they do in countries such as Ghana, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. Again, something else must be going on.

Maybe Arab populations simply do not want or value electoral democracy the way mass publics have come to desire and value this form of self-government in other regions of the world. But then how do we account for the overwhelming shares of Arab populations who say they believe democracy is the best form of government and would be good for their country? Look at the way Iraqis turned out to vote three times in 2005, amid widespread and dire risks to their physical safety, and it is hard to conclude that Arabs do not care about democracy. By contrast, when elections (as in Egypt) offer little meaningful choice, or where (as in Morocco) they are of little consequence in determining who will really rule, it is not surprising that most people become disillusioned and opt not to vote.

The Arab Democracy Deficit

But Arab support for democracy is a complex story. In five countries surveyed between 2003 and 2006 by the Arab Barometer, 56 percent of respondents agreed that “men of religion should have influence over government decisions.” When support for democracy and support for some kind of Islamic form of government are cross-tabulated, the generic pattern is something like this: 40–45 percent of each public supports secular democracy while roughly the same proportion backs an Islamic form of democracy; meanwhile, 5–10 percent of the public supports secular authoritarianism and the same proportion supports Islamic authoritarianism. Here is where religion and attitudes do enter in as relevant factors. The Arab Barometer data do not tell us what proportion of those who opt for both “democracy” and Islamic influence in government favor an understanding of democracy that includes as essential not only majority rule but also minority rights.

There are eight non-Arab Muslim-majority states rated by Freedom House as democracies today, and zero Arab ones.

There remains another problem. Among the secular democrats in the Arab world are the kinds of middle-class liberal intellectuals, professionals, and businessmen who have pressed for democracy elsewhere around the globe. Many of these secular democrats worry about the imminent political alternative to the authoritarian regime they dislike. They fear that it would not be some modestly Islamist version of a resolutely constitutional democracy, but rather a regime dominated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordanian Islamic Action Front, or some other hard-line and antidemocratic Islamist political force—a new and more ominous hegemony. It is easy to see how democracy is checked by the fear that radical Islam is waiting just offstage should a current regime collapse.


The more well-to-do a country, the better its prospects for gaining and keeping democracy. By now, however, many Arab countries are quite well off. If we compare per capita income levels, Kuwait is nearly as rich as Norway, Bahrain is on a par with France, Saudi Arabia with Korea, and Lebanon with Costa Rica. Only Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen fall toward the lower end, but still these countries are no poorer in per capita terms than India or Indonesia, where democracy functions despite a lack of broad prosperity.

Of course, per capita income figures can be deceiving. The distribution of income can be badly skewed—and it is in the Arab world. Moreover, oil countries in particular look much more developed than they are. Most rank much lower on “human development” than they do in per capita monetary income. Still, one can find at any level of development—and by any measure—numerous democracies that are about as developed as the respective Arab nondemocracies.

Ethnic or religious differences don’t pose a worse obstacle to democracy in the Arab world than in countries like Ghana, India, Indonesia, and South Africa. Something else must be going on.

If the problem is not economic level, maybe it is economic structure. Of the sixteen Arab countries, eleven depend heavily on oil and gas rents (in essence, unearned income) to keep their states afloat. Most are so awash in cash that they do not need to tax their own citizens. And that is part of the problem—they fail to develop the organic expectations of accountability that emerge when states make citizens pay taxes.

There is much more to the “oil curse” than just big states and apathetic citizens. Oil states are not merely big—they are heavily centralized too, since oil wealth accrues to the central state. They are usually intensely policed, since there is plenty of money to lavish on a huge and active state-security apparatus. They are also profoundly corrupt. In these systems, the state is large and repressive. It may support any number of bloated bureaucracies as de facto jobs programs meant to buy political peace with government paychecks. Civil society is weak and co-opted.

And what passes for the market economy is severely distorted. Where oil dominates, there is little wealth creation through investment and risk-taking, for why take risks when there are steady profits to be made at no risk? And then there are the other grim dimensions of the “paradox of plenty,” such as the boom-and-bust cycles that go with dependence on primary commodities, as well as the more general tendency for windfall mineral rents to smother or pre-empt the development of industry and agriculture.

There is, then, an economic basis for the absence of democracy in the Arab world. But it is structural. It has to do with the ways in which oil distorts the state, the market, the class structure, and the entire incentive structure. Particularly in an era of high global oil prices, the effects of the oil curse are relentless: not a single one of the twenty-three countries that derive most of their export earnings from oil and gas is a democracy today.


Two key pillars of Arab authoritarianism are political. They encompass the patterns and institutions by which authoritarian regimes manage their politics and keep their hold on power, along with the external forces that help sustain their rule. These authoritarian structures and practices are not unique to the Arab world, but Arab rulers have raised them to a high pitch of refinement and wield them with unusual skill. Although the typical Arab state may not be efficient in everyday ways, its mukhabarat (secret-police and intelligence apparatus) is normally amply funded, technically sophisticated, highly penetrating, legally unrestrained, and splendidly poised to benefit from extensive cooperation with peer institutions in the region as well as Western intelligence agencies.

One obstacle to democratization is the fear that radical Islam is waiting just offstage should a regime collapse.

Yet most Arab autocracies do not rely on unmitigated coercion and fear to survive. Rather, repression is selective and heavily mixed with (and thus often concealed by) mechanisms of representation, consultation, and co-optation. Limited pluralistic elections play an important role in about half the sixteen Arab autocracies.

