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Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation


  • Timur Kuran


Although a millennium ago the Middle East was not an economic laggard, by the 18th century it exhibited clear signs of economic backwardness. The reason for this transformation is that certain components of the region’s legal infrastructure stagnated as their Western counterparts gave way to the modern economy. Among the institutions that generated evolutionary bottlenecks are the Islamic law of inheritance, which inhibited capital accumulation; the absence in Islamic law of the concept of a corporation and the consequent weaknesses of civil society; and the waqf, which locked vast resources into unproductive organizations for the delivery of social services. All of these obstacles to economic development were largely overcome through radical reforms initiated in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, traditional Islamic law remains a factor in the Middle East’s ongoing economic disappointments. The weakness of the region’s private economic sectors and its human capital deficiency stand among the lasting consequences of traditional Islamic law.

Suggested Citation

  • Timur Kuran, 2005. "Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation," QA - Rivista dell'Associazione Rossi-Doria, Associazione Rossi Doria, issue 1, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:rar:journl:0013

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Timur Kuran, 2004. "The Economic Ascent of the Middle East’s Religious Minorities: The Role of Islamic Legal Pluralism," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 33(2), pages 475-515, June.
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    More about this item


    Islam; Islamic World; Middle East; Economic Development; Economic Modernization; Institutions; Commerce; Finance; Partnerships; Waqf; Inheritance; Minorities; State;

    JEL classification:

    • N25 - Economic History - - Financial Markets and Institutions - - - Asia including Middle East
    • N85 - Economic History - - Micro-Business History - - - Asia including Middle East
    • P51 - Economic Systems - - Comparative Economic Systems - - - Comparative Analysis of Economic Systems
    • O53 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - Asia including Middle East


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