Making Sense of the Middle East’s New Dynamics
Since the beginning of the Arab Awakening in 2011, the debate over US policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has intensified. Arguments for deeper involvement in the region have proliferated with many suggesting it is primed for US leadership as it tries to steer itself towards greater dignity and freedom. Given the Syrian civil war’s sheer length and death count, and its implications for our biggest foe, Iran, it has been the rallying cause for this argument. Inspired by the aim to engineer regional stability and the genuine desire to promote American value, today’s advocacy for greater US involvement embraces exactly the kind of actions and goals we have had since the 1950s, namely a focus on the use of humanitarian and military aid to achieve desired political and security outcomes. The problem with continuing this approach is that the respective natures of MENA politics and security are profoundly changing, and that means the tools we use to achieve our goals must change profoundly, too.
MENA is descending into a prolonged period of violent, governance, economic, demographic, and identity upheaval that collectively implies necessary strategic and tactical changes to US policy. These evolving sources of upheaval are coming to the fore because of the region’s new-found actionable desire for governance that is responsive and answerable to voters. Such a type of government is extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and even for America, the most successful country to practice republican democracy to date, getting to a place of stable governance took generations and hundreds of thousands of lives at a point in history when the world was a smaller place. The road to representative governance and achievement of stability in MENA likewise will be incredibly challenging, though in its own unique ways.
MENA’s future will be shaped in large part by five evolving factors. First, the fall of regimes who ensured domestic stability through force and oppression have given way to a range decentralized actors who accept and use violence as a political tool. In the not-so-olden days when these actors might move to take public action, governments were quick to jail, intimidate, expel, or kill them. These actors were kept out of politics as well, and their tentacles into society were kept, for the most part, relatively short by the central authorities. Now, they are increasingly active in communities and societies, and in some cases participating in politics as well. Many of these groups are Salafi, some of whom have arrangements with central authorities, like in the case of Egypt, that enables them to enforce their religious doctrine with near impunity outside the most important ruling party strongholds. In other countries, politicians come to agreements through patronage and concessions with constituent blocs and then play those blocs, sometimes with the use of state force, off one-another to concentrate and maintain power and out-maneuver rivals. Today’s Iraq is a case-in-point. Fewer constraints on the use of violence to push socio-religious and political agendas will increasingly feature of many MENA states.
Second, a resounding rejection of the old authoritarian regime has given way to a push for governments directly answerable to voters in societies unaccustomed to the rules, responsibilities, and repercussions of such a governance arrangement. Unawareness of a social contract-type concept combined with inexperienced politicians and widespread desire for a kind of social justice governments simply do not have the ability to meet given existing institutions and budgets means that the revolutions will be ongoing for the indefinite future. The decades-old rentier system disconnected the work-reward causation for multiple generations, and MENA’s new politicians have been unable to satisfy populations without economic and social subsidies, not a good sign for long-term stability and prosperity.
Third, the fall of regimes and the growth in representative governance has placed greater demands on national budgets that were already strained prior to the Arab Awakening. MENA’s oil producers are being squeezed on one side by an increasing amount of producers in the global market and on the other side by rising budgetary demands that, when combined, mean the production cushion used prior to the Awakening to control global supply and demand cannot be implemented without pushing themselves towards dire economic consequences. For MENA’s importers of energy, rising global prices are an increasing strain on national budgets at a time when unemployment and poverty are on the rise. All MENA states will need to focus on job creation, which means more investment and liberalization, policies the region is not known for successfully implementing and complicated by do-or-die demands on governments to demonstrably improve the region’s quality of life immediately.
Forth, the demographic changes, especially the youth bulge experienced throughout the region, means every challenge is multiplied. Mortality rates have fallen, life expectancy is rising, and fertility rates have begun to decline. The short and medium term outlook means that population growth has been surging, and children and young people outnumber adults by a very large margin. Eventually fertility will fall far enough so that population growth slows. However, even under the United Nation Develop Programme’s more conservative scenario, by 2020 Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE will be the only Arab countries with median ages projected to exceed 30. These figures suggest that the region as a whole will experience labor force growth of more than 3 percent annually for roughly the next 15 or so years. According to the Arab League, unemployment in the region could rise from 15 million to 50 million over this period. Developing national economies to absorb such a labor increase stands as perhaps the biggest test the region faces.
Fifth, the nation-state component of identity is giving way to other components that are being expressed more publicly than they had been just a year or two ago. There is an on-going expansion of other dimensions of identity that are increasingly publicly expressed, including religious, sectarian, tribal, ideological, and socioeconomic components. While all of these facets of identify existed prior to the Awakening, the weakening of governance and emergence of the dynamics outlined above means that a range of non-governmental actors are able to make decisions and act on them based on identities and allegiances that reach across national boundaries. This restricts the effectiveness of governments, complicates both domestic and foreign policy, and threatens to destabilize the region even further. Iraq and Afghanistan stand as two potent examples of this dynamic.
Not only will these dynamics dictate the region’s future, they will also affect how the region views and interacts with the United States. Given these profound changes, the policies the US has used in MENA from World War II to 2011 will be ineffective and even counterproductive in the future without significant changes. In the pre-Awakening period American relations were with governments who held effectively undisputed power over their countries, whether they were civilian or military led. Additionally, most countries required US political, financial, and military support to maintain their grip on power. Over the last sixty-plus years, these countries have included much of MENA, from Yemen in the Southeast to Morocco in the Southwest, and from Turkey in the Northwest to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Northeast, and many in the middle. Even countries who pursued modest relations with the US publicly knew better than to stand in the way of serious American objectives despite what could be massive backlash from their public if word got out.
America enjoyed strong relationships with these governments and could trust them on many important policy goals. Military to military and security-based relationships were particularly strong with key allies like Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Israel, but given its unique regional character, it is much less relevant to this piece). These countries were even key advocates for the US-led peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Given the strong and close nature of these relationships, the US had partners who shared many of the same goals and were willing to work with the US and, crucially, allow an American presence and influence in their neighborhood, sometimes acting to boost it. In many cases, including those of Egypt and Turkey (recognizing their historical importance in the Arab world that will undoubtedly be a feature of the future Arab world as well), not only has the cost of friendly and close relations with the US risen dramatically, but the motivation for pursuing such a relationship with the US has taken significant hits on pragmatic and ideological grounds.
When combined, the factors discussed above strongly suggest that America’s ability to influence MENA’s politics and policies had decreased significantly. Yet this conclusion need not be reached if America’s MENA policy is reoriented. In the weeks and months ahead I will explore in greater depth each of the five dynamics outlined above and discuss ways in which America can reorient its policies in terms of means and ends.