Cool Spring—The #ArabSpring revisited (post-webinar Q&A session) #EIU

The following are my notes from the Q&A session immediately following the webinar that was presented by Robert Powell, Senior Analyst, Middle East of the Economist Intelligence Unit on June 29, 2012. The questions were put forward by those in the audience listening to the webinar and were answered by Robert Powell.

1. What lessons can Egypt provide for Libya with regard to drafting of constitution and rise of Muslim Brotherhood?

With regard to the drafting of the constitution, the process to put in a President and a Parliament in place before the drafting of a new constitution was always a problematic one. Libya should negotiate their new constitution before any elections are held.

With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, it was always going to do well in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, because it’s a mature political party, and what’s more it is relatively moderate. What Libya has to be concerned about is the influence of the radically fundamentalist Salafis, who are being supported by money from Saudi Arabia.

Libya is in a better position than Egypt for two reasons: there is no overweening military, because Muammar Gaddafi was paranoid enough of a military coup not to allow a strong military to develop. However, there are a lot of internal spies and the political situation is more unstable in the long run precisely because you do not have any overweening military or other political parties. Therefore the situation needs to be monitored carefully, although it is not garnering as much attention from the world press as Egypt has been doing recently.

The second reason it is in a better position is because it has plenty of oil money, due to the rise in oil prices. It will be important for the government to provide fiscal stimulus to the economy.

2. Is a second Tahrir Square type of Egyptian revolution probable?
Please remember that neither of the two largest political blocs in Egypt at the moment, the Muslim Brotherhood nor SCAF, truly represent the core of the revolutionary movement in Egypt.

At this point according to opinion surveys 90% of Egyptian population just want to go back to their normal life; their livelihoods have been severely impacted by the revolution. They want a greater say so, but a new revolution is unlikely because of fatigue.  There will be sporadic protests, especially if SCAF tries to make too much of a power grab during negotiations with President Mohammad Mursi about the constitution.

During the negotiations, the Muslim Brotherhood will lead for the time being. It will comprise the majority of the elected parliament. SCAF will carve out a certain independence over its own affairs, i.e., foreign relations, but even more importantly for them, their real estate and commercial interests.

For a historical parallel, look at the evolution of relations between Erdogan, Turkey’s powerful prime minister since 2003, and the military there. There has been a rapprochement that could be replicated in Egypt as well.

3. How does Obama administration use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones challenge the struggles of the Yemen government against Al-Qaeda?

First, let’s review the political situation facing the current Yemeni government. Right now, the coalition in the government is made up of 50% of the former ruling party, and 50% of the opposition.

The former Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, is now the current president and seems to be proving out to be a capable and assertive leader. The problem is that, although the former President Saleh has been ousted from power, his relatives still have positions of power.

The US says they will impose sanctions on the Saleh family if they try to hold on to power behind the scenes. This move may be helpful politically in Yemen to prevent the fragile coalition from unraveling.

However, the situation with drones, as the question implied, is that any tactical military advantage that it gives to the Yemeni government vis-à-vis al-Qaeda may be overshadowed by the strategic difficulties it creates in destabilizing the country politically.

There are echoes of the situation in Pakistan with regards to the use of drones. Neither the Yeminis nor the Americans want “boots on the ground”. The drones are seen by the government as giving support to the Yemeni army, which IS on the ground. However, they are extremely unpopular with the people because of what is euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage”.

At least on the economic front, aid is coming in from Saudi Arabia, and the government needs to more fiscal stimulus in order to be seen to be helping the Yemeni populace.

4. Are radical forces in Yemen such as al-Qaeda undermining Saudi plans for greater control of the region?

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula is based in Yemen; its members are an amalgamation of Saudis and Yemenis. There have been several attacks launched on Saudi soil in the past that have failed. Saudis are actually more concerned about political destabilization in their own county from Shi’ite groups to the East, in particular in connection with their regional arch-rival Iran.

There is a Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen but it doesn’t have any interest in Saudi affairs. In reality, Yemen is unlikely to have an internal political impact on Saudi outside of security concerns connected with al-Qaeda and other radical groups.

5. By your own figures in the webinar, the “revolutionary” Arab Spring countries are doing poorly economically, and the ones that are “counter-revolutionary” such as Saudi Arabia are experiencing an economic boom. Could one argue that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are serving their people better as autocracies than the countries with inefficient democracies?

This is a philosophical question which we could discuss for hours, but my own opinion is that, even though it looks like the counter-revolutionary countries are better off economically in the short run, in the long run they are not.

In the long run democracies deliver prosperity to their people far better because of the more equal distribution of income. Let’s put it another way: Saudi Arabia and the UAE could have done much better with the resources with which they have been placed.

If Saudi Arabia had become a democracy, it would now be the richest country in the world.


Cool Spring—The #ArabSpring revisited (Economist Intelligence Unit webinar) #EIU

The following are my notes from the webinar that was presented by Robert Powell, Senior Analyst, Middle East of the Economist Intelligence Unit on June 29, 2012.

All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the state… Albert Camus

1. Arab Spring—overview

In the past 18 months, there have been some positive developments, such as the 4 leaders ousted in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, with relatively free-and-fair elections held in those countries. Some other countries experienced political reforms, such as a new constitution in Morocco, a freer press in Algeria, and the parliament in Oman being given limited legislative power.

However, on the negative side of the ledger, the domino effect has stalled, with the effort to unseat Assad in Syria being stalled and devolving into a civil war. In those countries that experienced a revolution, there was economic disruption and a drying up of capital inflows. Those that did not experience any sort of revolution, like Saudi Arabia, however, came off unscathed, and in fact have experienced an economic boom to the rise in oil prices.

Fig. 1. Mixed results for the “Arab Spring”

2. Arab Spring—Political/Economic Outlook in “Arab Spring” countries

Here’s a country-by-country look at the political and economic situation in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa that have experienced a successful (Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Egypt) or an abortive revolution (Syria). In the following chart, “MB” stands for “Muslim Brotherhood”.

The color code for the boxes is: green means improving situation, yellow means neutral or stagnant situation, and red means a worsening situation. They are listed from best to worst in terms of medium-term outlook.

Fig. 2 Political/Economic Outlook in Arab Spring Countries




1. Tunisia MB clear winner; constitution referendum delayed, but progressing Exports and tourism improving, but slowly due to Euro Zone
2. Libya Parliamentary elections in a few months; MB will do well Oil production back to pre-revolution levels
3. Yemen New president proving assertive Oil production ½ of pre-revolution levels
4. Egypt MB (Moursi) did well in elections, but has to share power with SCAF;
Constitutional draft process is key
Economy in trouble; IMF funding needs to be replaced
5. Syria Slipping into civil war; Turkey pushes back on refugees due to downed plane incident Regime finances crumbling

3. Arab Spring—Political outlook in “onlooker countries

For those countries which did not experience revolution, here are some trends that have obviously been sparked by the “Arab Spring.”

Lower-level protests and promises of constitutional change occurred in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Bahrain. Here is the short-term tendency of political reform in these countries, with green means improving situation, yellow means neutral or stagnant situation, and red means a worsening situation.

