Given this regional political context, the global economic downturn of the early 1970s placed severe pressure on the statist development strategies of various Arab governments. The global recession hit the non-oil exports of many Arab countries, while the cost of food and energy imports increased. Moreover, large military expenditures associated with ongoing conflicts in the region (particularly the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel) placed considerable strain on government budgets. Following the sharp rise in US interest rates that began in 1979 – the so-called Volcker Shock – an acute debt crisis swept through key Arab states, including Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan.
As a result of this debt crisis, many Arab governments sought financial support from IFIs, in return for signing SAPs that committed them to a reorientation of economic priorities. Morocco was the first to sign a SAP in 1983, and similar reform programmes were soon adopted in Tunisia (1986), Jordan (1989), Egypt (1991), Algeria (1994) and Yemen (1995). These SAPs sought to strengthen the private sector and achieve closer integration with the world market. The private sector would be, as the World Bank later put it, the ‘engine of strong and sustained growth’ – a necessary requirement of the ‘new global economy’ in which ‘rewards . . . go to the most hospitable environments [for capital investment]’.
From the 1980s onwards, the economic policies of Arab states followed such prescriptions, much like countries elsewhere around the world. Trapped in a cycle of debt and compelled by the conditionalities of multilateral loan packages, Arab governments embraced the standard policy priorities of market-based development: privatization and the prioritization of private sector growth, deregulation of labour and financial markets, a lowering of corporate tax rates, relaxation of barriers to trade and foreign investment, and cutbacks to public spending, including subsidies on food and energy. These new policies were widely unpopular, and their introduction was met with strikes, demonstrations and violent clashes between citizens and security forces – one survey documented 25 outbreaks of major protests between 1977 and 1992 against structural adjustment in nine countries across the region (Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Sudan, Tunisia and Turkey).5
In the face of this widespread opposition to economic change, Arab states took on increasingly authoritarian characteristics through the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, several of the regimes that were overthrown in 2011 first came to power in this period and led the turn towards neoliberal development models. The 1987 coup by Ben Ali in Tunisia, for example, was followed by the country’s decisive orientation towards IFI-led structural adjustment. Likewise, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who became president in 1981 following the assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat, consolidated a system of repressive rule that included the suspension of the constitution, imposition of an Emergency Law, restrictions on the press, detention without charge, and the introduction of military courts to try political opponents. In 1991 Mubarak agreed to an SAP with the IMF and World Bank, and then turned his security forces against the resulting labour strikes and mass demonstrations that occurred throughout the 1990s. Similarly, governments in Jordan, Morocco and Algeria became much more authoritarian in this period. Western governments and IFIs were nonetheless supportive of these governments, viewing their repressive practices as a necessary means to undercut the widespread social discontent around the new neoliberal measures.
These economic measures reversed many of the previous policies embraced by Arab nationalist governments from the 1950s to the 1970s. One indication of this is the large-scale privatization of state-owned firms during this period. According to World Bank figures, total proceeds from privatization in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen reached a little over $8 billion between 1988 and 1999, with more than half of this figure coming from sales in Egypt alone ($4.172 billion).6 Over the subsequent decade, the scale of privatization expanded considerably, with privatization receipts totalling more than $27 billion between 2000 and 2008. This latter period saw many more countries in the region engage in the selling of assets, as well as a shift away from the privatization of industrial and manufacturing industries and towards the privatization of the telecommunications and financial sectors. Despite the increasing number of countries involved in privatization, Egypt continued to register both the highest number of deals and the largest value of assets sold ($15.7 billion from 1988 to 2008).
A further core priority of structural adjustment in the region was the deregulation of labour markets through reducing (or abolishing) minimum wages and severance pay, and easing laws around hiring and firing.7 Arab governments were urged by the World Bank and other IFIs to implement ‘more flexible hiring and dismissal procedures’ as a means of reducing ‘the dominant role of government as employer’ – in this manner, the costs of labour across the board could be reduced. In particular, those firms that were earmarked for privatization would not have to compete with better labour conditions in the public sector and would thus become more attractive to potential investors. Throughout the 2000s, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia all passed significant laws deregulating the labour market.
Another important focus of IFI policy in the region during this period was liberalization of the agricultural sector. Here, policies aimed to develop new agribusiness models that would link production more closely to global markets. Alongside laws that commodified land and dismantled collective ownership rights, other measures lifted price caps on agricultural inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides and water), and sought to integrate farmers into agribusiness commodity chains. The Egyptian case has been particularly well documented. In 1992, the Mubarak government passed Law 96, which allowed landlords to sell land without informing or negotiating with tenants and lifted longstanding caps on rural rents.8 As a consequence of this law, rents increased by 300 to 400 per cent in some areas and over a third of all tenant families in Egyptian rural areas (around 1 million households) lost their rights to land. Law 96 was enthusiastically backed by the World Bank and IMF as part of a general policy to establish private property rights in agriculture. A USAID-sponsored study applauded the Egyptian government for passing the law, which it saw as doing away with ‘more than 40 years of an imbalanced relationship between landlords and tenants’.
