Recalling the descriptive – empirically supported – understanding of legitimacy, even authoritarian regimes can enjoy certain level of collective support. It must be kept in mind, however, that neither performance (providing public goods and services, good governance), nor popularity equals to legitimacy. While legitimacy in general is viewed as a source of stability in social systems, political legitimacy is considered a basic condition for governing, without which a government would suffer collapse. In political systems where this is not the case, unpopular regimes survive because they are considered legitimate by a small, influential elite or by external powers. Indeed, regime stability is a ‘function of the ongoing ability of the actors within the system to mobilize resources to perpetuate a legitimate system.’ This ‘ability’ has been supported by foreign aid in the Middle East for decades.
Legitimacy in the Middle East cannot be understood without referring to the region’s historical interaction with external powers on one hand and the internal sources of legitimacy on the other one. Colonialism, the mandate period (League of Nations), independence movements and the gradual process of decolonialism added various layers (nationalism, ideology) to the traditional concept of legitimacy being based mainly on religion and tradition. Even if it has been considered surprising that ‘legitimacy in the nondemocratic Arab world has not been studied in any encompassing manner for more than 30 years’ with the exception of Hudson’s Arab Politics: the search for legitimacy, the role of religion and nationalism were proposed to be studied in order to demonstrate the significance of legitimacy for regime maintenance (stability) at the beginning of the 1990s. Not only modern nationalism, but religion also has clearly influence political attitudes on such matters as identity, concept of justice, the nature of a legitimate political system, obedience, obligation and rights, to mention only a few.
According to Schlumberger, there are four components being the main sources of domestic ‘nondemocratic’ legitimacy in the Arab world: religion, tradition, ideology and the provision of welfare benefits to their populations. Welfare benefits – material or economic legitimacy are –seen as a main source of nondemocratic legitimacy. It cannot be understood without the ‘rentier state’ approach that is based on the conviction that ‘even limited resources from abroad can buy an enormous amount of legitimacy’. Regime legitimacy is maintained either by ‘political petrolism’ (using oil income or financial transfers from oil-rich neighbours to buy legitimacy with subsidies and government jobs) or by Western foreign aid, which effectively prevented destabilization by enabling Arab governments to provide welfare benefits to their populations. Schlumberger concludes that religion plays a less important role than either traditional or material legitimacy, whereas ideology (nationalism, Islamism, globalization and neoliberalism, democracy-promotion and their unique combination alike) has become more and more relevant category. By delegitimizing ruling elites emerging societal actors draw attention to the ‘reciprocal nature’ of legitimacy and its procedural, non-static character too.
Sources and further reading:  A government can be unpopular, yet, legitimate if the ways of exercising power is considered valid. Wheatheford ,‘Mapping the Ties’, 261.;  Blackwell Encyclopedia;  Cited by Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’, 233.;  Religion and nationalism serve as main sources of macroloyalty, whereas the family, clan, various sects, associations, occupations constitute the main sources of microloyalty. These latter, in the absence of strong and shared religious or nationalist values may generate social conflicts. Razi, ‘Legitimacy, religion’. On identity in the Middle East: Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (New York: Schocken, 2001); cited by Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles,’ 245.; Schlumberger, ‘Opening Old Bottles’.