Fig. 3. Political Outlook in non-Arab Spring Countries


Political Reform

1. Morocco Reforms went farthest
2. Oman Some parliamentary power gained
3. Algeria Unpredictable
4. Jordan Political situation very shaky
5. Bahrain Saudi Arabia helped squash revolution

Note:     There was not a lot of specific information in the presentation regarding these countries compared to the Arab Spring countries in Fig. 2.

Saudi Arabia is a special case; although the short-term prospects of political reform are non-existent, there is a potential for medium-term change when the oldest members of the ruling family pass away and there is a succession to new crown princes.

3. Economic Output in Middle East and North Africa countries

Here is a chart of real GDP growth in 2006-2010 or “pre-Arab Spring” and 2011-2012 or “post-Arab Spring”

Fig. 4 GDP Growth Before Arab Spring and After Arab Spring (UPDATED)


GDP Growth


GDP Growth

















Saudi Arabia






Those countries whose economies have improved after the Arab Spring have figures in the second column that are green, and those whose economies have deteriorated have figures in red. 

You can see that Saudi Arabia has done particularly well in the region due to the rising oil prices.

4. Forecast for Political/Economic Reform

The forecast for the future of political and economic reforms has changed from the original presentation made on the Arab Spring back in April due to the present. Here are the three probabilities assigned to the neutral, pessimistic, and optimistic forecasts for the region.

Fig. 5. Economist Intelligence Unit Forecast for Political Reform in MENA

(last year’s forecast compared to this year’s forecast)

Forecast Type Forecast Title Forecast Explanation 2011 2012
Neutral K Democracy (in name only) Reforms results in creation of democratic structure, but w/o genuine accountability 60% 60%
Pessimistic L Authoritarian rule Efforts to build democratic institutions derailed 20% 30%
Optimistic J Democracy (in reality) Representative democracy takes root in region, leading to genuine popular participation in govt 20% 10%


You can see that the possibility of a negative outcome has increased from 20% to 30% and the probability of a positive outcome has decreased from 20% to 10%.

5. Conclusion

Robert Powell concluded by saying that, despite the setbacks, the Middle East has changed, but there is a growing risk that democratic change may be checked or even reversed.

He feels that significant long-term economic growth will occur only if democracy takes root. Despite the short-term wealth of Saudi Arabia, a regime’s longevity should not be confused with its stability.

The revolutionary movement in the region has a legitimacy with the common people that will endure.

Tomorrow I will present the question and answer session to this talk that came after the main session presented above.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 7)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”; he prefers the term “difference” to that of “inequality”.  In this final post of the series, he concludes his lecture by discussing the religious elite and their relationship to the military elite in the Middle East, how the European tradition of primogeniture differs from the traditions of the Middle East, and finally how climactic and technological factors have helped shape the differences between society in Euroamerica and that of the Islamic world.  

16. The Relationship between the Religious Elite and the Military Elite

When you get into the religious elite, you find that the religious elite is to some degree connected with the government, but is in a very large sense independent. It has its own independent economic base as would churches in Europe has.

However, there is almost a complete disconnect between the religious elite and the military. In other words, you have the notion of primogeniture in Europe for a long time among certain aristocratic families in Europe for a long time, that is, the first son is the one who has the land, and the second goes into the church or what have you. This notion means that the same families produce elites in the diplomatic corps, in the army, in the church, in the rural control of land, and in authority; that sort of complex family you don’t really have in the Middle East. Instead you have a more narrowly tracked set of career paths. Prof. Bulliet will spell out more on this topic in a later lecture.

With regards to this one particular difference, is it a matter of inequality (between Euroamerica and the Middle East)? No, it’s a matter of difference. There is nothing particularly great about hereditary aristocracy, and the idea that in Europe leaders were expected to have as their primary skill acquired during their upbringing the talent and the will to get in somebody’s face and smash it in with an axe. It’s not appealing; it’s basically having the ruling system predicated on serial murder, whereas the idea that your leadership comes from the group that would ultimately rather sell chicken is not necessarily bad (laughter). But it’s different. Now if you looked at Russia, you would find that the nature of the aristocracy there is also rather different from what it is in Western Europe.

17. Climatic Differences and Inequality

There are a whole bunch of other parameters that you could throw in here that would raise questions of where this difference (in the nature of aristocracy) overlaps the concept of inequality. For example, if you take the so-called Little Ice Age, nobody agrees on when it began, but maybe it’s around 1400 or 1500. It got very, very cold, and even though nobody can agree on when the Little Ice Age began, there is, according to Wikipedia, our authority on almost everything—that’s a joke, not a recommendation (laughter)—there’s a consensus that the Little Ice Age was over and the period of cold with all that it implied for crops was over by the middle of the 19th century.

The coldest year in the history of the Ottoman Empire and of Iran is 1602—it’s cold everywhere in that year. But otherwise, it’s in the 1870s when there are massive famines in the Ottoman Empire, massive famines in Iran. And if you look at the temperature indices, you find that at the point where you have the greatest inequality of power between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, this is also the point of the most dramatic climate difference. Everything was getting better in Europe, and people were freezing to death and starving in the Ottoman Empire and in Iran, because of changes in climate. These changes were in turn due to the vagaries of the Siberian high that appears once every winter in Mongolia and Siberia and affects the winter weather and the crop output.

So nobody has really approached climatic history as a variable (with respect to inequality between Europe and the Middle East).

18. Differences in Transportation Technology and Inequality

There are other variables. Prof. Bulliet would really like to talk about 4-wheel vehicles. If the class gives him 3 minutes, he can perhaps put in a little explanation here.

One of the things that was observed by everyone who went to the Middle East and saw it as a hallmark of backwardness was that there weren’t any roads, or rather than the roads were simply dirt tracks. Not only that, but if you went into the cities, the cities had narrow streets. Sometimes you could just reach out and touch the walls. If you have a narrow street, probably you’ll get the plague or you’ll be raped or something like that because a narrow street is scary (laughter). You just have to go to a lot of Weimar-period German movies to see how dangerous the street is. These narrow streets are dangerous, but of course Amsterdam Avenue with 3-ton vehicles going at 40 miles an hour and ignoring the pedestrians—that’s safe. That’s really nice; you may killed there, but at least it’s not dark (laughter).

Prof. Bulliet wrote a book called The Camel and the Wheel that argued that the disappearance of wheeled vehicles in the Middle East has economic and technological bases. The development of a society without paved roads and with narrow, pedestrian-scale streets was an outcome of changes in the technological domain. It has nothing to do with Islam, nothing to do with ideology, it’s simply a matter of technical evolution. But it’s certainly the case that when you come to differences between these regions the absence of paved roads is important.

And then you have to ask yourself why you have paved roads in Europe. The answer to that has to do seemingly not with wheeled vehicles per se, because you have carts in India and carts in China without much in the way of paved roads, but rather it has to with the particular type of wheeled vehicle that is uniquely European, and that originates from apparently profound European stupidity (laughter).

