Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa: A Conceptual Note

By Thomas Richter & André Bank, German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg

The Arab uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath were significantly shaped by transnational processes. Three prominent examples of these processes are the rapid diffusion of opposition demonstrations, protest repertories and slogans from Tunisia to Egypt and on to other countries; the sequential use of similar regime reactions in policing, repression, and counter-insurgency; and the spread of almost identical sectarian discourses across the Middle East, including to countries without Shi‘a populations. In addition to these often indirect but supposedly interdependent mechanisms, there have also been significant direct and coordinated interventions as well as concrete moments of cooperation by states, groups of states, and transnational movements to either support or suppress protests. Even though such a transnational perspective encompassing diffusion processes and cooperation patterns is not completely new to the study of Middle Eastern politics more broadly, it has only rarely been employed to understand crucial current political dynamics such as those that followed the Arab uprisings.

The papers in this series grew out of an international workshop co-sponsored by the International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes (IDCAR) project based at the German Institute of Global and Area studies (GIGA) and POMEPS and held in Hamburg, Germany on June 8-9, 2016. Inspired by the current state of research in the field of diffusion studies, in this introductory note we outline a broad conceptual framework that could help to better locate and connect many of the past, ongoing, and future transnational processes prevalent across the Middle East and beyond. We strongly believe that the exploration and analysis of the transnational dimensions of the post-Arab uprisings dynamics will contribute to a better understanding of similar future events in at least three important ways: First, diffusion and cooperation might generally enable us to better capture the strong interconnectedness of some of the most relevant political dynamics that have emerged throughout the Middle East since late 2010 than do the traditional understandings that entail looking at the national and local causes of daily politics. Second, a perspective that looks at processes of diffusion and cooperation helps to isolate previously overlooked ways of influencing politics beyond and below the state from traditional mechanisms for influencing regional politics – such as, for instance, coercion and state intervention. Third, systematically studying the transnational dynamics of such a regionally and globally relevant series of events as the Arab uprisings should also yield important, fresh insights for more general political science debates about transnational dynamics, including diffusion and cooperation, their underlying logics, and the forces that have led to policy change and the stability and change of (Middle Eastern) authoritarian regimes in particular.

Research in comparative politics, especially on democratization, has often considered diffusion to be a neutral, uncoordinated development that spreads throughout the world (Brinks and Coppedge, 2006; Starr and Lindborg, 2003), in accordance with Rogers’s definition of diffusion as a “process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system” (Rogers, 1995: 10). Thus, diffusion often refers to the more or less spontaneous spread of ideas through media and communication channels. Many diffusion studies based on this understanding provide statistical correlations or find patterns that leave out the actors involved (sender and receiver). Further, they often do not specify the concrete manner or channels, let alone the mechanisms, through which the relevant innovations travel, emerge, and abate.

A more recent strand of diffusion research suggests distinguishing various kinds of mechanisms by looking at the interdependence between two units or actors, whereby (policy) choices in one unit reflect (policy) choices in some of the other units (e.g. Elkins and Simmons, 2005; Gilardi, 2011). According to this understanding, diffusion can be conceptually distinguished from two other trends. First, political change or institutional reform could be the result of a similar response to similar conditions without looking at the behavior of other actors in other states. Second, reform or change might be related to cooperation as the coordinated effort of one state, a group of states, or an international institution (Elkins and Simmons, 2005: 35).

While state intervention and coercion fall outside the scope of this concept due to the massive pressure exercised by more powerful actors, which often entails violence, the diffusion literature emphasizes that learning, emulation, and competition are the three core mechanisms of diffusion (Maggetti and Gilardi, 2016). From a transnational perspective, learning relates to the idea that the adoption of one unit’s policies or institutional changes by another is based on the recognition of a problem and the willingness to solve it by looking at the experiences of others.[1] Inspired by sociological institutionalism, transnational emulation is a kind of adaptation, which goes back to the idea that actors or units will implement (policy) change in order to conform to their normative environments. Competition at a transnational level, finally, can be seen as an adaptation made by units in order to attract or retain resources at the global or regional level.

