The Arab State and Neo-Liberal Globalization: The Restructuring of State Power in the Middle East
Laura Guazzone and Daniela Pioppi, eds.
(Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2009), 300 pp.

Reviewed by David Roberts, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Durham.

The notion that most non-democratic states in the world are on some kind of inevitable trajectory towards democracy is often taken as an implicit assumption. However, as the editors of The Arab State and Neoliberal Globalization point out, this truism encounters difficulties in the context of the Middle East. For here, instead of some kind of inexorable ascent towards a more democratic society, autocracy has clearly been getting more and not less entrenched throughout the region.

Instead, this book takes a different tack and seeks to understand recent Arab political change in relation to neoliberal globalization. Specifically, this refers to economic policies pursued since the 1980’s, such as privatization and deregulation. These have been suggested to (or foisted on) countries around the world due to the widening of the dominant neo-liberal world-view, augmented by increasing and ever deepening globalization. This book, therefore, seeks to explain the apparent disjuncture between neoliberal globalization that supposes less state-power or control and the reality in the Arab world where state control remains as profound as ever.

After a clear and concise opening chapter by the book’s editors laying out the reasoning behind the book’s goal, ethos and position, the book is split into sections covering political mobilization, globalized security and wealth accumulation and distribution.

Joel Beinin’s chapter focusing on Egypt accurately charts Egyptian politics from Nasser to Mubarak’s increasing neo-authoritarianism. Instead of privatization leading to a decentralization or democratization of power, Mubarak’s cronies have become richer and more powerful. (p.30-1) The market, therefore, is neither free nor run for the benefit of the public. The subsequent worker’s backlash (i.e. bread riots, strikes) and the concurrent growth of Islamic politics, both of which represent the ‘losers’ of these neoliberal policies, is not surprising, nor is the regime’s harsh repression of them. In Saudi Arabia, however, such repression is not required. Instead, as Stefan Hertog writes in a highly readable chapter, the neoliberal ‘inspired’ clientalistic system that has emerged is far from new and even constitutes “the natural form of politics of a rentier monarchy.” (p.90)

The next section on changing patterns of wealth accumulation is not as strong and unfortunately mirrors much of what was said in the previous section. Ulrich Wurzel, writing his chapter on Egypt, focuses in with skill on the redistributive policies employed by Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and discusses the various mechanisms in detail. The chapter on Lebanon is complex and not at all helped by the author’s somewhat scattergun approach as well as bullet points and the lack of a conclusion, which, overall, make the chapter resemble more a graduate economic report or summary than a rigorous academic analysis.

Tim Niblock’s analysis of Saudi Arabia’s encounters with neo-liberalism (embodied in this case by WTO talks) is excellent. Eventual accession to the WTO in 2008 precipitated a raft of new laws leading to increasing Saudi’s acceptance and integration into the international community. Niblock even concludes that Saudi Arabia may well emerge soon as one of “the world’s great industrial powers” (p.182)as, off the back of neoliberal inspired changes, it can enjoy greater access to international markets underpinned by cheap domestic supplies of hydrocarbons as its raw material.

In the last section detailing globalized security, Philippe Droz-Vincent effectively highlights the crucial importance of America in Egypt’s security arrangements and overall presents Egypt as a decaying state that has tied up the security of the state and the security of the governing party as one. This, and previously discussed economic reforms for the benefit of an elite few at the expense of an ever poorer many, exacerbates the reliance by the governing elite on their security services to maintain their rigid grip on power.

Paul Aarts and Joris Van Duijne offer a thorough tour de force of the literature on Saudi Arabia’s security issues and make two points worth highlighting. First, they examine how the military-industrial complex is almost entirely absent in the Kingdom, owing to their history of resolving issues with dollars or alliances. Second, sooner rather than later, because of an ever increasingly globalized world and finite oil revenues, they theorize that Riyadh will be unable to ‘buy off’ threats facing them. This will, the authors predict, lead to “serious change in the security sector.” (p.293)

Overall, whilst the first two sections overlap significantly resulting in frequent repetition, the editors nevertheless must be praised for taking a different approach to looking at the Arab World. Indeed, far from discussing the failure of the region in a democratization framework, this approach shows the progress or at least the joining of Arab states alongside the West (and others) in the neoliberal endeavor, even if the results of this are vastly different and are neither as necessarily beneficial nor as predictable as expected.