The challenges and promises of 2019
As it welcomes a new year, the Arab world sees glimmers of hope but also many reasons for wariness and concern.
2019 will carry over many of the tragic legacies of years past, especially those related to war and violence.
For many of the populations of the region, it is the near defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq that represents an opportunity for a new beginning. However, the danger posed by ISIS in those two countries and other parts of the region is far from over. The terrorist group is trying to regroup.
The violence perpetrated by ISIS and similar terrorist groups is the result of a dangerous narrative based on the distortion of Muslim values and the exploitation of enduring frustrations.
The peaceful settlement of conflicts may be an indication there is light at the end of the tunnel. For Arab civilians, even a lower threshold of armed violence would be very welcome, be it in the Levant, Libya, Yemen or elsewhere. A durable settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be a priority. The United States’ neglect and Israel’s repressive methods will not make the Palestinian problem go away.
As the guns gradually fall silent in Syria and Iraq, a much-needed debate on reconstruction will have to start in earnest.
Millions in the Arab world are displaced or deprived of the means to make a decent living. In 2019, they will be looking for help from the entire international community, not just from a few regional or global powers. What is at stake is not just rebuilding the infrastructure but reconstructing lives shattered by war.
Part of the rebuilding will be to establish bases for enduring peace, reconciliation and power-sharing. Zero-sum mindsets can only breed endless strife. So will sectarianism and the political exploitation of religion.
Much of the future of the region will depend on the Arab world’s willingness not to leave a void that can be exploited by regional and global powers jockeying for control and influence.
The lack of an Arab collective security vision puts too much of the fate of the region in the hands of the United States, Russia and European powers. It also encourages the Iranians and Turks, each from a different perspective, to pursue expansionist policies at the expense of Arab interests.
Driven by its own brand of revolutionary doctrine, Iran uses all means, including subversion and terrorism, to destabilise its neighbours and intimidate others. Ankara’s neo-Ottoman designs have taken a dangerous turn since the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president with greater authoritarian prerogatives. The Arab Summit in March should be an opportunity to agree on a collective security blueprint. That is an idea whose time has come.
Even in parts of the Arab world not plagued by war and strife, turmoil periodically erupts because of inadequate socioeconomic policies. In far too many places, schools have become factories that produce no more than unemployable young graduates. The situation is worsened by economies that cannot offer enough value-added jobs to employ ambitious young people. A brain drain is depriving some of the region’s countries of well-trained and much-needed youth. Driven by despair, other young people are tempted to pursue the risky path of illegal migration.
It would be inaccurate and terribly misleading, however, to view the future of the Arab region solely from a perspective of wariness and concern. There are many reasons for hope.
The very youth who fall prey at times to radicalisation and despair or who take makeshift boats to cross the Mediterranean hold on to dreams and aspirations.
Given a chance, Arab youth can find their way to academic and scientific attainment, creative enterprise and social participation.
Among the additional factors of hope is the increasing ability of Arab young women to challenge anachronistic restrictions stemming from gender bias.
The rise of the young woman in the Arab world can only benefit from the welcome initiatives of 2018, aimed at establishing a level playing field for both genders. These include Tunisia’s move to enshrine into law gender equality in terms of inheritance, Saudi Arabia’s lifting of the driving ban on women, the United Arab Emirates’ new provision of equal pay for men and women and Morocco’s and Algeria’s criminalisation of violence against women.
2019 could be a better year in the Arab world. Making that wish come true will take shared vision and commitment.