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Understanding what is important

Photo: Jonas Lönborg/Flickr
Photo: Jonas Lönborg/Flickr
Published 14 Jun 2018 06:00   0 Comments

I am very grateful to the authors who engaged so thoughtfully with my Lowy Institute Paper, Remaking the Middle East. Their articles raised many important points, not all of which are possible to respond to in this reply.

I agree with Lydia Khalil that what’s missing at the moment in the Middle East is a “trellis” of institutions and frameworks, including new mobilising ideologies upon which my green shoots can climb. She is right, too, that in the absence of such a trellis what we may get is a “new authoritarianism” combining top-down reform, economic liberalisation, and tightly controlled freedoms.

This is the China model, or, perhaps more exactly, the Vladimir Putin model. I have no doubt that the region’s autocrats, including Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, would love it to work. But I don’t think it can.

In fact, it has been tried before, in the guise of International Monetary Fund–encouraged economic liberalisation that has done several rounds of the region since the 1990s. Although they bought some regimes time, ultimately the benefits of these reforms didn’t end up being spread very wide.

In fact, these reforms contributed to the Arab and other uprisings in the region by highlighting the gap between people’s aspirations and their reality. They also drew even more popular attention to other unsatisfactory features of the nizam, including corruption, repression, and the limited opportunities for genuine political participation.

I have my doubts that the Putin model can ever work in the Middle East (how long will it even continue to work in Russia?). Not every regime in the region has a potent nationalism to fall back on when the economic numbers don’t add up.

For the more sophisticated China model to work, it will mean changing the nizam in a way that allows the benefits of economic reform to flow through to the largest number of people. This cannot be achieved by technocratic tinkering with the system alone, because it goes to the heart of how regimes govern and how they reward or repress their citizens. 

In Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman illustrated this point when he locked up a group of prominent businesspeople in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton last year. The repeated exercise of this kind of impunity is one reason why creating a dynamic private sector to drive national economic growth and spread wealth through the system will be very tough. It seems no coincidence that rates of foreign investment in Saudi Arabia have since nosedived.

Do current regimes in the region understand this, and if so, might they act differently than they have in the past? Maybe it will take another round of unrest, as has been witnessed in Jordan recently. Certainly, this echo of the Arab uprisings has focused minds, and not only in Amman. Saudi Arabia and others have scurried to pump new aid into Jordan’s creaky economy. I bet this money is as much about ensuring Jordan’s rulers do not contemplate deeper economic and political reform as a response to their malaise – thereby setting an unwelcome precedent, especially if it works – as it is about shoring-up Jordanian stability.

I have no doubt, therefore, that as Shahram Akbarzadeh argues, there will be more trouble ahead. He gives my green shoots little chance of maturing, and he may well be right. He also makes a point with which I heartily agree when he notes that time has long since exposed the “rock of authoritarianism” across the region. To my mind, but perhaps not to Akbarzadeh’s, it is precisely this exposure that creates the possibility of change.

Middle Eastern regimes have long been autocracies. But in the past they also relied to a significant degree on popular consent, or at least acquiescence. They did this by creating and sustaining a social contract, in some countries a very generous one, and often by mobilising people through a national ethos or ideology. 

But now the utopian dust, as Akbarzadeh calls it, has been swept away as the social contract has grown unaffordable and the national ethos has shown itself to be hollow. Regimes have become much more reliant on repression.

This is a problem, not least for the regimes themselves. If in the past relatively lower levels of repression still produced radicalisation, terrorism, and insurgencies, one can imagine what higher levels of repression will do.

As Bob Bowker notes, Arab regimes (and not only Arab regimes) have “no way to stop the drivers of change, which are generational and societal”. Repression certainly won’t do it for them, at least not without lots of instability and collateral damage. This is where the green shoots come in. As Bowker notes, the green shoots I have identified may not last. But if some of them fall, others will emerge in their place.

Which brings me to Hafsa Halawa’s contribution to the debate. She notes in relation to my discussion of green shoots that it is:

important to have an experienced male voice, who has served in government and the foreign service, raising these topics that are largely associated with the young and women.

I singled this out not because I appreciate the praise (which I do), or because I feel myself an important voice on these issues, or indeed on the Middle East in general. I raise it because the comment highlights how writing the paper forced me to confront my own prejudices about what is important when observing the Middle East.

In the past, like much of the Western media, I tended to focus on things that were going wrong in the region. Like most “hard-nosed” commentators, I privileged the region’s geopolitics. Or I focused on domestic actors often characterised as defining: regional leaders and their retinues; the military and security services; Islamists and militias.

