New perspectives on the political economy of the Middle East

30 November, 2017

Did the 2011 Egyptian protests lead to changes in voting outcomes and electoral choices? How has the arrival of Syrian refugees affected the Lebanese economy? What impact did the Egyptian revolution have on female labour force participation?

These were among a range of fascinating questions explored at a workshop held in Oxford last month that brought together scholars and graduate students from the Arab world for a series of sessions on new lines of inquiry on the political economy of the Middle East, especially following the wave of uprisings that swept the region in 2011.

Presentations examined a number of critical topics, including: Islam, finance and development; the political economy of oil; inequality, migration and conflict; the political economy of trade and macroeconomic policies; the economic effects of protest politics; and the political economy of reform in the Arab world. A selection of papers from the workshop is available here.

Since each revolution should be examined in its own context and since each had its own impact, a number of presentations were country-specific. Nelly El-Mallakh, from Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, investigated the effects of the Egyptian protests on voting outcomes during Egypt’s first free presidential elections that took place between May and June 2012. Using pooled cross-sectional data from before and after the revolution, El-Mallakh found evidence that while protests could lead to people’s politicization, high exposure to intense protests results in a higher percentage of votes for former regime candidates. This conservative backlash has coincided with disenchantment with government performance, decline of trust in public institutions, and rising awareness of restrictions on civil liberties in Egypt.

The question of the economic effects of the Egyptian revolution on the labour market, especially on female labour force participation rate, was addressed by Rana Hendy from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. While previous research has confirmed that the Egyptian revolution had a negative effect on female employment in the labour market, Hendy further investigated this result. She found that the gender gap in the labour market is almost non-existent if men and women are economically and socially well-off. Gender inequality in the labour market increases with a decline in the individual’s socio-economic features, especially education and wealth.

The economic and political effects of the Syrian refugee crisis were also discussed at length during the workshop. In ‘The economics of the Syrian refugee crisis in neighbouring countries: the case of Lebanon’, Mohamed Marouani, from Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, examined the effects of the displacement of Syrian workers on the Lebanese economy, especially the labour market, production and macroeconomic indices. Using a dynamic general equilibrium approach to the Lebanese economy, the research found that the refugee crisis had an adverse impact only on the most vulnerable Lebanese workers, while high-skilled Lebanese workers were not affected. The presentation also emphasized the necessity of complementing humanitarian aid with development aid, especially in the form of investment subsidies as this is associated with better labour market prospects and higher growth.

Onur Altindag, from Harvard University, examined the impact that refugees have on voting behavior in the host country, and took Turkey as an example. The research he co-authored with Neeraj Kaushal, from Columbia University, showed that the arrival of approximately 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey resulted in only a modest decline in support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, more research has to be done to further investigate the political economy of the Syrian refugee crisis and its political and socio-economic effects not only on host countries, but on refugees themselves and their prospects for the future.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between academics and policy-makers, Adeel Malik, a Globe Fellow in the Economies of Muslim Societies at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and ODID, moderated the final session on the political economy of reform in the Arab world. Why did the Arab development model and liberalisation reforms fail in the Arab world? What is the role of the World Bank in post-conflict reconstruction in the region? Abdallah Al-Dardari, World Bank Senior Advisor on reconstruction for the Middle East and North Africa Region and former Deputy Prime Minister for economic affairs in Syria, addressed some of these questions. Before the outbreak of the uprisings, Arab ‘reformers’ were largely driven by ‘Washington Consensus’ policy prescriptions, as well as the rising need of former regimes to produce new tools to enhance their legitimacy, thus shifting to ‘performance legitimacy’. However, as economic reforms did not coincide with political ones, and people’s anger and disgruntlement with injustice and lack of dignity was only growing, a wave of uprisings swept the region.  

What could be an alternative development model for the region? How could policies be undertaken in a region that is characterized by regional fragmentation? What kind of economic policies could be pursued to ensure justice, dignity and development? These and many other questions, are at the heart of current and future research on the political economy of development of the Middle East.

The workshop was held on 27-28 October 2017 at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, in conjunction with ODID, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, Sciences Po Lille and Heriot Watt University.

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About the author(s)
Nur Arafeh
Research Student

Sarah Smierciak, MPhil in Development Studies 2012-14