In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa

  • Introduction
  • Regional Overviews
  • Disciplinary Discussions
  • Journals
  • Statehood and State-Building
  • Public Opinion and Media
  • The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • The Arab Uprisings

Political Science Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa
Sean L. Yom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0044


Over the past decade, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has dominated global media headlines. From the 9/11 attacks to the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring, even casual readers have begun gleaning a basic understanding of the region. Yet within comparative political science, the subfield of Middle East politics has provoked a plentiful canon of scholarship devoted to advancing knowledge and building theory. By comparing the varying political and economic trajectories taken by the more than twenty MENA countries stretching from North Africa to the Mediterranean Levant, and from the Iran and the Persian Gulf to Turkey and Israel, analysts see the postcolonial epoch as a rich historical database ripe for hypothesis testing. Thus far, MENA specialists have thickened our social scientific understanding of political processes such as modern state formation, durable authoritarian rule, civil society participation, and the effects of oil wealth. Because every country save Israel is majority Muslim, the region has also enabled students to pore over the intersection of Islam and politics, such as the origins of Islamist mobilization and trends in public attitudes toward religion. As the post-9/11 revitalization of regional interest percolated from the public sphere into academic institutions, however, the study of Middle East politics changed in several ways, which rapidly expanding literatures in this regional field are beginning to reflect. First, many new students flocked to countries that had previously elicited sparse interest, such as Jordan, Tunisia, and Yemen; although well-trodden Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia remained the most popular sites of interest. Second, analysts chose to study empirical puzzles that affected multiple cases in a truly comparative fashion, rather than confining their interests within a single-country model of research, which dominated the MENA field for decades. Finally, researchers deployed a wider variety of analytic methodologies alongside the traditional use of language training and intensive fieldwork. Historical process-tracing, sophisticated quantitative analysis, and game-theoretic modeling have helped drive a new wave of explanatory study. As a result of these developments, the field has become more productive as well as more contentious, a trend that guarantees the continued contributions of MENA scholarship to comparative political science.

Regional Overviews

Regional overviews of MENA take one of two approaches. Some works such as Ibrahim and Hopkins 1997, analyze pressing theoretical dilemmas across historical time and regional space. They spend less time on the minute details of a country and more on the thematic substance of issues such as development and democracy. Other studies take the opposite tack by parsing out details of every country on a case-by-case basis; these studies often have less disciplinary jargon but can sometimes read like a collection of snapshots with little theoretical guidance. The most recent readers from American political scientists, such as Angrist 2013, Lust 2013, and Schwedler 2013, combine these rubrics to great success and remain the newest and most comprehensive texts. Whereas those primarily deal with domestic politics, Fawcett 2013 provides the definitive modern reader for the international politics of the region. Geographic coverage is not even, however. Some general readers emphasize the Arab world at the cost of non-Arab countries; Sharabi 1988 and Humphreys 2005, for example, give far-reaching overviews of both region and religion but primarily through the lens of the Arab experience. To be sure, Israel, Turkey, and Iran command their own subfields of study, but they still find space for discussion and analysis in most general works.

  • Angrist, Michele Penner, ed. Politics and Society in the Contemporary Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013.

    Revised to take into account the events of the Arab Spring, the second edition of this impressive anthology flanks theoretical discussions on topics such as civil society, political economy, and authoritarianism with selected country-level studies of the largest Arab countries, such as Egypt and Syria, as well as Israel, Turkey, and Iran. Each chapter is authored by a well-known researcher with field-based experience.

  • Fawcett, Louise. International Relations of the Middle East. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    In its third edition, this volume brings together three distinctive sections of research concerning the international dimensions of Middle East politics. Presents the history of the regional system, engages substantive issues such as the geopolitics of oil and conflict resolution, and touches upon contemporary issues such as the Iraqi conflict, US predominance, and the Arab Spring. In its latest update, more attention is devoted to issues of human security and substate violence.

  • Gasiorowski, Mark, ed. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa. 7th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2013.

    The seventh edition of this anthology consists entirely of essays that capture the political histories and modern development of almost every MENA state. Useful in presenting easily digestible snapshots for those needing to absorb information quickly. Updated, like most other textbooks, to capture the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring starting in 2011.

  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

    An eclectic collection of essays now in its second edition, this volume comments on the major geopolitical events, religious transformation, and economic struggles that punctuate the modern MENA. Targeted toward a multidisciplinary audience, the volume is steeped in historical context and eloquently written.

  • Ibrahim, Saad Eddin, and Nicholas Hopkins, eds. Arab Society: Class, Gender, Power, and Development. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1997.

    The third edition of this anthology presents an exhaustive array of penetrating analyses on social issues. As per the title, the thirty contributed essays investigate topics such as the politics of poverty, booming demography, and gender struggles rather than formal institutional forces such as regimes and legal systems. Though not updated in over a decade, this volume has aged extremely well, not least because many of the enduring problems outlined here continue to draw the attention of governments and scholars alike.

  • Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2013.

    The thirteenth edition of this venerable textbook combines topical chapters contributed by regional experts with country profiles of most Arab states, as well as Israel, Turkey, and Iran. Full of tables and figures presenting relevant data. It is oriented toward classroom and reference use and is by far the longest introductory reader. The volume is frequently revised to take into account ongoing events.

  • Schwedler, Jillian, ed. Understanding the Contemporary Middle East. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013.

    Recently updated, this introductory book provides a more interdisciplinary approach to understanding regional dynamics than its peers. Rather than presenting country-based studies that explore exclusively political topics, the thematic chapters cover diverse topics like economic development, religious dynamics, gender issues, demography, and literature.

  • Sharabi, Hisham, ed. The Next Arab Decade: Alternative Futures. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988.

    Though more than two decades old, this anthology provides incisive predictions about regional affairs that still resonate today. Many prophecies made by the academic contributors held through the first decade of the 21st century, such as the endurance of authoritarian rule and laggard economic growth.

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