Which Should Come First, Development or Democracy?

It is ironic that the West stresses democracy in Arab countries while forgetting that liberal systems preceded democratic ones in Western Europe.

liberalism-democracyOne of the chief aspirations of the Arab world is to catch up with developed nations and to hold a privileged position on the global stage. In order to determine the right way to get there, we must ask this question: Do we apply democratic principles immediately or begin with development before democratization?

To answer this, I have been carefully mulling over the work of those theorists and politicians who hold enlightened views on this subject. I have chosen to focus on Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Science in 1998, and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s former prime minister.

Sen’s views correspond with Western philosophy, which says that democracy and human rights must form the basis for development because there can be no development without democracy and freedom. He explained in his book Development as Freedom that democracy is a pivotal factor in development; one of its key values is an individual’s freedom to choose any faith or tradition without being bound by religious or political authority.

This also requires people to be sufficiently educated and feel a sense of personal responsibility, against the backdrop of a stable society. In addition, citizens can achieve their goals through exerting pressure on governments by exercising their political rights, such as voting, openly criticizing governments, demonstrating and protesting.

By contrast, Lee Kuan Yew envisages development as a prerequisite for democracy. He stressed that democratization can only successfully take root in countries dominated by order and stability, not during turmoil and chaos. People should have reached the stage where they can exercise self-discipline and believe in individual accountability, without the need for supervision. Also, democracy cannot succeed unless a culture of tolerance prevails.

Lee assured in his book From Third World to First that if democratic processes had been put in place immediately after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, it would have been disastrous as the country was suffering from problems related to security, the economy, society, and also corruption.

Lee believes that before establishing democratic structures all these obstacles must be overcome; the education system and the economy must also be developed in order to establish a middle class. Life must have aims higher than just achieving the basics.

Compared with Lee’s pragmatism, we find that Sen’s outlook is purely theoretical and lacks empirical study. If he had studied the situation in the Arab countries, he would have seen the prevailing repressive religious discourse there does not believe in the freedoms he mentioned.

Further, the educational requirement that Sen called for is very unrealistic, as the rate of illiteracy in the Arab world is at least 35 percent. Add to this, the fact that the educational system is very poor, generating only semi-educated individuals who are sometimes more dangerous to society than illiterates.

Moreover, where is Sen’s much-desired security in the “Arab Spring” countries? And where are his responsible citizens who can bring about change through protesting? In fact, we have seen only chaos, insecurity and instability.

The woefully disappointing outcomes of the “Arab Spring” in these countries resulted in the Algerian people electing Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term, because they are afraid of succumbing to the same tragic fate as these countries. As a result, we find that most of people in the region prefer stability over democracy and human rights.

Thus it is clear that Sen’s theory not only does not hold water in the Arab world, but pushing for democracy before development has had counterproductive and dangerous consequences. It produced an authoritarian and dictatorial regime that exploited elections to serve its sectarian agenda, such as Nouri al-Maliki’s regime in Iraq, who appears like a reincarnation of Saddam Hussein, playing the role of the elected Shiite.

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In addition, it destroyed the state and facilitated the spread of terrorist militias, as is the case in Libya, which will have repercussions both regionally and globally. Already we see the effects with the killing of civilians and police officers by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the death and destruction we see in Syria.

It is ironic that Western countries and their advocates stress the need to apply democracy in Arab countries, but they do not recall that liberal systems preceded democratic ones in Western Europe. The United Kingdom, which has the oldest democratic system in the world, was a liberal constitutional state throughout the nineteenth century and did not become fully democratic until 1930, while France became fully democratic in 1945, 150 years after the French Revolution.

So, why are Western countries demanding democratic systems be applied in Arab countries straight away without advocating that they first go through a process of liberalization, which they desperately need?

Liberalism here does not mean imitating the West, but means liberation of the region from extremist totalitarian religious dogma and all other forms of backwardness in order to kick-start a renaissance. Democracy is a tool for development, not an end in itself.

The robustness of Lee Kuan Yew’s vision has been proven by the success we see today in Dubai, which applied his approach. Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the prime minister and vice president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The constitutional monarch of Dubai did not hide his admiration for the former Prime Minister of Singapore when he stated on one occasion: “Lee Kuan Yew managed for two generations to turn his country into a global destination for business and tourism, where he had also proven how achievements can be made through insightful vision, solid determination and hard work.”

Anyone who traces the progress in Dubai will find that in many ways it is similar to that of Singapore’s and that due to development, good infrastructure and exciting opportunities, the UAE and particularly Dubai have become the Arab countries of choice for Arab youth.

Furthermore, the higher status of women in Dubai encourages a lot of young Arab women to choose to live there; in fact the country’s social development has become dependent on women. No wonder the UAE has topped the world in respect of women.

Amartya Sen’s theory and Lee Kuan Yew’s vision leave us at a crossroad. Sen’s theory is derived from the West and was recommended for export to the Arab world without any caveats, forethought or real considerations. This is like a farmer who wants to plant roses in an arid desert soil that is not yet ready for planting.

On the other hand, Lee’s vision is not based on theory, but empiricism, applied to what has worked on the ground. Come to Singapore and judge for yourself how such a small country has become as strong as a tiger in Asia.

Najat AlSaied is a Saudi academic; a graduate in media studies from the University of Westminster, London-UK (October, 2013). Her PhD thesis is: Development Initiatives in Programming on Privately-Owned Arab Satellite Television and their Reception among Disadvantaged Saudi Women. She will be joining the academic faculty at Zayed University in Dubai in the fall of 2014. She can be reached at: najwasaied@hotmail.com.

  • Khizar Hayat Abbasi

    Najwa Saied’s is nicely written and full arguments. She convincingly rejected the western world’s quest for democratic change in Gulf Countries. Fact of the matter is that west simply want to thrust its version of democracy on Middle Eastern countries without weighing its pros and cons and taking ground realities into account.

  • Hakim

    A very insightful comparison and analysis between two opposing views. I think Najwa has hit the nail on the head. Her analysis is so pertinent to the South African situation.