Consider the case of Egypt. President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi introduced serious economic reforms, drastically cutting the country’s budget deficit and subsidies, floating the Egyptian pound, reducing inflation and achieving a growth rate of 5 percent. He also expanded infrastructure and launched mega projects, including building a new administrative capital. More recently, he digitized and centralized government data and reformed banking. Other reforms in education, health, welfare, civil service and the justice system are underway. In his own words, Sissi is founding a “new state … a second republic.”
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), is no less ambitious. His Vision 2030 program seeks to move the Saudi economy away from oil dependence and turn the country into a hub for technology and trade. He has changed the face of Saudi cities, ended the ban on women’s driving, decimated the power of the morality police and brought artistic production into the country. He recently announced a radical revision of the way in which Saudi Arabia interprets Islamic Law, breaking with the Wahhabi orthodoxy.
It would be foolish to dismiss these reforms as irrelevant. However, it would be equally foolish to see them as building blocks for modern, functioning states. They are not.
First of all, the violence associated with these reforms strains Egyptian and Saudi society to a threatening level. This violence is not just inflicted on the hundreds of protesters shot or critics butchered or forced into exile. It is also inflicted on millions of poor and middle-class people whose living conditions have deteriorated further, and on entire populations subjected to Orwellian reign of terror and paranoia. And even if we could consider this violence a necessary cost of historic progress, it remains doubtful that a society broken into sheep or turned into angry mobs can produce innovating entrepreneurs and responsible citizens.
Second, despotic rulers promote crony capitalists, not independent market forces capable of sustained growth. The South Korean and Chilean dictatorships built market economies because they were allied with market forces. Arab dictators start by decimating whatever independence capital has: Sissi put the military in charge of the economy, and MBS locked up prominent Saudi businessmen until they submitted to his will. Both are acting as de facto chief executives of the country. No wonder Egypt’s private sector can’t produce the anticipated supply response to macroeconomic reforms. Whenever the state runs out of capital, or its rulers’ whims change, investment and growth collapse. Saudi Arabia has deeper pockets than Egypt, which is facing a looming debt problem, but the principle remains the same.
Third, despotic rulers depend on a system of patronage and fear to control state institutions. This system values loyalty over performance and compliance over critical thought. It also eviscerates institutions’ independence, making them pliant tools in the hand of the ruler. Arab despots cannot transform state institutions into rational, independent bureaucracies because it threatens their power. The result is continued institutional weakness, so when a despot falls, state institutions lose balance and rally around a new one.
Fourth, despots’ inability to share power thins out their public support base while radicalizing opposition. This wastes considerable resources on enemies and turns political conflicts into zero-sum games, ultimately pushing regimes to tighten their grip further on state institutions and the economy in a downward spiral. If or when the regime’s grip falters, the result is not a move toward power-sharing, but a radical conflict with a risk of state collapse.
Finally, despots in the region almost always end up going too far. With little checks on their power, sooner or later, they embark on one self-destructive adventure or another.
Saied, a university professor with no institutional support, is a much weaker leader than the dictators in Cairo and Riyadh. If he garners the support of the Tunisian security sector and enough foreign backing, he could deliver some relief to the millions of suffering Tunisians. He could also rile up the angry youth with his anti-Israel rhetoric.
But there is little he can do about the deep-seated challenges of his country, including the lack of independent market forces, autonomous rational institutions, entrepreneurial and creative thought, and inclusive political systems. These are the problems that keep Arab states fragile, and despotism, even that which purports to be enlightened, only exacerbates them.