Why Is Democracy So Elusive in the Oil-Rich Middle East?

A political scientist examines the region for clues about past political patterns and future possibilities

The oil-rich nations of the Middle East have resolutely spurned democracy, even as countries in other parts of the world have transitioned away from authoritarianism in the past several decades. What explains the stubborn hold of these authoritarian regimes? Is it related to the wealth of the region?

Nimah Mazaheri, an associate professor and chair of political science, explores these questions in his new book, Hydrocarbon Citizens: How Oil Transformed People and Politics in the Middle East. He’s especially interested in the resilience of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East in the wake of the pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s.

While there seems to be a clear correlation between oil wealth and autocracy around the world, “no one has looked at it through the lens of public attitudes about the government and democracy,” he says.

Cover for the book Hydrocarbon Citizens

In his book, Mazaheri argues that it’s the historical generosity of the governments of countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that makes the difference. The lavish support such governments can afford to provide to their citizens creates a populace that isn’t keen on changing the status quo and is often downright skeptical of democracy, he says.

His hypothesis at the start of his research was that citizens of those oil-rich countries are not as unhappy living with authoritarian governments as outsiders might suppose. (The large numbers of migrant workers who are not granted citizenship may feel otherwise.)

“Only a very small segment of the people in these countries are able to work in the oil sector itself,” Mazaheri says. “So the benefits are only going to reach them if it comes from the government. If you’re receiving all these benefits through the government, that is likely to make you view the authorities more favorably.”

Doing the research wasn’t easy. While there is extensive survey data on Americans and Europeans about every conceivable topic, not many surveys have been conducted in the Middle East.

Mazaheri used the few existing relevant surveys from the World Values Survey and Arab Barometer, a repository of publicly available data on the Middle East and North Africa, and created new ones himself. He focused on citizens of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan to understand the nuances of public opinion. The latter country is in a sense the control subject: It’s an autocracy that isn’t oil rich.

What Mazaheri found helps explain why the oil-rich countries have continued their long-term non-democratic traditions. Consider Saudi Arabia. It was founded in 1932 by Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman al Saud, who ruled until 1953, and his family remains in power to this day as a monarchy. While very few Saudis are employed directly in the oil industry, many work for the government in well-paid jobs.

“Only a very small segment of the people in these countries are able to work in the oil sector itself. So the benefits are only going to reach them if it comes from the government. If you’re receiving all these benefits through the government, that is likely to make you view the authorities more favorably.”

Nimah Mazaheri

The surveys Mazaheri used there found that most people were content with their government. Still, there were some interesting splits in opinions. Less educated young men were more likely to approve of the government and oppose any efforts toward democracy. “They see the risks of democracy and are worried about sacrificing what they have, and are anxious about the future,” Mazaheri says.

On the other hand, older and better educated citizens judged their government more negatively and were more open to political change—but not overwhelmingly.

Photo of Nimal Mazaheri

Nimah Mazaheri

Likewise, in the Gulf states, Mazaheri found that “if you have a government job, you’re usually pretty keen on the performance of the state.”

Conversely, in Jordan “there’s widespread discouragement and negative attitudes toward the government,” he says. Even though the government employs a significant portion of the population, those “aren’t very good jobs. They are poorly paid, and you don’t have the same kind of perks that someone who works for the government in the UAE or Kuwait does.”

That still hasn’t, however, led to change in Jordan, though he did find evidence in his research of an increasingly positive view of democracy over the last 15 years, specifically 2006-2019. 

Another reason for the lack of democratic aspirations in the region might stem from recent political experiences in the Middle East. The Arab Spring of the early 2010s saw uprisings in favor of democracy, but they mostly led nowhere, and conditions in some countries deteriorated.

Democracy is seen as not being all it’s cracked up to be,” Mazaheri says. He points to Syria, whose long-running civil war with the dictator Bashar al-Assad now mostly defeating pro-democratic forces, Egypt’s brief fling with elections that led to the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and being deposed by the military, and widespread civil strife in Libya following the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi. “People say, we don’t want to be like that. It’s not something worth sacrificing what we already have.”

Is there no real hope for democracy in much of the Middle East? “I can’t really offer an optimistic projection,” Mazaheri says. “With the Arab Spring, there was such a period of hope, but those hopes were dashed. Realistically, as oil continues to be a valuable commodity, as these countries continue to exercise their tools of repression, and as the public continues to rely heavily on the various benefits that they receive from the governments, I don’t see change on the horizon.”

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