Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Trouble ahead

Frustrated expectations in the Middle East and a lack of economic opportunities are destabilising.

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

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.

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