The Arab uprisings were a pretty strong indication that there were other actors around worthy of more attention. For years, for example, we heard that if anyone was going to overthrow entrenched regimes it would be well-organised Islamist movements. The fact that many of the these revolts were led, at least initially, by Facebook-sharing middle-class youth came as a surprise to many, not least the regimes and their security services.

Likewise, the role of women in the Middle East has long been largely confined to a gender studies niche, as if women were just another one of the region’s minorities. Yet if there is one thing that might dramatically change the region’s fortunes in the shortest amount of time, it would be to tap into the vastly underutilised economic and intellectual potential of women. Instead, we mostly fret about the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Writing the Paper forced me to remake my own priorities about what is important when observing the Middle East. I hope that if it does nothing else, it prompts others to do the same.

Challenges mount up

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 06:00   0 Comments

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.

Power of youth

Rallies in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011 (Photo: Ahmad Hammoud/Flickr)
Rallies in Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011 (Photo: Ahmad Hammoud/Flickr)
Published 2 May 2018 11:30   0 Comments

Research on the Middle East, where wars are being waged between and within all sides, is already rich with discussion about where things have gone wrong.

Arguably, Anthony Bubalo’s Remaking the Middle East provides an unpopular future perspective amid the more racy and immediate discussions around realpolitik and military warfare. His outlook, however, is a much-needed injection of perspective.

In a region where demographics are deemed a mere footnote, and “soft power” issues of civil society and women’s empowerment are scoffed at as “donor requirements” by a policy field filled increasingly with former military officers, Bubalo provides strong evidence of and support for a renewed theory of change to address challenges in the Middle East.

The first half of the book, titled “Decay”, reflects on decades of bad practices in the Middle East, endemic corruption that slowly seeped into the social fabric, and a closed public space that banned open dissent. This recap of a widely agreed upon state of affairs provides evidence of the various factors that contributed to the eventual collapse of the social contract between citizen and state across the region, culminating in the uprisings of 2011 and subsequent civil conflicts. 

For avid followers of the Middle East, “Decay” won’t change previously held convictions about what led to the events of 2011, nor does it intend to. What we have is a confident and timely historical rundown of the years that fomented the rise in public dissent, frustration, and the eventual explosion of citizens’ anger targeted on their leaders.

Rather, it is the second half of the book, “Green Shoots”, that requires the most attention and, indeed, deserves real praise. Looking at various aspects of social development, cohesion, and reconciliation, Bubalo focuses on issues of refugees, displacement, gender equality, civil society, and youth, not only to sound early warnings on issues that require immediate attention, but also to provide much-needed hope for the region.

For many people, the Middle East is lost, filled with only violence, illiteracy, and desperate poverty fuelled by immovably corrupt leaders. Many of the region’s commentators and policy wonks, notably in the West, are fatigued and have run out of ideas about how to “fix” the region following eighteen years of intense violence, terror, and war.

Superficially, the region is seen through the pragmatism of national security; the European Union sees it through the prism of a migration crisis; and the view of the US, and many of its allies, is coloured by a rhetoric of Islamophobia that has been growing since the 9/11 attacks and fallout from the 2003 invasion into Iraq.

Revisionist history has sought to rewrite events of the recent past, subverting responsibility to paint the region as primarily one where citizens and the state are only interested in killing each other and Western interventionists.

The issues of youth empowerment, gender equality, entrepreneurship, renewed social contracts, and strengthened civil society have never been at the forefront of agendas related to the region. Most Western partners within the international community continue to shrug their shoulders, suggesting that the nations not at war are held together by politics of the region and deep authoritarianism. Voices continue to be drowned out in a debate that rages either for or against military intervention.

However, it is precisely these social issues – raised so eloquently by Bubalo through extensive interviews and research conducted in countries across the region – that will decide the fate of the Middle East.

It is notable and important to have an experienced male voice, who has served in government and the foreign service, raising these topics that are largely associated with the young and women. Especially in relation to a region that is viewed through the lens of ISIS violence and the destructiveness of autocratic leaders’ policies. 

The international community’s ability to support the Middle East in its fight to rebuild and create a better future for itself will depend solely on its understanding that military support is futile and exhaustive. Instead, widespread support for longer term development and the creation of a vibrant young, free, and equal society is the only way out of the current darkness.

Indeed, for a region where roughly 60% of the population is under the age of 30, the future lies in its youth. A youth that, contrary to growing public sentiment in our developed and democratic capitals, is not prone to violence merely because ISIS was created in their midst. Rather, the youth of the Middle East are empowered, connected, and ready to fight in the wake of 2011.

