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 Arabia.

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 army.

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, and tolerant.

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.

Democracy watch