When It Comes to Democratic Transitions, the Middle East Is a Desert

Author
Learn more about David J. Kramer.
David J. Kramer
Executive Director
George W. Bush Institute

One thing is clear: As long as authoritarian leaders remain in power, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, the countries they run will never have any hope or opportunity to move in a more democratic direction.

Starting in late 2010 and continuing into 2011, the Arab world shook with calls for change from the populations in first Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The Arab Spring, as that movement became known, prompted hope for the first time that the Middle East might experience a hint of more democratic, representative form of government and even freedom. Authoritarian leaders like Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell from power as a result of popular movements demanding an end to corruption, harsh rule, and greater economic opportunity.

Nearly a dozen years later, the picture looks bleak. The region has experienced terrible violence, crackdowns, chaos, and a return to authoritarianism. Even Tunisia, which had been the one bright spot emerging from the Arab Spring, has suffered a serious political setback after President Kaïs Saïed last year unilaterally dismissed and replaced the elected government, suspended the parliament, and cracked down on civil liberties and any potential sources of opposition. Democracy in the Middle East, in other words, looks like a desert.


Only one country in the Middle East – Israel – is considered “free” in Freedom House rankings, with Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and Tunisia classified as “partly free.” The rest fall into the “not free” category. Tunisia is likely to slip to “not free” status in the next survey unless Saïed’s power grab is reversed.

Syria has the worst rating in the region, followed by Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Syria and Yemen, of course, have experienced horrible wars.

Democracy in the Middle East, in other words, looks like a desert.

Bashar Al-Assad’s efforts to remain in power by any means have come at an enormous cost: more than half a million killed in the past decade. Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Assad’s rescue in 2015 through Russian military intervention to prop up one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Russia’s intervention has contributed to massive loss of life, the levelling of Aleppo and alleged war crimes – a precursor to what we see with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more recently.

In Yemen, a civil war has flared since 2015. The fighting has seen Saudi Arabia and Iran use the country as a battleground for their proxy war.

In the case of Lebanon, a country listed as “Partly Free,” the situation remains precarious amid constant government reshufflings and the baleful influence of Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Even when it comes to Israel, the only “Free” country in the region, tensions with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip always loom.

Biden visits the region

Two upcoming developments are worth keeping an eye on for their impact on the region. The first involves President Joe Biden’s plans to visit the Middle East next month, with expected stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

According to reports, Biden plans to visit Riyadh and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. That meeting will highlight a dilemma Biden faces: Continuing to ostracize a de facto leader for his role in the heinous killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which would keep the president consistent with his administration’s emphasis on democracy and human rights as a core part of its foreign policy, or engaging with him out of recognition that Saudi Arabia plays a key role in the region, especially vis-à-vis Iran, and on the global energy scene.

During the presidential election campaign in 2019-20 and even after entering office, Biden and his administration had given MBS, as he is known, the back of their hand. “We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are,” Biden said at a 2019 Democratic debate. During the campaign, Biden seemed intent on contrasting the approach he would take on Saudi Arabia with that of his political opponent, Donald Trump, whose first official overseas trip was to that country and who provided a defense of MBS’ actions in the Khashoggi murder.

Two upcoming developments are worth keeping an eye on for their impact on the region. The first involves President Joe Biden’s plans to visit the Middle East next month, with expected stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Political and diplomatic reality, however, are weighing on the administration and forcing a change in approach. With inflation at a record-setting pace and the price of gas averaging more than $5 per gallon nationwide, Biden and his team seem to be swapping their principled position for a more pragmatic one, a not uncommon occurrence once one assumes responsibility in the Oval Office.


Early on, Biden authorized release of the U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusions that MBS was responsible for the killing of Khashoggi. But then, when the administration imposed sanctions on Saudis responsible for the murder, MBS’ name was not listed.

The possibility of a Biden meeting with MBS next month is generating concern within his own party. “I wouldn’t go and shake his hand,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said recently. “Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of its human rights, I wouldn’t want anything to do with him.” In an ironic twist, given Trump’s relations with Saudi Arabia and MBS, Republicans may have a harder time criticizing Biden on this score.

Biden’s visit will be a test of his declaration that human rights and democracy are a central part of his administration’s foreign policy, and a visit to Riyadh will place an even bigger spotlight on how he navigates these tricky waters.

