The Arab Spring: advice and informed analysis
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentArea Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Political Science
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
The Middle East Centre (MEC) has achieved a unique standing in providing
informed analysis of the region, based on its cumulative academic
expertise. It has made significant contributions to the media's and the
public's understanding of political and societal developments in the
Middle East. The MEC has given advice both to emerging Arab democracies on
their own political systems, and to other governments on their relations
with the countries of the region. The centre itself has also become a
place of neutral ground, where individuals from opposite sides in
conflicts in the region can meet, away from local tensions.
The MEC, based at St Antony's College, serves as the centre for the
interdisciplinary study of the modern Middle East in the University of
Oxford. There are seven Fellows and five further Senior Associate Members.
This case study primarily concerns those whose research proved to be
directly relevant to understanding the events of what became known as the
Arab Spring of 2011.
Michael Willis, H.M. King Mohammed VI Fellow in Moroccan and
Mediterranean Studies since 2004, has conducted research into the
endurance of authoritarian political regimes in the central Maghreb. He
has sought to explain the longevity and resilience of the political
regimes in three states: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. These states, which
achieved independence from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, kept
their fundamental political structures intact for fifty years, in spite of
numerous challenges during their early decades. Willis' research found
that, despite the similarities between the three regimes and their
circumstances, each adopted a different strategy to ensure political
survival: Algeria's regime emphasised the centrality and cohesion of its
military; Tunisia's regime centralised political power; while in Morocco,
the monarchy's skill at co-opting and disarming challengers to its
authority enabled them to concentrate political power.
These findings then explained why the events of the Arab Spring had
markedly differing impacts on the three states. In Tunisia the regime was
overthrown. In Morocco it rapidly reformed itself. In Algeria, on the
other hand, the regime was unaffected by the popular protests sweeping
through the wider Arab world. The research concluded that the overthrow of
the Tunisian regime was due to its essential brittleness. It had relied
too much on coercion, and lacked alternative methods of dealing with
dissent and opposition. By contrast, the adaptability of the Moroccan
regime was demonstrated by the swiftness with which it was able to co-opt
and undermine protest movements by promising significant political reform.
Algeria had already experienced social and political upheavals in the
1980s and 1990s. Willis concluded that this turmoil, not the strength of
the military, had severely reduced any public appetite for revolutionary
Eugene Rogan has been Faculty Fellow and University Lecturer in the
Modern History of the Middle East since 1991. His research focuses on the
modern history of the Arab world, from the sixteenth century to the
present. His book, The Arabs: A History (2009), captures the
growing malaise in the Arab world at the start of the 21st century. It
argues that if the Arab world aspired to a new age of accountable
government and dignity, the Arab people would have to take the initiative
themselves. While not predicting the Arab Spring, it provides the
background knowledge and historical analysis necessary to understand the
wave of popular uprisings that swept the region in 2011: why they broke
out, and what forces have been shaping changes in the region since then.
Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies since 2009, has
contributed substantially to highly visible public discussions of our
time: the destiny of Muslims in the West, and the Islamic revival in the
Muslim world. In his Islam and the Arab Awakening (2012), Ramadan
analyses and explores the challenges and opportunities that have arisen in
countries across North Africa and the Middle East. He asks whether
Muslim-majority countries can bring together Islam, pluralism, and
democracy without betraying their identity. He explores the reasons behind
the events of the Arab Spring and offers a commentary on what the future
might hold. The book is aimed both at the ordinary layperson and at
students and scholars of the Middle East. It has already been translated
into three languages: French, Turkish, and Arabic.
The research of three further fellows is relevant to the political and
social understanding of the Arab Spring: Ahmed Al-Shahi, Research Fellow
and co-organiser of the Sudanese Programme, whose research interests
include economic and social development, sectarian politics, and social
differentiations; Marwa Daoudy, Departmental Lecturer in the Politics and
International Relations of the Middle East, whose research concerns
international relations, non-traditional security studies, and conflict
and peace studies; and Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Fellow of St Antony's College,
formerly Professor of International Relations, whose main research
interest is the Arab-Israeli conflict.
