A major issue facing the Middle East is the continued struggle to address the limited level of political freedom and high level of socioeconomic inequalities that characterize the region. Much of the Middle East suffer from elevated rates of unemployment, rampant poverty, and an unequal distribution of wealth and social services. Additionally, many of the Middle Eastern nations lack robust and efficient governmental institutions and mechanisms that allow their citizens to express their demands and hold their leaders accountable. Some of the factors that have contributed to such regional inequalities include the legacy of Western imperialism, the role of religion, and the dominance of oil in the economies of the Middle East. Lust concludes her analysis by exploring the possibilities to bring about political and societal change in the region to reduce the high levels of inequalities.
One of the main factors influencing the overall political and economic status of the Middle East is the fact that many of the governments in the region remain relatively weak. Recent global rankings indicate that a clear majority of the nations in the Middle East are either weak or fragile states and several countries in the region such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Sudan are on the cusp of becoming failed states due to the continued instability that came about due to their ongoing civil wars. Both international and domestic factors have undermined the sovereignty of many nations in the Middle East by challenging their legitimate right to rule and different social groups, either sectarian, ethnic, or religious based, often gained control of governmental institutions throughout the region, seeking to use them for their personal benefit. The legacy of colonialism and the intervention of external powers into regional political systems has also negatively impacted the creation of formal governmental institutions and prevented the development of robust and efficient states in the Middle East.
The presence of authoritarian political systems also contributes to the limited political freedoms region. Much of the Middle East is characterized by “resilient authoritarianism” that has endured despite increases in democratization in recent decades. There are several reasons why authoritarian political rule continues to persist in the Middle East. One such factor is the strategic location of the Middle East. Because of the strategic role of the Middle East, international forces have invested much of their resources into building up dependable leaders by giving them the support to remain in power without creating stable democratic societies. The dynamic between Islamist political parties and secular political leaders also contributes to continued authoritarianism in the region. For example, secular authoritarian leaders in the Middle East such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria took advantage of the fears that the populace has regarding Islamist political parties as an excuse to place limits on political freedom. Often, these efforts backfired and ultimately resulted in religiously-affiliated political groups coming into power due to the fact that secular democratic movements were suppressed, thus making religious movements the only viable opposition movement that the population could hook onto.
Economic factors also serve to exacerbate inequalities in the Middle East. The role of oil in the regional economies tends to undermine political and economic reform in the Middle East and compound the problems of state-building. The reliance on oil production provides countries with a relatively easy source of revenue but also prevents the creation of more diverse economic systems that will improve the stability of individual states. High dependence on oil production gives authoritarian leaders little incentive to support political reforms and serves to allow them to retain their power. The prevalence of resource-based economic systems also reduces the incentives for leaders to establish efficient taxation structures meant to create a more equitable distribution of wealth, thus contributing to an increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth in the region.
Despite the multitude of challenges facing the Middle East, there are several ways to address both the lack of political freedoms and high level of social inequality in the Middle East. One such way to address the political inequalities in the region is to establish an independent mass media and an independent judicial system. By reducing government control over the media and improving the judiciary, governmental accountability will improve. Additionally, increasing the influence of political parties and shifting the role of the legislature away from a service organization will allow people to become more engaged in the political process, enabling them to encourage change in the political systems of their respective countries. The final way to address the structural challenges in the Middle East is to implement effective development programs, and civil society initiatives focused on empowering the individual to work towards bringing about change and promoting effective governance and state-building at the grassroots level.