If a group of Middle East analysts had been asked two years ago to rank which Arab heads of state were most likely to still be in power by the end of June 2013, the Emir of Qatar would almost certainly have been ranked #1. And for good reason: relatively young and exceedingly energetic diplomatically, unfathomably wealthy, facing no real domestic challenges or grave international threats. My column this week, which despite my best efforts was not entitled "Game of Qatari Thrones", explores some of the mysteries surrounding his stunning decision to hand over power to his son Tamim.
The Emir’s surprising move recalls many of the fascinating discussions and debates about the possibility of prediction in political science in the wake of the Arab uprisings. You’ll recall that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and all which followed, spawned a tidal wave of indictments of political science and of area studies for failing to predict the mass mobilization. This never seemed exactly right. The predictive failure wasn’t one of information: many, if not most, scholars of Arab politics over the 2000s catalogued the political, economic, and institutional failures of Arab regimes and the rising wave of popular protest. The analytical failure, such as it was, came from the (not unreasonable) assumption that the survival strategies which had kept those authoritarian regimes in power for decades despite their many failures would continue to work. That assumption was widely shared. As Charlie Kurzman and others have often pointed out, even the participants in protest movements are often surprised by their success. It is only in retrospect that the unthinkable comes to seem inevitable.
The Emir’s decision to hand over power was arguably even more unpredictable than the Arab uprisings. As Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who has worked for a long time on forecasting and prediction (including with the Political Instability Task Force), points out, the eruption of mass mobilization and its political outcomes can be modeled within a broad comparative universe. All sorts of data might go into the predictive analysis. But what would allow you to predict an intra-family decision behind closed doors for inscrutable reasons, other than actually being in that room? Even hearing the many rumors about the closed doors meeting doesn’t really help, since rumors flow freely in a place like Doha and 99 out of 100 turn out to be bunk. At any rate, I’d love to hear more from Jay and others on the relative challenges of predicting leadership changes in the Gulf against, say, what might happen in Egypt on June 30.
This Week on the Middle East Channel
Speaking of Egypt’s June 30 protests, the Middle East Channel posted several outstanding articles previewing the runup to those potentially fateful — and potentially an overhyped fizzle — protests. Nathan Brown returned from a week in Cairo extremely worried about the polarization and expectations in the days leading up to June 30. Tarek Radwan recounted the political road to June 30 and the thinking behind how it might unfold. Hisham Hellyer warned of the atmosphere which produced the horrifying lynching of four Shi’ite Egyptians. And over on the FP main page, Mohammed el-Baradei warned that Egypt is already a failed state and "you can’t eat sharia."
Elsewhere on the Channel, Paola Rivetti and Farideh Farhi and Daniel Brumberg interpreted the politics of Iran’s Presidential election; Aaron Zelin and Charles Lister presented one of the most detailed analyses to date on the emergence of the Syrian Islamic Front; Curtis Ryan examined Jordan’s ongoing struggles with political reform and the controversy over its blocking of websites; Jake Hess went into Iraq to interview a leader of Turkey’s PKK about the very tenuous prospects for a real peace agreement; and I talked to Mark Tessler about the evolution of Arab public opinion research.
Finally: POMEPS is hiring! If you want to work with us here at the Middle East Channel, along with a wide range of academic programming, check out this opportunity. Since it was originally posted last week the position has been upgraded to a full time position. If you’re interested be sure to apply!