The Arab Political Crisis: It isn’t a Matter of Civilization and it isn’t Unique

By Juan Cole

Hisham Melhem has a piece on what he calls the collapse of Arab civilization.

The piece is riddled with contradictions and fuzzy thinking and with all due respect to Milhem, who is a knowledgeable and experienced correspondent, I am going to disagree with it vehemently. I think he is arguing that Arabs bear a moral burden for the atrocities being committed in the region, and that they cannot duck it by blaming regional problems on European colonialism or the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Let’s take the 22 Arab League members (which include for political reasons non-Arabic-speaking countries like Somalia and Djibouti). There is nothing wrong with their civilization.

In the past 50 years, Arabic-speakers have gone from being perhaps 80% rural to being 80% urban. (There are still some significantly rural Arab countries like Egypt and Syria but even there the urban-dwellers are a majority). Even Saudi Arabia, which a century ago had a lot of pastoral nomads, is now as urban as the United States. They have gone from being largely illiterate to being, especially at the level of 15-30 year-olds largely literate. The proportion with high school and college educations has skyrocketed. They have access to world news through satellite television. Civilizationally, the average Arab today is way ahead of her parents and grandparents.

Obviously, the states of the Arab world are undergoing important transitions and some have collapsed. But state collapse is not the same thing as civilizational collapse, nor caused by it (whatever “civilization” is).

Why the states are collapsing is a good question for social science, but it isn’t the moral failing that Milhem makes it out to be, nor is it unique. I’d look at the following:

1. Demography. The Arab world is full of states that have had relatively high rates of population growth for 150 years. I have a hypothesis that this population boom is related to global warming, which also began in earnest about 150 years ago, and which may have reduced pandemics in the region which we know were common and cyclical in the medieval and early modern period (“plague”). Tunisia underwent a demographic transition and began leveling off, but most of the rest continue to have high birth rates (Egypt began to level off in 2005 but apparently the instability of the last three years has caused a new baby boom). High rates of population growth can contribute to instability if there aren’t enough jobs for the waves of young people coming on the job market every year. Gross Domestic Product is a matter of long division. So if the population grows 3 percent in a year, and the economy grows 3 percent, the per capita increase in GDP that year is … zero. Go on like that for decades and you’ll have economic and social stagnation. This is why China’s one-child policy was so smart. You couldn’t have had the post-1980 take-off in the same way if the rate of population growth had been like Egypt’s.

Is it an accident that the two countries that began undergoing a demographic transition in the 1970s, Tunisia and Turkey, are the two more stable ones in the region?

2. Productivity. Most Arab states were under European colonialism in the 19th and until the mid-20th century. No colonial administration was interested in promoting industrialization (in contrast, e.g., to Meiji Japan, which was independent and cared about Japan’s place in the world). Arab countries after WW II were mostly agricultural and poor. Some 80% of Iraqis were landless laborers and 2500 families had the best land, and a lion’s share of it, in 1958. While there has been some state-led industrialization, about half of Syria’s population is still rural. Farming has low rates of productivity gain. And most urban workers are in services, which also aren’t characterized by much increase in productivity. High population growth plus low productivity growth equals economic and social stagnation.

3. The distortions of the oil economies. Urbanization in Egypt, e.g., may have stalled out since the 1970s because workers that might have gone to labor in factories in Egyptian cities instead went to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. When and if they returned with savings, they often returned to their villages and opened a shop or other small business. The oil economies of the Gulf also drew off the more enterprising teachers and engineers. Oil economies have hardened currencies because of the value of their primary commodity, which makes made goods expensive and harms handicrafts, industry and agriculture because export markets like India can’t afford these goods if they are denominated in a hard currency. (This phenomenon is known as the Dutch disease because the Netherlands suffered from it in the early 1970s when its natural gas industry took off). Also, having small but enormously wealthy and authoritarian states like Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the region is destabilizing. They spread money around to support their factions, who then fall to fighting and have the wealth to buy good weapons.