When people first invented wheeled vehicles, they fundamentally had a choice between two wheels and four wheels. The power source, let’s say, a pair of oxen, was the same. The primary problem in pulling the vehicle was friction. If you have one axle with two wheels, or two axles with four wheels, what do you think happens in the latter case with the friction? The friction doubles when you add the second axle. The result is that everybody in the world outside of Europe decided to use two-wheeled vehicles because four-wheeled vehicles don’t make any sense.

Europeans also used two-wheeled vehicles for most of their heavy lifting, but they kept the four-wheeled vehicles. Why? Not only did they have high friction, but they didn’t know how to pivot the front axle, so they couldn’t steer them; they had a turning radius of four blocks (laughter). If one wheel broke, the whole thing goes down—they were a terrible idea.

But the Europeans stuck with them from 3000 BC until around the time of the Renaissance when they figured out how to wiggle the front axle, and then they invented the coach—originally a Hungarian word, it doesn’t come from Western Europe, it comes from Eastern Europe. The coach was a suspended vehicle, which means that you have a chassis, four wheels, and a pull for the animals to pull. Then you have some verticals, and then you string chains or leather belts between the verticals and you put a passenger assemblage on top of them and now they can sway. That’s the beginning of suspension; they are literally suspended, and that turns into springs. There are a whole lot of other developments, but the reason this happens is because, although there were some uses that were more practical for four-wheeled vehicles, the dominant force in this appears to have been the desire to move parties of women from place to place. High-status women don’t move easily (laughter). You can’t really tell the Princess, “go on over there to such-and-such a place.” She has to travel with her maids of honor, or else she would be raped.

The early pictures we have from Roman times of four-wheeled vehicles don’t show them carrying huge loads, they show them carrying passengers, particularly women. Down to the 19th century, we have these pictures from Eastern Europe of women, for example going out from Istanbul to the outskirts of town to have picnics, where you have a whole covered wagon full of women. Well the women are the ones that needed the suspension. They wanted to ride in comfort. The suspension improved their comfort, but so did a paved road. So the evolution of steering and brakes and suspension goes along with the development of paved roads.

You end up with a road system in Europe (but not in Russia) that you don’t have in the Middle East. That plays a very important developmental role when you get down to the changes in the 20th century. But more importantly, all modern wheeled transport is predicated on the concept of four wheels–not the bicycle or the Segway, but your basic train, car, truck, or bus. The horsepower has moved from the exterior to the interior. You cannot mechanize a two-wheeled oxcart; there’s no real way you can do it, because you depend upon the animals supporting it in front and the wheels supporting it in back.

Europe, because of its peculiarity, decided to wheel women around. Of course, you could decide to leave the women home and travel with a pretty boy, which made a lot more sense to a lot of people in the Middle East (laughter). In Europe, they had these peculiarities, they had four-wheeled vehicles, therefore they had roads, and therefore they were able to develop trains and cars which could not have developed in China or India or Indonesia where they only had two-wheeled vehicles, and you certainly couldn’t have built them in the Middle East where you didn’t have any vehicles at all.

So we have a problem of inequality or difference. Prof. Bulliet is not going to debate the issue of decline, which implies a pernicious interpretation of inequality, but he is going to insist on certain aspects of difference. He has brought up some (in this lecture), and will probably burden the class with some others later on.

This concludes this long series of posts on this topic.   I appreciate the many readers from various countries around the world who have read these posts.   It shows that there is a genuine need for more balanced, academic approaches to the subject of the Middle East to balance the more one-dimensional portrayals people get from the media.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 6)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.   This next post deals most specifically with the topic mentioned in the title.  

14. The Military-Commercial complex in the Islamic world

This is Plato’s Guardian class in action. It didn’t work. The Janissaries found that being a professional military to protect people who made a lot of money and lived happy lives while they went on campaigns and got killed and they got nothing didn’t seem right with them. So after time the Janissaries pressed the Sultanate to relax the restrictions, to allow them to get married, to engage in business, to lead something closer to normal lives. So that by the early 1600s more and more of the Janissaries were being drawn from the sons of Janissaries or other people who found access to the court. They were entering the army without going through the rigid military training of the earlier Janissary core. The reason this longing for increasing privileges was effective was that the change in military technology had made the traditional cavalry increasingly marginal, and the organized forces of the Sultanate were the most effective and the most important. Over time, however, the Janissaries became less and less effective and more and more involved in business.

The reason why they became involved in business in an effective way because they were not subject to the regulations of the guilds that controlled most of the manufacturing in the Ottoman Empire. Regarding the formal responsibility in terms of laws or in terms of whom they could be disciplined by, their only governance came from the head of the Janissaries. So they could compete with guild members without being penalized, or more likely in terms of descriptions we have from the 18th century, they could offer their patronage to an artisan who wanted to escape the guild rules and so the Janissary would become the public partner of the artisan. There are descriptions of Janissaries in Egypt in the 1700s who would sort of sit out in front of a shoe shop all day carving soap figures or doing something else useful just to show they were protecting that shop from any legal incursions that might be made within the structure of the guild system.

So you have an institution that had begun as a slave soldiery to buttress the state, and ends up playing an important role in the economy with diminishing effectiveness militarily. When they integrate, they don’t integrate as aristocrats—that’s the point Prof. Bulliet is trying to make. You have military leadership that does not result in a hereditary class or military leaders. Even in Egypt under the Mamluks before the Ottomans took over, the sons of Mamluk generals did not themselves become Mamluks; they were prohibited from becoming Mamluks, some of them joining a kind of junior Mamluk auxiliary corps. So no son of a general could become a general. There are no John McCains in Egypt under the Mamluks (laughter). You couldn’t have that. And yet that was the ideal within the European aristocracy.

Later on in the course, simply to extend this endless digression even further (laughter), I will make the argument that one of the most striking characteristics of Middle East politics today is the survival of the fundamental structural aspects of the Mamluk system. In other words, many of the governments of the Middle East today are what people refer to as neo-Mamluk governments. What is meant by that is a military officer corps, frequently from socially marginal backgrounds, who monopolize political power and military leadership, but whose notion of integrating into the society is in the normal commercial fashion rather than as a military elite. So that, the sons of the neo-Mamluks today don’t necessarily go into the military pattern, maybe they go to dental school or they go to get a degree in business degree in Belgium, or something like that, but they don’t become a hereditary military. You end up with states like Syria, Egypt, Iraq before Saddam Hussein, and perhaps now evolving in Iran, that are characterized by governments that are of, by, and for the officer corps, but the officer corps does not become an aristocracy. The officer corps wants to sell shoes, and you get a very powerful impetus for officers to engage in the economy.

There is a striking moment in Egypt when the general who provided chicken for the Army through his chicken farms asked Parliament for permission to sell chicken to the general populace. He said, “I produce chicken more cheaply than the chicken farmers that you have, and therefore I should be able to sell chicken to everybody.” The Parliamentarians responded, “You’re using draftees for your labor; of course you can produce chicken more cheaply, because you’re producing military chicken.” And they did not give him permission to sell his chicken to the general public.

15. The Military-Industrial Complex of the Western World

The whole idea that this is what you would aspire to do is strikingly neo-Mamluk. Our retired generals coming from a tradition of the military aristocracy go to work for Boeing, for Blackwater, or for Beltway consultants; they go into the military-industrial complex.

