Written By: Mohamed Anis Salem*
Article Date: May 9, 2011 - 7:32:05 PM
The current wave of change in the Arab world, unequalled in geographic scope and intensity since the first Arab revolt in the early 20th century, has led many analysts to reconsider prevailing theories on the region (see 'Revisiting assumptions, old and new', Al-Ahram Weekly, 31 March 2011). Yet there is only rudimentary understanding of the new dynamics propelling Arab countries, as observers follow -- breathless -- the rapidly unfolding events. Some elements of these tectonic changes are:
- The dramatic shift in the culture of several significant members of the regional order towards applying new standards of political performance, particularly respect for human rights, building democracy, and ending tolerance of dictatorships, corruption and attempts at building political dynasties through family succession. This movement, admittedly incomplete, may well have regional implications, allying democratic regimes against closed governments, redefining the role of the Arab League, and opening new possibilities for international cooperation (eg, rejuvenating the Euromed concept to find common ground between both shores of the Mediterranean).
- Another trend is the re-emergence of political Islam as a force to be reckoned with, placing all players on notice (states, competing political forces and external parties) that they will need to redefine their expectations, future plans and language to accommodate this new reality. At one level this poses a key challenge to the ideology of Arab nationalism based on a secular, modernising concept that opposes defining the region's identity in terms of religion. Practically speaking, some have argued that the resurgent role of Islam in government may lead to the formation of new alliances with Turkey or Iran, or even with sub-national actors, like Hamas or Hizbullah, thus adding to the resistance facing Western initiatives / interventions. Others have made the point that Arab nationalism, at least at the cultural level, has been proven alive by the rapid interaction, even symbiosis, between the recent uprisings in several member states of the Arab system.
- As the members of the Arab system, particularly those facing internal changes, inevitably turn inwards to put their houses in order, their attention may well be distracted from wider regional and international issues. At the same time, following Fukushima, the importance of oil to the global economy appears reasserted. Taken together, these twin factors may open more space for the influence of non-Arab regional actors (Turkey, Iran, Israel), while allowing a continuation of higher levels of Western intervention in the system, particularly on its periphery.
- But the continued importance of oil money also reflects Saudi Arabia's staying power, in terms of status and influence, together with other Gulf oil and gas exporters. This sub-regional gathering prefers slower, more orderly reform processes, and may feel uncomfortable with the wave of change coming from their western flank. The international system, as well, favours stability related to the free flow of energy and supplies. In this context, Egypt's possible return to providing a democratic model for other Arab countries (see 'Return of the Egyptian model', Al-Ahram Weekly, 10 March, 2011) may lead to a new level of competition with more traditional forces in the system.
- Meanwhile, members of the regional system of states are challenged by the rise of non-state -- and occasionally para-state -- actors ranging from satellite TV (read: Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya), social media, sovereign funds, emerging regional multinationals (eg, construction, mobile phones, port management companies), and sub-state movements. In addition, it is safe to predict a new, energised role for regional civil society (eg, trans-Arab associations for lawyers, physicians, writers, etc). Even while this level of regional interaction, lying outside the domain of state control, undermines lines of classic state sovereignty, it still builds new bonds between peoples and markets.
- As the changes accumulate, they expose the dysfunctional status of regional organisation. Since its founding following World War II, the Arab League has miraculously survived divisions between various Arab sub-clusters of states, withstood pressures for reform and operated at the level of the lowest common denominator between its members. Most recently, it rejected the dynamic proposals of its outgoing secretary general to establish mechanisms for dealing with neighbouring states, although it did summon enough energy to sanction the Libyan no-fly zone. Barring serious changes to its philosophy and modus operandi, it would be difficult to expect this dinosaur to deal with the challenges of democratic transformation, introducing new standards for state performance and moving towards regional integration. Confusion on the next Arab summit is the latest reflection of this inertia.
STRUCTURAL FACTORS SHAPE ALTERNATIVE FUTURES: Before issuing their prescriptions, watchers of the Arab system may need to take their analysis one step further, into the future. Tracking longer-term structural changes may well help chart the alternative courses presently open to the development of the regional system. For example, population growth rates in most Arab countries, already amongst the highest in the world, are projected to remain at nearly double the world average, with projections for 2050 indicating a near doubling of the region's current population to around 650 million people, including a very high percentage of young people. Given modest rates of growth, job opportunities will probably remain limited, reflecting in high unemployment figures; about 15 per cent at present, double the world average, but much higher amongst youth.
Already one of the most urbanised regions of the world, with over half its population living in cities and towns, the Arab world is expected to continue this trend, with mega cities becoming part of its future. For example, the UN expects Egypt's population to stabilise in 2065 at 115 million people. At a recent discussion, one participant noted that Egypt would need another 15 cities, two million each, to accommodate this increase; yet not a single one is planned at the moment. Experts warn of other future problems, like declining food security as the region's energy supplies runs out and its water resources (mostly rivers, 60 per cent of which originate in non-Arab neighbours) get depleted. Others predict long lines of millions of school leavers trying to enrol in universities that ran out of space. These predictions provide challenging scenarios of popular discontent, failed governance and regional trouble.
Indeed for some time now the stratification of the Arab system has included five groups of countries: first, the oil rich, mostly with small populations and few problems that resisted monetary solutions. Recent developments in Libya, Bahrain and Oman have reformatted this image, but only slightly. Then there were the smaller, relatively successful, states with good Human Development Indicators (Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, sometimes even Syria). Here the wave of change has shaken the fundamentals of this model. The third grouping comprises the peripheral, poorer Arab League members where states have mostly failed and / or civil conflict has brought them down (Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen). A fourth group comprises the most promising countries of the region with a balance of natural and human resources (Algeria and Iraq) that somehow lost their way due of failures of leadership. Finally, there is Egypt and Morocco: older civilisations with sizeable populations and lower levels of per capita income that have followed separate courses of political development.
Regional integration amongst these units would be difficult even if the political will were to be present and the goal posts were moved to provide more space and time. Indeed it is easier to expect very different futures for each of these groupings.
ARAB VERSUS MIDDLE EAST SYSTEMS: While the Arab system continues its transformation, its immediate neighbours are knocking at its door. Turkey's newfound dynamism, Iran's audacious revisionism, Israel's intransigence, and the threats to Nile water supplies, demand multifaceted responses from visionary Arab leaders -- a commodity in short supply. NATO actions in the Mediterranean theatre and EU policies towards their southern neighbours demand crystal clear thinking and decisive action. While there is international consensus that settling the Palestinian question needs to be at the heart of any move forward, the regional order demands agreements on issues ranging from establishing a nuclear-free zone to new, more inclusive, structures for economic, humanitarian and military relations.
Far from reflecting stagnation and resistance to change, the Arab / Middle East region is experiencing transformations that are transforming it into a new system of states, challenged by supra-national and sub-national forces as well as neighbouring powers. This is a moment that demands meticulous mapping of the terrain ahead, and reliable compasses to chart the future. The last thing needed now is to lose more opportunities. Yes, a New Arab Order is in the offing but, before that happens, new thinking is required.
* The writer is director of Development Works (www.dev-works.org).
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