4. Aridity and climate change. The Arab world lies in a longstanding Arid Zone stretching from Morocco to the Gobi Desert. Much of this region cannot engage in rainfall agriculture and depends on irrigation. But climate change is producing increased aridity over time, with long-term droughts. The collapse of Syria is certainly caused in some important part by climate change. Egypt also has a water crisis, and in villages in Upper Egypt protests over insufficient water were part of the unrest during the 2011 revolution and after.

These sorts of causes have contributed to the difficulties the Arab world faces, not moral or civilizational deterioration. Of course, state collapse can create a social maelstrom in which horrific groups like ISIL can grow up. But they are typically caused by the other factors and attendant instability and displacement. They aren’t the original cause of anything themselves. Nor are the Arabs alone even in the region. The brutality and disproportionate force deployed by the Israeli army in Gaza is another form of barbarism.

Singling out the Arab world is unfair. Spain came to be ruled from 1936 by a fascist military dictatorship, which lasted into the 1970s. The exemplar of civilization, the country of Goethe and Schelling– Germany– went fascist in the 1930s. Italy likewise had a fascist government from the 1920s, and it was overthrown by an American invasion, not by Italians alone. Even in the past decade, Italy was demoted by Freedom House from being a first-tier democracy because of the corrupt and authoritarian practices of PM Silvio Berlusconi (journalists working for his media, and he owned a lot of it, were coerced to report positively on him). It is not at all clear that Europe would have ended up democratic, or would have done so quickly after the War, if left to its own devices. What we think of democratic practices were imposed on Western Europe by the US.

Southeast Asia had its own difficulties transitioning from being agricultural and colonial to being independent, urban and industrial. Indonesia polished off hundreds of thousands of –some say a million– Communists in 1965. Vietnam was in turmoil for decades and then turned to one-party dictatorship, remaining desperately poor. Laos and Cambodia were destabilized by the American war in Vietnam. Of the 7.5 million Cambodians in 1975, about 25% were murdered in the Khmer Rouge genocide, i.e. about 1.88 million.

There isn’t any Arab country where a percentage of the population (25%) has been killed, similar to Cambodia. The Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) cost between 500,000 and 1 million lives in a population of 11 million, but a large proportion of these were killed by French troops. The Lebanese Civil War probably killed about 100,000 out of 4 million, or 2.5 percent. The Iran-Iraq War probably left 250,000 Iraqis (some say twice that) dead, out of 16 million, with similar numbers of Iranian casualties. The Arab-Israeli Wars, horrible as they were, were relatively low-casualty affairs as wars go– with casualties on the Arab side in the tens of thousands. Tunisia wasn’t involved in a war after WWII. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq, which destabilized that country, resulted in excess mortality of between 200,000 and a million, in a population of 30 million since 2003 (and despite Melhem, I think we know whose fault this latter was).

One could also compare to Africa. I won’t go into the massive destabilization and loss of life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Belgian colonial policy, which killed half the population. Over 5 million have died because of political turmoil (and related disease) in DRC since 1995.

The fact is that European colonialism and neocolonialism has had a demonstrably destabilizing effect on the region. But Milhem is right that there are lots of other contributing causes. They aren’t, however, the ones he points to. Population growth, the shape of the economy, and resource-poverty (especially in water, which he mentions with regard to Yemen but only as a jeremiad) are all implicated.

Melhem’s piece stands in a very long tradition. After the fall of Baghdad in 1258 to the Buddhist and animist Mongol armies, many Muslim intellectuals concluded that God was angry at the Muslims for having become decadent, and so delivered them into the hands of the infidels from the East for punishment. But the Mongol invasions were not a moral failing of the people of Iran and Iraq. They resulted in some important part from the sophistication of Mongol warfare.

Don’t beat yourself up so much, Hisham.