The military officers in neo-Mamluk states get Starbucks franchises (laughter). It’s a military-commercial relationship. Neo-Mamluk militaries are profoundly risk averse. Let’s say you were a general in this country and then you become an executive of Boeing and a war is looming. You would think, well if we lose 50 F-16s, then we’re going to have buy 150 F-something elses to replace the F-16s, so war is good for our business because it’s a military-industrial business. War isn’t necessarily as negative as it would appear.

On the other hand, if you’re sane enough on the neo-Mamluk side of things, you would think, well if war comes, not many people are going to be able to go to Starbucks because they’ll be at war, and the chicken industry is going to hit, and so forth and so on (laughter). It’s a different way of articulating the military elite with the commercial society and it is one that has never been integrated into our understanding of military elites in the Middle East and North Africa. There is an assumption that, as soon as Western-style military academies are established in the 19th century in Egypt and Turkey, and in the 20th century in other states, it’s assumed that along with the structure of the Western-style military academy comes the ethos of the Western military officer. You send them to Fort Leavenworth for three weeks of general command training and they will be pro-American forever and they will be like John McCain (laughter).

It didn’t work that way. The people who visualized the modern military in the Middle East never looked back to see what is the tradition, what is the ingrained relationship of the military elite to the rest of the society. To Prof. Bulliet, this is a profound difference between Europe in the 17th and 18th century and the Middle East with regards to the nature of the military and its relationship with the aristocracy.

If Prof. Bulliet characterizes the military-commercial complex of the Middle East as being “risk averse”, the corollary of that is that the military-industrial complex of the West is more “risk seeking” or “adventurous.”    No less than President Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in his farewell address to the American people on January 17, 1961.  This is one of the most trenchant critiques of Washington by a man who himself had served the highest roles in both the US military and the US government:

In the final post of this lecture, Prof. Bulliet talks about the religious elite in the Middle East and North Africa and its relationship to society.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 5)

In this next post, Prof. Bulliet starts off by describing a parallel Mamluk system to that of the Ottoman Empire that developed in India.

11. The Mamluk system in India

There is a parallel simultaneously in India where you have another Mamluk system arising in Delhi in the 1200s often called the “Slave Dynasty”. These are the people who were the Mamluks of the last rulers of the Ghulam (?) dynasty, a group of warlords from northwest Afghanistan. So this is not a complete anomaly in Egypt; rather, it is something that arises within this military system.

12. Military education in the Mamluk System

The Mamluks were brought in, grew up in the barracks, learned how to be soldiers, and adopted Islam, not having been Muslims to begin with. They manifested enormous loyalty towards fellow members of their regiment, towards whoever had trained them in the regiment, and towards the ruler. It was a professional military of very high quality and very strong dedication. It’s sort of like Starship Troopers if you want to look at that movie and see how a model of this sort of thing works, though actually that’s closer to Plato’s Republic, because there the soldiers become citizens (laughter).

The Mamluks in a sense never became citizens because they were always regarded as slaves. When Napoleon comes to Egypt and announces in broadsides distributed at the time of his invasion in 1798 that he has come to free the Egyptians from the tyranny of the Mamluks, the major Egyptian historian who writes a rejoinder to Napoleon says, “Free us from tyrants? They’re slaves! How can you make us free when we are free? How can you free us from slaves, because they are slaves!” There is a total disconnect with the notion of what freedom might mean. Even though the Egyptian had a very good understanding of how the French revolutionary government worked, there were very different notions on what freedom might mean.

In the Ottoman Empire, you get a particular version of this in which you do not have Mamluks, but instead you have two types of professional military. You have a military that comes probably from a tribal origin, but probably also represents to some degree Byzantine notions of military, and this is associated with the holding of land in exchange for military service. There is another form that I am talking about here that as known as Janissaries. A Janissary was a soldier who had been born a Christian (almost all of them are Christians by birth), usually from the Balkans, with a few of them from Greece. Egypt and Syria became part of the Ottoman Empire after 1516 when the Ottomans defeat the Mamluks, and absorbed the Mamluk domains into the Ottoman Empire. The Christians of Egypt and Syria never become Janissaries. They are never burdened or privileged to contribute sons to this military core. The young boys were chosen on the basis of recruiting or evaluation commissions sent out from Constantinople who were to go to the villages in the Balkans, and to select the fittest and most intelligent boys and simply take them to Istanbul.

Prof. Bulliet uses Istanbul and Constantinople interchangeably, although formally the name doesn’t change from Constantinople to Istanbul until the 1920s. The old coins didn’t say “Istanbul” on them they had a placed called Constantania which is the same as Constantinople. Once they had reached the capital, these boys were put in Turkish homes to learn Turkish, they went into military training, they received instruction on Islam, and at an appropriate age they became resident in barracks and became a standing army. They were distinctive originally because they used firearms which were awkward to use for a horseman, and therefore they were infantry. The association of a horseman with military elite was very strong; therefore the cavalry did not wish to use these arms originally. This was simply a temporary technical matter; as the arms were made lighter, they were used by horseman as well. So you had an infantry core specially trained from a socially marginal background, and frankly Prof. Bulliet believes that much of this actually patterned directly on Plato’s Republic, the translation history of which we do not know. We know that by the time of the Ottoman Empire’s origin it had been translated into Arabic, because we know that it’s referred to by philosophers in Spain. Whether it was well known at that time was not clear but the Guardians envisioned by Plato were pretty much what the Janissaries are.

13. The relationship between the military and the government

They are dedicated to the defense of the sheep, the flock, and oddly enough in Ottoman political terminology the general populous was called the sheep, or uriah, with various connections of the sheep of the flock and they are what is protected. The role of the government is to shear the fleece off the flock on a regular basis, that is to say, to extract money. The entire apparatus of administrators, warriors, and the ruler and his family were considered in Ottoman terminology oskari meaning military. Military meant you don’t pay taxes; you eat taxes.

You had a military establishment that lived on the produce of the flock and protected it. Now this notion of the government and its army conceiving of itself collectively as being “the army” goes back to before the Ottoman Empire. You can also find it in India, where the word Urdu for the version of the Hindustani language spoken by and written by Muslims comes from the Turkish word urdu which means “army” and it is the language of the army, namely the language of the court.

The Ottoman Empire had two itinerant judges, one was the Judge of the Army of Europe, and the other one was the Judge of the Army of Asia. There is a famous city in Southwestern Afghanistan called Lashkari Bazar (?) which means “the market of the army”. The notion of the army simply extends beyond the military forces; it refers to the entire court apparatus. The Janissaries are one part of this, but they become an increasingly important part both because they are military efficient and/or effective, and because they are serving twelve months a year, whereas the land-holding cavalry only shows up for during the campaigning season, which started in the spring and went until the end of summer.

