Ferdinand Eibl

OIES-Saudi Aramco Fellow

‘Ferdinand’s research lies at the intersection of politics and economics, in particular in the areas of distributive politics, social policies, cronyism, and trade in the Middle East and North Africa.  More recently, he has started to work on civil-military relations and coups, and the electoral sociology of Islamism. His work has been published, amongst others, in Studies of Comparative International Development and the European Political Science Review. He holds an MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies and a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford.’

Research

Subsidy Reform in the Middle East: The Untold Story

The standard political economy explanation for the persistence of energy subsidies in the Middle East has emphasised governments’ fear of political unrest as the main obstacle to reform. This paper sheds a new light on the issue by analysing how unintended beneficiaries, such as the military, traders, and crony businessmen have reaped major benefits from the subsidy system and, in turn, vested their interests in the continuation of the status quo. Using a novel dataset on crony entrepreneurs and military enterprises in Egypt and Tunisia, the paper employs a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to show how regime insiders have captured a major social safety mechanism in the Middle East and undermined the establishment of a fairer and more efficient system of social protection.

Contact

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Energy subsidies have been described as socially inequitable and fiscally draining for economies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This is particularly true for resource-scarce, labour-abundant economies such as Tunisia and Egypt who cannot rely on ample resource rents to finance energy subsidies. Despite these shortcomings, governments have struggled to reform subsidies and attempted reforms have frequently been characterised by ‘backsliding’, that is, a partial or complete rollback of previous reforms. While the dominant political economy explanation underlines governments’ fear of popular unrest as the main factor in decelerating or reversing reform, this paper shifts the focus toward another key constituency lobbying against reform: politically connected businessmen (PCBs). Comparing the role of PCBs in the context of energy subsidies in Tunisia and Egypt, this comment, accompanied by the full paper, provides preliminary evidence that PCBs in Egypt benefit more from energy subsidies and hence attribute greater importance to their maintenance compared to their Tunisian counterparts. This comment highlights the importance of taking into account the political economy of energy intensive industries and not just households when analysing subsidy reforms and that resulting industrialist lobbying activity can seriously disrupt, decelerate, or even derail reform.

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Energy subsidies have been described as socially inequitable and fiscally draining for economies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This is particularly true for resource-scarce, labour-abundant economies such as Tunisia and Egypt who cannot rely on ample resource rents to finance energy subsidies. Despite these shortcomings, governments have struggled to reform subsidies and attempted reforms have frequently been characterised by ‘backsliding’, that is, a partial or complete rollback of previous reforms. While the dominant political economy explanation underlines governments’ fear of popular unrest as the main factor in decelerating or reversing reform, this paper shifts the focus toward another key constituency lobbying against reform: politically connected businessmen (PCBs). Comparing the role of PCBs in the context of energy subsidies in Tunisia and Egypt, this comment, accompanied by the full paper, provides preliminary evidence that PCBs in Egypt benefit more from energy subsidies and hence attribute greater importance to their maintenance compared to their Tunisian counterparts. This comment highlights the importance of taking into account the political economy of energy intensive industries and not just households when analysing subsidy reforms and that resulting industrialist lobbying activity can seriously disrupt, decelerate, or even derail reform.

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