Saturday, February 27, 2021

10 Years After the Arab Spring Uprisings: How can Autocratic Regimes Be Constrained?

Donald Trump boasts of US arms sales to KSA, March 2018
This is the first in a series of posts on suggested initiatives which the West should develop to establish a new forward-looking foreign policy in the MENA region designed to meet the interests of citizens, not despotic and corrupt political and economic elites. 

It has been 10 years since the Arab Spring uprisings sent shock waves throughout the Arab world and the larger Middle East.  Expectations were high that the beginning of democratic governance was just around the corner, especially after the ease with which President Zain al-Din Ben 'Ali was toppled in Tunisia in early 2011.  The fall of Husni Mubarak in Egypt, and later Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih in Yemen, raised hopes still further that autocratic regimes might be relegated to the dustbin of history. 


A cursory survey of the Arab Spring in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Tunisia shows that only the latter has been able to establish some form of democratic rule.  More recent developments in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria have witnessed youth uprisings which have forced the country’s leader to resign.  In the Sudan, the genocidal dictator, General 'Umar al-Bashir, was deposed by widespread national demonstrations. al-Bashir is on trial for crimes against humanity, and a military-civilian committee has been tasked with implementing a 3 year transition to democracy.   


Nevertheless, autocratic rule is still the norm in the Middle East which raises the question: Is the MENA region doomed to remain under the control of autocrats?  What can be done to curtail the power and repression of these regimes?  This post argues that the West can begin by ending arm sales to the MENA region. 


As many are aware, arguments have been proffered that Islam is intrinsically anti-democratic and fosters authoritarian rule. Interestingly, a similar argument once plagued American Roman Catholics who were said by American Protestants to be under the Pope control and voted according to his directives (e.g., see Paul Blanchard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power).   The problem with religion as antithetical to democracy is that public opinion polls demonstrate otherwise.  Muslims are as supportive of democracy as members of other world religions. 


To understand the stubborn persistence of autocratic rule in the Middle East, we have to look not at culture but at the origins of the regimes in which authoritarian rule has prevailed.  Pan-Arabism, which spread in the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s was based in a corporatist model of society in which political divisions were not only forbidden but viewed as treasonous to society and the body politics.  


According to the Pan-Arab mantra, all Arabs are part of “One Arab nation, endowed with an immortal mission” (umma ‘Arabiya wahida, ma’ risala khalida).  Of course, Pan Arabism slogan of “unity, freedom and socialism” led to exact opposite of what autocratic rulers like Jamal Abd al-Nasir, Hafiz al-Asad, his son Bashar, and Saddam Husayn actually practiced. 


Western colonialism and the Cold War turned the MENA region into a battlefield between the US and the Soviet Union.  Pan Arab regimes, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Libya, and other corporatist regimes such as Algeria, were supported by the Soviet Union.  MENA region monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco, sided with the United States.  In this Cold War struggle,  arms flooded the region as both global powers worked to strengthen their proxies. 

Report to Congress on Middle East Arms Sales 


Beginning in 1948, a series of wars between Israel and its neighboring states destabilized the region, making the Israeli-Palestinian dispute a permanent fixture of Middle East politics.  The June 1967 Arab-Israeli War spelled the death knell for Pan-Arabism.  Its effects continue to be felt today as Palestinians still do not possess an independent country of their own. The 1973 October War in which Egypt attacked Israel to dislodge it from the Sinai Peninsula almost led to a nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR.  In the 21st century, with Israel possessing nuclear weapons and Iran on track to develop them, the threat of nuclear war still hangs as a cloud over the MENA region. 

To address the MENA region instability and curtail autocratic power, the key first step is for the Biden administration and the European Union to stop selling technologically advanced weapons systems to autocratic regimes in the Middle East.  Curtailing arms sales will both reduce the amount of conflict in the region while undermining autocracy as well.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be the the first candidates to no longer receive such arms from the West.   


Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has used US supplied weapons to bomb Yemen, often indiscreetly.  The Saudi air war has killed thousands of civilians, and destroyed hospitals, schools, markets and homes.  According to the UN, the situation today in Yemen constitutes  what it calls “the worst human rights disaster in the world.”  Fortunately, the Biden administration has ended arms sales to Saudi Arabia’s ruler, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), as well as logistical support for Saudi military efforts in Yemen. 

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are among top 3 arms importers
Like Saudi Arabia, Egypt has no need for additional advanced weapons systems.  The greatest security threat it faces is not the possibility of a conventional war but terrorist organizations, like the Da’ish affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula – the so-called Islamic State – Sinai Province (originally known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) - and non-state militias, which have flooded Libya as a result of a failed state following the Qaddafi regime’s collapse in 2011. 

Sophisticated Western arms, such as high speed jet fighters, do not serve Egypt’s security needs.  Rather these weapons serve as a symbol of President 'Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi’s power within the Egyptian military, which controls an estimated 30-40% of the national budget (a matter of such sensitivity that it’s illegal to discuss it in Egypt).  It also sends a message to the Egyptian people not to challenge the regime’s prerogatives and authority because it has the might of the United States behind it.  


Within American military, intelligence and diplomatic circles, it has been argued that arms sales help to maintain a close relationship between Egypt and the USA and constitute a “reward” for the regional intelligence Egypt supplies the US and the joint US-Egyptian military exercise conducted in the country.  But does the US really need Egyptian intelligence assistance in an era of cyber warfare when digital communications can provide the necessary intelligence to meet the US’ needs? 


Offsetting these purported benefits that the US derive from arm sales to the MENA region – as well as European countries which sell arms in the MENA region -  is maintaining close ties to the recipient country and an ability to influence it to pursue policies favorable to the West.  However, as a recent RAND report noted – making a point which is clear to even the most casual observer – the rise in conflict in the Middle East is an ever increasing danger.  Selling more arms to the region’s autocratic regimes only adds oil to an already hot fire. 

Reimagining U.S. Strategy in the Middle East: Middle East: Strategic Partnerships, Sustainable Investments

In the case of Egypt, there is the possibility of war breaking out between Egypt and Ethiopia, which has built the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile to increase irrigation and hydroelectric power.  Egypt views the dam as a mortal threat to its water supply provided by the Nile and has threatened to attack Ethiopia if it doesn’t refrain from operationalizing it.  

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam 
With Ethiopia currently embroiled in a bloody civil war taking place in its northern Tigre region, its ability to defend itself from an Egyptian air and special forces attack on the dam would seem to be limited.  Providing Egypt with more technologically advanced weaponry, especially fighter bombers, the US and European arms sales only encourage a military response to this conflict rather than encouraging a negotiated solution. 

The argument that weapon sales foster influence and good ties with allies in the MENA region is belied by Turkey, a NATO member, where the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan has turned to Russia for arms.  Despite US protests against Turkey’s purchase of a Russian surface-to-air missile system, Erdogan went ahead with the purchase anyway.   


Further, the Erdoğan regime has become one of the most destabilizing elements in the MENA region.  Its intervention in Libya has only upped the ante by adding troops and weapons to an already highly volatile civil war.  Its efforts to control natural gas production in the eastern Mediterranean threaten conflict with Greece.  Worst of all, its treatment of its own Kurdish citizens and the Syrian Democratic forces, comprised primarily of Kurds from north eastern Syria, which the US military has pointed to as playing a critical role in defeating the Da’ish terrorists, has destabilized northern and eastern Syria.   


At home, Erdoğan’s régime has the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita number of journalists in prison.  Meanwhile, Turkish schoolteachers and university faculty, who are not considered supportive of Erdoğan’s policy of Islamizing Turkish society, are removed from their posts.  Erdoğan jails opposition political figures and has removed democratically elected mayors of Kurdish towns in Turkey from office.  

