Eight myths of conflict and development in the Middle East

Published on 10 June 2016

What does the contemporary Middle East tell us about development, and its relationship with conflict? In our view, the region and its politics represent a significant challenge not only to Western policy, but also to many established ideas about the ‘conflict-development nexus’. Here we identify eight myths of conflict and development, and reflect on their policy implications.

Myth 1: there is no linear model of development

The idea that development involves a linear progression from ‘low’ to ‘high’ development is one of the hallmarks of modern development thinking. While few now voice this idea explicitly, it remains implicit, for instance, in the idea that economic development leads inexorably to political liberalisation and the decline of religious and sectarian identities. In reality, of course, there is no such linear model, as the Middle East more than any other region makes clear. Across the region, rapid economic change has been accompanied not by the withering of authoritarian regimes, but their entrenchment; and not by the weakening of religious and sectarian identities, but their consolidation and reinvention. The Middle East, as a result, is a region of strikingly hybrid social and political structures, and in which the direction of future travel is far from clear.

Myth 2: low development and violent conflict are natural bedfellows?

There is no better example of the myth of linearity within contemporary development thinking than the idea that under-development is naturally associated with conflict. For most of the period after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the concentration of the world’s civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa at least lent this myth some superficial plausibility. The large-scale civil conflicts that, since 2011, have rocked Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Palestine and Yemen – mostly middle-income countries with large urban and highly educated populations – has completely blown this myth apart. The lesson is clear: policymakers should no longer assume that conflict is rooted in poverty, or that development is the answer to it.

Myth 3: there is an alternative rentier path of development

Rentier state theory suggests that external rents buttress authoritarianism – and thus that the Middle East’s dependence on oil exports explains the weakness of its experiments with democracy. But this is misleading. Oil-producers are not all alike, ranging from liberal democratic states like Norway, to centralised authoritarian systems like the Gulf emirates, through to violently decentralised polities like Nigeria’s. And there is no clear relationship between oil production and regime stability: Libya, a classic rentier state, has collapsed into civil war with little prospect of reconsolidation, while neighbouring Egypt has displayed striking ‘authoritarian resilience’ despite its much lighter dependence on external rents. The reason is clear: Middle Eastern states are not following a single development path, not even one that is determined by hydrocarbon resources.

Myth 4: fragile statehood is the main institutional cause of violence?

Today, state ‘fragility’ is understood as the central institutional conflict-development problem, and state ‘resilience’ as the solution. But this is not so. Weak and fragile states discourse is utterly inattentive to, and obscures, the abiding centrality of states in practising and facilitating political violence. In the post-2011 Middle East, it is state policies and state power which have been the main causes of political violence – from?the violent repression of the Arab Spring uprisings; to the renewed regional geopolitical machinations; to the aerial bombing and mass displacement of populations in Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Turkey and Yemen; to the constant rearmament of local regimes by outside powers, including in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. No one would guess any of this from the language of state fragility.

Myth 5: environmental scarcities are an increasingly important contributor to conflict?

A further recurring theme in contemporary conflict-development thinking is the belief that environmental pressures, and climate change in particular, are an increasingly important backdrop to conflict. The Syrian civil war, for example, has been repeatedly linked to mass displacement, supposedly caused by a severe drought in the northeast of the country. But the evidence for such links is weak. Academic studies are deeply divided on the issue. And the evidence that climate change, drought and ensuing migration played a significant contributory role in Syria’s civil war is frankly derisory: among other problems, there is no evidence at all that drought migrants were heavily involved in, or were targets of, any of Syria’s early protests. Indeed, if anything, as economies are developing and agriculture declining in importance, environmental scarcities are becoming less locally politically important, not more.

Myth 6: countries need to pass a number of milestones on a democratisation pathway

Experiences around the region have shown that elections when held too soon, under the wrong conditions and used to enforce majoritarian rule can be a recipe for fomenting violence, polarisation between the winners and losers and set the country on the path of exclusionary politics. There is no substitute for deeper forms of building consensus, even if the process is long drawn out, and exhausting. If Syria is ever to rise from the throes of civil war, its navigation of its political trajectory will need to avoid two fatal ‘democratic transition’ landmines: a perpetual cycle of elections that deepen divisions more than anything else, and the tyranny of majoritarian democracy.

Myth 7: more humanitarian aid will prevent the refugee crisis from spilling over

The approach of ‘add money and camps and stir’ has proven to be a deeply problematic humanitarian blueprint, time and time again. For example, Syrians fleeing the crisis are part of a complex ethno-religious, middle-income region of the world, yet the humanitarian operations have assumed they have the same background and needs as, for example, refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, whose social and economic profile is very different. The intention here is not to press for an end to humanitarianism but to make it more aligned with the communities it serves, their priorities and ideas about what would make a difference. Had humanitarian aid in Syria intervened at the beginning of the war to allow for internal relocation, the refugee crisis may have been partly alleviated but geostrategic interests (bringing down Assaad) trumped pro-people policy.

Myth 8: the Arab Spring has passed and we are stuck in the Arab winter

The situation in the Middle East is turbulent and the victims of violence, chaos and ruptures are many. The global narrative has gone from a celebration of people power to a rueful rejection of the romanticization of protests and revolts. At best, western development discourse speak of people’s ‘resilience’ in the midst of calamity, at worst it ignores the region altogether except for Iraq and Syria. Yet the individual and collective struggles that force societies and authorities to respond – and which continue on a daily basis in almost every corner of the region even under authoritarian rule – are ejected from western preoccupation of mobilization for positive change. Examples show that people continue to engage in experimentation in new ways to transform their communities. One thing that the Arab revolts have taught us is that people continue to innovate in ways to resist, circumvent, defy and rupture assaults on their dignity. May we continue to look for the spaces, actors and modalities through which these exceptional and daily expressions of unruliness unfold.

Jan Selby is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, and Director of the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research.

Mariz Tadros is co-leader of the Power and Popular Politics cluster at the Institute of Development Studies.

Read more in the IDS Bulletin Ruptures and Ripple Effects in the Middle East and Beyond

Join the panel session ‘A Middle East Rupturing of Development Paradigms?’ with Mariz Tadros, Dawn Chatty and others on the 5 July at the IDS 50th Anniversary conference ‘States Markets and Society’.


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