By the way, some of this is explained in my new book:

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

33 Responses

  1. Your analysis is more sober although Milhem’s might be read as more of a lament than an analysis, and on those grounds one can sympathize. It is crushing to see the hopes for one’s home and people vanish and be replaced by a situation so unthinkable. I weep inside for Syria every day, the Syria that used to be or could have been.

  2. Great post as usual, thanks. Except I wouldn’t call China’s one child policy “so smart” just yet, the jury is still out on that. Sure it increases GDP per capita in the short term but so does war. GDP is not an end in itself, it’s just a metric.

  3. Professor Cole,

    Thank you for this wonderful and in-depth post!
    As another reader had remarked a few days ago, I was also looking for the “Like” button on the page as I read it.

  4. Hisham Melhem’s dismay over what is happening in the Middle East is understandable. But he is looking at history with a narrow and blinkered focus; he is truly “unable to see the forest for the trees”.

    It is the entire human species that is on the brink of collapse. That the unraveling has started where civilization itself began is not that surprising. It’s often the oldest part of an old mechanism that goes first.

    We need to see ourselves not as Westerners or Middle Easterners, Christians or Muslims, Iraqis or Americans–we need to see ourselves as human beings.

    There are some 7.1 billion people on the planet. We are on this finite globe together. And, as curious and clever beings, it is our ability to use resources faster than the Earth can replenish those resources that underpins the current upheavals around the world.

    The West is only another economic downturn away from becoming as factional and war-torn as the Middle East. We have as much divisiveness here as there is in Arab society. The only thing keeping us from turning on each other is the luck of being, for now, at the top of the global economic food chain.

    To move forward, we need to stop talking about problems in terms of us versus them. We need to talk about humanity as a whole. When is the last time that you heard a political leader refer to “humans”? I.E. – “Today, all human beings face the challenges of a resource insecure future. We need to come together, as a species, and work to create sustainable models of living before we become so insecure (in food, water, and energy) that we begin to turn on each other.”

    That is what we need to hear: a focus on how we (and that includes ISIS) are all in this together. United we stand. Divided we fall.

    • I disagree for the most part. The ME is mostly not turmoil from within but turmoil from without as the US/Nato countries batter and bash throughout the ME since the 1940′ with blind racism, imperialist powers and corporate military out. US crises: Iran 1953 to 1979; Iraq 1958 to 1993 – Iraq War 1 – Iraq War 2 — all the war crimes — now Iraq war 3. ; Libya – a country doing quite well for its people taken out by US including the mercenaries armed by US from Mali; 1981 Reagan and vp Bush give gas weapons material and how-to Iraq invading Iran; Syria – a classic CIA/psy-ops operation. Yemen — US drone attacks and support of a cruel regime. Support for Saudi Arabia. Support Egypt Mubarak the for the coup and now a ruthless military dictatorship; drone bombing in Somalia, Pakistan etc

      • RC–
        I agree with you on your point about the role of Western aggression and interference. I see the main focus of colonialism as resource acquisition.

        The length of time that people have lived in the Middle East, cultivating the land and using the waterways, has meant that the natural resources of the area have been stressed by human habitation for longer than similar resources have been stressed in areas of relatively more recent habitation.

        In addition, the location of abundant oil and natural gas has drawn other nations as carrion draws wolves and coyotes.

        I see this entire scenario as driven by humans using resources faster than such resources can be produced by the Earth.

        I’m not blaming the ME for having the misfortune of being in the center of this tug-of-war for wealth. I’m interested in seeing all human beings able to understand and confront how our behavior (whether as colonizers or colonized) is shaped by a basic struggle over resource consumption.

