Money and politics in the Arab world

Yesterday I suggested that religion and politics are being increasingly conflated in an irrational and unhealthy manner in the Arab world, while at the same time the factor of money is being, in an equally irrational and unhealthy fashion, bifurcated from the political register. If the role of religion in politics is a commonplace in most societies, certainly the role of money is ubiquitous and universal. This makes any conversation about the role of money in a given political culture or set of systems necessarily reductive, incomplete and insufficient. Having admitted at the outset that I am only going to be considering some of the aspects of this ubiquitous and omnipresent factor in political life in the Arab world (as with everywhere else), I do believe there is something highly significant, and in many ways disturbing, about the way many Arabs and Arab Americans regard the relationship between personal finances and political opinions and activities.

Obviously, money is at the heart of any political system. In developed societies, patronage is still the grease that oils the wheels of the political machine. In developing societies, patronage is often all-important, and when the constituency consists mainly of very poor people with meager means and urgent requirements, the ability to provide services and patronage are often the keys to the kingdom. Patronage, along with repression, are the principal means by which the authoritarian Arab governments retain power. Wealthy oil-exporting Gulf states are in a better position to provide the most generous carrots to their citizens, and expatriate foreign workers as well in terms of employment and other benefits. However, even relatively impoverished Arab states such as Egypt have built enormous bureaucracies that seem more geared to providing government employment to a large proportion of the citizenry than to performing the work and services of government. In many instances, there is a lack of social and humanitarian services, and Islamist parties have benefited greatly from filling this void in places like southern Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, parts of Egypt and elsewhere. Just as the Arab regimes and the Islamist opposition groups are fighting over whether Islam dictates loyalty or opposition to the governments, they are also competing at the level of patronage and social services.

It is also worth pointing out that, along with its strategic geographic location and the cultural and religious significance of the so-called ?holy land,? the excessive and almost entirely negative attention of the great powers to the Middle East over the past century has largely been based on money, that is to say the massive oil reserves of the Persian Gulf region (also known as ?The Prize?). For example, while it would be silly to think that the war in Iraq was launched by the Bush administration in an effort to seize control of Iraq?s oil resources, it would be equally foolish not to recognize that the main American role in the Middle East is to secure the oil supplies of the region which are the lifeblood of the global economy as a whole. Therefore, while the Iraq war was not primarily driven by any desire to seize the oil fields of Iraq, that conflict and the entire American military and commercial presence in the Persian Gulf region takes place entirely in the context of the strategic nature of the area?s oil and natural gas resources and is therefore indeed about money.

Through a combination of historical accident and political design — with the exceptions of Iraq, Iran and, to some extent also Saudi Arabia — most of the oil-rich states are sparsely populated, while most of the heavily populated countries of the Middle East do not possess large reserves of oil or natural gas. The effect has been twofold: first, it means that most of the oil wealth has been concentrated among a very small group of Arabs with the vast majority largely cut off from its benefits, a reality that has reflected itself in a great deal of resentment and worse; second, it has meant that the ability of oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to influence Arab religious and political opinion through religious, educational and media institutions has had a significant impact on the rest of the region that would otherwise have been quite impossible. Saudi Arabia?s financial clout and oil reserves make it the only Arab state that has any real leverage in dealing with Washington, and has propelled that country in recent years into a leadership position to which most other Arab states have, however grudgingly, acquiesced.

I mention these fairly commonplace, obvious and even to some extent random elements of the role of money in contemporary Arab political life essentially to acknowledge they are significant and get them out of the way, lest anyone feel that the Ibishblog is unaware of any of this, so that we may come to what I feel is a singular dysfunction in contemporary Arab perceptions of the relationship between personal finances and political attitudes. I keep repeating, perhaps ad nauseam, that religion and politics are being dangerously conflated in contemporary Arab political life, but I am equally dismayed that money, and in this case I mean specifically individual wealth and resources, are being bifurcated from the political register in a manner that reflects a serious distortion of reality.

I am not referring here to the use of money and patronage by governments. The way governments and ruling families behave reflects both the universal requirement of political authority to provide patronage and, particularly in the Gulf states, the persistence of patron-client relationships rooted in deep-seated traditions, as opposed to professional or institutional modes of interaction that characterize most modern societies. Obviously, the institutionalization and bureaucratization of patronage systems that reward ability and commitment and create systems of meritocracy instead of allegiance and personal, clan or tribal loyalty would be preferable, but patronage by governments and rulers is a universal phenomenon. It can be improved — in the Middle East quite dramatically — but cannot be eliminated as a practical matter. Patronage is not the same thing as corruption, and it can be used in the service of well functioning and meritocratic systems.

What is more striking about contemporary Arab political culture is the extent to which so many Arabs and Arab Americans seem to feel there is no natural or logical relationship between methods of making (or indeed spending) money and deeply held political opinions. I have to admit that I don?t know enough about the myriad political cultures around the world to form any definitive judgment about how unique or extreme this phenomenon may be among the Arabs as compared with other peoples, but I have a very strong sense that we have achieved a rare degree of bifurcation between personal finances and political attitudes. The levels of hypocrisy, insincerity and shameless deception and self-deception in this regard that I have encountered among wealthy and well-to-do Arabs in the Middle East and Arab Americans can only be described as scandalous. In contemporary Arab political culture there seems to be a generalized acceptance, at least among the bourgeoisie, that any means of making money is legitimate and that there is no relationship between political attitudes, affiliations and goals on the one hand and business activities on the other. What is even more amazing is that no one seems to be shocked by, or even notice the astonishing irreconcilability between what so many wealthy or prominent Arabs and Arab-Americans say and apparently believe, and what they then actually do with most of their time and effort.

