LONDON – Fifty years after the Six-Day War, which marked the beginning of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the Middle East remains a region in seemingly perpetual crisis. So it is no surprise that, when addressing the region, politicians, diplomats, and the donor and humanitarian community typically focus on the here and now. Yet, if we are ever to break the modern Middle East’s cycle of crises, we must not lose sight of the future. And, already, four trends are brewing a new set of problems for the coming decade.
The first trend affects the Levant. The post-Ottoman order that emerged a century ago – an order based on secular Arab nationalism – has already crumbled. The two states that gave weight to this system, Iraq and Syria, have lost their central authority, and will remain politically fragmented and socially polarized for at least a generation.
In Lebanon, sectarianism remains the defining characteristic of politics. Jordan has reached its refugee-saturation point, and continued inflows are placing limited resources under ever-greater pressure. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no new initiative or circumstance on the political horizon that could break the deadlock.
The Middle East is certain to face the continued movement of large numbers of people, first to the region’s calmer areas and, in many cases, beyond – primarily to Europe. The region is also likely to face intensifying contests over national identities as well, and perhaps even the redrawing of borders – processes that will trigger further confrontations.
The second major trend affects North Africa. The region’s most populous states – Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco – will maintain the social and political orders that have become entrenched over the last six decades of their post-colonial history. The ruling structures in these countries enjoy broad popular consent, as well as support from influential institutions, such as labor and farmers’ unions. They also have effective levers of coercion that serve as backstops for relative stability.
But none of this guarantees smooth sailing for these governments. On the contrary, they are poised to confront a massive youth bulge, with more than 100 million people under the age of 30 entering the domestic job market in North Africa between now and 2025. And the vast majority of these young people, products of failed educational systems, will be wholly unqualified for most jobs offering a chance of social mobility.
The sectors best equipped to absorb these young Arabs are tourism, construction, and agriculture. But a flourishing tourism sector is not in the cards – not least because of the resurgence of militant Islamism, which will leave North Africa exposed to the risk of terror attacks for years to come.
Moreover, a declining share of the European food market and diminished investments in real estate undermine the capacity of agriculture and construction to absorb young workers. The likely consequences of North Africa’s youth bulge are thus renewed social unrest and potentially sizeable migration flows to Europe.
The Gulf used to provide a regional safety valve. For more than a half-century, Gulf countries absorbed millions of workers, primarily from their Arab neighbors’ lower middle classes. The Gulf was also the main source of investment capital, not to mention tens of billions of dollars in remittances, to the rest of the region. And many Arab countries viewed it as the lender of last resort.
But – and herein lies the third key trend – the Gulf economies are now undergoing an upgrade, ascending various industrial value chains. This reduces their dependence on low-skill foreign workers. In the coming years, the Gulf countries can be expected to import fewer workers from the rest of the Arab world, and to export less capital to it.
The Gulf might even become increasingly destabilized. Several Gulf powers and Iran are engaged in a partly sectarian proxy war in Yemen – one that will not end anytime soon. And now five Sunni powers have turned on one of their own, Qatar, which has been pursuing its own regional agenda for a generation. The pressures being generated across the entire southern Arabian Peninsula could produce further political shocks.
That is all the more likely, given mounting domestic pressure for reform from a technologically savvy and globally engaged young citizenry. Reforming centuries-old social and political structures will be as difficult as it is necessary.
The fourth trend affects the entire Arab world, as well as Iran and Turkey: the social role of religion is becoming increasingly contested. The wars and crises of the last six years have reversed much of the progress that political Islam had made in the decade before the so-called Arab Spring uprisings erupted in 2011. With radicalism becoming increasingly entrenched, on the one hand, and young Muslims putting forward enlightened understandings of their religion, on the other, a battle for the soul of Islam is raging.
The problems implied by these four trends will be impossible for leaders, inside or outside the Arab world, to address all at once, especially at a time of rising populism and nativism across the West. But action can and should be taken. The key is to focus on socioeconomic issues, rather than geopolitics.
The West must not succumb to illusions about redrawing borders or shaping new countries; such efforts will yield only disaster. One highly promising option would be to create a full-on Marshall Plan for the Arab world. But, in this era of austerity, many Western countries lack the resources, much less public support, for such an effort – most of the Arab world today couldn’t make the most of it in any case.
What leaders – both within and outside the region – can do is pursue large-scale and intelligent investments in primary and secondary education, small and medium-size businesses (which form the backbone of Arab economies), and renewable energy sources (which could underpin the upgrading of regional value chains).
Pursuing this agenda won’t stem the dissolution of the modern Arab state in the Levant. It won’t generate workable social contracts in North Africa. And it certainly won’t reconcile the sacred with the secular. But, by attempting to address young people’s socioeconomic frustrations, it can mitigate many of the longer-term consequences of these trends. Tarek Osman is the author of Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World and Egypt on the Brink.
By Tarek Osman