Colonial Legacies, Landed Elites and Regime Survival in the Middle East

By Allison Hartnett
Submitted to Session P4953 (Politics, History and State Formation in the Modern Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
All Middle East;
Political Economy;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Colonial legacies have been implicated in a wide range of economic and political outcomes. Canonical literature in development economics and comparative historical analysis suggests that colonial legacies impact long-term levels of development, democracy and state capacity (Acemoglu et al. 2001, Banerjee & Iyer 2005, Fearon and Laitin 2003). While these works provide valuable insights into how history impacts the development of the modern state, less is known about how colonial legacies contribute to the onset of redistributive conflict post-independence.

This paper examines the impact of land redistribution on authoritarian regime stability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). I argue that the impact of redistributive land reform on regime stability depended upon the nature of landed elite power inherited from the colonial period. European colonial administrations devoted significant resources to reconfiguring property rights and land tenure policies in MENA, the result of which was the creation of two types of landed elites: local and absentee. Absentee landed elites monopolized national politics as members of legislatures and ministries. Post-independence, regimes enacting land redistribution that targeted an absentee landed elite ran the risk of creating a political vacuum that perpetuated instability. Using large-N quantitative models and qualitative case studies, this paper tests the hypothesis that regimes that expropriated absentee landed elites were more likely to suffer political conflict and regime failure.

I test my theory on an original dataset covering 18 Middle Eastern regimes (1950 to 2006) and present cross-sectional time series models linking colonial landed elite type, land redistribution and regime durability. The results suggest that land redistribution that targets absentee landed elites reduces the likelihood of regime survival. I examine the impact of such redistributive policies on the integrity of regime ruling coalitions by comparing stable Jordan with unstable Iraq post-land reform, showing that the Jordanian regime relied upon a rising, committed coalition of new, local landed elites whereas Iraq expropriated the absentee landed class with no viable coalition parters in play, resulting in a cascade of short-lived regimes.

This paper contributes to debates on the role of colonial institutions and redistribution in autocratic contexts. My work on structural economic conditions in MENA negotiates the comparative politics and regional studies literature by proposing a non-exclusive relationship between colonial institutions and regime durability.