Global Transformations and the MENA: A Comparative Political Economy Analysis

Article excerpt

Although the geographic entity described, in a rather Eurocentric manner, as the "Middle East" as well as the adjacent North Africa have been historically located at the epicenter of tectonic shifts and hegemonic struggles in world politics, the exceptional importance attached to these critical regions has generally resulted from distributional conflicts over strategic natural resources and geo-strategic considerations. In the same vein, it seems hardly possible to claim that the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA area to use the conventional shorthand, has traditionally been a fertile ground in terms of the emergence of exceptional success stories with respect to accomplishments such as rapid and sustained industrialization, structural transformation, as well as extensive integration with global trade, investment and finance networks. This negative state of affairs has been triggered by the destructive and destabilizing remnants of the colonial legacy, aggravated by the prevalence of authoritarian and autocratic governance practices as well as the resilience of particularistic distributional networks, jointly constituting the groundwork for an antidemocratic and unproductive regional political economy. Consequently, despite various national developmental performances and sporadic successes, not a single case could be identified in the region whereby a world-class industrial/technological transformation and socioeconomic development project was completed by mobilizing endogenous dynamics and respecting democratic consolidation. (1)

Both during and in the aftermath of the Cold War, the MENA was singled out as an international "intensive conflict zone" wherein occasional political and military interventions by major global powers were conceived as both normal and inevitable. To be forthright, during the early years of the post-Cold War era, there emerged serious concerns among the autocratic leaders and regimes in the region that the gradual erosion of their geo-strategic importance in the unipolar global order would trigger a process of marginalization in the eyes of major global powers. However, it soon became crystal clear that these concerns were premature and unwarranted, and the MENA region continued to be the focal point of Great Power meddling under constantly changing international regimes. Both the new design of the international security architecture in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and the ideologically-motivated initiatives of the neo-conservatives in the US administration, such as the "global war against terrorism" and the "greater Middle East project," practically rendered the US a MENA country through the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This course of events also galvanized the strategic importance of this critical region in terms of global balance of power calculations and energy projections.

Analytically, on the other hand, it was swiftly understood that a series of pragmatic and superficial frameworks designed to unravel the nature of post-Cold War systemic change possessed marginal explanatory power regarding the broader regional transformation trajectory of the MENA. (2) In effect, the abrupt end of the Cold War, the formation of a novel and multipolar politico-economic order, the intensification of global power interventions due to concerns of energy and geo-strategy, and the increasing attention of European countries on the region as their "Mexico" in view of relatively low production costs triggered fundamentally different transformation dynamics. In stark contrast to exceedingly reductionist, generalizing and often patronizing accounts of mainstream theorists, multifaceted and non-synchronized trends of transformation continued to advance in political, economic and socio-cultural spheres in the wake of globalizing pressures. In the new era, the conventional separation between international and domestic spheres of activity became blurred in the MENA, as elsewhere, leading some analysts to coin terms such as "intermestics" whereby state-centered geopolitics was accompanied by the complex geo-economics of global integration. …