Syria's authoritarian upgrading, 2000-2010 : Bashar al-Asad's promotion of foreign-educated returnees as transnational agents of change
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This thesis analyses the political role of highly-educated Syrian return migrants between 2000 and 2010 and their significance for the regime’s authoritarian upgrading. It critically engages with the expectations raised by different bodies of literature, first, that returnees facilitate the development of their home country and, second, that, in the Syrian case, a foreign-trained president promoted the influence of highly-skilled technocrats. The study is based on qualitative interviews with foreign-educated returnees and conceptualizes their unique background as ‘transnationality’, which encompasses diverse foreign and local cultural, social, economic and symbolic capitals. ‘Transnationality’ can have a political impact only if it is linked up with the political status quo and, in Syria, this process was characterized by selectivity and elitism that coincided with strategies of authoritarian upgrading. Thus, there was a delicate balance between returnees’ modernizing influence and the pressure for them to re-adapt exerted by their environment. On the one hand, the socio-economic circumstances of migration and return, the need to re-adapt as well as the logic of co-opting the most influential parts of society led to a ‘bourgeois bias’ that privileged well-connected members of society and hampered upward social mobility. On the other hand, although returnees exerted a notable influence on some reforms areas, this influence was often weakened by indirect and temporary agreements and confined to particular policy areas which the authoritarian regime prioritized for reforms. By scrutinizing returnees’ influence in the areas of economy and finance, civil society, the media and tertiary education, it becomes clear that their political impact exemplifies and explains the Syrian regime’s outsourcing strategy to the private sector. The study concludes that Syrian returnees were mostly ‘agents of status quo’ who – whether consciously or not – helped to bolster authoritarian politics and, especially, the legitimizing discourse that reinforced the image of Bashar al-Asad as a modernizer struggling against ‘old guard’ hardliners.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: Electronic copy restricted until 23rd May 2018
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations
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