The 3rd Session of Liangxiang Forum | Political Economy of Development in the Middle East

On the evening of May 19th, 2021, the third session of Liangxiang Forum organized by Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS-THU) in Spring 2021 was held at Conference Room 205 of the Central Main Building, with the theme of “Political Economy of Development in the Middle East”. The lecture was presented by Prof. Melani Cammett, Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government and Chair of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University, and hosted by Duan Jiuzhou, Assistant Research Professor at IIAS. Dozens of participants, including doctorate candidates and research professors at IIAS as well as external participants, attended the event.

In this lecture, Prof. Cammett introduced the political economy of development in the Middle East from three aspects. First of all, she pointed out that from a cross-regional perspective, the reasons for the economic underdevelopment in the Middle East and North Africa include the low degree of integration in the global economy, limited private investment, underdeveloped private sector, lack of technological development, non-competitive industry, high operating costs, weak education system and underdeveloped human capital. She also mentioned other competitive explanations, including the intervention of Islam and its institutions, the influence of colonialism, the current situation of oil production, corruption and crony capitalism, and dictatorship.

She elaborated that the Middle East and North Africa leave the impression of wars, poverty and underdevelopment in the international community. Wars and conflicts have occurred from time to time in this region. In particular since the beginning of the 21st century, the economic underdevelopment caused by wars is also a real concern in the Middle East. She stressed that some researchers believe that the Middle East has been in a long period of economic recession, which once represented the peak of human science and technology in the Middle Ages. Prof. Cammett stated that when studying the Middle East, it is important to not only compare it with western developed countries, but also compare the region with other developing regions. Most countries in the Middle East finally gained independence in the 1950s and 1960s after experiencing Ottoman Empire and European colonial rule. The whole region is characterized by political and economic diversity. Some countries have entered the ranks of high-income countries while others are still poor. Depending on infant mortality rate, poverty rate, government public expenditure, literacy rate and many other metrics, when national independence was first realized in 1960s and 1970s, the region was ahead of other developing countries. However, the data show that after the independence of the Middle East countries, these new governments did not really invest in improving the allocation of national public resources, and to a great extent, they were not interested in investing in improving the living welfare of local residents, which became one of the key reasons for the outbreak in 2011.

Prof. Cammett further explained that in the Middle East countries without high oil revenue, public sector employment is the main way for the state to provide certain social security or subsidy to its citizens. Data research shows that until today, most people in the Middle East think that government jobs are the safest form of welfare. She noted that in the middle and low oil economies in the Middle East, corruption is not conducive to economic growth and hinders development to a great extent, while the high oil countries have a higher level of rule of law, and the government has invested more in people’s welfare and improved the education system and health system. Prof. Cammett then vividly demonstrated the political and economic diversity in the Middle East and North Africa through a large number of charts and graphs in terms of type of economy, high, middle and low oil economies and types of regime.

Finally, Prof. Cammett concluded that in order to fundamentally improve the economic development in the Middle East, it is essential to increase state investment in social sectors, engage in public-private partnerships, strengthen vocational training for the public, and effectively help the poor.

After the lecture, Prof. Cammett had heated discussions and interactions with the audience online and offline. Although it was late, all the audience present were enthusiastic and Prof. Cammett gave valuable answers to a number of questions, including the new development concept of the Middle East in the era of global warming, whether the resource curse affects all Middle Eastern countries, how to evaluate the financial reduction and economic transformation of the Gulf monarchies, whether economic difficulties are the main reason for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the political and economic impact of non-state welfare advocated by the Salafists in Lebanon, and the impact of Morocco’s service-oriented economy on the stability of the Moroccan regime.

Prof. Melani Cammett is Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs in the Department of Government and Chair of the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies at Harvard University. She also holds a secondary faculty appointment in the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and was Acting Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. She is a co-editor of the Cambridge University Press Elements series on the Politics of Development and is currently serving as a Commissioner on the Lancet Commission on Syria. She specializes in the politics of development, identity politics and comparative politics in the Middle East.

Cammett’s books include A Political Economy of the Middle East (co-authored, Routledge, 2015); Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon (Cornell University Press, 2014); The Politics of Non-State Social Welfare (co-authored, Cornell University Press, 2014); and Globalization and Business Politics in North Africa: A Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2010).

Text by: Wang Zijing
Typesetting by: Wang Zijing
Reviewed by: Duan Jiuzhou & Zhang Yuan