The logic of these and other policies was further reinforced through international trade and financial agreements signed throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Of particular significance here are the Association Agreements signed with the European Union as part of the European Mediterranean Partnership (which later became the European Neighbourhood Policy). Between 1995 and 1997, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia signed Association Agreements with the EU, while Egypt followed them in 2004. These agreements promised financial aid and greater access to the markets of the EU – the region’s most important trading partner – in return for deepening neoliberal reform. Alongside similar bilateral treaties with the US and accession to the World Trade Organization, these international agreements constituted an important driving force behind the reduction of trade barriers and the opening of new sectors – such as finance, telecommunications, transport, and energy – to foreign ownership.
These economic agreements were also directly tied to the intensification of Western military and political intervention in the region throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Most significantly, this included the decade-long imposition of sanctions on Iraq through the 1990s, culminating in a 2003 US/British-led invasion that overthrew the Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein, and that led to a devastating series of social and economic crises from which the country has yet to emerge. At the same time, the United States and European Union sought to normalize Israel’s place in the region – backing the misnamed Oslo Peace Process through the 1990s and advancing a range of regional initiatives aimed at deepening Israel’s ties with Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states. In relation to both the Iraq War and Israeli–Arab negotiations, US strategic objectives carried an explicit economic dimension (frequently overlooked) that aimed to deepen the region’s integration with global trade and financial flows – war, politics and the region’s economic transformation need to be seen as intimately connected.
Of course, not all states in the Middle East were integrated into the global economy and the Western orbit to the same degree. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, countries such as Libya and Syria largely stood outside the US-dominated system, seeking instead to build relationships with other powers – notably the Soviet Union (up until the early 1990s), and later Russia and China. These two states were headed by tightly centralized, authoritarian regimes – that of Gaddafi in Libya and the Assad family in Syria – in which state power was based on highly patrimonial structures and, in the case of Syria, the deliberate cultivation of sectarian patterns of rule. Due to the way that state control underpinned the power of these regimes, and their relative isolation from Western markets, both Libya and Syria did not see the adoption of IFI-led structural adjustment throughout the 1980s in the same way as other Arab states. Nonetheless, in the wake of the decline of their traditional international backers in the 1990s and early 2000s, both Syria and Libya began to seek a rapprochement with the West. This move was not solely political: it also included an opening to world markets and initial steps towards economic liberalization. In the case of Libya, Gaddafi gave his strong support to the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 and was later to participate in CIA rendition flights and torture programmes. In 2003, following the lifting of UN sanctions that had been placed on Libya in 1992, key regime figures began lobbying for economic liberalization, with Gaddafi’s son Saif el-Islam insisting that ‘everything should be privatized’ in a speech at the Libya Youth Forum in 2008.9 Only tentative steps in this direction were to be adopted, however, due to the highly centralized concentration of state power in the hands of the Gaddafi family. Despite this fact, the IMF was to note on 15 February 2011 – just two days prior to the beginning of an uprising that was to lead to the overthrow of the regime – that ‘An ambitious program to privatize banks and develop the nascent financial sector is under way. Banks have been partially privatized, interest rates decontrolled, and competition encouraged . . . ongoing efforts to restructure and modernize the Central Bank of Libya are under way with assistance from the Fund.’
For Syria, significant steps towards economic reform began following the accession to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000, after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad. The younger Assad began to privatize and open up the Syrian economy to foreign direct investment, leading to private control of key industrial sectors such as metallurgy, chemicals and textiles. According to one analyst of the Syrian economy, the size of the private sector had risen to just over 60 per cent of GDP by 2007, up from 52.3 per cent in 2000.10 Much like other countries in the Middle East, privatization benefitted a small group of business groups that were closely linked to the Assad regime, and that were enriched through state contracts and joint projects with foreign investors. As these reforms accelerated during the period 2005–10, much of the rest of the Syrian population saw a severe worsening of their living standards.
The cases of Syria and Libya confirm that the core assumptions of market-led development had become widely accepted by state and ruling class elites throughout the region by the end of the first decade of the 2000s. Although Syria and Libya may have sometimes expressed opposition to US policy in the Middle East – an opposition that was, however, typically rhetorical rather than substantive – their ruling regimes sought entry into the world market on the basis of economic programmes that paralleled those found elsewhere in the region. Characterized by a similar intertwining of authoritarian rule and economic power, the embrace of these policies expressed an attempt to strengthen the position of those located at the centre of the political system.