Without reform, Arab world faces dark days
Forecasting the future is no easy task but some experts attempted to do so at a recent conference organised by the Middle East Institute (MEI), a Washington think-tank, by looking into megatrends shaping the world. What they came up with was that, without significant reforms, the Arab world, already wracked by unprecedented turmoil, faces dark days in 2025.
Florence Gaub, analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, which published Arab Futures: Three Scenarios for 2025, highlighted several trends with significant repercussions.
Population growth was considered one of the major regional drivers. The Arab world’s population of 357 million is expected to swell to 468 million by 2025, with a large portion of that increase in the 15-30 age bracket.
The high rate of urbanisation will affect the Arab world over the coming decade. More than 56% of Arab citizens now live in cities, and that’s expected to hit 61.4% within five years.
The effects of global climate change are also affecting Arab societies through rising desertification, scarcity of resources — including water — and rising sea levels.
This phenomenon will be aggravated by ever-rising food prices. Over the next decade, Arab states will be increasingly reliant on outside markets for food and will be vulnerable to spikes in commodity prices.
On a positive note, literacy and internet penetration will continue to increase, the latter predicted to move from 25% to 50% by 2025. A recent paper by Paul Salem, MEI’s Lebanese vice-president for policy and research, observes that advances in technology and communications have led to “a power shift from once all-dominant states to an increasingly informed, powerful and demanding populace” who can then better mobilise and coordinate.
The conflation of megatrends and the anticipated reaction of regional governments to these developments will undoubtedly worsen instability in a region already facing severe volatility and violence.
Employment rates will affect the region heavily. Youth bulges across the Arab world will mean that a larger number of people will be looking for jobs that probably won’t be there.
Youth unemployment in the Middle East, which stood at 26% in 2011, is expected to rise to 28.6% by 2018. If employment is hindered by low economic growth, ambitious, energetic and dynamic young people will find themselves marginalised and left behind.
The report highlights that where young people make up more than 35% of the adult population, the risk of conflict increases 150% — especially when it comes to terrorism. Unemployed youth are ripe for recruitment by extremist groups.
Another factor that points to greater insecurity is the Arab dependence on foreign food supplies.
These megatrends produce three main possible scenarios depending on how capable regional governments are.
The first indicates a continuation of the current upheavals. Arab countries will continue to face challenges in terms of increasing youth unemployment, demands for greater political participation and terrorist threats. Protracted conflicts combined with a lack of reform and the persistence of violence will hinder regional integration and economic development.
The second, more pessimistic, scenario imagines a regional implosion with the Arab world reaching total meltdown by 2025. Terrorism, through intra-nation rivalry against a backdrop of religious tensions, would result in increasing turmoil.
The absence of reforms that might create jobs and encourage innovation, which contribute to growth and foster stability, will aggravate a situation in which the cycle of violence will be perpetuated by the large youth bulge, declining economic growth and harsh state repression.
The third and most optimistic scenario is built on the possibility of an Arab leap, thanks to the enactment of a series of economic and political reforms, creating a new form of regional economic integration that will lead to Arab workers replacing 20% of the foreign, mainly Asian, labour employed in the Gulf.
In addition, regional educational reforms would lead to a decline in youth unemployment, dropping possibly to a level below 20%. This would result in a rapid depletion of the pool of potential terrorist recruits while fostering political stability.
These megatrends are warning signs that Arab leaders ignore at their peril if they have any hope of avoiding a rerun of the wave of revolutions that erupted in 2011. Conflict and instability in the Middle East have been driven by the narrow calculations of regional leaders and the lack of will to make real change.
Conditions that breed revolutions and terrorism will only worsen in the next decade unless Arab leaders truly step up to the plate.