Stability in the Middle East: The Range of Short and Long-Term Causes

Anthony H. Cordesman


The Middle East has long been one of the most unstable regions in the world, and there are no present prospects for change in the near future. This instability is the result of ongoing conflicts and tensions, and a variety of political tensions and divisions. It also, however, is the result of a wide variety of long-term pressures growing out of poor governance, corruption, economic failures, demographic pressures and other forces within the civil sector.

The Short and Long-Term Forces Shaping Stability and Instability

The immediate sources of instability are clear. Most of the region has some form of internal conflict, faces rising external threats, or is dealing with violent extremism. The violence and wars that have resulted from the political upheavals in 2011 will at best leave lasting challenges for unity and development even if the fighting ends. All the major causes of violent extremism remain, and there are few prospects that the fight against ISIS will eliminate the extremist threat in even one MENA country. Tensions between Israel and the Palestinian persist, each side has seen rising internal political barriers to a compromise peace, and the tensions between Israel and Iran and Hezbollah are creating new military threats.

The longer-term pressures are less clear, although a wide range of international organizations like the UN, World Bank, and IMF have warned about the individual forces involved for decades. Arab experts have documented the level of such pressures in the UN's Arab Development Reports since 2002, and many of the forces involved have consistent trends lines and can be quantified by country. These reports reveal radical differences between the countries in the region, but highlight the fact that given countries have mix of poor and abusive governance, ethnic and sectarian differences, corruption and self-seeking elites, poor or failed economic development, employment and career problems, and population pressures that challenge national unity and stability, and help lead to violent extremism.

Taken together, it is clear that there is no simply way to model or predict the level of stability in any given country, much less the region. There are too many variables involved, and the variables differ so much even between neighboring countries that focusing on one set of variables can at best describe the current situation in a single country – not the situation in the Arab world or MENA region.

History has also made it all too clear that stability or instability can also change almost instantly because of the actions of a given figure or leader, personal tensions or ability to cooperate, ill-judged actions or interactions between given actors, outside intervention, success or failure in crisis management or warfare, and catalytic events that capture popular attention. The origins of the political upheavals and wars that began in 2011are a key case in point.

Report on The Range of Forces Shaping Stability in the MENA Region

There are, however, a wide range of short and longer-term trends that can be analyzed, and many can be at least partially quantified. They provide a clear warning in many cases of the actions that governments must take to reduce the threat posed by given causes, and affect the society of each Arab and MENA

A summary presentation on the forces shaping stability and instability in the MENA region has evolved significantly since these reports were issued, however, and a summary update has been prepared for the annual conference of the Arab Thought Foundation in Dubai on April 10-12, 2018. This report addresses both the short-term causes of instability and the longer-term trends, and provides updated summary data on each Arab and Middle Eastern state where available.

The report is entitled Stability in the MENA Region: The Range of Forces Shaping Stability.

The Table of Contents includes:

Key Factors Shaping the Analysis, 7

  • The “Band of Instability”: Morocco to Iran, 8
  • Estimating Stability and Instability, 9
  • Key Causes of Instability, 10
  • Major Impacts to Date, 11

The Security Side of Instability, 12

  • The Cost of Conflict and Violent Extremism, 13
  • Wars with Lasting Stability and Development Impacts, 14
  • The Impact of War on Development: Syria, 15
  • The Impact of War on Development: Iraq, 16
  • Terrorism and Violent Islamic Extremism, 17
  • The Growing Global Impact of Islam: 2010-2050, 18
  • ODNI Map of Sunni Violent Extremist Operating Areas in 2017, 19
  • MENA and Nearby Areas Where U.S. Forces Have CT Mission, 20
  • Arab World Terrorist Attacks vs. Rest of World, 21
  • Terrorist Attacks in MENA 2001-2016, 22
  • High Lethality in Arab Terrorism, 23
  • Four of Ten Leading Countries are Arab, Eight are “Islamic”, 24
  • Four of Five Leading Perpetrators are Arab, 25
  • Costly Wars and Arms Races, 26
  • IISS Estimate of 2017 Global Military Spending, 27
  • Comparative Military and Security Spending in 2017, 28
  • Excessively Large National Security Forces, 29
  • IISS Estimate of Real Change in MENA Military Spending 2016-2017, 30
  • Ethnic, Sectarian, Tribal, and Regional Differences, 31
  • Sectarian/Ethnic/Tribal/Regional Divisions, 32
  • Key Analytic Issues, 33
  • Sectarian Divisions in MENA, 34
  • Ethnic Divisions in MENA, 35
  • Broader “Kurdish Problem”, 36