Global food crisis

The second development likely to rile the region is the looming food crisis as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blockade of Ukrainian agricultural exports through the Black Sea. As part of its efforts to choke off any access for Ukraine to the Black Sea, Russian forces have prevented the export of some 20 million tons of wheat, to say nothing of sunflower oil and other essential foodstuffs.

Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil, fourth-largest exporter of corn, and fifth-largest exporter of wheat. Ukraine produces nearly 50 percent of the world’s sunflower oil, 12 percent of its corn, and 9 percent of its wheat. With summer harvesting season around the corner, Ukraine desperately needs to export its spring harvest to make room for the new crop.

The European Union has explored alternative routes for transiting Ukraine’s bounty over land, even through Belarus, which, like Russia, is under heavy sanctions. But shipping the exports via the Black Sea is the best way to get Ukraine’s products to market in places that desperately need it.

Meanwhile, Russian forces, when they aren’t busy bombing Ukrainian grain silos, have attempted to steal tons of Ukrainian food products from land that they temporarily occupy to then resell on the global markets. Since Russia is also a major food exporter – it is the fourth largest exporter of wheat – differentiating between what are truly Russian products from those that are stolen from Ukraine is difficult. The food situation in North Africa and the Middle East is already precarious, and global inflation along with the blockade in the Black Sea will only exacerbate the problem.


Egypt, for example, receives 80 percent of its wheat imports from Ukraine as well as Russia. It also is the largest importer of Ukrainian corn in the world, followed not too far behind by Tunisia and Morocco. Lebanon, a country with enough problems as it is without having to worry about food shortages, is heavily dependent on exports from Ukraine. “The food supply disruption is going beyond the borders of Ukraine, and affecting countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Lebanon that are highly reliant on Ukrainian wheat and food supply,” Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the chair of the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on national security, recently told Politico.

Speaking at a recent session of the United Nations Security Council, European Council President Charles Michel got it exactly right when he accused the Kremlin of “using food supplies as a stealth missile against developing countries,” by holding millions of tons of Ukrainian grain hostage and blockading Ukraine’s ports. “The dramatic consequences of Russia’s war are spilling over across the globe. And this is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty and destabilizing entire regions. Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis, Russia alone,” Michel said.

Meanwhile, Russian forces, when they aren’t busy bombing Ukrainian grain silos, have attempted to steal tons of Ukrainian food products from land that they temporarily occupy to then resell on the global markets.

For its part, the United States needs to do a better job in publicly assigning blame for any food crisis to Moscow, where it belongs, including through direct messaging to countries in the Middle East. Together with allies, it may also need to think how to help Ukraine break the Russian blockade before food insecurity problems create instability in the Middle East and beyond.

Lessons learned?

As events unfolded during the Arab Spring, the international community was slow to react. In Egypt, for example, Mubarak was a well-known and longtime interlocutor; Washington was unsure how to respond to the overwhelming sentiment among Egyptians for him to step down. Fear of the unknown over who and what would come after Mubarak and the other authoritarian leaders in the region kept the U.S. and much of the international community from offering full-throated support for the protestors. For decades, the United States had sided with these leaders – at least until President Bush’s Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative that rejected the view that the people in these countries were doomed to live under authoritarian leaders forever.

In a speech in February 2003, President George W. Bush said, “It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world — or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim — is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life. Human cultures can be vastly different. Yet the human heart desires the same good things, everywhere on Earth. In our desire to be safe from brutal and bullying oppression, human beings are the same. In our desire to care for our children and give them a better life, we are the same. For these fundamental reasons, freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred and the tactics of terror.”

One thing is clear: as long as authoritarian leaders remain in power, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, the countries they run will never have any hope or opportunity to move in a more democratic direction.

Those words were true in 2003 and again in 2011; they remain true to this day. Sadly, for the people in the region, they remain largely unfilled aspirations.

One thing is clear: as long as authoritarian leaders remain in power, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, the countries they run will never have any hope or opportunity to move in a more democratic direction. With those leaders gone from power, these countries are not guaranteed a better future but finally would have an opportunity to move in that direction.


Through his visit to the region next month, President Biden has an opportunity to breathe new life into the hopes of people throughout the region. The food crisis has the potential to undermine them and sow further chaos. That, of course, is the last thing the people in the Middle East need these days.