The connection with the Plato’s Republic was that the Janissaries did not marry, did not engage in business, and did not own property; they were a separate caste of people. The elite of them received special training and became the administrative elite of the Empire. There was a school in the royal palace in Istanbul and is now called the Palace School of Mohammad the Conqueror, established in the middle of the 1400s after Constantinople was conquered in 1453. That school trained the elite of the children who were brought in to become part of the Janissary core; most of them became Janissaries but the elite were trained in the Palace School. That training taught them both advanced skills and all sorts of administrative skills, but it also taught them every in and out of the organization of the royal family and of the palace, which was a very complex organization. So they go through a series of internships to learn different roles. The people who come out of that school at the very top become the top administrators of the Empire. They become the viziers, and they become the military commanders and they become the most powerful people in the empire after the Sultan himself.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes the origins of the Military-Commercial Complex in the Islamic World by focusing on the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire.  


History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 4)

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes a different military setup in the Middle East and North Africa that is different than the tribal system and bears little resemblance to anything in Europe, and that is the Mamluk system that developed in the Ottoman Empire.

9. The Mamluk System

But you have another completely different military setup than you find in the Middle East and North Africa, that bears little connection to the tribal system and little resemblance to anything you have in Europe prior to the 19th century, and this is the idea of a professional military made up of people who are socially marginal.

Socially marginal is a very important thought here because the aristocracy of Europe, the mainstay of the military use of force, are not at all socially marginal, they are the social elite. By socially marginal, the most dramatic demonstration of this in the Middle East and North Africa is to have a professional military force of people who are slaves. What could be more socially marginal?

Of course, we have a problem with English when we use the word “slave,” which has to cover a whole variety of non-free status situations that are not very closely similar to the plantation slavery of the New World. It’s a little hard to imagine that the dominant agricultural and commercial class of South Carolina in the 1830s would have thought, “you know, let’s give all the slaves guns and ask them to protect us” (laughter). They would have thought, “giving guns to slaves? That doesn’t make sense, because they are slaves and they will kill us.” And fear of being killed by the slaves was a very important element in New World slave society and occasionally it happened, not nearly as often as it happened the other way around where you found some reason to kill one’s slaves.

But in the Middle East and North Africa, training slaves to be soldiers not only became commonplace but it produced a military elite of extraordinary ability. What was distinctive about it, and one of the reasons why it doesn’t have a parallel in Europe until the 19th century, is that the military elite of this sort had a locus quite different from the geographically peripheral military force residing in tribes. This military force was directly associated with employment by the central government. It was often located in the capital city and trained directly under the administration of the central government.

The term used from early times onward for a warrior-slave was Mamluk. It is a word for “slave” in the sense that it is a Arabic passive participle which means “owned”, but it is not the word in Arabic that you would use for a house-slave or a slave you had who was working in your shop or something like that. It does not necessarily mean a white slave, because you had areas where you had mamluks who were people of sub-Saharan Africa.

So it isn’t a matter of color, it’s a matter of what the occupation of the slave is. The root of the word Mamluk or m-l-k is also the word for “king,” and some people would argue that it doesn’t mean “owned” it means “kinged”, meaning that he is the King’s man. But they’re still slaves; you can buy them and you can sell them.

When you bought slaves in Islamic dominions, you had a constraint that it is religiously prohibited for a Muslim to enslave another Muslim, so this guaranteed the social marginality of the people who became mamluks. They had to come from some place either within the domain or outside of the domain where they were non-Muslims. But if they were within the domain and they were non-Muslims belonging to the Christian or the Jewish or the Zoroastrian faiths, then they were dhimmis and they were protected; they paid a tax and were relieved of any obligation for military service.

So typically mamluks were purchased from outside the domain. We have very little written on the early conceptual notion of the mamluk, but there may have been the idea that if you have people who come from far away and are brought in through a commercial nexus and are trained to be soldiers, particularly if they are purchased in childhood and therefore do not have a deep socialization within some other society, they are not a danger because they don’t have roots extending into the local society.

In this way you can have powerful commanders who were of slave origin who were not a threat to the ruler because they were after all slaves.

10. The Mamluks in Egypt in the later Middle Ages

In the year 1250, the man who was ruling Egypt right after there had been a great victory by the Egyptians over French crusader troops who had landed at the mouth of the Nile River. That victory had been won by the mamluks who were the regiment, battalion, or whatever you called the military unit that was owned by the ruler who died. When he died, another member of the family living in Syria came to Egypt and said, “Okay, I am now going to be the ruler and the head of the military of the ruler will be my mamluks.” The Egyptian mamluks said, “that just doesn’t sound right. We drove off the Crusaders, we fought, we won, and now you’re replacing us with your mamluks.” So they killed him (laughter). Then having killed him, they thought, you know, this is going to happen again and again. Someone’s going to come from somewhere else from that ruling family, which extended throughout Egypt and Syria; they’re the descendants of Salah Hadin, the great monarch of the time of the Crusades. And so for a while, for about 10 years, they had the idea that maybe if our general marries the widow of the last Sultan that is legitimate enough. Or maybe if there’s a child, we can say that he is the ruler. In fact, there is one widow who was herself a slave by origin who played a very important role at the time. She married a number of people and she was thought to have conferred a certain legitimacy.

But by 1260, there was another victory won by those same Mamluks and this was against the Mongols in a battle in Syria. At the battle of Ain Jalut (the “spring of Goliath”) the Egyptian Mamluks won a victory over the remnants of the Mongol army that had been left behind as Genghis Khan went back to Mongolia. When they returned to Cairo, they simply dispensed with any connection with the earlier regime and said “we’re the rulers.” From 1260 on, the ruler of Egypt was more often than not a slave-general. And when the general becomes the sultan, then he buys more mamluks, and then they are his mamluks, and you start to have really an entire mamluk system, in which you have slaves who were the military elite, who monopolized military force, to the same degree that the European aristocracy did.

Now you still had tribes, and in the wars of those centuries, the Arab tribes are called upon to fight on one side or another, but the Arab tribes never have any lasting power. The power lies with the mamluks from 1260-1516.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes a parallel Mamluk system that develops in India.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 3)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.  

The next post covers the military traditions in the Middle East, which does not stem from  the tradition of hereditary aristocracy as it does in Europe.  The first military tradition in the Middle East that Prof. Bulliet describes is developed from tribal kinship.

7. The Tribal Ethos in the Middle East

This aristocracy does not exist in the Middle East and North Africa. This doesn’t mean that you do not have a warrior tradition, but the notion of the military is very different. If you were to compare it with China, you would similarly find a profound difference. Chinese generals don’t become famous iconic philosophical types; they are employees of the state who are given military assignments. From a Confucian point of view, the warrior is comparatively insignificant compared with the sage, the great humane advisor to emperors, and the learning tradition associated with the sages.

So this is a particularity of Indo-European societies. In the Middle East, you have one warrior ethos that is associated directly with pastoral nomadism, so that tribes have warriors; indeed one could argue that tribes consist of warriors. Although it is often exaggerated, the theory of segmentary kinship structure, which was one of those post-World War II enthusiasms, maintains that in a society without law like that in the desert or in the mountains or wherever, if there is no legal system, then what does the law consist of? How are disputes regulated? The answer is the balance of kinship units.

