Arab rulers won’t organically evolve toward democracy

Mohammed Nosseir

The news that China has reconciled the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a clear gesture that China will be playing a leading role in shaping the future of the Middle East, a role that was previously driven exclusively by the United States, backed by other Western nations.

For many years, Arab governments have been accustomed to the Western model combining rhetoric on human rights while looking the other way for economic gain, while the regional crisis intensifies.

On the other hand, authoritarian rulers have a single clear mission: Remain in power endlessly. Being unaccountable for their failures is empowering the world’s autocrats to take bolder initiatives than Western politicians who always have to consider the effect of economic ramifications on citizens’ votes.

For these Western politicians, maintaining certain domestic economic outcomes has proven to be more important than a sound foreign decision based on values.

“Strategic ambiguity” is an acknowledged policy of the United States in which it offers two equally opposing messages, which is best exhibited in the present China-Taiwan conflict. This approach means that the US could either stand with Taiwan if it engaged in a war with mainland China or apply realpolitik and let Taiwan confront the Chinese on its own.

This ambiguity dilemma has resulted in growing distrust in the rest of the world toward the United States, whose present leader often talks about the significance of spreading democracy in the world.

One of the largest misperceptions of Western nations is believing that Arab rulers are aligned with their policies. In fact, Arabs, who largely admire Western lifestyles and technology, are not necessarily happy with their equivocality approach.

This is best exhibited in the recent manipulation of the Gulf states’ security vis-à-vis the Iranian regime, a move that was sufficient to drive the Arab leaders to explore a new approach to national security, followed by a search for a more reliable strategic partner. 

In fact, Western nations have been heavily engaged in almost every single political dialogue in the region, beginning with the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict and ending with the present crises and conflicts in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. They have no significant achievement to show for their efforts with the exception of the Egypt-Israel Camp David Accord that is now close to half a century old. 

All of these intense struggles have been addressed by rhetorical conferences that enable participants to address their concerns without having tangible outputs. The US Summit for Democracy, the second version of which has recently concluded, is a clear example.

It sometimes appears that Western politicians advance their careers by engaging in these unaccountable meetings. Moreover, sanctioning Iran will never transform it to democracy; on the contrary, it expands support for extremism, increases the economic burden on Iranian citizens, who will naturally escalate their dislike toward the West.

Meanwhile, China’s influence is more constructive than the United States’. It is achieved by offering competitive products to the world and investing in developing nations’ infrastructure, which is complemented by the Belt and Road Initiative. 

Egypt, my country and a major recipient of funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), often has a “gloomy” relationship with the US that is driven by shortsighted American political interests of either the Democrats or Republicans.

While the US has always been generous in its economic aid to Egypt – opening special doors for Egyptian products to the United States – these policies have never helped advance the relationship between the two nations either at the state or citizens’ level.

“Which side is of more value to Egypt, Russia or Ukraine?” a famous Egyptian scholar asked me. Well, if we put the immoral aspects of the war aside, along with the fact that Russia has invaded a sovereign nation, certainly siding with Russia could work in reducing the United States’ hegemony in the Middle East.

Arab conspiracy theorists tend to accuse the United States of triggering all regional conflicts. But even the “Great Satan” itself, as the US is referred to by the government of Iran, wouldn’t be able to design all the evil afflictions affecting the Arab world.

However, it seems clear that Western nations, deliberately or carelessly, don’t expend the right efforts to address the Middle East’s conflicts. This is compounded by the lack of democracy in the Arab world. 

Moreover, Arab citizens have been confronting a number of economic, political and religious struggles; poverty is rising, violence is spreading widely, rule of law is declining, and voicing an opinion that may differ with the ruler may lead to prison. These complications naturally produce extremely frustrated Arab citizens who could be easily manipulated by terrorists. 

Middle Eastern citizens need genuine assistance in developing democracy, peace and prosperity; the three values are linked. The Western approach in promoting prosperity, such as the Abraham Accords, at the expense of genuine peace and democracy is simply wasted effort.

Western nations’ proud unification that is shaped in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or Group of Seven, for example, is meaningless for the rest of the world as long as it results in inefficient policies. Economic aid is relevant, but must have an impact on ordinary citizens rather than enriching elites who further empower the regional dictators.  

Arab rulers won’t organically evolve toward democracy, and are anticipated increasingly to stand shoulder to shoulder with their authoritarian bigger brothers, China and Russia.

Western nations will need to decide whether they want to serve their interests by cozying up to Arab autocrats for economic or domestic political gain or genuinely promote democracy, a long-term approach that has an economic cost, but will have a better impact on the citizens of the world than a double-face policy. 


Mohammed Nosseir is an Egyptian liberal politician who advocates political participation and economic freedom. Nosseir was member of the higher committee at the Democratic Front Party from 2007 to 2012, followed by being a member of the political bureau of the Free Egyptian Party until 2013.

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