Research on the diffusion of social action, protest, and anti-regime discourse has been clearly at the forefront of studies on the Middle East since 2011. This research has identified important regional specifics compared to earlier waves of protest in other parts of the world (Weyland 2012; Patel et al., 2014) and has demonstrated the degree of interconnectedness based on protest experiences versus geographic proximity (Lynch et al., 2014).

It is interesting to note that in the recent diffusion literature on the Middle East a perspective on transnational learning prevails. The popular uprisings that spread across many Arab countries over the course of a few days and weeks in early 2011 underline the fact that oppositional activists learned from each other, with similar protest repertoires, such as the occupation of central squares (e.g. in Cairo, Sana‘a, Manama), or the same anti-regime slogans appearing in different places around the same time (Patel et al., 2014). In one of the first systematic contributions to this emergent research field with a view to the Arab uprisings, Steven Heydemann and Reinoud Leenders highlight the “adaptive capacity” (Heydemann and Leenders, 2014: 76) of incumbent Arab regimes and present illuminating evidence on how the Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Assad in particular closely studied the Libyan case, trying to learn from the perceived failures of Colonel Gaddafi’s counter-insurgency strategy (Heydemann and Leenders, 2014: 78ff). Building on these insights, André Bank and Mirjam Edel (2015) differentiate between spatial (from home vs. abroad) and temporal (from present vs. [recent] past) sources of regime learning. They also examine whether incumbent elite learning in the context of regime crises is primarily about emulating successful cases or avoiding the failures of others considered similar. While most of the regime learning is arguably negative – i.e. avoiding duplicating the mistakes of others, such as the Syrian regime learning from “failed” Libya – there are also single examples of regime learning from successful examples. Jordan’s almost unprecedented constitutional reform in 2011 very much followed the successful Moroccan script, in terms of both its design and the “reform steps” taken (Bank/Edel 2015, 12f.). An opposite perspective that looks instead at regime (re)actions has so far found no systematic evidence of similar wave-like diffusion effects among ousted or surviving Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes (Josua, 2016).

While the learning processes of both oppositional activists and authoritarian regime elites have contributed to a better understanding of some of the transnational dynamics of post-Arab uprisings politics in the Middle East and North Africa, more research is needed to better capture the specific conditions under which learning has led to success, or not, in achieving a certain policy goal.

In both International Relations and Comparative Politics literature, the concept of cooperation is often ill-defined, abstract, and normatively loaded. Frequently, cooperation is understood as the opposite of conflict, confrontation, and competition, or it is viewed as an early stage of regional integration. As a textbook definition claims, “cooperation is action for the common benefit. […] [It] is at the core of the issues of conviviality, democracy, peaceful coexistence between different communities, and the preservation of human life” (Colomer, 2011: 447). Recent events in the Middle East have shown, however, that cooperation can also take place for less noble purposes. Especially among the monarchies, the early events of the Arab uprisings triggered a decisive increase in inter-monarchical cooperation (Yom 2014; Bank, Richter, Sunik 2015), as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervention in Bahrain and the ensuing scheme of security cooperation across the Gulf and with Jordan and Morocco illustrates.

A more balanced and less normatively loaded definition of cooperation is provided by Robert Keohane. According to him, cooperation occurs when actors adjust their behavior to the actual or anticipated preferences of others through a process of policy coordination (Keohane, 2005: 51–52). Based on a classic realist assumption in IR theory, cooperation requires an asymmetrical relationship – for instance, a hegemon (such as the United States at the global level) bears the coordination costs for a cooperation-based international regime in a first step of hegemonic cooperation. Once international regimes have been established, they develop their own self-interest as international institutions in whose maintenance other actors have an interest too, even in the event that the initial hegemonic power declines. As a result, non-hegemonic or post-hegemonic cooperation may emerge. A regional perspective on the patterns of cooperation in the aftermath of the uprisings highlights not only the ongoing weakness of existing regional organizations such as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council but also the continuing dynamics of fractionalization. While both the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council continue to exist, they are either in stasis or have been strategically hijacked by the relevant hegemons. The emerging sub-regional coalitions appear to be structured along the lines of common enemies rather than according to mutual regional interests and common benefits. A stage of non-hegemonic cooperation has yet to be reached in the Middle East and North Africa, as the recurrence of violent external state interventionism in Libya, Yemen, and especially Syria since 2011 has clearly demonstrated. Although much anecdotal evidence points to the empirical relevance of new forms of cooperation among surviving authoritarian regimes – for instance, in the realm of state security and terrorism – the literature still lacks a systematic analysis of the drivers and pitfalls of these newest developments (for a study on Iran’s Syria policy cf. Terrill 2015).