Therefore it is crucial to know who is related to you, and if they are related to you, they have to acknowledge that relationship. They will come to your defense as you will come to their defense, and your kinship unit will muster its strength against their kinship unit, and so you get a standoff that leads to a pacification of disputes because nobody really wants to go into an all-out war. This kind of notion of tribal kinship support has not entirely vanished.

Prof. Bulliet knows, for example, in recent years of a man in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia who was a man of some prominence, but not quite of the prominence that he aspired to. He was from a certain tribe, and the people who were trying to keep him from the prominence that he aspired to doubted that he was from that tribe. And they would rumor that he says he’s from the tribe Beni so-and-so, but that really isn’t true; he’s making it up. When you move to the city you can do those things; you can fake your lineages.

Well it turned out that the tribe he was from was a tribe that ruling one of the Emirates in the Persian Gulf many, many miles away. They had never heard of him, but he communicated with the Emir of that Emirate and said, “I am of your tribe, and here’s the problem I’m having.” So the Emir and a large number of his followers came to Riyadh to visit, and to show “yes, we support him and he is a member of our tribe.” And the result was that he achieved the social status to which he aspired, because he was able to prove that his tribe would stand by him. This is uncommon these days, but it has not totally disappeared. At one time, it was much more common.

The notion of the head of a tribe, say in the Arabian Peninsula, is often thought of as being the first among equals or primus inter pares. He was the head of the tribe because he was reasonable, mature, prosperous, had a record of making good decisions, and he was generous and hospitable. In terms of importance, being generous and hospitable probably trumped the other factors like being reasonable, making good decisions, and so forth. So if you go to the Peninsula today, you will find that generosity and hospitality are enormously important values.

8. The majlis or open-house tradition

For example, every prince of any significance in the Saudi royal family holds on a regular basis, either weekly or more often, an open house or majlis. It doesn’t mean that everybody can come, but if you go to a majlis, which might involve a meal or might not, nothing in particular happens.

Prof. Bulliet has gone to a majlis, where you go and sit down, and a servant comes around with a tray with incense. Or maybe he is holding an incense burner with frankincense, and just so you know, the protocol if you are a Westerner and you are presented with incense is that you waft yourself with incense so it is good to practice wafting if you are going to Saudi Arabia in an official position (laughter). Then after that they bring around coffee, with miserable boiled cardamom seeds. It’s green and not brown, and you get about 3 ccs of coffee in an itty, bitty cup. They pour it, you drink it, and then the guy comes back and he pours 3 more ccs, you drink 3 more, he pours 3 more—you have to stop him (laughter). But you have to drink 3 first, and then after that you take your little coffee cup (?) and you wiggle it. Then he takes it away from you and you are done with your coffee. Then he goes and gives the same thing to someone else.

The coffee is a ceremony. Prof. Bulliet relates that he can’t stand Saudi coffee, because it ruins his stomach lining (laughter). Then after the coffee, there is tea to wash it down, , and then you get after that Coke or Seven-Up—the ritual goes on. So far there has been no conversation. This will go on in a place the size of this classroom. The majlis of the governor of Riyadh was in a room about 2/3 the size of the classroom, and there were 75 chairs arranged around the wall, and the center of the room was empty. There were servants who were distributing the coffee—no incense there, just coffee—to everyone in the room. Then the prince would come in with a couple of military orderlies and a couple of advisors, clearly distinguished from each other because the military men wear trousers and everybody else was wearing a robe. One by one everyone in the room is given an opportunity to go and talk to the Prince, but you don’t know what they are saying, because they are saying it in a whisper (laughter). Maybe the Minister will press a little piece of paper with his problem into the hands of the Prince, and maybe the Prince will call one of his orderlies and direct him to go off and give some instruction. But everyone gets their chance to talk personally with the Prince.

You can’t do that with Mayor Bloomberg (laughter). The idea that every common citizen can go and talk to the leader and be guaranteed, not necessarily to a speech because there is no public speech, but just be guaranteed to have 30 seconds of private, one-on-one conversation with the leader. This is high politics in Saudi Arabia; you could say it’s democracy. Everyone gets to talk directly to the leader, but of course it’s non-electoral.

Prof. Bulliet made that distinction once in some Congressional testimony; he told the Senator, “you’re the first Senator I’ve ever met, whereas I’ve met more important people in Saudi Arabia just as a casual visitor.” But you have different notions of what is important.

What’s important in this tribal setup is this notion of hospitality, the sense that the leader cares about, communicates with, and listens to every person who is part of a tribe. You look around the room of petitioners in Saudi Arabia, and you don’t see any Indians or Pakistanis; they’re Saudis. Maybe there’s an Egyptian who snuck in (laughter); but the guest workers don’t have that because it’s for the Saudi society. It isn’t for all people who are living and working within the Kingdom.

Tribes with this kind of emphasis, upon a leadership that is legitimized in ways quite different from what we normally imagine and in ways that are utterly different from the hereditary status of European aristocrats, were powerful in the Arabian peninsula and in the desert areas of Iraq, Jordan, and Syria north of Arabia. They became very important at various times in Iran, in Turkey, in North Africa, where you had some tribes that were from the desert and others from the mountains. The tribal ethos or the whole variety of tribal ethoi that are important in that part of the world constitute a major aspect of legitimate violence.

You do have certain parts of Europe where tribes play a role, but they are very, very few. Scotland has something like this in certain clans, and even there the lords of the Scottish clans are hereditary aristocrats. So a lot of the military that is associated with the hereditary aristocracy in Europe is associated with tribes in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes a different military setup in the Middle East and North Africa that is different than the tribal system and bears little resemblance to anything in Europe, and that is the Mamluk system that developed in the Ottoman Empire.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 2)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.   In this post, he talks about the growing dissatisfaction in historical circles of the notion of the “decline of the Ottoman Empire” or “the decline of the Middle East”, and refers to Edward Said’s debunking of many of the ideologically driven critiques of Islam and the societies of the Middle East.

Then he lays the groundwork for talking about the inequality between  modern EuroAmerica and the Middle East and North Africa by showing how society evolved in different ways in those regions.   He starts with the notion of aristocracy in Europe, which does not exist in the Middle East.  

4. The Decline of the Ottoman Empire

Now the debate over the decline of the Ottoman Empire or the decline of the Middle East really moves along a different track. People who have focused on the issue of decline and who have provoked a strong reaction have been less interested in material measures like livestock or population than they have in the structure of government. In their view, the notion of government by a Shah or a Sultan appears to be primitive and unworkable, whereas government by a Constitution Monarch and a Parliament seems to be wonderful and advanced. They are focused on the political inadequacy and/or the problems you have with Islam. Some people will argue concretely that Islam as a religion is deemed incompatible with aspects of modernity, with the notion of individualism, and the notion of science, and it is deeply imbued with the notion of fatalism, that is to say, throwing everything into the hands of God and therefore not doing any work. You know, “I have these 10 acres of land, but I think this year I’m just going to kind of sit and watch the sun rise and the sun set and lot God grow the damn crop (laughter). It almost reaches that level of ascribing to a religious outlook a totally unproductive and backward, superstitious way of dealing with the world.