The euphoria of 2011 may have disappeared from the current psyche, and many may even be trying to erase its memory, but the region’s youth have not forgotten. Remaking the Middle East is a timely reminder of what truly remains at the heart of this eclectic, culturally rich, and vibrant part of the world.

Trouble ahead

Amman, Jordan, 2013 (Photo: Mahmood Salam/Flickr)
Amman, Jordan, 2013 (Photo: Mahmood Salam/Flickr)
Published 1 May 2018 11:30   1 Comments

Anthony Bubalo’s optimism about the Middle East’s future is grounded in the notion that spontaneous cultural, social, and entrepreneurial initiatives that emerge across the region will provide the momentum and drive necessary for positive change.

While what he dubs as “green shoots” are certainly present, I remain sceptical that they will amount to anything of fundamental consequence in the next decade or so.

What is certain, however, is that there exists an increasingly impatient Middle Eastern population yearning for a better life. The 2009 Green Movement in Iran, the 2011 Arab revolts, and the 2017–18 Iranian bread riots all point to pent-up energy for change. These events indicate an anti-system energy, directed against a nizam (system) that has proven incapable of meeting the needs of the people.

Bubalo is right to say the system is broken. It has been for a while.   

The Middle East has witnessed difficult times. Decades of unfulfilled promises have left the population feeling frustrated. If there is one constant in the Middle East, it’s that the gap between expectations and reality is constantly widening.

For all the advances made over past decades, the promise of economic prosperity remains a distant dream. Nepotism and mismanagement are part of the picture, with incumbent governments exercising state monopolies over the economy and favouring their own when parcelling off national assets. This system shackles free entrepreneurship and the generation of wealth.

The other part of the story is the region’s rapid population growth. According to reports, more than 40% of the Middle East’s population is under 25 years of age. The state-managed economy in most Middle Eastern states is not growing fast enough to keep pace with the growing demand for employment.

At the same time, Middle Eastern states have looked to technological advances as a panacea for their economic ills, and have invested in education. Ironically, this has only added to frustrations, as the educated labour force finds it difficult to secure appropriate jobs due to restricted economic growth.

This frustration is reinforced by what the youth expect the economy to deliver – expectations influenced by growing connectivity via social media and communication. The youth in Egypt and Iran, for example, see how their counterparts live in Europe and the opportunities they enjoy, and want the same. 

Frustrated expectations are a destabilising force that goes far beyond the absence of economic opportunities. This frustration has deep roots.

The Arab world was frustrated when the international community endorsed the creation of Israel on parts of Palestinian land in 1947, and afterwards when the Arabs were defeated by the Israeli army. The Six-Day War of 1967 put the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under Israeli military command, and the subsequent settlement of Israeli families in the Occupied Territories effectively killed off any real prospects of a future sovereign Palestinian state.

There is frustration with the international community for its betrayal, and, most importantly, with the US because of its close ties with Israel. But the annoyance is also directed to incumbent leaders who made ambitious promises yet failed to deliver. The legacy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic leader and advocate of Arab nationalism, was damaged by military defeat and the erosion of his ideals.

Other competing ideas, most importantly Islamism, have suffered the same fate. Islamism rose as a challenge to nationalism and called on Muslims to return to the true path of Islam. But Islamism has been just as incapable of delivering on its promise of prosperity as competing ideologies.

Mohamed Morsi’s presidency may have been too short to be conclusive. But Iran’s failure to deliver is unmistakable. Nearly 40 years since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian population is ever more desperate for jobs, prosperity, and a decent lifestyle. Trust in the Islamist cause is at an all-time low, thanks to the barbarism of Daesh.

What remains is the hard reality of authoritarian regimes seeking to manage their populace. The winds of time have removed the dust of utopian ideas and revealed the rock of authoritarianism across the region.

This does not bode well for the region. There is more trouble ahead.

Decay and new growth

Manama, Bahrain (Photo: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr)
Manama, Bahrain (Photo: Philippe Leroyer/Flickr)
Published 30 Apr 2018 13:30   1 Comments

In his latest Lowy Institute Paper, Remaking the Middle East, Anthony Bubalo deftly weaves together the various threads that have made and unmade the modern Middle East, positing that the 2011 Arab uprisings were not brought about by individual conflicts, trends, or political actors, but rather were the most ostentatious representation of the decay of the entire nizam, or sociopolitical system of the region.