      • You only see suffering Arabs when pro-American dictators are there to blame. You never see the corruption of the anti-American dictators like Gadafi who stole billions and distributed it to his favored provinces and family at the expense of others, who rebelled, or Assad who favored his ethnic group and their allies against the Sunnis, who rebelled. (Both “socialists” had already sold out to America by collaborating with corporations and Bush’s renditions.) Real Libyans and Syrians were willing to die to put a stop to that. Yet you have to replace them with a legion of mercenaries because real “natives” can’t possibly hate “socialism”. You’re just as blind as the capitalist imperialists who started this mess.

        And don’t forget how the Marxist regime in Afghanistan (led by an incompetent University of Wisconsin campus radical) angered his conservative population so badly that the Soviets had to invade and kill him to maintain their position – which was the opportunity for the Saudi and Pakistani fanatics and their ally Reagan to create the jihadi threat.

  5. “What we think of democratic practices were imposed on Western Europe by the US.” That’s a bit of US boosterism. For 30 years after WWII the only democracies in Western Europe were those that were democracies BEFORE WWII, except for West Germany and Italy. i.e. the democracies of Norway, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, France, Austria and Luxembourg were not imposed by the US. In fact, countries like Finland and Austria went forward with their democracies under the influence of the Soviet Union (not with Soviet encouragement, however). And, of course, Spain, Portugal and sometimes Greece were authoritarian AND allies of the US. And let’s not forget that US allies during that period were far more likely to be authoritarian than democratic. From South Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Latin America, Iran, and Egypt, the US was hardly ever a friend of democracy. And one wonders, if Italy or West Germany had fallen to authoritarian governments in let’s say 1965, what action would the US have taken?

    • Finland’s Marshal Mannerheim was a dictator. There was a postwar understanding between the sides that made it and Austria neutral democracies. Hitler, by the way, exploited fascist movements in all the democracies to advance his conquests; these were not healthy democracies, especially France. You surely aren’t going to claim moral equivalence there to Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, etc?

      Democracy was dying out all over the world in 1939, and the Great Depression was the cause. The Marshall Plan created the economic conditions to stop the recurrence of the chaos that only aided fascists and communists. The brilliance of the Europeans was that they realized this UNPRECEDENTED prosperity must be fairly distributed via negotiation with the working class. But that was carried out under US hegemony. The Europeans saw the Marshall Plan as our New Deal taken to its necessary conclusion, social democracy, while our country failed and turned against the New Deal over time.

      Obviously, our hypocrisy towards Asian democracy was about racism. Compare our relationships with Tito and Ho Chi Minh.

      • Finland was a democracy before and after the war. I’m somewhat familiar with Mannerheim, and as far as I remember, his “dictatorship” was strictly during the war.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “moral equivalence” wrt Hungary and Czech. Equivalence to what?

        I’m not sure what about my statements you dispute either. And as for rascism, well maybe, but the US support of authoritarian regimes seemed to be cross-racial.

  6. Juan, a number of worthwhile points, but I don’t think population increase in the Arab countries is due to climate change. Starting about 150 years ago the effects of European imperialism were being felt and one of those effects was modern water management. The largest department in Cromer’s Egypt, for example, consisted of hydrologists and civil engineers. Improvements in irrigation of the Nile Valley allowed for significant population growth, but without a commensurate growth in economic infrastructure. A century later the population is much larger, but still very poor.

    • The increase in population growth rates happened everywhere – Egypt, Palestine, Iraq etc. starting before impact of modern medicine. Needs macro explanation.

  7. Hamza Shaban

    Your rebuttal against Arab cultural sickness reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who pushes agains thet “Black pathology” argument

