Book Review: Amaney A. Jamal’s “Of Empires and Citizens” – by Elissar Harati


Of Empires And CitizensThe entrenchment of authoritarianism in the Arab world is usually attributed to cultural, religious, or economic factors. Most experts look to the political economy of rentier states, particularly in the Persian Gulf, to explain how clientelism buys off loyalty and dissent. Rentier states derive a substantial portion of their national revenues from the extraction of natural resources –oil and natural gas, in this case. Other commentators point to Islam, or Arab culture more broadly, to argue that certain cultural practices in the region encourage obedience to authoritarianism.

Amaney Jamal, however, introduces a new dimension to democratization in the Arab world in her recently published book: Of Empires and Citizens (Princenton University Press, 2012). The Associate Professor of Politics at Princeton University introduces the role of international actors – and patrons more specifically – in encouraging authoritarianism in the Middle East. Policy-makers and scholars alike have repeatedly argued that foreign intervention thwarts democratization in the Middle East. They contend that the U.S. in particular hinders bottom-up reform, by promoting its own interests for regional stability, maintaining access to oil and gas, and reducing threats to Israel. Jamal, however, refines this argument and adds the reactions of citizens and political parties to this interference. She acknowledges that a patron has an important role in shaping domestic outcomes, but that it is not the only variable that explains authoritarian entrenchment in the Middle East.

Jamal’s analysis is worthy of investigation for its thorough use of qualitative and quantitative data. Most academic writings on Arab politics rely on historical and sociological observations to draw regional conclusions. Jamal’s approach, however, is novel in its meticulous use of opinion polls, value surveys, and regression analysis to gauge the opinions of Arab citizens. She specifies which variables she uses in her studies, defines these variables, and then proceeds to explain the statistical relevance of her research. This method makes Of Empires and Citizens an excellent read for scholars and policy-makers working on Middle Eastern politics.

She argues that the traditional theories on democratization in the Middle East fail to take into account international factors and relations. These theories overlook the fact that there is little popular agency or bottom-up change in most of these states. She explains that patrons play a crucial role in domestic processes because they have the power to mediate the relationship between state and society. They can shape outcomes by bolstering regimes or elites that are cooperative to the values of the patron, which may not always be democratic. The fact that a regime depends on a foreign patron can also hinder citizens’ demands, as the regime in power is more accountable to external forces.

In the Middle East, the U.S. is the only noteworthy patron as Jamal demonstrates how the Arab world relies on the U.S. much more than on any other international player. In terms of economic stability and military security, the Arab world depends heavily on the U.S. The Arab world does not have any similar security alliances with the EU for example. If a regime demonstrates hostile attitudes towards the U.S., the superpower has unconditional leeway to impose economic sanctions as it has in the past against Hamas, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the Ba’ath regime in the Syria.

To validate these claims, Jamal looks at state-society relations in Jordan and Kuwait to determine why, even though both societies have recently expressed a desire for more democracy, this translated into results in Kuwait but not in Jordan. Kuwait has recently seen a political opening with women gaining universal suffrage in 2005 and the constitutional process that oversaw the succession in throne of the Al Sabah family in 2006. Conversely, Jordan has been witnessing a series of “de-democratization” reforms with noticeable limitations on press freedoms and civil liberties. The difference was explained in the differing stances of the opposition forces towards the patron, and whether the movements represented a challenge to the U.S.

In this regard, her causal logic is primarily based on class divisions. She assumes that middle and upper socio-economic classes are more likely to support the patron, the status quo, and economic stability regardless of the democratic outcome: “[…] winners of globalization are more cautious about pushing for democracy because they are concerned with anti-patron forces accessing power and disrupting the patron relationship”.

The distinction based on socio-economic class is not usually found in academic writings on Middle Eastern politics as analysts increasingly use ethno-religious and sectarian arguments. Jamal’s work can be praised because it acknowledges that one’s socio-economic background influences political preferences and attitudes. For example, a wealthy Jordanian businessman who benefits from globalization and economic liberalization will have more in common – in terms of political concerns – with a wealthy Kuwaiti than with a Jordanian farmer. Citizens’ perceptions of opposition forces and their potential influence on the status quo also matters in the democratic outcome.

In Jordan, Jamal argues that most of the population embraces capitalism and globalization. This was also found to be true across the region, according to recent opinion polls. However, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the main Islamic group in Jordan, holds strong anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric. She claims that ordinary Jordanians are afraid of the democratic outcome because they fear that the Islamists will win and sever economic ties with the US. In Kuwait, however, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) is much less anti-American. Kuwaitis are also more pro-American because of the U.S. role in the 1991 Gulf War. Therefore, Kuwaitis in general do not fear democratic reform as much as Jordanians because there is an underlying assumption that the ICM will not challenge the country’s special ties with the U.S.

These differences in attitudes towards the U.S. can be explained mostly through historical and contextual factors. Jordan has been a firm U.S. client since the 1960s. Today, the country receives almost all of its economic and military aid from the U.S. In return, the Hashemite family has been a staunch ally to the U.S., making peace with Israel in 1994, supporting the War on Terror, and providing military bases for the 2003 Iraq War. Kuwait has always had a patriarchal relationship with the U.S. and the 1991 Gulf War entrenched this dependency even further. Jamal’s account of how the small Gulf state used to be one of the most vocal pan-Arab voices during the 70s is surprising. At the time, Kuwait was at the forefront of boycott activities against Israel at the expense of its alliance with the U.S. The 1991 Iraq invasion, however, represented the end of pan-Arabism in Kuwait. The country’s liberation concluded in a ten-year military defense treaty with the U.S., “the first of its kind with any Arab country”. Jamal explains that Kuwaitis still feel deep gratitude towards Americans and know that any contender to the ruling Al Sabah family would also honor this special relationship.