The disastrous consequences of arms proliferation in the MENA region can be seen in Libya where warehouse filled with arms were seized by competing tribes, militias and terrorist groups, such as the Da’ish, to engage in what now has become a highly volatile, violent and debilitatingly conflict.  In Iraq, weapons have proliferated, especially after the Intifada of March 1991 which involved an effort, almost successful had it not been for US allowing Saddam’s helicopter gunships to take to the air, to topple the Ba’thist regime.  Of course, the US invasion of 2003, and the insurgency and lawlessness that followed the chaotic Bush administration’s occupation policies, increased the number of weapons still further. 


In Syria, the civil war which emerged from the Arab Spring uprising of 2011 likewise has resulted in an huge influx of weapons, especially across its border from Turkey.  many of these weapons were captured by terrorist organizations by groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and then the so-called Islamic State (Da’ish).  The easy access to weapons means that any small group can use them to pursue extremist or criminal activity 


One of the most important policies which could developed by the Western alliance would be to ban the sales weapons systems to MENA region states.  Not only are they not needed by these states, but they only encourage autocrats to believe they can act with impunity because they have the support of the West as reflected in arms sales. 


Further, whenever the United State sells advanced weapons systems to Arab states, such as the 50 F-35 fighters it recently sold to the UAE, Israel demands that it receive the same or more advanced weapons so as not to “fall behind” other Arab countries.  This process, which has been consistent since the late 1950s, adds more arms to the MENA region. Meanwhile, Israel, with the most powerful military in the region, and its own arms industry, doesn’t need these weapons systems. 

US plans sale of F-35 fighter to UAE in $23 arms deal 

In other words, the US and Western countries should end arm sales to the Middle East and limited their military involvement to training and professionalizing local military forces. Suppressing terrorist organizations constitutes the main threat to MENA region regimes.   


Finally, we hear the cry of the lost jobs in the US and Europe as corporations which develop and build weapons systems are sudden lose markets.  A failed state, or semi-failed state, will not be able to

purchase arms.  Thus, by contributing to conflict in the region, Western arms producers are cutting off their nose to spite their face.

By diverting MENA region countries resources away from the development of human capital through the purchase of arms, these countries’ economic growth shrinks and they become poor markets for Western investments and goods.  Selling large amounts expensive weapons systems may be lucrative financially in the short-term, but self-defeating at the end of the day if such sales exacerbate local conflict and political instability.   


The next post in this series analyzes how the West can promote sustainable development in the MENA region which can benefit both foreign and local interests. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Poverty, Conflict and Political–Economic Crisis in a Fragile Iraq الفقر والصراع والأزمات السياسية والاقتصادية في العراق الهش

The following post was written by Guest Contributor, Zeinab Shukur, Department of Sociology, University of California, Riverside.  It was originally published by the Emirates Policy Center,

Iraq’s economic outlook has rapidly deteriorated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many years, economic progress and state legitimacy in the country have been undermined by an non-diversified economy, as well as Iraq’s dependence on oil revenues, bloated public sector, rigid budget, rampant corruption and weak state capacity. 

This economic and political deterioration has inspired conflict and instability, contributing in 2019 to the rise of one of the country’s biggest social and political uprisings. It has also left the country with limited capacity to mitigate and manage the COVID-19 crisis and its// socio-economic impacts. However, unlike previous crises, the current economic breakdown and its resultant political consequences are far from temporary. 

The 2021 year does not promise any significant improvement in this regard, with a budget deficit estimated at 63 trillion dinars (US $43 billion) – the biggest in Iraq’s history and the highest among the OPEC countries.[1] The measures implemented now by Iraq’s ruling elites will be instrumental in determining the future of the country and the overall stability of the region. Therefore, how will the country's worsening economic situation and rising poverty affect its already unstable political structure? 

