A Response to Nasr by Kevin Lee

The Middle East: Can there be Another Dubai?

Can democracy thrive in the Middle East? At a presentation made at The Cooper Union on October 22, 2012, I learned that the success of democracy in the Islamic Middle East is highly contingent upon the strength of capitalism in the region. The speaker at the presentation was Vali Nasr, a highly qualified and renowned professor, advisor, and expert on Middle Eastern foreign policy and international relations. Nasr highlighted the need to pay more attention towards the growing middle class in the Middle East. As this middle class grows in both size and strength, it will demand the local Islamic governments for the political and economic freedoms that are necessary to both sustain capitalistic ventures and lay the foundation for democracy.

According to the presentation, a number of factors contributed to the recent protests demanding political reform in the Middle East, collectively known as the Arab Spring movement that began in Tunisia in 2011. There has been a feeling of authoritarian fatigue in the Middle East, whereby people have grown tired of the corruption, ineffectiveness, and abuse of dictatorships. Government controlled economies have failed to supply a sufficient number of jobs and bring about continuous economic prosperity. The increased use of modern technology and global data sharing has stimulated the youth dominated populations to demand more political change. Adding to all of this a global food shortage leading to increased food prices in a region of the world where most live at or just above the poverty line, the stage was set for widespread political demonstrations against existing governments to bring about progress and prosperity.

In his book “Forces of Fortune,” Nasr claims that even with all of these factors leading to political unrest, not all is necessarily bleak for the future of the Middle East. There have been recent instances where capitalism has resulted in rapid modernization and more open government policies in the Middle East, the prime example being Dubai. As an undergraduate civil engineer, I have been fascinated by the enormous change that has taken place in the landscape of Dubai in the past 30 years. What was nothing more than a small trading village in the desert has evolved into one of the most recognizable urban skylines in the world. With such immense structural feats as the tallest skyscraper, the largest manmade islands, the largest shopping mall, and the largest arch bridge in the world, Dubai has become a global hub for trade, investment, tourism, architecture, and engineering. And in response to the economic growth that capitalism has enacted in Dubai, the rising middle class Muslims have been rewarded with greater political and economic freedoms by the government. But what is most significant is that Muslims throughout the Middle East view Dubai as a viable model Muslim society where the political and economic freedoms that come with capitalism can coexist alongside the practice of Islamic values.

If the West aims to spread democratic values throughout the Middle East, it must first reinforce the capitalistic aspirations embodied by the rising middle class in the region. The prospect of another city like Dubai that is not governed by the rules of dictatorships but by the rules of international finance is certainly possible. However, there are many obstacles that stand in the way of that possibility, most of which result from the narrow mindset of Western governments. Due to recent threats and attacks on the West, Islam has been unfortunately associated with the religious extremism and radicalism of terrorist groups, which only compose a very small proportion of the Muslim population in the Middle East. Islam has been misperceived as a religious roadblock to democracy that needs to be removed. The West has failed to recognize that as modernization and growth take place in the Middle East, people will naturally look towards Islam as a source of structure and guidance in an increasingly changing and cosmopolitan society. As Nasr points out, capitalism and Islam are both necessary components for the successful rise of democracy in the Middle East. Promoting strict secularism and suppressing the practice of Islam among Muslims will only lead to more resentment of Western ideas and to growing support of religious extremism. The recent political demonstrations in the Middle East can bring about temporary political changes, but only through the rise of another Dubai – the rise of capitalism among the middle class – will the Middle East be able to effectively bring about permanent long-term democratic change.