(Apologies to Iain Dale’s readers and other readers – an earlier version got garbled)

Ed West at the Telegraph puts the issue with commendable boldness:

No Arab country has ever produced a democracy, or at least a lasting democracy; none of the 22 member states of the Arab League are classified as “free”, and all do badly on press freedom and other indicators. In fact, there is only Arabic-speaking country in the world where elections are free, the press is free, and Arab citizens are free, and that’s Israel.

So to believe that Arab states cannot “do democracy” is not a judgment based “without knowledge or examination of the facts”, but the opposite.

More interestingly, he looks at why this might be and drills deep into some Big Ideas about civilisation and leadership:

… in pre-national societies the overthrow of a sovereign rarely – in fact, never – leads to European-style democracy, not least because the tyrants who replace them owe their loyalty to their tribe or clan.

In contrast, a monarch is a unifying figure and one tied by a mystical and eternal relationship with his people. The least corrupt Arab states – Qatar, UAE, Oman, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – are all monarchies; the most corrupt – Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria and Egypt – are all republics.

Democracy may grow in the Middle East – no one knows – but it is not “prejudiced” to point out that the soil is not fertile. Its best prospects are probably in conservative constitutional monarchies such as Jordan, under a compassionate and humane ruler like King Abdullah, rather than in republics built on nothing but mindless optimism.

This develops Roger Scruton’s important idea (which he quotes) about the nation-state as the ‘society of strangers’:

A society of citizens is a society in which strangers can trust one another, since everyone is bound by a common set of rules… it means that trust can grow between strangers, and does not depend upon family connections, tribal loyalties or favours granted and earned.

A conclusion which I reached myself after 28 years in Diplomacy:

A Bosnian friend of mine went to live in the UK for a while. He returned to Sarajevo deeply depressed. “In England if you want a new telephone line installed at home they just do it. Here in Bosnia you have to invite someone from the telephone company round for coffee and grovel, plus pay him a little extra. Then you wait. The customer counts for nothing.”


The populations struggling with the iniquities of Non-Amazon Space know all this, all too well. It is their daily reality – they are implicated in the whole sorry story, reinforcing the petty corruption instincts in official channels by paying out bribes to get all sorts of permits or basic medical care.


Above all they know that if an issue goes to court it may well never be dealt with on its merits. The judge will be influenced improperly. Or someone in the bureaucracy will be bribed to mislay the papers. Witnesses will not appear to testify. Hearings are repeatedly postponed. A waste of time to try to seek much justice in that swamp.


So a would-be buyer and would-be seller have a far smaller ‘trust horizon’. They fear being cheated. To protect themselves they tend to strike deals only with people they think are reliable, or at least less likely to cheat them.


People they actually trust in person , or who are related to people they actually trust. People from their extended family, their clan, their tribe, their ethnic group, the same religion. And if they are operating on any scale they keep well in with tough people who might be able to use extra-legal means to enforce contracts.


The result? Without a strong mechanism for handling Trust between Strangers there have to be far fewer contracts.


The number of contracts signed is the precise expression of the fact of economic growth. Fewer contracts means that everyone is poorer, apart from corrupt officials and the criminal classes who have their own ways of dealing with Trust among themselves.


This further passage (also from my Amazon Space piece linked above) still reads well:


The centuries-long era of ‘Western’ states imposing themselves round the planet is drawing to an end. It does not work any more – local populations are too well-armed, in all senses.

Which is why it makes sense to abandon the tired vocabulary of words like ‘Western’, ‘North v South’ and maybe even the word ‘democracy’ itself, in favour of the new language of partnership – more realistic but not without serious substantial meaning: Intelligent Networked Pluralism.

The networked part of that definition is obvious enough, driven by cheap mobile telephony and accompanying Internet access.


Intelligent? This means various things. Above all it is unintelligent to exclude large numbers of people from the network, eg to deny women an equal and fair chance in education and in society. It is unintelligent to suppress basic freedoms. It is unintelligent to suppress ideas. It is unintelligent to allow corruption and injustice to be systemic. Pluralism? This follows from intelligent networking. It implies growing social open-mindedness (including towards unconventional lifestyles and sexual preferences), a willingness on the part of governments and leaders to listen responsively to the people, reasonable official flexibility and ability to admit errors, openness upwards and downwards to new ideas and solutions.


Multi-party democracy in its classic Western form is one good way to achieve all that and more, but there are other ways which get a population most of the way there and are seen as generally open and satisfactory enough (’Asian models of democracy’).


Interestingly enough, one of the better arguments in Saif Gaddafi’s hopeless speech the other day went to this issue of Social Trust (in a way):


Libya are Tribes not like Egypt. There are no political parties, it is made of tribes. Everyone knows each other. We will have a civil war like in 1936


Libya is not Tunis or Egypt. Libya is different, if there was disturbance it will split to several states. It was three states before 60 years.


Gaddafi is saying that these mutually distrustful tribes need a strong leader to hold them together. That of course is desperately self-serving.


However, assorted EU foreign ministers and others calling for a peaceful transition to democracy in Libya and such places might do well to mull over one thing: what if Saif is right, and the ‘objective’ conditions even for intelligent networked pluralism across a territory just don’t exist?