Ever since the work of Prof. Bulliet’s late colleague Edward Said, it is pretty much universally accepted that these conjectures are ideological and have little basis in any sort of close examination of history. They reflect a tendentious and insupportable interpretation of what Islam is about, and they reflect a profound ignorance of the actual structure and operation of government and the financial order in the Middle East.

5. The Great Divergence re-examined

So if you throw out all of that, then we still get to the question of “what was different”? In a way you can say, it should probably be examined in three different parties

  • one party consisting of Northwest Europe,
  • one party consisting of the Ottoman Empire–that is to say, the countries of Southeast Europe, Turkey and the Arab world extending into North Africa, and
  • one party consisting of the Russian Empire.

If the Europeans are by certain measures substantially better off than the Ottoman segment, by those same measures they are substantially better off than the Russian segment. In many ways, if you compared the Russian segment and the Ottoman segment, the Russian segment appeared to be more in need of development, of commercial and intellectual evolution. But by the time Modern Middle Eastern history came into being as a topic, Russian had become a great competitor. You could no longer say Russia and the Middle East were primitive, underdeveloped lands and therefore talk about Western Europe vs. these other places. What had happened instead was that Russia had become an advanced society, a very productive society, but one very differently structured politically. You also the interesting comparison of Japan, which had also gone from being a peripheral land disconnected from the European perspective to being a country competitive with the great powers in the world.

So if inequality existed, then to what do you attribute it? And is that attribution so contingent that it can almost change overnight if you have a different way of doing things, in the way that Russia changes after the Bolshevik revolution.

What did the inequality involve? There are probably as many perspectives on this question as there are lectures available in this course. Prof. Bulliet will not give an exhaustive list, but will point out some of the characteristics that contribute to it in different ways that may not necessarily be obvious.

6. Aristocracy and the Caste System in Europe

Aristocracy is a characteristic of Europe. An aristocracy is ultimately rooted in the societies that go back to the spread of people speaking Indo-European languages, in other words back to around 1500 BC or thereabouts, as people spread from northern India across to the British Isles. It is very clear in the surviving literature and vocabulary of these languages, that these societies have a caste of warriors. In India originally this was called the Kshatriya class; they also have a class of priests that are called the Brahmins in India, and then they have other classes of people. In India, you would call them the Vaisyas¸ the commercial/artisan class, the shudras, more or less an agricultural class.

Fig. 1. The Four Castes of India (from Guide to the Essentials of World History, by Prentice Hall)

It is these top two, the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, which seem to be the most common: a religious, priestly elite and a warrior elite. These are the two segments of the society that dominate.

They dominate either through monopoly over religious ritual or a monopoly over military activity. The king comes from the Kshatriya class. You might say this is simply the way societies are organized, but it isn’t. If you go into ancient Egyptian society, the king is not part of the warrior class, he is a living god, and to distinguish the Pharaoh from the religious sphere and to put him strictly in the military sphere simply doesn’t work. If you go back to ancient Mesopotamia, the king plays a very important religious role and his military role is less singular. Leaving all of this ancient stuff aside, the result is that in many if not all of the societies that come from this cultural background, you have a hereditary notion of military service and military duty, and this becomes directly associated with the notion of governance. The king perhaps originally was the first among equals of warriors, but then becomes the person who is in a position to denote someone as a warrior at various levels: they may become a Duke or an Earl or a Margrave or a Herzog or whatever nobility the imagination might think of. The king is able to distribute these honors that are closely related to the control of land.

When you get into the 19th century, and to a lesser degree before that, you begin to have an increasing importance on nobles who come out of the administrative service of the state, but this sort of ennobling of administrators relates to the growth of centralized kingdoms and is really overshadowed certainly before the late 19th century by the hereditary nobility based on possession of land.

NOTE from

Prof. Bulliet’s remarks made me realize that even within the Indo-European societies, there has been a difference the aristocracy evolved in Europe and the way its original form was in India. In India (see Fig. 1 above), the Brahmins or religious/priestly caste is the top class, whereas in Europe, the warrior class is at the top. You can tell that by looking at a deck of playing cards. What is the order or ranking of the suits

1.   spades (♠ represents the warrior class because it derives from a symbol for a sword)

2.  hearts (♥ represents the religious class because it is the symbol for a man’s heart or conscience, which in Protestant terms was the key to religious fervor.  This was changed from its original medieval form that you see in a suit of Tarot cards of CUPS or CHALICES which was the symbol of the sacraments of the Catholic church)

3.  diamonds (♦ represents the merchant class—an obvious symbol of wealth)

4.  clubs (♣ represents the clubs or batons of the agricultural class)

These rankings replicate the aristocratic system of Europe as opposed to the original Indian formation that would have had the hearts or religious class as the top ranking.

Fig. 2 Suits of playing cards

The next post covers the evolution of societies in Middle East, which do not have this tradition of aristocracy that existed in Europe.

History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 1)

The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.  

Please note that since this is essentially an edited transcript of Prof. Bulliet’s lecture, it is difficult to catch the ironic tone that he sometimes uses to satirize an opinion which he himself does not believe, but you can sometimes note the reaction to it in the laughter he evokes from his students who are listening to the lecture.

1. The concept of global inequality and the history of the Modern Middle East

The concept of inequality on a world-wide scale has a connection with the notion of the Modern Middle East in that the people who were inventing the notion of the Modern Middle East had won World War II. Defeating fascism was an incredibly thrilling thing. It made people in the West think that they were able to do anything. It is not surprising that in the early post-World War II years you get Western scholars, particularly American scholars, who begin to come up with theories about the entire world and how it operates.

It was the heyday of sociology, the heyday of development theory, and so forth and so on. The notion that there was a fundamental inequality between what comes to be called the underdeveloped world and the West became a centerpiece for thinking about Modern Middle Eastern history, with of course that nuisance of the Soviet Union and its satellites hanging around to keep things from being totally peaceful.

2. World-system theory

It raises the question of “when did this inequality begin and why?” Some people address it explicitly. One of the best of the recent books on the history of the Modern Middle East is by a scholar at UCLA named James Gelvin called ingeniously The Modern Middle East: A History and he starts out with the question of this inequality. He says there are many reasons that might have contributed to it, and then he proceeds to focus his book on one, which was the development of economic relations and particularly the formation of what is called “world systems theory.” In world systems theory, the entire globe in earlier centuries is divided into a number of great empires, but you can have a number of great empires with each having its own particular geographical territory, economic structure, structure of domination, etc., but they tend to be very large political units that have more or less limited trade relations. They tend to be focused on the internal of each unit.

This “Modern World-System”, which is the theory of Immanuel Wallerstein at the State University of New York at Binghamton, states that the congeries of world empires give way at a certain point in time to a certain world-system in which you have a plurality of states, but an increasing unity of economy. You draw the world’s economy into a single system, and the need or the practicality of having separate large empires diminishes, so the empires gradually dissolve or are destroyed. Meanwhile, the economy becomes increasingly unified on a global scale, and within that global scale, there are winners and losers.

