Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Challenges mount up

Unsolved political issues in the Middle East leave barren soil for economic and social green shoots.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit Hmeymim base, Syria, in 2017 (Photo: Kremlin Press Office/Getty)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit Hmeymim base, Syria, in 2017 (Photo: Kremlin Press Office/Getty)
Published 22 May 2018   Follow @BobBowker

Across the Arabic-speaking world, repression comes naturally to regimes under threat, be they governments, patriarchs of families, or other holders of privilege. Within the realm of government and security apparatuses, and even beyond such circles, there is deep anxiety about the question of what it means to be young, Arab, Muslim, and “modern”, and where accountability for failures to meet aspirations begins and ends.

The interconnectedness of challenges faced by the Arabic-speaking world is part of its tragedy. It is all too easy for those among the privileged, and even some frustrated reformists, to fall back on the familiar comforts of seeing external conspiracy as the root cause of Arab disunity and sedition against the popular will for stability, predictability, and jobs.

Among those who wish to see the existing Arab order replaced, notions of reality and purpose are shaped by lived experiences of human rights abuse at the hands of government and the politics of the prison yard, rather than by abstract arguments about theology.

Where the state is weak or complacent, the jihadist phenomenon has space to develop. Where the state is violent, but seen as unjust, the seductive imagery of a religiously imbued higher purpose serves to legitimise acts of appalling violence, or ambitions to engage in such violence, at home and abroad.

Nor can the Arab outlook be separated from the regional and global factors in play. Struggles for regional ascendancy between the conservative Arab states and Iran; competition between the US and Russia; the role played by Turkey in regard to the Kurds, especially in the intricate ménage à trois with Iran and Russia that has aided and abetted the jihadist phenomenon in northern Syria; the unfolding of US policy towards Iran and Israel; and the complex political future of the Gulf all decrease the chances of achieving a regional security architecture that can provide a basis for reasonably stable and predictable dealings within the region.

In the absence of such a framework, regimes may survive, but support for political, social, and economic reform will be limited.  

So the green shoots to which Anthony Bubalo refers in his Lowy Institute Paper, Remaking the Middle East, may not last. They are, in a sense, ephemeral. However, they also point to something even more important.

If the green shoots wither away, others are likely to emerge, albeit in changed forms to those we are witnessing. And the environment which may follow from the next chaotic contest between privilege and unmet, scarcely articulated aspirations has the potential to be deeply damaging, not only to the respect for values we believe to be of universal relevance, but also to the outlook for the people and governments of the Middle East.

Although some are more exposed than Australia, no country is immune from the consequences of what unfolds in the Middle East.

It is too soon to know or predict what the next wave of political events might entail when, in due course, hope emerges for an alternative. But the modern Arab world has no way to stop the drivers of change, which are generational and societal as well as political, that saw the uprisings begin almost a decade ago.

Most Arab governments recognise the need for economic growth to absorb the aspirations of populations that are better educated, connected, demanding, and have greater potential for mobilisation than ever before. But repression without justice cannot capture the energy, ability, and ingenuity of citizens. It is self-defeating. And it is an opportunity cost few governments can afford.

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