References to the research
Islam and the Arab Awakening, Tariq Ramadan, 2012 (OUP). Available
`Tariq Ramadan, one of the foremost Muslim intellectuals...comes into his
own as a historian and provoker of ideas.' Robin Yassin-Kassab, The
Independent, 5 May 2012. Translations available in Arabic, French,
The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan, 2009 (Basic Books). Available
Selected as a Best Book of 2009 by the Economist, Atlantic
Monthly, and Financial Times. Translations available in
Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, and Spanish.
Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from
Independence to the Arab Spring, Michael Willis, 2012 (Hurst;
Columbia University Press). Available on request.
`Willis succeeds brilliantly in the task [of producing] a much needed
introductory text to the region ... providing an accurate, comprehensive
and readable study of the modern history and politics of Algeria, Tunisia
and Morocco. ...[this book] does much to expand our knowledge of the
Maghreb and its importance to the wider world.' Ronald Bruce St John, International
Affairs 89, 2 (March 2013): 541-42.
Details of the impact
Members of the MEC, including Ramadan, Willis, and Rogan, are frequently
invited to discuss their research with a variety of audiences in both the
Middle East and the West, including governmental policy groups, business
think-tanks, and public media gatherings. These diverse audiences have
benefited from informed analysis at a time of momentous political changes
in many Arab and North African countries.
Enhancing the capacity of Middle East politicians, governments and
states through advice and guidance: The MEC has played host to
meetings, conferences, and seminars, acting as a neutral place for
academic and non-academic discussions involving key players from several
North African states. In January 2011, a discussion on "The Western Sahara
Conflict: Is there a Solution?" featured speakers from Morocco and
Algeria. Representatives from the Polisario Front and the Moroccan Embassy
attended, enabling the two groups to express and exchange points of view
on the dispute. Later that same year, Ahmed Al-Shahi organised a series of
meetings under the auspices of the MEC's Sudanese Programme, with invited
participants from both the Sudanese regime and Southern Sudan [i].
These meetings provided a neutral forum for the two groups to meet and
talk in the period running up to the formal secession of Southern Sudan in
2011. MEC members have also participated in discussions on constitutional
reform in the countries concerned. For example, Willis was invited to
attend a two-day seminar on constitutional reform at Al Akhawayn
University, Morocco, in June 2011. The seminar developed recommendations
and presented them formally to the Moroccan Commission for Constitutional
MEC members have been invited to informal talks with select government
delegations and ambassadors. For example, in March 2011, Rogan opened
discussion at a Britain Club dinner hosted by the Kuwaiti Ambassador with
a talk on "Arab Unrest: Where Are We Heading?" The dinner was attended by
other ambassadors and MPs . Later in the same year, Rogan
attended a series of sessions involving a Jordanian government delegation
comprising the Minister for Political Development, the Minister for Media
and Communications, former Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, and officials
from the Prime Minister's office and the Royal Court. A dinner for the
delegation at the House of Lords was hosted by Baroness Morris and Richard
Burden MP (Chair of the APPG on Jordan) .
Helping ensure Western policy-making and business relations are
informed by current research on the Middle East: Politicians,
government officials, and ambassadors (e.g. from the UK, US, and
Australia) have invited MEC fellows to provide background knowledge and to
discuss future approaches. Rogan met with HM Ambassador to Yemen in
October 2011 . Willis gave a background lecture to the UK
Foreign Office on Modern Maghreb Politics in October 2012. In
December 2012, he contributed to a formal brainstorming session that was
assembled to brief the HMA Designate to Rabat on perspectives for Morocco
prior to his deployment to the region: the government wanted as much
background information and knowledge as possible because the degree of
change in Morocco had so greatly surpassed expectations .
In a more formal setting, Rogan was a witness (29 November 2011) at a
House of Commons Select Committee for Foreign Affairs meeting on British
Foreign Policy and the "Arab Spring". He is quoted extensively in
the report of the meetings. A conclusion drawn from his evidence,
regarding the inclusion of members of the British arms trade in the
delegation of a Prime Ministerial visit to the Gulf, was further discussed
in the Government Response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs
Committee Report, although the Government ultimately rejected the
criticism made [iii].
The Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) seeks to ensure that
Conservative party policy is grounded in a deep understanding of the
complexities of the region through enabling discussions between
Conservative parliamentarians and leading experts on the Middle East. The
CMEC has frequently consulted with members of the MEC in two main ways:
through briefings and through presentations to MPs in Westminster. For
example, in February 2011, an emergency session was convened to brief
parliamentarians on the extraordinary turmoil in the Middle East. The
assembled panel of leading expert commentators included Willis [iv].
Numerous CMEC publications, which were distributed widely among MPs and
members of the House of Lords, included contributions from MEC fellows
Rogan, Ramadan, and Daoudy; an example is the CMEC booklet "The Arab
Spring: Implications for British Policy" for the Conservative Party Annual
Conference of 2011 [v].
Think-tanks and strategy forums have extended invitations to MEC members
for advice on economic and business matters. Rogan has participated in
panel debates and has given lectures to organisations ranging from the
Global Strategy Forum to the Royal Institute of International Affairs
(Chatham House). In February 2011, Ramadan and Rogan were on a panel
convened at the Royal Geographical Society by Intelligence Squared, which
discussed "Turmoil in the Arab World: Is the Genie of Democracy out of the
Bottle?" Their participation led to further requests for meetings, e.g.
with a chief economist at Deutsche Bank  and the Britain Club
Dinner (see ).
On 16 December 2011, the Morocco Institute, in partnership with the
International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) — The Hague, hosted a
meeting of experts, "Political Transition and Stability on the Borders of
the Union: Morocco and North Africa". The meeting brought together over 40
academics, practitioners, specialists, and policymakers with specific
knowledge of transitional processes in volatile environments or in-depth
regional expertise. Willis presented the keynote speech entitled "Morocco:
The Arab Spring and the Challenge of Reform" and is one of the experts
quoted on the webpage summarising the event [vi].
Enriching public understanding of events in the Middle East through
improving the quality of media coverage, informing other authors' works,
and participation in literature festivals and discussions: Public
interest in the revolutionary events surrounding the 2011 Arab Spring has
created greater demand for informed analysis from those with academic
understanding of the political situation. Members of the MEC have been
called upon regularly to provide expert commentary and accurate background
information for various international media outlets.
In addition to giving interviews to major UK and European radio and TV
news programmes on events following the Arab Spring in Tunisia and the
terrorist bombings in Marrakech, Willis has been interviewed several times
by the media local to the events, e.g. by 2M TV in Morocco and by local
press and media outlets in Tunisia [vii]. Examples of print media
contributions include an interview with Rogan discussing Egypt, which was
featured in "Inside Story" on Aljazeera in November 2012 [viii].
Willis is quoted in an article on Morocco's February 20 reform movement in
The National (Abu Dhabi Media company's first English-language
publication) [ix]. Advice to the media has extended beyond
contributing content to newspieces. In 2012, four fellows of the MEC
(Rogan, Willis, Al-Shahi, and Shlaim) were among 17 members of the
"External Organisations and Individuals" panel which contributed to a
formal review by the BBC Trust of the BBC's coverage of the events of the
Arab Spring [x].
The research of MEC fellows has also had an influence on popular
publications, such as the book by the BBC's Middle East correspondent,
Jeremy Bowen: The Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall of the
Regime (2012). Bowen quotes both Rogan and Ramadan and their books
and cites their publications. In his acknowledgements, he refers to "the
brilliant and essential book The Arabs: A History" [xii].
The publication of books such as The Arabs: A History has also
led to many opportunities to engage more directly with public audiences
through book launches and literary festivals. For example, in the UK Rogan
debated with Paddy Ashdown at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival
2013. In March 2013 Rogan also participated in panel discussions and book
talks at the Emirates Festival of Literature, Dubai, UAE [xiii].
Such activities have enabled MEC members to enrich public understanding of
events in the Middle East itself.
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Email invitation from the Company Secretary, Argo Group Ltd.
 Email invitation from the Executive Director, Centre for
 Email invitation Arabian Peninsula Research Analyst, Foreign
 Email invitation confirmation from Head of Middle East and
North Africa Research Group, FCO.
 Email from Chief Economist (EMEA), Deutsche Bank AG
Other evidence sources
see paras 53-56.
[xii] Jeremy Bowen, Arab Uprisings: The People Want the Fall
of the Regime (London: Simon and Schuster 2012), e.g. pp. 10, 15-16,