Predicting MENA’s future

Sunday 15/01/2017

Welcome to 2022. The world, according to US intelligence analysts, will be a great deal scarier. The rules-based international order will be in decline. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will have plunged deeper into disarray.
That dispiriting snapshot of tomorrow’s world comes from the US National Intelligence Council, which is tasked with helping shape the United States’ medium- and long-term strategic thinking. The council issues a quadrennial Global Trends Report before a new or re-elected American president is sworn into office.
It has not always been accurate predicting things but it has offered interesting insights into the US intelligence community’s view of the MENA region and foreseeable trends there. Foreign reports are obviously not a substitute for the region’s own vision of its future as articulated by indigenous strategic thinking.
Whatever the caveats, the US report is worrying. For one thing, it does not seem to place high value on the efforts aimed at enshrining peace or pursuing reconstruction objectives. Instead, the report sees continuing conflict and expanding extremism. Islamist groups, it says, will ceaselessly reduce tolerance of minority groups and create more refugees.
It also warns that arrested political and economic reform can threaten poverty reduction, disappointing the aspirational young to the point they lose hope and become socially disruptive. The lack of constructive narratives will leave the region more fragmented than ever by 2022.
Sadly, this is not the only report predicting hard times for the region. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Develop­ment recently said in its annual States of Fragility Report, persistent vulnerabilities exist in fragile states because of weak institutions, political violence, extremism and poverty. To that extent, the MENA region is especially vulnerable. Its population is overwhelmingly young — some 60% is under 25 — and woefully despairing of its prospects — nearly 30% is unemployed and the brain drain to the West is roughly at the same level.
The only good news is that many Arab countries have had a decent track record in poverty reduction over the course of decades. The challenge is to ensure those gains are not reversed by conflict and the ceaseless refugee flow but enhanced to meet citizens’ security, education and employment needs.
The Global Trends Report sees the emergence of local politics as good news. Decentralised governance should not, however, mean the chaotic fraying of the state, which could spell further problems.
It is a given that MENA must take responsibility for its problems and for the imaginative formulation of viable solutions to its woes. In many regards, the region’s leaders know the predictable conse­quences of inadequate policies and should take a step away from the brink.
But to face the current massive humanitarian crisis, especially in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, which host the largest numbers of refugees on their soil, the MENA region needs the wider world’s goodwill. And it needs it now. Humanity does not have to wait any longer to see the scope of the tragedy.
Benign foreign attention, however, is different from base meddling. Short-sighted tinkering with an already-fragile regional situation can make matters worse well before 2022.