The Roots of Middle East Mistrust

DURHAM – The mistrust that pervades Middle Eastern societies is hard to miss. As controlled experiments confirm, Arabs have substantially less trust in strangers, foreign or domestic, than, say, Europeans. This hampers progress on many fronts, from business development to government reforms.

Low-trust societies participate disproportionately less in international commerce, and attract less investment. And, indeed, according to the World Values Survey and related research, trust among individuals in the Middle East is low enough to limit commercial transactions to people who know one another either personally or through mutual acquaintances. Because of their lack of trust, Arabs will often pass up potentially lucrative opportunities to gain through exchange.

Likewise, in their dealings with public institutions, Arabs tend to seek the intermediation of an individual with whom they have some sort of personal connection. Among the consequences are inequities in what people can expect from such institutions. That undermines their effectiveness.

Clearly, there is a need to address the Middle East’s trust deficit. A first step toward doing so is to understand its causes.