After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the world suddenly focused its gaze on the Middle East and recognized one seminal fact: The region was almost unique in having made no significant political, economic or social progress in decades. Throughout the world, communism had collapsed, juntas had disappeared, and economic growth had transformed developing countries. But in the Middle East, time had stood still, and even moved backward on some measures. This stagnation, many believed, was the atmosphere in which Islamic extremism and terrorism were able to grow and spread.
In 2002, the United Nations released a report on Arab development, written and researched by Arab experts, that laid bare the region’s profound challenges. It identified three deficits that needed to be overcome to bring the region into the modern world: deficits of freedom, female empowerment and knowledge. It spoke more broadly of the lack of economic opportunity, political rights and social progress in much of the Arab world. Governments around the world resolved that these were the crucial issues to address in the Middle East.
Why? Partly because the Arab Spring was largely a failure. Only Tunisia transitioned to democratic rule. Egypt saw the return of repressive rule; Syria experienced a civil war and the bloody resurgence of the Assad regime; and Yemen and Libya are in free fall. But even beyond these breakdowns, the region continues to face daunting challenges. The demographics remain grim. The Middle East has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. The economic model remains highly inefficient, expensive and unsustainable, with governments employing a huge number of people and providing massive subsidies for food and energy.
Efforts at reform have had mixed results. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, there has been some success. But it’s difficult for countries so dependent on state spending to jump-start the private sector, particularly when their economies are reeling from low oil prices. In Egypt, the government employs around 20 percent of the labor force. In Algeria, it’s almost 40 percent; in Saudi Arabia, more than 65 percent. In cases where the state has tried to step back, the private sector has struggled to step in. Many countries have attempted to cut subsidies, triggering protests that have often been met with repression.
The hope behind the U.N.’s 2002 report was that economic and social reforms would become easier if these countries opened themselves up politically. Political openness would produce popular, elected leaders who would drain away support for Islamic extremists. This was the appealing idea behind President George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, which was rooted in some serious thinking about the region. But little of it worked. Political openings mostly led to insurgencies, sectarian violence, civil wars and crackdowns. Places such as Lebanon and Jordan that have maintained their unity and stability remain fragile, and very little reform has taken place.
Perhaps the most important result of the enduring turmoil in the Arab world has been the United States’ withdrawal from the region. Starting during the second term of the George W. Bush administration, through Barack Obama’s presidency and now into Donald Trump’s, the United States has gotten fed up with the Middle East. It now seems content to rid itself of responsibility for this messy, unstable part of the world. When Trump says he wants to end the forever wars, large parts of the public agree.
So we see an emerging post-American Middle East, with various regional powers jockeying for influence, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with others such as Turkey and Israel, pushing their own interests. These are uncharted waters in a time of great upheaval — Syria has produced more than 5 million refugees , and Yemen faces the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The Islamic State has been decapitated and is scattered for now, but the demons that have fueled such terror — stagnation, repression, despair — continue to haunt today’s Arab world.
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