Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor of a province in modern Turkey, once witnessed a large fire in the city of Nicomedia (modern Izmit), and wrote to the emperor Trajan requesting permission to form a company of firemen, noting that he would keep it small and carefully overseen. Trajan, however, was uninterested, replying (as recounted by the historian Edward Luttwak):
We must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political gathering. It is a better policy to provide [firefighting] equipment and to instruct property owners to make use of it.
Trajan successfully ruled over many parts of the modern Middle East, including virtually all of the Mediterranean states and much of Iraq. The region’s modern tyrants share their ancient predecessor’s philosophy towards civil society organizations: they are a potential source of trouble, whatever their purpose. Nobody exemplifies this better than the House of Saud, who bar all forms of political organizations and insist that the rare low-level elections they have be conducted in a “nonpartisan” fashion. Civil society–that is, all voluntary, nongovernmental, noneconomic associations of individuals, ranging from sports leagues to activist groups to knitting circles–is woefully underdeveloped in Saudi Arabia, and this is an outcome of deliberate government policy.