  8. I totally agree except! The greatest cause of turmoil in the ME, seems to me, to be the covert actions and the wars caused both directly and indirectly by the USA and the UK primarily.
    UK, as a colonizer was perhaps the most arrogant and the most racist of all colonizers out of Europe.
    But the modern day cycles of violence are definitively the actions of the USA along with its NATO belligerents.
    Iran was having its oil virtually stolen be the UK and then the coup of a democratic Iran in 1953 following with a covert occupation of Iran until the Iranian Revolution Of 1979. Still the US and friends beat upon Iran every day.
    Iraq has been put to ruins by war after war by the USA etc and it’s embargoes on necessary drugs. Still Iraq is shut down by US wars now instigated covertly upon Syria.
    USA and friends took out Libya that was a good place to live until they did that for American Interests.
    Israel gets $3B a year from the USA and does as it pleases in the West bank and murders in the Gaza attacks.
    Egypt, long with Mubarak US backed Dictatorship and now with the military dictatorship.
    The American news is full of these stories and they always blame someone else.
    Don’t forget Afghanistan and the creating, by the US, if the Soviet invasion when the US created al Qaeda telling them they would have the CIA help them kick out the Soviets when the opposite was true. Then the hunting for Osama bin Laden (never charged with 9/11, never on the FBI wanted list for 911) created the next long long war in Afghanistan and infecting Pakistan and followed by the illegal drone murders.
    Now Yemen is up more than usual and likely because of the US drone striKes there and a bad government also US supported.

    So the rogue nation is the biggest offender of peace and cultural change in the ME.

    • RC, 2014-09-21-01:49

      I totally agree with your Middle East War History report. The worst part about all this is that some of the “pushers” of those wars are members of the UN Security Council and decide which countries’ wrongdoings are vetoed and will be punished and which will keep being blameless, particularly that their actions are more than shameful but their attitude shameless. The British and the US have a lot to do with all the trouble happening in the Middle East (and Africa), two empires that seem to be heading for the total control of the next century if they manage to limit the power of Russia, China and the rest of the BRICS, whose economical goal is heading for a direct opposition to the international banking system and the forced use of the petrodollar. Saddam Hussein was going to switch to the euro for his oil commerce, although he had his dinar money ready, and Mouamar Kaddafi, was going to use his gold dinar, and we know what happened to them… It won’t be as easy to kill Putin, and China’s, Brazil’s, India’s and South Africa’s Heads of State in a false flag war…

  9. Whistling while walking past the grave yard….while some points are quite salient,…prof.cole left out the 500 pound gorilla in the alley..radical Islam…until he is caged,turmoil will reign

  10. Replace the “Arab” with “Islamic” and you have “the collapse of Islamic civilization”.
    Not so farfetched now. You could even say the religion itself if not in decline is in crises.

  11. More support for your argument that other continents are not that far ahead of the Middle East:

    1. We forget that South America appeared to be a land of opportunity before the Great Depression; European and Japanese immigrants flocked there. In 1900 Argentina had the world’s 5th highest GNP. Though much of this was ruined by Wall Street collaboration with local oligarchs, it means they had a big head start over the Middle East in building modern governments and economies.

    2. France, at times in the past the world’s greatest military power and society, faced a Communist Party scheme to overthrow democracy in the late ’40s, and a far-right insurgency after DeGaulle abandoned Algeria in the ’60s. As late as 1968 Paris was in a protracted violent uprising.

    3. Except for the garrison state of Prussia, Germany was a fractious backwater for most of the 19th century. Well, we all know how that changed, with many ups and downs. (Ditto Japan.)

    4. According to the book “Late Victorian Holocausts” by Mike Davis, in the early 1800s China and India were still the biggest national economies in the world. China still had vast reserves of gold. Britain’s evil opium racket ruined both countries. But we can say now that those countries are being restored to their natural eminence. Yet a few decades back they were regarded as basket cases. What they have that the Middle East lacks is a single state, economy and legal regime, like it or not, to pool their vast resources for various projects. As we know, powerful forces have prevented the creation of Prince Faisal’s single Arab kingdom under one ideology after another, leaving kingdoms and republics illegitimate in the eyes of their own divided people.

    I wonder if the US had lost the Civil War and disintegrated into dozens of warring states, we’d be looked at today like some of these unfortunate lands. Strange that some at this site seem to think that would have made the world a better place.

