Four reasons why the region may extract itself from chaosby Thomas Dichter / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
It is hard to make a positive case for the prospects of the Middle East these days. In Egypt and Libya, the Arab Spring has turned into winter, Yemen’s brief spring into something worse. Tunisia’s hold on its gains is fragile (with Libyan refugees adding to the strain). Syria seems in endless turmoil and its million refugees are undermining Jordan and Lebanon, which have their own problems. The Israel-Palestine conflict seems even less amenable to solution than for many years.
Autocratic regimes, corruption and human rights abuses prevail. The “youth bulge,” the high percentage of people under 25 (in seven of the 17 countries in the region it is over 50 per cent), seems to promise demographic havoc, continued high unemployment and alienation. The recent halving of oil prices could jeopardise the “stable” Gulf states and Saudi Arabia, where the recent death of its King, and the advanced age of his successor, has forced questions about future stability to the fore. And of course, terrorism, now seemingly entering a freelance phase that stymies intelligence efforts everywhere, begins to tip this view of the future into outright fear.
It is true that many parts of the region are in a bad state, and share some of these problems. In the past 20 years, two-thirds of the region’s countries in different ways have stalled in their development. Of the six world regions where the World Bank tracks poverty rates (which are on the decline worldwide), only south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have done worse than the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the last two decades. And while there has been economic growth in the oil rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula they too have failed to move at more than a snail’s pace towards social inclusion, let alone democracy. In contrast, outside the region, in Asia in particular, but also in parts of Latin America, there have been astonishing examples of transformative development—not just China or the movement from third to first world of the two biggest Asian Tigers (South Korea and Taiwan) but the rapid catching-up of Thailand, Indonesia, Chile and Brazil.