Precursors to the Current Iraqi Crisis 
Over the past two decades, corruption and weak state capacities have left Iraq vulnerable to a multitude of economic, political and humanitarian crises. Weak state capacity has led to the formation of multiple ‘states within the state’ – political parties and interests that control the various different ministries and state institutions. Unchecked corruption, a vast system of patronage and an accompanying network of “ghost employees” have allowed these political parties to redirect oil revenues towards their own interests and constituencies, providing jobs and protection to their supporters. 

The impacts of this situation have stripped the state of its ability to govern, destroyed any vestiges of a private sector and left young people – of which Iraq has the largest proportion in the region – with little to no alternatives other than to seek employment in an already bloated public sector, join one of the many militias, or emigrate. And even then, political groups monopolize the system of jobs-through-patronage, which are sold to the highest bidder, leaving many people unemployed and impoverished. 

There are three main consequences to these dysfunctional circumstances. First, oil revenues – the main driver of the Iraqi economy since the 1950s – have continued to dominate the economy and undermine the private sector, a status quo there is little incentive for political parties to change. Second, poverty and economic hardship have increased steadily; a 2018 report by The Iraqi Central Bureau of Statistics showed that unemployment had reached 13.8 percent and poverty 20 percent for individuals aged 15 years and over. More than a fifth of young people in the country were neither employed nor in school in the same year, and women represented only 12 percent of the labor force.[2] 

Third, the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and the decline in oil prices have aggravated the already vulnerable economic and political situation. A spokesman for the Ministry of Planning stated that a study prepared with the World Bank and UNICEF found that the number of people in poverty increased by 2.7 million in 2020, on top of the 6.9 million who were previously known to the Ministry. He added that the poverty rate in Iraq had reached 31 percent, with at least 2.8 million children living below the poverty line. 

 In certain parts of the country, such as in al-Muthanna province, the poverty rate was as high as 52 percent, with some individual villages within the province reaching 70 percent. Furthermore, 3.4 million people – or 12 percent of the population of Iraq – live in slums.[3] These numbers are not surprising. The Iraqi government requires around $5 billion each month for salaries and pensions and $2 billion to cover essential services and operating costs. 

Yet, with the decline in oil prices, Iraq’s monthly income in 2020 fell to between $2.5 and $3.5 billion, leaving the country with a $3.5–4.5 billion monthly deficit and $80 billion of debt.[4] ' The Problematic Nature of the 2021 Budget In an effort to address the ongoing crisis, a team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), led by Tokhir Mirzoev, held a virtual liaison with the Iraqi authorities from November 11 to December 10, 2020 to conduct discussions on the situation. 

 The conclusions drawn from these discussions was clear – real GDP growth had contracted by 11 percent in 2020, and without structural changes, Iraq’s net foreign assets would continue to drop into 2024, leaving the country with one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios among the OPEC+ countries.[5] According to Finance Minister, 'Ali 'Allawi, Iraq will run out of hard currency 6–7 months into 2021 if oil prices remain below $70 per barrel (although in the 2021 budget, oil prices are estimated at $42 per barrel).[6] 

Most projections suggest the continuation of low energy demand and further price volatility in 2021.[7] The IMF recommendations included reversing the expansion of wage and pension bills, raising non-oil revenues, rationalizing the electricity sector, introducing and enforcing tax and customs policies, and reforming state-owned banks.[8] This is not particularly surprising, argues Naomi Klein, who explains that "shock treatment" approaches such as these capitalize on disruptions such as the COVID-19 crisis and the oil price collapse to pass economic and social policies that the population would ordinarily reject. 

