Nov 26 2018

Middle East analysts should delve deeper than economy - U.S. scholar

Analysts and scholars of the Middle East must break the habit of reducing regional issues to matters of economic development, Council on Foreign Relations scholar Steven A. Cook said in an article published by Foreign Policy.

The economy doubtless plays a major part in events in the Middle East, but, as in other parts of the world, fails to wholly explain the dynamics driving the political movements and upheavals that have determined the region’s history, said Cook.

For Cook, the tendency for many people working on the region to turn to economic explanations shares unfortunate similarities to Karl Marx’s belief that all political phenomena have underlying economic causes.

“Despite mounds of evidence, the idea that people—whether in Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Tunisia, or the United States—make choices based solely on what is in their wallets will not go away,” said Cook.

The insistent focus on Middle Eastern countries’ economies has failed to adequately explain the Arab Uprisings starting in 2011, such as in Egypt, where former president Hosni Mubarak was deposed despite following a neoliberal economic course favoured by U.S. policymakers at the time, said Cook.

“Mubarak’s failure to articulate a positive, moral, uplifting future that Egyptians could believe in meant it was hard to rally pretty much anyone to his defense at the first sign of trouble. The folks who tell you that the economy is paramount would have predicted a different outcome,” he said.

Reducing the story to one of the economy likewise turns a blind eye to the vision and identity politics that have brought Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decades of political success and elevated him to a position of unmatched authority in Turkey.

While Erdoğan’s administrations have consistently achieved positive economic results, the faltering economy this year has hardly dented his popularity, Cook said.

“Erdogan’s opponents in Turkey are still predicting that the economy will bring the Turkish leader down, and when the lira plunged over the summer, there was concern in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the press that recent economic mismanagement would produce instability in Turkey and beyond,” said Cook. “It’s a classic example of economic determinists not appreciating the power of ideas.”