The Arab World at an Inflection Point

Over the holidays, I had lunch with one of the eminences of Arab politics. A former revolutionary, he had spent decades working with Arab leaders and their non-Arab counterparts. He remains sharp, but he has turned reflective. And over lunch, he had a stark admission: “All the strategic choices the Arabs made were wrong.”

He went through a list. Arab economies have proven durably weak. Newly independent governments quickly turned repressive. The constant hostility toward Israel proved an expensive distraction. The region became uniquely enmeshed in warfare and terrorism, while other regions moved on. His generation’s legacy to his children is this: a region whose struggles he had expected to be overcome decades ago, yet which seem even more daunting today. After all, he rose in his career amid a burst of optimism. His generation expected the postcolonial world would produce freedom and prosperity, power, and respect. It did not do much of any of those things. And with Arab populations growing swiftly, the energy transition looming, and the rubble of the Arab Spring’s failures still smoldering, the region’s medium-term outlook is even more daunting.

It would be a mistake, though, to gloss over the fact that the Arab world is once again at an inflection point. The region’s leaderships are making a set of strategic choices as consequential as the ones their predecessors made earlier in this statesman’s career. The region has an opportunity to make much better strategic choices than it made in the past, and there are signs it is beginning to do so—but not in every case.

Economically, governments have turned away from command economies, and they are becoming more thoughtful about state-owned industries. Middle Eastern governments (and their militaries) for too long seized on their ready access to capital to compete against the private sector. The imbalance was made even greater by anemic banking systems that made private capital even harder to come by. Crony capitalism became a pervasive form of corruption, securing local political leaders but smothering investment. There is an increasing understanding throughout the region that small and medium enterprises need to be engines of employment and engines of economic growth, and governments are increasingly interested in creating environments that give space for such activities.

Managing the transition will be hard. Arab economies are shot through with subsidies—about 70 percent of Egyptians are eligible for heavily subsidized bread—and in poorer states, those subsidies barely keep the middle class from falling into poverty. The International Monetary Fund correctly focuses on providing a durable safety net for the poor, but the fragile middle classes represent similar numbers in many cases, and they are far more likely to be politically active than the truly economically desperate. These middle classes stand to grow profoundly more alienated, especially as governments with no ideological or political message provide outsized rewards to the already wealthy.

One way to do so requires rapid progress toward better governance. While government services are generally improving, it is often from a low base. Procedures are cumbersome and time consuming, and outcomes can be uncertain. Arguably, ongoing digitization efforts will ease and speed outcomes, and also provide a pathway toward fairness, creating fingerprints when individuals receive extraordinary treatment. Yet, as users of government websites in the United States and elsewhere can attest, poor implementation can hamstring even highly literate users, while simultaneously marginalizing poor and illiterate users. Every government does not take kindly to the idea that it should be responsive to citizens either, and many are prone to see calls for accountability as existential challenges.

To that end, it is troubling to see Arab governments pouring resources into efforts at surveillance and management of public debate. The state-owned broadcasters of 50 years ago are still there, but they are increasingly inconsequential. Instead, governments are focusing their efforts on coordinated social media campaigns and pervasive surveillance of electronic communication. One can have a debate about whether electoral politics promote consensus or polarization, and whether they drive politicians to embrace unaffordable entitlement spending at the expense of strategic investments. But it seems irrefutable that it is harder to achieve governmental excellence when a suggestion is seen as sedition, or a critique is taken as evidence of disloyalty. The resort to surveillance is not merely a sign of governments’ lack of confidence in themselves. It breeds a dangerous self-confidence on the part of governments and cultivates fear among their citizenries. The economic and social costs of the strategy will accrue over time.

The region will have to grapple with the growing disparities between rich and poor, within countries and between them. The conviction that the rich are growing richer while the poor grow poorer becomes harder to sustain when those who feel they are growing poorer are increasingly literate, mobile, and connected to each other, and united by a shared feeling of injustice. Wealthier Gulf countries are exploring greater investments in the Levant and North Africa, and that is a positive trend. It is important that the benefits of such investment be widely felt.

It is harder to judge if the region will be able to move away from its more recent legacies of violence. With civil wars and insurgencies still raging, an array of proxies with support from inside and outside the region, and an enduring sense of disenfranchisement, the sources of violence seem durable. At the same time, one should not underestimate the importance of religious authorities narrowing the scope of legitimate violence. This move has been most profound in the Gulf, but its impact has spread to the Levant and North Africa.

Inflection points in history are often recognized only after they have passed. Small details create patterns, and patterns combine to create trends, but they are hard to see in the moment. Even so, it does feel like an inflection point is upon us. The older revolutionary saw his vision unrealized after having power. The revolutionaries of 2011 saw their visions unrealized after being denied power. But what will they do now, and what world will they give to their children?

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program