The next steps of the Iraqi government will likely reflect the suggestions of the IMF. As part of broader plans to trim the bloated public sector and introduce structural changes to the country’s rentier economy, the Iraqi government announced on December 19, 2020 that it was devaluing the dinar – by 23 percent – for the first time since 2003 to secure billions of dollars in foreign aid. As a result, the Finance Ministry will sell its dollars to the Central Bank at an exchange rate of 1,450 dinars per dollar, which will in turn be resold to local banks at 1,460, providing a marginal benefit.[9] 

The Iraqi government is therefore signaling to the IMF and the world that Iraq is serious about its economic future.  However, without accompanying economic reforms – which many political elites refuse to consider – devaluation will only undermine savings, increase prices and raise poverty; and since Iraq imports the majority of its food and goods, devaluation will make these goods scarce, triggering further inflation. 

Another step suggested by the IMF, and discussed by the Parliamentary Finance Committee, is the introduction of a value-added tax (VAT) of 12 percent in 2021. Currently, the government collects four types of tax – sales, income, transfer of ownership and company – at rates ranging from 10 percent to 35 percent. However, these taxes, which constitute two percent of GDP, are mostly collected from major concerns such as telecommunications companies and foreign oil firms. 

Shaker al-Zubaidi, Director General of the General Authority for Taxes, revealed that the Iraqi government is planning to implement a stipulation in the 2021 budget law that includes imposing a sales tax of 10 percent on commercial centers, markets, hotels, restaurants, cars and leased real estate, as well as creating a law to tax all working Iraqis. Of course, there are many challenges to such a plan. Most purchases and financial exchanges among average Iraqi citizens are in cash; thus, implementing tax law without modernizing the banking system will prove challenging. 

Furthermore, there are fears that imposing taxes on companies and businesses in the country will only increase the prices of goods and services – which is what happened when the government levied a 20 percent tax on telecommunications companies, leading to a corresponding 20 percent price increase in the services provided.[10] Price increases in goods and services will most severely impact average Iraqi citizens who are already struggling to survive, especially given the absence of a social safety net to protect the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens in society.  Even though the Iraqi government is implementing the steps recommended by the IMF and showing its willingness to introduce meaningful structural changes, the reality in Iraq is unlikely to change. 

A brief review of the 2021 budget provides some insight in this regard. The expenditures allocated to the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) – comprising fighters, many of whom belong to militias supported by Iran – amounted to 2.4 trillion dinars. The PMF budget is the equivalent of the combined total budgets of the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, Culture, Water Resources, Planning and Transportation. It also exceeds the budget of the Ministry of Education and is only slightly less than the budget of the Ministry of Health, despite the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

In spite of the IMF's encouragement for Iraq to develop its non-oil economy, the Ministry of Industry only received 33.22 billion dinars, whilst the Ministry of Agriculture received 43.46 billion dinars and the budget of the Ministry of Water Resources was 143.31 billion dinars.[11] The superficial changes made by the Iraqi state are unlikely to save the collapsing economic system nor stem the increasing levels of poverty and unemployment in the country. 

If spending levels continue in their current form without substantial adjustments, within a few years the Iraqi government will be unable to cover its expenditures and will face the risk of bankruptcy. Even if oil prices recover dramatically, reaching $100 per barrel – which is highly unlikely according to most market experts – this increase will not be sufficient to cover rising budget expenditures in the medium term.[12] Thus, even in the best-case scenario, these steps will merely postpone a collapse, rather than sustain a healthy economic system. 

The Conflict Trap: The Relationship Between Poverty and Conflict 
While research clearly shows that political instability and ethnic diversity can act as precursors to conflict, high poverty levels have also been shown to directly increase the risk of conflict. Collier and Hoeffler (2004) find that countries with a GDP per capita of $250 face a 15 percent risk of war within five years, while countries with a GDP per capita of $600 are at a 7.5% risk of war within five years, and those with a GDP per capita of $5,000 GDP face only a 1% risk of war over the same period.[13] 

Research by Fearon and Laitin (2003),[14] Sambanis (2003),[15] and Collier, Hoeffler and Rohner (2006),[16] as well as other case studies and cross-national research works, have shown that low income per capita is a good indicator of the likelihood and duration of conflicts. Furthermore, Collier and Hoeffler find that in addition to GDP per capita, a drop in income or change in GDP per capita are also indicators of conflict. They claim that a one percent increase in GDP per capita will increase the risk of conflict by a corresponding one percent.[17]  

