Losing in Every Direction: The Arab Game of Thrones

By Anthony H. Cordesman

History is never particularly merciful, especially in the case of failed leaders. One cannot help but wonder therefore, how will future generations of Arabs judge their current leaders? How will they judge their leaders’ focus on personal power and regime survival, on choosing one group of national factions over another, and on regional quarrels with their neighbors? How will they judge their failures to focus on economic development, effective governance, uniting their peoples, and meeting popular needs? How will they judge the extent to which they have backed away from the focus on modernization and progress of the 1960s and 1970s, and failed to cope with population growth and the needs of their youth?

There are some islands of good intentions: Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan, and Saudi Arabia has at least talked about the necessary scale of reform. However, no given state can operate in today's Arab world and not suffer the consequences. Most Arab leaders are still failing their peoples, and simply by the judgment of outside states and experts—many of which are necessarily tactical for economic, political, and military reasons.

Arab Warnings of the Shape of Things to Come

There is no excuse for this lack of leadership, and making these judgments is no symptom of any clash of civilizations. Arab voices have been as clear as – and sometimes more so – outside voices. If one looks at Arab voices and experts, the leaders of the Arab world are ignoring long-standing warnings that Arab experts gave about population growth, authoritarian rule, and poor economic policies nearly half a century ago. They are ignoring more recent and highly public warnings like those that the Arab economists working for the UN Development Program began to give from 2002 onwards, about population growth, the failure to create honest and popular governments, and poor and corrupt economic policies in their Arab Development Reports.

Far too many Arab leaders seem functionally oblivious to building pressures that lead to political upheavals and instability—pressures that have grown steadily since the massive round of such upheavals in 2011. Yet, the 2016 version of the Arab Development Report repeats all of the warnings of the 2002 edition and provides new and even more troubling data:

  • The Arab world is the global center of conflict and human distress: It has 5% of the world's population. From 1947 to 2014, it had 17.6% of the world's conflicts. It 1989-2014, it had 27.7% of the world's battle deaths, and it had 68.5% in 2014.
  • It had 45% of global terrorist attacks in 2014.
  • It had 57.5% of the world's refugees in 2014, and 47% of its internally displaced persons.
  • The Arab world needs to create 60 million more jobs by 2020 in an Arab world where youth unemployment (15-24 years) is already close to 30%, and rising.
  • Unemployment rates for Arab youth (47%) are twice the rate (24%) for middle income countries. Young woman's participation in the labor force is 24%, versus 50% globally.
  • The average age of Ministers is 58 in one of the youngest regions in the world. Youth voting rates – where permitted – were 68.3%. The lowest in the world and versus 87.4% in middle income countries.
  • Youth participation in public protests exceeded 18%, versus 10.8% for middle income countries.

Wars and political crises in Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, the Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen have made things steadily worse since the cut-off data for the Arab Development Report. Indeed, ever since major political upheavals began in 2011, the global crash in oil prices and oil export revenues have affected even the wealthiest and least populated petroleum exporting states.

Outside Warnings and Trends

If one looks at outside sources, the warnings are equally broad and clear. The UN Human Development Reports—and UN data on poverty, medical conditions, and food supplies—show a striking lack of progress in far too many Arab states since 2000. The World Bank's ratings of governance and the barriers to doing business show some exceptions, but critically low rankings and a remarkable lack of progress for Arab country after Arab country. The same is true in the high rankings Arab states get for corruption from respected organizations like Transparency International.

In case after case, a review of the World Bank economic analysis of a given Arab country will reveal a need for major economic reform and new development activity—often basically the same needs that existed a decade ago or earlier. The same is true of the IMF's Article 4 reports and economic summaries for Arab states.

Like virtually all reporting on Arab states and other states throughout the world, these same reports will not address other key problems that are all too common knowledge. Their charters prevent them from addressing the problems that shape ethnic, sectarian, regional, and tribal tensions, and create major inequities and sources of tension in conflict in given states. They do not seriously address the steady concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the scale and impact of corruption. They do not fully address the human impact of mismanagement of the financial and state sectors, failure to expand and improve infrastructure, crony capitalism, and military spending.

As for military spending, if one does look at the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) reports on military spending, wars, counterterrorism, and the Arab Gulf arms race with Iran drove Arab military spending to some $181 billion in 2014—less Libya, Syria, the UAE, Yemen, the Sudan, and Somalia for which there was no reporting or reliable data. The crash in prices cut this spending to around $145 billion in 2016, but it is clear that rose again in 2017 – as did major imports.

