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Power and Arab governments Power and Arab governments
by Joseph Gatt
2019-03-21 10:27:43
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I often smile, even laugh out loud, when journalists debate “who holds power in the Arab world?” As if one man, or one clan, or one group of people, decided everything in totalitarian fashion.

You have governments like in ASEAN nations, save Singapore, where an army officer will often own three hotels, five restaurants, a brothel, a monopoly on the import of a shoe brand, a monopoly on the import of a perfume brand, and will also want to be a congressman or a senator.

ara001_400Arab states are a little different. The army often does not want to be in politics, and there are rare instances where an army officer holds a political office. The army rarely runs for parliament, in some cases holds key ministerial posts, but the army tends not to be too involved in politics.

What is politics in the Arab world? You have three key ministries: defense, foreign affairs and the interior. Foreign affairs mostly deal with relations with foreign states, but also deals with the erratic behavior of some diplomats. The interior deals with local institutions, but also deals with the abuses of local institutions. Defense deals with defense policy, but also deals with the erratic behavior of some military officials. Then there are the intelligence services whose main focus in the security of institutions. So most Arab states don't really care about trade, education or culture, much less social services or the environment.

Where politics gets ugly in Arab states is there's this thing called clans. But clans tend not to be political, although they do get involved in politics and policy-making. I just said in ASEAN nations you have the general who is also the CEO of 20 companies and wants to be a senator. In Arab states, business is delegated. You have the army officer who will give his cousin a monopoly on the import of a milk brand, his nephew the monopoly on the import of a shoe brand, and his brother-in-law the monopoly on the import of a juice brand.

Where things get a little ugly is you will have this other military officer whose cousin runs a shoe factory, brother-in-law runs a milk factory and nephew runs a juice factory. So every now and then, military officer A will try to shut down military officer B's juice factory because he wants full control of the juice market. These are the types of conflicts discussed at the ministry of defense or ministry of the interior.

Then you have each Arab leader with their own personality. Some leaders like to put a little bit of focus on education, while others focus on trade, while others want to promote this hype thing called “the environment.”

How do you become a minister in Arab states? You need a little bit of luck. If you attend a meeting where you meet the leader or president and the president is charmed, soon enough he might appoint you minister. Or perhaps one of the president or king's close friends had an eye on you and soon enough you will become a minister. But ministers in the Arab world tend to be one-hit-wonders, and rarely last more than a year or two.

So power in the Arab nations is not like this magic potion or castle in the Wizard of Oz where the master runs the entire country and knows everything about everyone everywhere. Power in the Arab states is actually a tough job. You have those officers who are tempted to make quick money and switch their business models from imported shoes to imported cocaine. You have those who want to prevent others access to markets. And you have those disputes over loans and money, or businesses that did not work out as planned.

As for policy making and legislating, that exists, but tends to be minimalist and last minute. That is one day the president or king will decide after an overseas meeting that the environment is really important, and will decide to make sweeping reforms on waste management. Or a minister will get involved in a rough car accident and suddenly the police will be instructed to give anyone speeding a ticket.

Then there are those commissions and retro-commissions on natural resources and arms sales and what not. That is the oil money technically ends up in the government budget. But when selling oil or gas or phosphates, higher prices will be on paper, and both the buyer and the seller will get commissions. Then there's all the embezzlement. Then there's graft. Then there's extortion. And there's a government who allows that to happen, because if the government intervenes, they will be replaced by another government.

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