The path of least resilience: autocratic rule and external powers in the Middle East

Authoritarian control Civil rights International relations Political leadership Middle East

Almost a decade since the Arab uprisings promised democratic revival in the Middle East, most countries in the region remain firmly in the grip of autocrats. External powers, from Russia and China to the United States and Europe, have either helped the region’s dictators stay in power, or have shaped their policies toward the region in the expectation that such regimes will persist. In effect external powers have made a bet on authoritarian resilience, not least because it has seemed an easier way to secure their respective interests.

But a closer look at two countries, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where authoritarianism is often said to have been revived, underlines the way regimes are struggling to find a new basis for popular legitimacy. As a result, both regimes are becoming even more reliant than usual on repression, bringing with it risks of new explosions of civil unrest. External powers may have hoped they were making a safe wager on continued authoritarian rule in the Middle East. But the Saudi and Egyptian cases suggest that they have chosen instead the path of least resilience. 

Key findings:

  • Despite the Arab uprisings of the last decade, most countries in the Middle East remain in the grip of autocrats, with a widespread view that this is the 'default setting' for the region.
  • However, an examination of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where authoritarianism has been revived, reveals both regimes are struggling for popular legitimacy.
  • Increasingly reliant on repression, these regimes risk provoking civil unrest, and external powers should reconsider their assumption that autocracy guarantees stability in the Middle East.
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