This puts an immense burden on Arab states that need their money for internal development. For those countries where there is reporting, the average level of Arab state spending on military forces consumed about six percent of their economies—three times the 2% goal of GDP for military spending by the developed states in NATO and close to twice the actual percent for the United States. Several key Arab countries with serious development needs were outliers during 2014-2016: Iraq spent 8.5 to 11.6% of its GDP, Oman spent 11.8% to 15.3%, and Saudi Arabia spent 8.9%-12.7%. These figures also often ignore major internal security spending, counterterrorism activity, and the cost of military industries and arms purchases.

Perhaps the biggest driving force of pressure that Arab leaders need to address, however, is the population growth that creates the youth unemployment and instability crisis described earlier in the Arab Development Report. this growth takes place in a region with limited arable land and water, a steady shift to hyper-urbanization since the 1960s, and whose very survival is dependent on modern economic development.

While individual estimates of these population pressures differ, virtually all major estimates broadly agree with those of the International Data Base of the U.S. Census Bureau. This data base estimates that the Arab world (less Mauritania, the Sudan, and Somalia) rose from a total of 65.0 million in 1950 to 121.3 million in 1975, to 237.6 million in 2000, and to 341 million in 2017— well over a fivefold increase. The rate of growth has dropped sharply over time, but the total is still expected to rise to 394 million in 2025 and 532 million in 2050—more than 8 times the total in 1950.

Moreover, well over 7.5 million new future entrants to the labor force will be born between 2017 and 2018. Well over 6.7 million young men and women will reach job age. Moreover, 31.5% of the total population in 2017-2018 will be 14 years of age or younger, 11.4% more will be ages 15 to 19, and 9.8% more will be ages 20-24—a total of 52.7%. The "youth bulge" in Arab states that has done so much to create levels of hyper-urbanization that now often exceed 75%, and do so much to stimulate political unrest and extremism, is already born. It also will endure for well over a decade. The past failures to cope with population growth will be made far worse by their entry into the job market and the growth in future need.

The Self-Destructive Games of Thrones

No one Arab state or leader is responsible. The list of failed states – at least in terms of any coherent and effective effort by its leadership in addressing these issues is debatable. However, it almost certainly includes Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia. Nations with weak and divided leadership like Iraq may deserve a pass, as do countries with too much petroleum income and too little population to fail: Kuwait (whose legislature does seem to be trying to fail), Qatar, and the UAE. In general, however, there is an inverse correlation between density, population and failure, and between authoritarian and military regimes and a persistent failure to take credible action to meet popular needs.

There is a limited correlation between monarchy and positive effort in Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. This is offset in the case of Saudi Arabia, however, by the war in Yemen, the Saudi tendency to focus on goals rather than actual implementation of its reform plan, and above all by the near farcical level of tension between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their fellow monarchy in Qatar.

It is now well over six months since this pointless episode in the game of thrones began. Like Humpty Dumpty, all the kings' men have not been able to put the Gulf Cooperation Council together again. In this case, however, they have not tried. As anyone in Washington who has been beleaguered by their respective armies of pandering lobbyists can testify, charges and counter charges have gotten worse, and no meaningful negotiations have surfaced. Worse, there have been air incidents that hint of the risk of actual clashes.

The end result is doing more than dividing the three states most involved. It is pushing Qatar towards Iran, distancing Oman from the GCC, allowing Shiite-Sunni tension in Bahrain to fester, and leaving Kuwait exposed. It not only has thrust real world responsibility for Gulf security back on the U.S., it has made the war in Yemen even harder to deal with. It has also limited the leadership role that Saudi Arabia might be able to play in leading the Arab world and execute and fund the one really major reform effort that any Arab state has so far had the potential resources to attempt.

Worse, this Gulf game of thrones is occurring at a time when Egypt's leader is playing his own game of thrones and is unwilling to allow even fellow generals to run against him, much less take the scale of measures that might seriously restore Egypt's stability and status. It is occurring at time when Assad's survival seems likely to lock Syria indefinitely into its own deep divisions and where Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divisions may keep it equally divided.

It seems worth noting in this regard that Arab charges that Iran—or at least pre-riot Iran—is aggressively spreading its influence in the Arab world do reflect a real potential Iranian military threat. But, consider the reasons for Iran's success in expanding its influence. It is simply exploiting the self-inflicted wounds of Arab states: the divisions and self-destructiveness of Lebanon, a matching self-destructiveness and civil war in Syria; and the failure of Iraq's leaders to effectively unite in the face of Saddam's fall and a major invasion by ISIS. The leaders of the Arab world may not have offered Iran an engraved invitation, but their leaders' games of thrones might just as well have done so.


Key Trends in the Arab Development Report for 2016



Source: UNDP, Arab Development Report 2016, http://www.arab-hdr.org/.