I spent 19 months between 2009 and 2017 conducting field research in the Middle East, primarily in the UAE and other Gulf monarchies brimming with Western consultants. (Many refer to the Saudi Ministry of Planning, only half-jokingly, as the Ministry of McKinsey.) A condition of my research grant was that sources would not be identified, in part so that they could speak freely in a region where government retribution is commonplace.
What I found was that Western consulting firms, universities and other institutions are increasingly advising and assisting these authoritarian governments. Some of the consultants involved say they are making a positive difference, encouraging change from within, but others acknowledge worrying that they are helping to prop up and even strengthen repressive, illiberal regimes.
The truth often lies somewhere in between, I’ve found, and it is sensitive to timing and local incentive structures.
My focus was on the degree to which Gulf ruling elites are trying to create more open and globalized societies to gear up for a post-petroleum era. I sat in on palace events, listening to how these ruling elites debate reform possibilities, and I saw firsthand the key role played by well-paid foreign experts from McKinsey & Co., the Rand Corp. and others like them. To better understand their contributions, I interviewed scores of such experts with experience working at high levels on reform projects in education, urban planning and other areas in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. I also interviewed dozens of Gulf ruling elites, including one monarch, to hear their take.
I came away with several conclusions. First, ruling elites tend to see their countries’ problems as highly technical, meaning that the world’s best thinkers, scientists and consultants can solve them if given the right resources. They place great faith in the teams of foreign experts they recruit, expecting them to bring fresh insight and perspective where their own bureaucracies have not.
They’re not wrong. My research suggests that many foreign experts do bring new knowledge, data and experience to bear on reform efforts. But the timing is essential: The positive effect occurs primarily when experts are first recruited to help diagnose problems and design potential solutions. At this early stage, they generally feel at liberty to speak their minds about what might work and what might not.
But the longer that experts stay on the scene, the more enmeshed they become in local incentive structures characteristic of authoritarian states. Despite initial assurances to the contrary, they discover that they can be quickly fired — and even deported — with little explanation. They also find themselves embedded in an ecosystem of intense rivalry and high turnover, a kind of musical-chairs game in which they may be used as scapegoats.
Although some experts end up leaving, many others adapt to the incentives: They rarely say anything negative, let alone criticize human-rights abuses (which they see as having little to do with their own work). The incentives to avoid speaking truth to power grow even stronger when experts are offered ever more lucrative contracts or the opportunity to oversee the implementation of their own reform proposals.
One result is even if ruling elites genuinely seek reforms — some are simply making a show of it — they become overconfident about their ability to fast-track change. Surrounded by top experts and consultants, who rarely tell them “no,” why wouldn’t they? These dysfunctional interactions also repeat themselves. Insufficient institutional review and organizational memory mean that little learning survives. When reforms go awry, as one Saudi-based consultant explained, “another ruling elite gets a new group of experts, and then the same conversation happens over and over again.”
In my experience, residents of these countries are increasingly critical of their governments’ paying hefty fees to foreign experts and consultants for little in return. That’s a problem, because popular buy-in is important to the success of reforms. Gulf ruling elites and the experts they hire must recognize that problems are not only technical but also political. If reforms are going to work, the people’s interests must be considered, not just those of the leaders who pay the experts’ considerable bills from the public purse.