I can think off the top of my head of literally scores of examples of Arabs and Arab Americans who railed and raged against the Iraq war, and then proceeded to make money, in some cases many millions, in its service. I can think of hundreds of examples of people who express nothing but vitriol against the United States government and anyone in the Arab-American community who engages respectfully with it at the policy level, but who think nothing at the same time of entering into contracts with government agencies such as the departments of State and Defense, among many others. I know many young people in our community whose education and upbringing was literally paid for by their parents working in the service of either the US or Arab governments actively promoting and pursuing policies that both and they and their children denounce, abhor and despise. I?m not suggesting that anyone should agree with US foreign policy or the behavior of Arab states, or not denounce, abhor or despise them if they so choose. What I am suggesting is that it is a sort of political schizophrenia, to put it kindly, to nonchalantly base one?s livelihood on entities and programs with which one is otherwise obsessed with passionately hating. There is nothing wrong with accepting government contracts that support the Iraq war if one is in support of or even ambivalent about it. There is nothing wrong with opposing and denouncing the war, as I did beginning in late 2001 when I began to publicly predict the United States would make an enormous blunder and invade Iraq. But there is something absolutely bizarre about combining the two and finding nothing unusual or remarkable in this, and to have an entire community ? or at least one socio-economic class in an entire community ? behave as if they do not notice or do not care about this fantastic degree of hypocrisy.

Obviously, some people have no choice. Some people do what they must to feed their families, and they cannot be blamed for that. Soldiers, sworn officers, government officials, etc. are bound to uphold the policy decisions of political leaderships or, in some cases, have the option of resigning ? but it is asking a great deal to sacrifice an ongoing career to make a temporary political point. I am not talking about working-class people with few options, or individuals who have entered into a sworn relationship with a government whose policies they may disagree with but which they are bound to obey. I am talking about people with many options, people who work themselves, or younger people whose parents work, for or have lucrative contracts with, organizations and governments in the United States and the Arab world whose policies and activities they despise and denounce. There appears to be a special zone of irresponsibility or, more precisely, unaccountability, when it comes to any form of commercial activity or financial transaction. The incompatibility of a political stridency that militates strongly against those for whom and for what people are actually working appears to have been normalized among a certain class of Arabs and Arab Americans.

The most galling aspect of it all is that a fair number of individuals (or members of their nuclear family) making a handsome living off of Arab regimes or US government agencies and organizations turn out to be among the fiercest critics of anyone who takes a more constructive approach towards dealing with governments, not for profit, but for achieving positive policy changes and political progress. In some quarters it is implicitly held to be immoral to try to develop a positive, constructive working relationship on policy with the US or Arab governments, but completely proper to enter into for-profit relationships that support and enable existing policies and only serve to pad individual bank accounts. There is no need to name individuals here. The point is not to indict any specific persons or families in the Middle East or in the United States, and besides the list would simply be too long to endure compiling, even based on nothing more than my own personal knowledge and experience. The point is that this bifurcation of the realm of commercial activities from the register of political commitments and affiliations is a significant problem in contemporary Arab and Arab-American political culture, and the source of some of the most outrageous hypocrisy and double-speak imaginable.

The only thing that can be added in defense of individuals and families that take pride in vociferously denouncing governments and policies while shamelessly making tidy profits out of the same activities or institutions is that this hypocrisy is basically mimicking the behavior of many of the Arab regimes themselves. Insofar as such people have been influenced by the political culture fostered by the governments of the Arab world, perhaps they can be forgiven for believing that it is perfectly normal and respectable to say one thing and do the opposite. Very few Arab states have been honest with their publics about the way they perceive their national interests and their actual diplomatic positions. Instead, official and semiofficial media in the Arab world generally speaking promote a worldview that is strongly at variance, if not indeed the polar opposite, of the way their governments actually perceive regional realities and their national interests.

The government of Egypt, for example, was absolutely unable to explain to the Egyptian people during the Gaza war why it could not consider opening the Rafah border crossing even though those reasons were readily intelligible to anyone who understood the way the Egyptian government perceives its strategic situation and fundamental national interests. If the Egyptian government, or official or semiofficial media, ever really tried to explain its actual national security policies and the logic that underlies them to the Egyptian public, I am not aware of it. Even during the confrontation with Hezbollah after the Gaza war, the main Egyptian government position was that Hezbollah?s actions in Egypt and Gaza were unacceptable because in effect they aided Israel. It?s possible that this argument might have worked for some Egyptians in this one instance, but it only underscores the extraordinary gap between official and semiofficial Egyptian rhetoric about national interests and foreign policies and the actual policies and interests pursued by the Egyptian government.

I am not singling Egypt out as a particularly egregious case, since I think almost all Arab states engage in this exceptionally misguided behavior, which only leads rapidly to destroying their credibility and ability to communicate effectively with their own people about national interests and policies. But, given my complaint that a large number of wealthy and well-to-do Arabs and Arab Americans say one thing politically and do something else commercially, it seems only fair to point out that the Arab governments themselves have pioneered the bifurcation of what one says and what one does. Applied to governments, this produces an irreconcilable gap between official rhetoric and actual policy; applied to individuals, it produces an irreconcilable gap between political pronouncements and personal financial and commercial behavior. Hypocrisy is universal, and the Arabs have no monopoly on it. But some governments and individuals seem determined to achieve levels of hypocrisy and self-delusion bordering on schizophrenia.