The Civil Side of Instability, 37

  • Key Civil Causes of Instability, 38
  • Civil Challenges to Stability, 39
  • Some Uncertain Polling Indicators, 40
  • Perceptions of National Challenges, 41
  • Arab Youth: Negative Views of ISIS: 2015, 42
  • Lack of Youth Employment Opportunities,43
  • Lack of Youth Employment Opportunities Pt 2, 44
  • Secularism vs. Religion vs. “Justice” vs. Other Ideological Issues, 45
  • Support for Making Sharia the Official law by Country, 46

Governance and Corruption, 47

  • Governance, Corruption, Rule of Law, Repression, 48
  • UN HDI Index: Rankings by Country, 2016, 49
  • World Bank Rating of Governance in Entire MENA Region, 50
  • Government Effectiveness and Failed Secularism, 51
  • Government Effectiveness and Failed Secularism Pt 2, 52
  • Uncertain Governance, 53
  • Corruption Perceptions Ranking in 2016, 54
  • Rigid and/or Repressive Regimes; Lack of Peaceful Civil and Political Alternatives, 55
  • Political Stability/ Less Violence in 2016, 56
  • Rule of Law MENA Region, 2016, 57

Economics and Unemployment, 58

  • Key Economic Causes of Instability, 59
  • GDP by Country, MENA Region in 2017, 60
  • GDP Per Capita Estimates: MENA Region, 61
  • GNI per Capita PPP terms, MENA Region, 62
  • Key Economic Pressures, 63
  • Key Missing Index: Gini Index, 64
  • Percentage of Population Dissatisfied with Standard of Living, 65
  • Excessive Public Sector Employment, 66
  • Lag in Employment and Cause, 67
  • Rankings: Ease of Doing Business MENA Region, 2017, 68
  • The Expatriate Challenge, 69

Population Pressure and the “Youth Bulge”, 70

  • Demographic Pressures, 71
  • The Global Impact of Islam: 2010-2050, 72
  • MENA Population (Thousands) 1950 – 2050, 73
  • Demographic Pressure in North Africa 1950-2015, 74
  • Demographic Pressure in Arab-Israeli Countries: 1950-2050, 75
  • Demographic Pressure in Gulf Countries: 1950-2050, 76
  • Youth Bulge and Employment, 77
  • Total and Youth Unemployment Rates by Region Before 2011, 78
  • Comparative Arab Youth Unemployment, 79
  • The “Youth Bulge”, 80
  • The Shape of Things to Come – for the Next Decade, 81
  • Dependency Ratio, by country, MENA region, 2015, 82
  • Potential Support Ratio, by country, MENA region, 2015, 83

Major Pressures for Social Change, 84

  • Social Change, Hyperurbanization, Media, Education, 85
  • Key Drivers, 86
  • Growing Hyper Urbanization: 1950-2030, 87
  • Percentages of Urbanization in MENA Region, 2017, 88
  • Internet Users in Middle East, by Country, 2017, 89
  • Digital Penetration in the MENA Region: 2012, 90

Over-Dependence on Petroleum Exports, 91

  • The OPEC Disease and the Illusion of Oil Wealth, 92
  • Total Petroleum Export Revenues Sub section, 93
  • The Real World Limits to Oil Wealth, 94
  • The Oil Shock in 2012-2016, 95
  • The Limits to “Oil Wealth:” Per Capita Net Oil Export Income and the Oil Shock in 2012-2016, 96
  • Non-Petroleum GDP Per Capita Income, 97

Other Slides, 98

  • GDP per Capita MENA Region in 2017, 99
  • Public Sector Bias in Seeking Employment, 100
  • Perceptions of Quality of Life and Governance, 101
  • Detailed Population Trends, 102

Additional Reports and References

The reader should be aware that The Burke Chair at CSIS, working with Dr. Abdullah Toucan, has addressed these causes of instability in more depth in a number of prior reports. Two have examined the ability to model and quantify key trends in depth:

A third report provides a set of comparisons of each MENA country flagging both key areas of risk and major gaps or problems in international and national reporting:

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.