Tolerating Arab Despots
Gilbert Achcar, "Le Monde Diplomatique"
(liberal monthly), Paris, June, 1997 --
from World Press Review magazine, December 1997
These days, when people take globalization as more or less
synonymous with democratization, and when political and economic
liberalism go hand in hand, the Arab world presents some thing
of an anomaly-not only as the only geopolitical area of the world
still subject to various forms of absolutism, but also because
the Western powers seem happy to maintain this status quo.
Even in those Arab countries that lay claim to democracy,
free elections are a fiction. In the best of cases, the freedoms
granted are parsimonious, selective, and closely supervised. What
makes matters worse is that there is no hope on the horizon. In
the late 1980s a worldwide movement to ward democracy made important
advances in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen, but this progress was
thrown into reverse by the Persian Gulf war. Lebanon, which until
recently had relatively credible electoral and parliamentary institutions
and real freedom of expression, is again being brought to heel.
The West chose to shut its eyes to the abrupt suspension of
elections in Algeria in 1992. The emir of Kuwait, who owes his
throne to the military power of the U.S., has been left to pursue
his career as a potentate. And Saddam Hussein's appalling dictatorship
has been preserved in the name of non interference in the internal
affairs of Iraq. The Palestinian Authority that Yasser Arafat
was allowed to set up bears a striking similarity to the state
structure of its Arab neighbors. Two basic factors explain this
anomaly of Arab despotism. The first is the curse of oil; the
second is the nature of political opposition in the region, led
by Islamist movements. The "civilizing mission" of the
West in the establishment of state institutions did not extend
to the tribal dynasties in the oil states of the Arab peninsula.
On the contrary. Here the project was to consolidate backwardness
in order to guarantee unfettered exploitation of hydrocarbon resources
by the imperial powers. This was particularly the case in Saudi
The United States has long directly controlled the kingdom's
economic and security affairs and maintained maximum social rigidity
in order to prevent popular disorder. The formula has been to
favor the development of a privileged middle class among Saudi
nationals and to introduce an immigrant work force that is rigidly
controlled and restricted in numbers.
The structure of the Saudi armed forces follows the same logic.
Relatively small in number, they are impressively armed with equipment
bought at prohibitive prices in what has proved to be a bonanza
for Western arms salesmen.
The Saudi army and national guard, which are modeled on the
country's tribal structures, are essentially a Praetorian Guard
for the monarchy. Their effectiveness against external threats
is open to doubt and is quite out of proportion to their costs,
which are two and a half times greater than those of the Israeli
This Saudi Arabia is incontestably the most fundamentalist
state in the world, the most totalitarian in political and cultural
terms, and the most oppressive of the female half of the population.
Iranian society, by comparison, appears relatively liberal, pluralist,
Here we have the hypocrisy of those who are perfectly ready
to attack fundamentalism whenever it takes on an anti-Western
tinge, but who are equally happy to enjoy and exploit their lucrative
friendship with the Saudis. So one of the basic reasons for the
anomaly of despotism in the Arab world is that the West could
not verbally endorse democratic values in the Arab world without
the risk of damaging its protégés in the Gulf.
But there is also a second reason: the burgeoning development
of the other face of fundamentalism, its Iran-style and radically
anti-West aspect. Here the West is reaping what it helped to sow.
For more than three decades, its fight against Egypt's progressive
nationalism went hand in glove with the Islamic propaganda emanating
from the Saudi monarchy. With the aid of the CIA, the Saudis financed
and provided a haven for the many nebulous international groupings
of Islamic fundamentalism.
These years of anti-communist and anti-nationalist struggle
were conducted under the banner of Islam rather than that of liberal
democracy. Now the combination of bankrupt nationalism and an
impotent left opened the way for Islamic fundamentalism.
With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Washington decreed
that the West's public enemy number one was now to be Iranian-style
radical Islam. Needless to say, the same hypocrisy that made the
Saudi monarchy an ally of Western civilization has continued unabated:
Its most recent "success" has been in Afghanistan.
Thus anti-West Islamism as the main channel for popular social
movements in the Arab world combined with the anti-democratic
influence of the Saudi monarchy to ensure that, from 1990 onward,
the Arab variant of the "new world order" was still
to be built on despotism.