Steven Heydemann is the Janet Wright Ketcham 1953 Chair in Middle East Studies, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government at Smith College. Heydemann is also a nonresident senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution. In addition, Heydemann consults widely with the U.S. government, NGOs and European governments on issues relating to Syria policy and the status of the Syrian conflict. He writes regularly on Syria for major media outlets and has appeared as a Syria expert on leading television networks, including the BBC, al-Arabiyya, al-Jazeera, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy Journal and PBS.

To study the Middle East is to study authoritarianism. Its presence is unavoidable and pervasive. It is evident not only in the organization of political institutions and the formal rules of the game that shape political behavior, but in virtually all aspects of the everyday lives of citizens across the region. Indeed, the extent to which authoritarianism defines and dominates the political, economic, social, and cultural landscapes of the region, and its resilience even in the face of severe challenges such as the mass uprisings of 2011, are widely acknowledged as distinctive features of the Middle East, a form of exceptionalism that is itself a longstanding source of debate and disagreement among scholars.

Appropriately, therefore, the causes, trajectories, forms, practices, and effects of authoritarianism, social responses to authoritarianism, and the modes of resistance it generates, are the focus of significant research programs that vary enormously in their themes, methods, and analytic approaches. If the centrality of authoritarianism in research literatures on the Middle East is most evident in the field of comparative politics, where it constitutes an especially rich source of cross-regional scholarship, it is also a major focus of work in modern history, anthropology, sociology, political economy, international relations, and other fields. Moreover, as contemporary Arabic fiction becomes more widely available in translation, the works of authors such as Basma Abdel Aziz, Sinan Antoon, Hassan Blassim, Khaled Khalifa, Mustafa Khalifa, Mohammad Rabie, Mahmoud Saeed, and Nihad Sirees, bring new depth and dimensionality to non-Arabic speaking readers about the corrosive effects of authoritarianism.

To identify essential readings on the topic of authoritarianism is thus not merely an exercise in selectivity, but—despite the unusual length of this contribution to the Essential Readings series—a necessary act of omission, tinged, in this case, with a dose of bias reflecting my own orientation toward the subject. Even as my recommendations proliferated I was mindful of what I left on the cutting room floor, including work on bureaucratic authoritarianism and key readings in the literature on the breakdown of authoritarian regimes and transitions to democracy. The readings noted below should thus be approached largely but not solely as selective entry points to the study of authoritarianism in the Middle East from the perspective of comparative politics and political economy. I begin by citing texts that offer conceptual and theoretical frames of reference for the study of authoritarianism, and then turn to specific themes that have shaped research programs on this topic among scholars of the Middle East.

Critical questions about authoritarianism in the Middle East can best be approached with a grounding in the comparative study of authoritarianism writ large. What defines a regime as authoritarian? What are some of the principal forms authoritarianism takes? What factors help us make sense of how authoritarian elites govern? How can we situate regimes in the Middle East in relation to general conceptual and theoretical approaches to the study of authoritarianism?


[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]