The American Thinker | 8.20.14
By Alan W. Dowd
storms triggered by the Arab Spring continue to batter the Middle East. As
regimes fall, wars rage and nations fracture, is there any reason for hope? A
new Fraser Institute study—Institutions
and Economic, Political and Civil Liberty in the Arab World—says yes and no.
Before we dig into some of
the specifics of the report, a brief detour through history may be helpful as
we try to make sense of what’s happening (and not happening) in the Middle
East. We sometimes forget that the term “Arab Spring”—shorthand for the wave of
anti-autocracy revolutions that began in Tunisia in 2010—traces its roots to the
1968 “Prague Spring,” when Czechoslovakia launched a daring experiment in
economic reform and political freedom. Soviet strongman Leonid Brezhnev would
have none of it, and deployed troops and tanks to reassert control. More than
two decades would pass before freedom was allowed to bloom again in Prague.
The lesson: it’s going to take time for the old order of strongmen
and the sword to give way to a new order of political pluralism and economic
freedom. Of course, the old order in the Middle East was not all that
orderly: Coups, counter-coups, regional wars,
inter-state wars, sectarian wars, civil wars, Western and Soviet interventions,
and chemical-weapons attacks scar the region’s post-World War II history.
As for the Arab
Spring, the Fraser report reminds us that it was a denial of economic freedom that
spawned this chaotic period. After a police
officer confiscated Mohammed Bouazizi’s vegetable cart because he didn’t have a
proper permit, the young merchant tried to pay the fine, only to be slapped and
spat upon by the officer. When Bouazizi tried to appeal to the officer’s
higher-ups for relief, he was denied a hearing and finally had enough of
abusive, capricious, intrusive government. The humiliation and
hopelessness—caused by government interference in his livelihood—overwhelmed
Bouazizi to the point that he set himself on fire. His death sparked a people’s
revolution that toppled Tunisia’s dictator and spawned a geopolitical hurricane.
Bouazizi may have never read
Hayek or Locke but what he was seeking was economic freedom—the freedom to use
and exchange his property as he deemed appropriate. Regrettably,
little economic progress has emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring. This is
problematic, as global experience has shown that “economic reform is important
not just for its own sake but also for promoting and enabling other reforms,”
as my Fraser Institute colleague Fred McMahon observes in the study.
obstacles blocking increased economic freedom in the Arab world are: the
discrediting of free markets by periods of phony reform; the absence of
comprehensive economic-reform strategies; insistence among elites to maintain what
McMahon calls the “clientele-ist” system; and subsidy programs and the
preference for public-sector jobs.
Many of these obstacles can be traced to the region’s default to
statism. “At the time of
independence, socialist ideas were in fashion in much of the Western world.
They were associated with anti-colonial rhetoric, reinforcing their popularity
with the new regimes in Arab states,” the
study explains. “Socialist rhetoric was useful
in cementing the state’s power and the thus the privilege of the elites, and in
preventing other power centers in the private sector from emerging.”
Not surprisingly, the public sector in the Middle East/North
Africa region represents some 29 percent of total employment—about double the
world average (not including China).
preference for the public sector and toward statism has consequences.
For instance, the
global average economic freedom score—based on variables that
measure a nation-state’s size of government,rule of law, respect for property
rights, access to sound money, freedom to trade
and level of regulation—is 6.84. The Arab world average is 6.58.
Or compare GDP
growth among developing countries in the East Asia/Pacific region (an average of nine percent since 2004) with that
of the Middle East/North Africa (an average of 2.5 percent during the
Or look at some
of the region’s key countries individually.
Tunisia enjoys newfound levels of political
freedom—it is rated “partially free” by Freedom House, the best ranking among
the nations examined in the Fraser study—but it still languishes in the cellar
of the economic-freedom rankings.
Likewise, Egypt, which experienced
a brief period of political freedom after
the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, rates
poorly on economic freedom. And with the ouster of the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi
and the installation of a military government covered by a veneer of popular
support, the Egyptian people enjoy neither political nor economic freedom. As a consequence, they are teetering between
economic collapse and a destabilizing cycle of re-revolution.
As for the Gulf
monarchies: Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE rate well on economic freedom
but poorly on political freedom and civil liberties. Saudi Arabia rates poorly on economic freedom and
abominably on political freedom—registering the worst score ofany nation reviewed in the Fraser study.
Even so, some view the old
guard in Saudi Arabia as a linchpin of stability. For instance, when the Arab Spring
threatened the regime in Bahrain, the Saudis dispatched troops and tanks to
prop up their neighboring autocrats. Similarly, when Egypt’s army moved against
Morsi, Saudi Arabia
provided political cover and economic assistance to the generals.But this Saudi version of
the Brezhnev Doctrine is not durable. First, the Saudi regime’s contempt for
political freedom and civil liberties is not the wave of the future. Second,
Saudi Arabia is not safe from the storm. What
the Carnegie Endowment’s Frederic Wehrey calls “the forgotten uprising” has
triggered a “deadly cycle of demonstrations, shootings and detentions” in
eastern Saudi Arabia.
Owing partly to ousted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s
record of tilting toward his fellow Shiites—which drove Iraqi Sunnis out of the
political process and toward radicalization—and partly to the unchecked Syrian
civil war—which served as a breeding ground for the metastasizing violence of
ISIS—Iraq is disintegrating. Iraq’s
Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other at rates not seen since before the U.S.
surge. Jihadists have seized vast swaths of Iraq and declared an independent
state. And Iraq’s Kurdish region will likely leverage its autonomy into
full-blown independence. In short, Baghdad has no time to think about political
and economic reforms; it’s focused on survival.
the Kurdish proto-state in northern Iraq—the Kurdish Regional Government
(KRG)—could serve as something of a role model for its neighbors. After all,
KRG has embraced democratic governance and seems to be getting the hang of economic freedom.
The Kurdish government is committed to building an “economically
free area” and pursuing policies that “encourage
trade.” Iraq’s Kurds are launching a stock market. A survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence
Unit rates KRG’s business environment better than that of Indonesia, Jordan, Russia and India. And while the rest of Iraq hemorrhages, KRG is
studded with “high-rises and five-star hotels,” booming businesses, “modern, wide
highways” and new oil pipelines, as The
Washington Post reports.
Jordan ranks 13th on the global economic freedom rankings and boasts
better ratings for its economic institutions than the global average. However, Jordan
still has work to do on political freedom, rating below the world average on
civil liberties and poorly on political rights.
The good news amidst all the bad is that there are models within the region
pointing the way toward a healthier, freer Middle East. Even so, if the Prague
Spring is any indication, it could take decades before the peoples of the
Middle East enjoy lasting freedom.