Although the Arab uprisings have been dismissed mostly as a failure, Bubalo argues that, regardless of the immediate outcomes of the rebellion, the current system of politics, culture, economics, and society in the Middle East is unsustainable and will eventually collapse under its own weight.

The key question, then, is what will replace it? This is the issue Bubalo grapples with in the second half of his analysis, identifying “green shoots” of a new system with the potential to remake the Middle East in ways that are “more inclusive, more accountable, less corrupt and less violent”.

These green shoots include the growth of new, independent media; the increasing role of women in all levels of society; new forms of civil and social activism that are bypassing politics; and growing economic entrepreneurship.

When I am in a more optimistic frame of mind, I would tend to side with Bubalo’s appraisal that these green shoots may take deeper root and shift the Middle East in a more positive direction, even if they take time to bear fruit. However, optimism cannot disguise the fact that, even with these green shoots emerging, the Middle East still lacks the institutions and systems, such as the rule of law, separation of powers, civil control of the military, and a free judiciary, to capitalise on such positive trends.

Any sustainable positive change requires these institutions and frameworks – the trellis, so to speak – on which the green shoots can climb. But building these new institutions and frameworks is not only difficult and prolonged work but also, most crucially, political work. One can’t help but notice that none of the green shoots identified involve significant and sustained political participation; nor are they part of a broader ideological framework.

These key features of change – broader political frameworks and organisational capacity – were also missing from the Arab uprisings. In fact, many of the youthful revolutionary leaders in the Arab world in 2011 actively eschewed politics. Wael Ghonim, one of drivers of the Egyptian protests, famously said, “We are going to win because we know nothing about politics.”

As we later saw, this was a disastrously naive view. Because of a lack of political infrastructure, organisation, or coherent ideology, those seeking change on the back of a collapsing system were unable to translate their zeal into political power to affect lasting change and institution-building. Instead, they were elbowed out of the way by more organised Islamist forces and holdovers of the old nizam.

If political organisation and broader ideological frameworks were missing from the Arab uprisings, and are still missing today, it is not clear how these green shoots will benefit from the fertilizer of decay and find the foundational soil they need to grow.

Bubalo describes how foundational leaders of the modern Middle East remade their region out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and postcolonial frameworks. They provided ideologies, both religious and secular, and a sense of national ethos that their populations could rally around. These ideologies and frameworks are what girded the now collapsing nizam.

If a new nizam is to emerge, another ideology and framework is needed. The Middle East needs another galvanising force, such as Arab nationalism or Islamism, that will override the sectarian, tribal, and ethnic conflicts kept in check by the old nizam but are now riding roughshod over the region.

But the various isms – authoritarianism, Islamism, liberalism – have been discredited, failed, or not been given a chance to succeed. As yet, there is no new ism to take its place. As Bubalo states, during the uprisings “it had been easy to unite people around what they were against; afterwards it was harder to get them to agree on what they were for”. This is still the case, and it is not clear whether any of these green shoots alone can provide that organising clarity.

More worrying is that the new type of ism most likely to emerge, a new type of authoritarianism that offers top-down reforms, economic liberalism with tightly controlled freedoms, seeks to stifle individual agency and threatens the new shoots Bubalo identifies.

With the US in retreat, the steadily growing engagement of China, and the disillusionment of the Arab uprisings, the appeal of liberal democracy, a framework that could have supported the growth of the green shoots, is waning. If liberal democracy was a possible shady trellis, then this new authoritarianism based on the China model is a herbicide toxic to these new shoots.

This new authoritarianism is embodied by the supposedly enlightened vision of Saudi Arabia’s new de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Sulman (MBS). MBS, arguably the most dynamic player in the region, is cleverly co-opting the green shoots and essentially neutralising them as a galvanising political force. Some countries in the Gulf have perfected this new authoritarianism, and others in the region, including Egypt, are keen to follow.

This new authoritarianism is essentially a modern form of the top-down nizam Bubalo describes in the first part of his paper. This one, however, with its veneer of modernity but restrictions on rights, political participation, and consultative governance, is better built to last.

Bubalo’s analysis offers a much-needed corrective when discussing the region today. He brings to the fore the many positive developments casual observers miss, and which even the experts tend to overlook. The old system is indeed decaying and on its way to collapse.

But a collapsing structure can do a lot of damage on the way down, squashing whatever green shoots have emerged in the spaces decay made possible. The new top-down changes can also pave over green shoots coming up through the cracks, stifling organic growth in favour of more controlled changes that do not necessarily result in a more inclusive, more accountable, less corrupt, and less violent region.