Indeed, in such systems even liberalization is not linear but cyclical and adaptive. When pressure mounts, both from within the society and from outside, the regime loosens its constraints and allows more civic activity and a more open electoral arena—until political opposition appears as if it may grow too serious and effective. Then the regime returns to more heavy-handed methods of rigging elections, shrinking political space, and arresting the usual suspects. The electoral arena in these states is thus something like a huge pair of political lungs, breathing in (at times deeply and excitedly) and expanding, but then inevitably exhaling and contracting when limits are reached.

A common pattern in Arab autocracies is “managed reform,” in which the language of political reform is adopted in order to avoid the reality. Limited economic and social reforms are embraced to pursue modernization without democratization. To the extent that political competition and pluralism are allowed in these Arab regimes (which include Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Egypt), it is within rules and boundaries carefully drawn to ensure that regime opponents are disadvantaged and disempowered. Electoral practices are chosen and tilted to privilege personal ties and tribal candidates over organized political parties, especially Islamist ones. Parliaments that result from these limited elections have no real power to legislate or govern, as more or less unlimited authority continues to reside with hereditary kings and imperial presidents.

Oil-rich states fail to develop the expectations of accountability that emerge when states make citizens pay taxes. They are also centralized, heavily policed, and corrupt.

Yet opposition parties face serious costs whether they boycott these semi-charades or take part in them. If oppositionists participate in elections and parliament, they risk becoming co-opted—or at least being seen as such by a cynical and disaffected electorate. Yet if they boycott the “inside game” of electoral and parliamentary politics, the “outside game” of protest and resistance offers little realistic prospect of influence, let alone power. Caught on the horns of such dilemmas, political oppositions in the Arab world become divided, suspicious, and torn from within. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Islamist parties that stand resolutely outside the system, while building up social-welfare networks and religious and ideological ties at the grassroots, garner long-term bases of popular support. Secular parties, by contrast, look marginal, halting, and feckless.


The unfavorable geopolitical situation confronting Arab democracy extends well beyond the overwhelming factor of oil, though oil drives much of the major powers’ interest in the region. External support for Arab regimes, historically coming in part from the Soviet Union but now mainly from Europe and the United States, confers on Arab autocracies crucial economic resources, security assistance, and political legitimacy. In these circumstances, for non-oil regimes such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, foreign aid is like oil: another source of rents that regimes use for survival. Like oil, aid flows into the central coffers of the state and helps give it the means to both co-opt and repress.

Political oppositions in the Arab world become divided, suspicious, and torn from within. Secular parties look marginal and feckless.

Two other external factors further reinforce the internal hegemony of Arab autocracies. One is the Arab-Israeli conflict, which hangs like a miasma over Middle Eastern political life. It provides a ready and convenient means of diverting public frustration away from the corruption and human rights abuses of Arab regimes. Protests over the failings of Arab regimes themselves—the poor quality of education and social services; the lack of jobs, transparency, accountability, and freedom—are banned, but Arab publics can vent their anger in the press and on the streets in the one realm where it is safe: condemnation of Israel.

The second external factor is the other Arab states themselves, which reinforce one another in their authoritarianism and which over the decades have turned the Arab League into an unapologetic autocrats’ club. Of all the major regional organizations, the Arab League is the most bereft of democratic norms and means for promoting or encouraging them. In fact, its charter, which has not been amended in half a century, lacks any mention of democracy or individual rights. Beyond all this is the lack of a single clear example of Arab democracy, which means that there is no source of democratic diffusion or emulation anywhere inside the Arab world. Even in a globalized era, this matters.


Is the Arab world simply condemned to an indefinite future of authoritarian rule? I do not think so. Even the beginnings of a change in U.S. foreign policy in 2003–5 encouraged political opening and gave space for popular democratic mobilization in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and the Palestinian Authority. Although most of these openings have partly or fully closed for the time being, at least Arab oppositions and civil societies had some taste of what democratic politics might look like. Opinion surveys suggest that they clearly want more, and new social-media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, and the mobile-phone revolution are giving Arabs new opportunities to express themselves and to mobilize.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, which hangs like a miasma over Middle Eastern political life, provides a ready means of diverting public frustration away from the corruption and human rights abuses of Arab regimes.

Three factors could precipitate democratic change. One would be the emergence of a single democratic polity in the region, particularly in a country that might be seen as a model. If Iraq progresses politically, first by democratically selecting a new government this year and then by having it function decently and peacefully as U.S. forces withdraw, that could gradually change perceptions in the region. Egypt also bears watching, as the sun slowly sets on eighty-one-year-old Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of personal rule.

Second would be a change in U.S. policy to resume principled engagement and more extensive practical assistance to encourage and press for democratic reforms, not just in the electoral realm but with respect to enhancing judicial independence and governmental transparency as well as expanding freedom of the press and civil society. If this were pursued in a more modest tone, and reinforced to some degree by European pressure, it could help rejuvenate and protect domestic political forces that are now dispirited and in disarray. But to proceed along this path, the United States and its European allies would have to overcome their undifferentiated view of Islamist parties and engage those Islamist actors who would be willing to commit more clearly to liberal-democratic norms.

The biggest game changer would be a prolonged, steep decline in world oil prices (say to half of current levels). Although the smallest of the gulf oil kingdoms would remain rich at any conceivable price, the bigger countries such as Saudi Arabia would find it necessary to broach the question of a new political bargain with their own burgeoning (and very young) publics. When one looks at what has happened to democracy in Nigeria, Russia, and Venezuela as the price of oil has soared in recent years, the policy imperative for driving down the price of oil becomes even more compelling. Before too much longer, however, accelerating climate change is likely to compel a much more radical response to this challenge. When the global revolution in energy technology hits with full force, finally breaking the oil cartel, it will bring a decisive end to Arab political exceptionalism.

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