    • Dr. Huntington has no monopoly in the term” Islamic civilization” which like, all civilizations is imploding from within and not because of a “clash or lack of mono cultural world” or “moral failing or a warming planet” even the moguls did not end Islamic civilization, Islamic civilization ended them as they adopted Islam, its administrative and cultural norms and build enduring kingdoms. Time for a little constructive self criticism from the citizens of this civilization and some flexibility and foresight form the religious scholars, the other common denominator in this civilization.

  12. Population growth increases the urgency for land and resources, urbanisation distances mankind from any responsible relationship with the environment, and literacy raises aspirations from the practical to the abstract. Combined they make a toxic mix engendering eruptive change and potential chaos way beyond the Arab nations. We see increasing totalitarianism of one kind or another most everywhere, but its a tactical response, as is the call for regionalism, there is no strategy. The current world population of 7.2 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report*. Our long term fate is increasingly in the hands of Nature.

    * link to

  13. Helpful push-back Juan, thanks. Am looking forward to your response to Robert F. Worth’s NYRB critique of your book too.

  14. Juan, Melhem does engage in self-flagellation, but I think you engage a bit too much in polemics. Nearly all the themes that you examine can be looked at differently, from a more internal perspective:
    1. Demography: Why not control population?
    2. Productivity: Why not increase productivity? Why is it that the Arab world started from more-or-less the same platform as SE Asia in terms of productivity and now lags far behind?
    3. Oil Dependence: Why not diversify? The writing has been on the wall for a few decades.
    4. Aridity: Why not implement policies of more efficient and sustainable water use?
    Finally, Melhem write: “The Islamic State, like al Qaeda, is the tumorous creation of an ailing Arab body politic.” I agree with that.

    • thanks so much for weighing in, Yasser. As Indira Gandhi found out, controlling population is not politically easy. But anyway if you want to say there have been policy failings I’d agree. My point is that these are not moral, ethical or “civilizational” failings, and that they are common throughout the world. Public policy in the US also has produced low productivity after WW II, of only 2% average a year, when we needed 3%. Nobody says American civilization is collapsing as a result.

  15. A society run by “Guardians” is perhaps the least guarded of all when it comes to outside manipulation.

  16. from the economist but then again they havent spent a career of apologia and blaiming anyone except the Arabs for what happens in their society.
    “Pluralism, education, open markets: these were once Arab values and they could be so again. Today, as Sunnis and Shias tear out each others’ throats in Iraq and Syria and a former general settles onto his new throne in Egypt, they are tragically distant prospects. But for a people for whom so much has gone so wrong, such values still make up a vision of a better future.” link to and link to

  17. this is indeed a terrific post, Professor.

    I see some posters still use the “it’s the fault of Islamic civilization” nonsensical trope.

    I may be accused of oversimplifying (& I’m open to the accusation) but I’ve always understood the current (by “current” I mean from a historical lens–which includes the past few decades) turmoil in the region this way:

    Islam is only 1400 yrs old. Look at Judaism and Christianity at that age. Full of internal and external strife-infighting, purges, fighting with neighbors, unbelievable violence and savagery. Hell, the pope was a military leader himself, smiting challengers all over Europe and leading crusades against infidels. Just read the Books of Joshua and Judges to see what Judaism was up to at that age. The problem, of course, was that there were no nuclear weapons when Christianity & Judaism were undergoing their difficult transitional phases (which lasts centuries).

    I also look at what happened to the Roman empire during its decline and after its fall: Europe was plunged into “darkness,” — chaos, constant fighting, wars between competing mini-kingdoms, etc. What we’re seeing is the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman empire. Except that Europe had the benefit of no outside colonial powers coming in and colonizing it for decades. Europe was allowed to find its own way – and it had to go thru centuries of bloodshed and turmoil to find it.

    So-except for the outside colonizer aspect-there is indeed nothing historically unique about what’s going on with Islam or the region’s political/social/cultural development.

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