Deaths of Despair

For almost a decade, economists have been noting the rise of “deaths of despair” in portions of the American population. Among middle-aged, white, non-Hispanic men and women without a college education, the rates of suicide, drug addiction, and alcoholism have been rising, and life expectancy has been declining. The explanation the economists give is that these populations have been left behind as jobs and status have migrated from their communities to more highly educated and urban populations. They feel aggrieved, disenfranchised, disrespected, and preyed upon. A significant fraction has gone on to embrace conspiracy theories and radical politics.

While Middle Eastern politics are profoundly different from U.S. politics, it is worth considering whether economic change will drive the Middle East toward a period of greater polarization, and even violence. The common view is that the Arab Spring eviscerated both political Islam and broad democratization movements, leaving the region in a durably post-ideological phase. Yet, looking forward at trends in the region over the next decade or two, it is hard to be confident that a coming economic transformation will not have similar social consequences. In fact, many of them already may be emerging.

The overwhelming trend in the Arab world in the mid-twentieth century was economic growth. Urbanization and industrialization brought tens of millions out of rural poverty in the Levant and North Africa. Meanwhile, oil took millions in the Gulf from subsistence to great wealth in just a generation. Across the region, governments established broad social safety nets, often subsidizing food, utilities, healthcare, and university educations, and they viewed the civil service more as an employment scheme than as a way to provide services to the population.

Government largesse began fading in much of the region decades ago, but for many, even low-quality subsidies represent the margin between difficult economic straits and true suffering. Young people have been in an especially precarious position, as youth unemployment in many countries tops 30 percent. Arabs and Iranians often stay at home for years after finishing education, unable to find work or get married. There is a quiet epidemic of drug use throughout the region. Opioids such as heroin and tramadol and amphetamines such as Captagon, combined with the availability of alcohol, marijuana, and hashish, have created an epidemic of substance abuse for young people from Morocco to Iran, numbing the pain of boredom and unemployment.

Conditions may get worse before they get better. The economic dislocation of the Covid-19 pandemic has not only depressed economic growth, but it has forced many regional governments toward international lenders. Not unreasonably, many of those lenders have demanded fiscal restraint and subsidy reform. While international financial institutions are sensitive to the need to target support for the poorest and most vulnerable, savings will need to come from restricting subsidies to the middle classes, who feel anything but spoiled in current circumstances.

But it is not just poorer countries in the eye of the storm. Wealthier Middle Eastern governments are restricting government jobs and eagerly pushing young people into private sector employment. So far, they are mostly relying on incentives. The time will come in the not-too-distant future when the incentives diminish, and young people are left with stark choices.

If all goes according to plan, the present economic transformation will not only address the challenges of today’s Middle Eastern youth, but their children as well. More vibrant economies and robust private sectors will follow, creating resiliency in currently strained societies. There will be no alienation.

The alternative is truly daunting: a lost generation that feels some combination of disaffection and desperation, unable to escape stagnant economies, smoldering on the humiliation of losing both security and status from childhood.

The options to manage such a population are unattractive. One is straightforward repression. Saddam Hussein did that in the 1990s, when the Ba’ath Party gave up any pretense to ideology and ruled purely through coercion. A variant is pervasive surveillance, betting that technology can successfully identify individuals, groups, and age cohorts that are turning against governments. This might be seen as following Chinese practice, although several Gulf governments appear to have embraced it with gusto. Such a strategy is likely to work better in wealthier countries with more tools to co-opt the population, and smaller numbers of young people who need to be coopted. Still, it might not work any better than the efforts of intelligence services prior to the Arab Spring.

Governments can also seek to unite people around ideas. It is hard to imagine the return of utopian ideologies to the world stage, but it is easier to imagine the rise of xenophobic conspiracy theories, either peddled by governments or their opponents. Such strategies would run counter to economic plans to boost trade and investment, but governments might feel they are necessary nonetheless.

Glorifying strongmen—be they kings or presidents—is another option. The record of Middle Eastern countries with such rulers is a sad one, as decades of charisma slid into eccentricity, paranoia, and isolation. Rulers may pursue this strategy nonetheless.

The safest option may be to lean into the despair, persuading publics that they are indeed powerless. It is hard to imagine much success or stability will come from it.

The best answer, of course, is to avoid the despair in the first place, growing vigorous economies while being sensitive to the needs of the population. It means helping citizens feel more like stakeholders than subjects and giving them a sense of agency in their own lives. Doing so is difficult in a democracy like the United States, and it may be even harder in the Middle East, given the region is navigating a massive economic transition. It is necessary in both, not because it is easy, but because the alternatives are so much worse.

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