Can a democracy, even when it is the express will of the people, emerge in a region beset by opposing culture values and societal norms? And what role might Western nations play in this emergence, particularly in nations to which the West is ideologically opposed, but economically tied to? These are the questions at the heart of a recent article by Sultan Mohammed Zakaria,writing for Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star.
Zakaria argues that Middle Eastern societies carry “unique social and cultural attributes” that will shape the democratization process throughout the region. In particular, he contrasts two realities of the Arab world that would undeniably affect its citizen’s views on democracy. One is the Arab population’s doubt, suspicion, and resentment of the Western world, relaying statistics showing a clear majority of anti-Western sentiment, which has created largely exclusive, non-interventionist, and heavily militarized governments. However the effect of the Middle East’s natural resources is one that cannot be overlooked. With 65% of the world’s oil reserves, and 45% of its natural gas, Western nations are forced into economic relationships with nations that, while they may have conflicting ideological concerns, must keep these relationships stable to protect their economic interests.
Interestingly, Zakaria points to a 2005 speech by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the beginning of Western nation’s involvement in the democratization of Middle Eastern nations. In this speech she is quoted as saying that for 60 years the US had “pursued stability at the expense of democracy here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.” However, Western nations, and the United States in particular have shown a track record of hesitation in promoting democracy in nations where they have indelible economic ties, causing some to wonder whether they are willing to risk their own interests in the democratization effort. As Zakaria notes, even democratic governments may not be “the force they (the West) desire.” It is clear that a democratic government is in the best interest of the Middle Eastern people, but is it in the best interest of the nations that can provide the greatest assistance? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: In the struggle between stability and democracy, the only option that will ensure failure is neither.