Why the West became so advanced and the Middle East did not?

Tarek Amr
7 min readMar 10, 2018

A review of Jared Rubin’s book, Rulers, Religion, and Riches

I had this question in mind for a while. All the articles I read that tried to answer this question had one thesis; it is religion, Islam is to be blamed. Though, I do not totally disagree, the answer felt very simplistic. In a way, religions are the products of their societies, and there is nothing stopping societies from re-shaping their religions if they want to. The west itself had Christianity, which would have hindered their development if it stayed in its middle ages form, but it didn’t. Why did the two societies diverged then?

The real questions, then, are: Why did a region that was so far ahead for so long ultimately fall behind? Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Great Britain instead of, say, the Ottoman Empire?

Then I knew that the concept where the western world became advance and diverged from the rest has a name. It is called The Great Divergence, after a book with the same name by Kenneth Pomeranz. However, Pomeranz focused more on China as the counter example to the west, while I was more interested in the Arab and Islamic world due to my personal background, thus I pick Jared Rubin’s book instead. And now after I finished Rubin’s book, I can easily say it one of the best books I’ve read in years.

The propagating agents

The main thesis of Rulers, Religion, and Riches is as follows: The ultimate goal for any ruler is to stay in power, and for them to stay in power they have to make sure they have on their side people or organisations who can use their identity or access to resources to help the ruler stay in power. The author calls these people and organisations, propagating agents. He then divides them into two kinds, coercive agents and legitimising agents:

The framework focuses on two types of propagating agents: coercive agents and legitimising agents. Coercive agents propagate through force — people follow the ruler because they face punishment otherwise — while legitimising agents propagate through legitimacy — people follow the ruler because they believe he (or, much more rarely, she) has the legitimate right to rule.

One thing I like about the author, is that he is an economist. Though, I am not, but he speaks in a language that makes much more sense to me than pure historians. For example, in his framework, the propagating agents…



Tarek Amr

I write about what machines can learn from data, what humans can learn from machines, and what businesses can learn from all three.