Islamist parties in both countries have reacted differently to the patron. Although Jamal’s argument relies on the attitudes of opposition groups towards the state’s patron, she focuses only on the role of Islamist groups. One critique is that she does not look at secular or leftist opposition groups. However, she argues that Islamist groups should be looked at more closely as they are the strongest and most organized opposition group in many Arab autocracies. In the past few years, Islamist groups have had considerable electoral gains in Morocco, Egypt, and Bahrain despite electoral manipulation and gerrymandering by the state.

The U.S. has generally taken a unilateral stance towards all Islamist groups by referring to them as “troublemakers” or even “forces of tyranny”. Jamal emphasizes throughout her analysis that U.S. policies towards Islamist groups have been unsuccessful and misguided. Since its beginnings, political Islam has always been anti-imperialist and anti-Western. However, distinct national contexts have created different types of Islamism. In Jordan, public opinion gears towards anti-American sentiments because of citizens’ perceived pressure to make peace with Israel and support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Islamist groups in Jordan, represented by the IAF, have strong support amongst citizens because they continually criticize the ruling Hashemite family for betrayal to Israel. Surprisingly, this rhetoric resonates with religious and non-religious Jordanians alike.

Islamist groups in Kuwait and Morocco, on the other hand, have been accommodating to the U.S. (and to the EU in the case of Morocco). Moderate as well as conservative Islamist groups in Morocco have been willing to engage with the U.S. and the EU for economic support. In Kuwait, the ICM serves as a pro-American force, even though it may advance conservative Islamic values. Jamal’s findings show that there is room for the U.S. to change its reputation in the Middle East in that “there is nothing inherent about these Islamic movements that bars their engagement with America.” Islamist ideology on democracy, international engagement, and globalization is thus malleable. Jamal argues with tact that anti-Americanism is a function of U.S. policies in the region. Arabs do not “hate” Western values – a theory the U.S. continues to promote but which she refutes cleverly – but rather they dislike the patron’s direct support to Israel, as well as to Arab authoritarian regimes.

The author backs her findings through qualitative research involving open-ended interviews with ordinary citizens in Kuwait and Jordan. The method involved asking people in public spaces about their opinions on political participation, gender, Arab identity, and religion. Jamal’s quantitative backing relies on survey data from the 2001 World Values Survey, Mark Tessler’s 2004 opinion polls, and a 2007 PEW poll. She looks at three aspects: citizens’ values on regional stability, free trade, and the values of supporters of political Islam. She attempts to determine whether citizens’ attitudes towards globalization influence their stances towards U.S. policies, embodied in Bush’s ‘War on Terror’, which she argues is at the core of American foreign policy. On a side note, one could argue that U.S. policies embody much more than the ‘War on Terror’. Arabs might have supported America’s struggle against Al Qaeda at the time of writing, but that does not mean that they support U.S. policies in general or those since the ‘Arab Spring.’

Her data indicates a positive correlation between income and pro-American attitudes, and that citizens’ material benefits from globalization are more important than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in determining anti-Americanism. This is a surprising finding as many argue that the source of anti-Americanism stems from America’s biased role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Jamal demonstrates that historical context and proximity to the conflict matters. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict matters more to Jordanians for example than to Kuwaitis because of their direct involvement in, and proximity to, the conflict.

Jamal then briefly looks at anti-American sentiments in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Territories to substantiate her findings. Although her efforts to draw comparisons to Kuwait and Jordan are noteworthy, the bulk of her thesis still relies on these two case studies to make a broad regional argument. One must keep in mind that the samples she uses in her surveys are not representative of the wider population. In the qualitative research project, her survey reached only one hundred individuals in Kuwait and 1,000 in Jordan. Still, the fact that she compliments these findings with substantive data on citizen attitudes strengthens her argument. The author also acknowledges potential counter-arguments, as she states that her work covers people’s attitudes but not necessarily their behaviors.

In essence, the crux of her argument takes into account two dynamics. On one hand, her argument rests upon neo-Marxist theories of dependency between the core and the periphery. The core is composed of powerful players in the international arena, while the periphery includes all of the remaining nations, which stand at the bottom of the international relations pyramid. On the other hand, Jamal looks at how the stance of opposition groups towards the patron influences citizenry attitudes towards democracy. She argues that the root of “Arab exceptionalism” stems from the global positioning of the client state combined with the presence of opposition groups that are increasingly Islamist and anti-American.

All things considered, Of Empires and Citizens provides important policy recommendations for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Jamal is accurate in her analysis of the failures of past U.S. strategies at addressing anti-Americanism and authoritarian entrenchment. The U.S. is currently bolstering secular and liberal parties in the hopes of countering a perceived Islamist threat to democracy. But, “will liberal parties necessarily be pro-American?”, she asks. In the past, Arab secular movements such as Baathism or Nasserism all demanded independence from foreign intervention.

The U.S. assumes that liberalism is a pre-condition for democracy. However, Jamal notes that, in the West, liberal values came as a result of the democratic process. To change its image in the Middle East, the U.S. must begin by winning the hearts and minds of the Arab people, rather than the support of political parties. So far, the U.S. has not been faring well among Arab citizens because of its direct support to repressive states and mishandling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, Jamal reminds us that Arab anti-Americanism is not monolithic and that the U.S. can, and should, play a constructive role in the region. As she puts it: “this book shows that one of the key routes to democracy in the region will be to address the sources of anti-Americanism writ large.”



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