This relationship produces a “conflict trap,” wherein conflict tends to undermine the livelihoods of the population and shift public resources away from priorities like education and healthcare, which breeds poverty that leads to further conflict. Hence, there is little doubt that poverty is a good indicator of social, economic and political instability. Therefore, facing increasing levels of poverty and unemployment, and prolonged economic and political crises, the disenfranchised Iraqi population, as well as the competing political factions, are increasingly likely to engage in some form of conflict. 

The bitter truth is that the fragile Iraqi political structure will not survive the increasingly likely collapse of the country’s economy. This, in turn, may well trigger another round of conflict between competing factions. The collapse of al-Kadhimi’s government will lead to a political vacuum that tribes, political parties and militias backed by Iran will seek to fill, and will inspire neighboring countries to intervene to protect their interests in Iraq. Economic and political collapse will also trigger widespread public anger and demonstrations – as witnessed in December 2020 in the relatively stable Kurdistan region after the payment of salaries was delayed. 

Iraq must commit to meaningful, long-term economic reforms that include the revitalization of the private sector, a shift away from the rentier policies and a reduction in the state’s role in managing the economy. A “white paper” on potential reforms, produced by a specialized government team on 10 October 2020, includes plausible solutions and a road map to this end. However, in the absence of any concerted efforts to include young Iraqis in the political process, and with no central economic philosophy, institutional capacity, or political will to take such difficult steps, disaster will never be far away. 

[1] Reuters (2020), “Iraq's cabinet approves 2021 draft budget of $103 billion,” budget-of-103-billion-idUSKBN28V2G8 

[2] Iraqi Ministry of Planning (2018), “The Central Bureau of Statistics and the Executive Management implemented the poverty alleviation strategy in the Ministry of Planning,” 

[3] Nas News (2020), "Detailed figures on the poor in Iraq before and during the 'Corona' pandemic," 

[4] Alaaldin, Farhad and Kenneth M. Pollack (2020), “ Iraq’s Economic Collapse Could Be Biden’s First Foreign-Policy Headache,” Foreign Policy, foreign-policy-headache/ 

[5] IMF (2020), “IMF Staff Completes 2020 Article IV Mission with Iraq,” article-iv-mission-with-iraq 

[6] Bloomberg (2020), “Iraq Devalues Dinar to Push Economy Forward Ahead of Deficit,” to-push-economy-forward-ahead-of-deficit/ 

[7] Bradstock, Felicity (2020), “The Real Crisis For Oil Is Yet To Come,”, 

[8] IMF (2020), “IMF Staff Completes 2020 Article IV Mission with Iraq,” article-iv-mission-with-iraq 

[9] AP (2020), “Iraqis panic as leaked budget draft signals devaluation,” c691936afd77edd12ad776b993e79d9e 

[10] Al-Monitor (2020), “Iraqi government considers sales tax to relieve budget crisis,” finance-parliament.html#ixzz6hI32xtg9 

[11] Al-Hurra (2020), "The Iraqi budget ... a huge deficit and ‘illogical’ numbers for mobilization and armaments,” 

[12] Abbas, Aqeel (2020), “The rentier state in Iraq is in its final stage,” SkyNews Arabia, 

[13] Collier, Paul, and Anke Hoeffler (2004), “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, 56, pp. 563–595. 

[14] Fearon, James D., and David D. Laitin (2003), “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War,” American Political Science Review, 97:1, pp. 75–90. 

[15] Sambanis, Nicholas (2003), “Using Case Studies to Expand the Theory of Civil War”, CPR Working Papers. [16] Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler and Dominic Rohner (2006), “Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War,” Center for the Study of African Economies, Working Paper. [17] Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers, 56, 2004, pp. 563–595.