A central challenge in developing a new perspective on transnational diffusion and cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa remains whether a change in behavior, policy, or institutional setup can be traced to concrete empirical evidence – either direct observations or interpretations of them. Tracing this causality would allow us to consider transnational similarities as more than just “similar responses to similar conditions.” The papers in this series represent an outstandingly rich collection of attempts in this regard, looking at the Middle East from the perspective of transnational processes. These contributions not only point out relevant and important events of positive diffusion and cooperation, but some also highlight important negative findings that enable us to better understand the limitations of our concepts.

[1] From an analytical perspective that does not primarily focus on transnational dynamics, the sources of learning can certainly be domestic and, for instance, date back in time (domestic learning, historical learning, cf. Bank/Edel 2015).


Bank A and Edel M (2015) Authoritarian Regime Learning: Comparative Insights from the Arab Uprisings. GIGA Working Paper No. 274, Hamburg.

Bank A, Richter T and Sunik A (2014) Durable, Yet Different: Monarchies in the Arab Spring. Journal of Arabian Studies 4(2): 163–179.

Brinks D and Coppedge M (2006) Diffusion Is No Illusion: Neighbor Emulation in the Third Wave of Democracy. Comparative Political Studies 39(4): 463–489.

Colomer JM (2011) Cooperation. In: Berg-Schlosser D, Morlino L, and Badie B (eds), International Encyclopedia of Political Science, Los Angeles: Sage Publications, pp. 446–459.

Elkins Z and Simmons B (2005) On Waves, Clusters, and Diffusion: A Conceptual Framework. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 598(1): 33–51.

Gilardi F (2011) Policy Interdependence: Transfer, Diffusion, Convergence. In: Engeli I and Rothmayr C (eds), Comparative Policy Studies. Conceptual and Methodological Challenges, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1–16.

Heydemann S and Leenders R (2014) Authoritarian Learning and Counterrevolution. In: The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 75–92.

Josua M (2016) If You Can’t Include Them, Exclude Them: Countering the Arab Uprisings in Algeria and Jordan. GIGA Working Paper No. 286, Hamburg.

Keohane R (2005) After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Levy J (1994) Learning and foreign policy: sweeping a conceptual minefield. International Organization 2(48): 279–312.

Lynch M, Freelon D and Aday S (2014) Syria in the Arab Spring: The integration of Syria’s conflict with the Arab uprisings, 2011–2013. Research & Politics 1(3). Available from: (accessed 8 October 2015).

Maggetti M and Gilardi F (2016) Problems (and solutions) in the measurement of policy diffusion mechanisms. Journal of Public Policy 36(1): 87–107.

Patel D, Bunce V and Wolchik S (2014) Diffusion and Demonstration. In: The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 57–74.

Rogers EM (1995) Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.

Starr H and Lindborg C (2003) Democratic Dominoes Revisited: The Hazards of Govenmental Transitions, 1974-1996. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 47(4): 490–519.

Terrill, W. Andrew (2015), Iran’s Strategy for Saving Asad, in: Middle East Journal, 69, 2, 222-236.

Weyland K (2012) The Arab Spring: Why the Surprising Similarities with the Revolutionary Wave of 1848? Perspectives on Politics 10(4): 917–934.

Yom SL (2014) Authoritarian Monarchies as an Epistemic Community. Taiwan Journal of Democracy 10(1): 43–62.