3. Dependency Theory

Northwest Europe becomes the great center and the other areas become to various degrees a periphery. It is in the nature of the dominance of the center over the periphery that the dominance goes beyond simply having manufacturing in the center and drawing upon the periphery for raw materials. It also goes into the idea of the center actively suppressing improvements in, say, manufacturing or intellectual production in the periphery in order to engender a deeper inequality in which the intellectual, commercial, industrial and political leadership will be the best in the center and the periphery will become dependent on the center.

Prof. Bulliet does not happen to find the world-systems theory terribly convincing, and he doesn’t think that it offers any peculiar advantage for the kind of issues he wants to talk about in his lectures. Gelvin starts out by saying that many reasons have been postulated for why this inequality took place between Europe and elsewhere. He does not specify that it was only part of Europe, and certainly does not have a larger scope that would encompass Europe, the Middle East and North Africa within a single geographic and cultural unit which would have been Prof. Bulliet’s preference.

4. The Debate over Global Inequality

There is another book that is worth looking at, and that is the one by Kenneth Pomeranz called The Great Divergence. It looks at the postulated inequality of Europe being so much in advance of everyone else, and makes comparisons with China and India, not with the Middle East. He says that the degree to which Europe appeared to be ahead, in interpretations of European historians who focused on the 17th and 18th centuries, is really exaggerated. A number of particular factors that are ascribed to Europe, such as more livestock per capita or a lesser rate of mortality through epidemics, simply don’t hold up to examination. |The more you learn about India or about China, the less the distinctiveness of the European economic position stands out.

He makes a number of very telling points. He says the highest agricultural productivity as measured by calories per acre isn’t in Europe; it’s higher in China and in India depending on what areas you’re dealing with. The business of epidemics is very arguable; the mortality in Europe doesn’t seem to be distinctively lower than mortality elsewhere. He goes along with the idea that there is a surge in population in both areas. But without going into that argument in great detail, because the question of whether population growth is always a good has to be considered, he says there actually was no Great Divergence. Once you balance things off, it’s not clear that Europe was that far ahead of everyone else in the 17th and 18th centuries.

He doesn’t talk about the Middle East; he does observe that Northwest Europe is usually the standard of comparison. So the question of inequality is intensely debated in historical circles for people who are focused on world history.

In the next blog post, Prof. Bulliet switches to the debate over the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the decline of the Middle East.

From the Viking Choir to the Masters of Harmony–Returning to the Choral Sea (part 2—preliminary audition)

A chance encounter at one of my recent networking groups leads to my rediscovery of choral music. This post is dedicated to Brad, who took the chance of asking an odd question at a networking group.  In answering that question, I am awakening a part of my life which had been dormant for decades, my life in music.

When Brad asked the networking circle we were in the unusual question, “does anybody here sing?”, I responded with a hesitant “well, I used to,” since I had sung in a chorus in high school and college, but had not done so since I left grad school over two decades ago.   He said we should talk after the network circle had concluded, and then he described the a capella style men’s chorus called Masters of Harmony in such enthusiastic terms, that it resonated with some spirit of adventure I had, and I asked him more about the chorus.  It was the premier men’s chorus in the Southern California area, Brad said, and he said with justified pride that it had won the International Chorus championship last year. He invited me to check the chorus out, and as I have related in my first post on the subject, I decided to try to join the chorus.

The process of joining the chorus is a long and somewhat complicated one, involving multiple auditions only after you’ve gone to enough rehearsals to demonstrate that you are serious enough about joining.  But this process, however arduous, has been helped along by the wonderful experience I had singing again in a choir. The desire to recreate that experience I used to have in high school and college is such a great motivation.

It has summoned up within me an answering determination to succeed which has surprised me. On the surface, I should have no business, as busy as I am, trying to join a chorus which will eat up AT LEAST an evening a week, not to mention the extra rehearsals before concerts and the concerts themselves. But when you hear your voice blending in with that of other guys and the overtones stack up to the vault of Heaven itself, you don’t mind putting in the hours of dedicated work it takes to get the privilege of standing on those risers.

As I mentioned in the last post, the director Mark Hale was passionate about the music and relentless in his drive to bring out the best performance in each and every one of the chorus members. And I mean “each and every one”—there is a phenomenon in a group called “social loafing” where people exert less effort to achieve a goal in a group because they can rely on the efforts of those around them and thus minimize their effort and become a “free rider”. You can’t have anyone minimizing their effort in a chorus because not only does it decrease the energy of the group, but a slack pronunciation or a tone that is dull and not bright can actually negate the efforts of others.

Mark Hale’s exhortations to the group reminded me exactly of what Walter Rodby in my high school chorus used to say. They make each choral member want to reach inside himself and pull out his best effort. God, that’s a good feeling when it happens! So now after having gone for three consecutive rehearsals, I was pulled aside by Mark, the assistant section leader for the baritones, who said that the next rehearsal I was to go through a preliminary audition to check my musical aptitude, experience, and quality. The contents of the audition were to be a surprise so there was no way to prepare for it.   He was encouraging, but matter of fact about the audition.   It may be, he said, that the audition shows that this may not be the best chorus for me at this time.   I told him I was willing to accept his judgment, but I nevertheless wanted to try.

Yesterday evening, after the first half of the rehearsal, Mark took me back to a small studio with a piano, and then started testing me to recreate notes, and then passages, both musical and rhythmic, and finally to improvise a harmony while he played a melodic line.    Somehow, after not singing in a chorus for over 20 years, the instincts came back to me and I was able to do so.  “Excellent,” Mark said.    At one point, where I got a passage wrong, he at least gave me credit for recognizing that it was incorrect.    Having an ear for where you are off the mark is, of course, an important prerequisite for getting yourself back on it.

Now we moved onto the quality of my tone, and here he went through a lot of review of breathing, placement (where the sound is produced in the vocal tract), and other factors that affect the quality of the sound.  Here I was on shakier ground, I think, but I did well enough to pass the preliminary audition.    At least I came out of there knowing that I had a chance to go on to the nest phase of auditions, and I also had a vague sense of what I needed to work on.   I wasn’t stunned as I was when I passed my first choral audition way back in high school, but poised between pleased and persevering.  Pleased that I had made it to that first step, but recognizing that to make it to the next step, I would have to persist and even perspire, because the next level of auditions will not be alone, but in a quartet where I have to pull my own weight as a baritone singing one of the parts.

I don’t care how many times I have to practice the audition song, but I am DETERMINED to give it my best. I have been given the chance to sing after 20 years of having my instrument muted by the shear inertia of life which I had accepted complacently for so long. Once a talent has been awakened, however, it must be expressed. It reminds me of the 1948 film directed by Michael Powell called The Red Shoes, where the young ballerina Victoria Page is accepted as a protégé by the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov because she tells him that she must dance. She cannot not dance, she explains to him. It means everything to her.

To use a less exalted metaphor, it’s like the Tom and Jerry cartoons where Jerry smells a hunk of cheese much larger than he is and is lifted bodily up in a hypnotic trance as he wafts his way nose first in an undulating way towards the source.

After going through just the one month of rehearsals with this amazing choir, likewise, I must sing.  It is, as the Army slogan goes, about being the best you can be, but it is recognizing that only by striving to be part of something larger than yourself, like a chorus, can that “personal best” be awakened into existence.