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Social Power and Development in the Middle East: a transnational perspective

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The chief obstacle to transformative change in the contemporary Middle East is the region-wide configuration of social power which was consolidated in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and which survived the transition from empire to post-Ottoman independent states largely intact.

As in other regions of the world, in the Middle East structures of power evolved through cross-cultural and global processes of accumulation and growth centred, not on empires and nation-states, but on cross-regional elite interactions and connections. In Europe and other areas that, after 1945, became the ‘developed’ world, a shift in the balance of social power as a result of the wars set in motion changes that revolutionised socio-economic structures. In the Middle East, however, cross-regional elite interactions and connections enabled local elites to survive the upheavals and power struggles that accompanied the wars. Consequently, while the demise of the Ottoman Empire changed the region’s political configuration, its pan-Arab social structure survived the transition from empire to modern state system intact. During what we call the ‘Cold War’, Middle Eastern and extra-regional elites closed ranks to prevent, in the Middle East, the social revolutionary changes that had occurred in Europe. Working together, they eradicated not only communists and socialists, but any element in the region calling for democratic government or land reform, including the liberal, reformist, and progressive elements that, in Europe and elsewhere, had supported and encouraged the broadening of economic opportunities and democratization of national politics. As a result, in the Middle East, a narrow elite has, with the support of transnational networks, succeeded in maintaining socio-economic structures which, in their overall pattern, remain relatively more transnationally- rather than nationally-‘embedded’ and which, before 1945 characterized all regions of the world. With the resurfacing of these structures in the ‘developed’ world under the impetus of ‘globalization, it is likely that the power of elites in the Middle East will continue to prove invulnerable to change.