Toward Sustainable States

The Middle East is filled with examples of how neither the United States nor its allies are very good at nation-building. The colonial period in the nineteenth century, the mandate period in the first half of the twentieth century, and Cold War-infused development aid in the second half of the twentieth century all preceded U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq after U.S. troops deposed Saddam Hussein in 2003. While individual projects were successful, more than a century of foreign engagement has left the region lagging much of the world in human and economic development and governmental resilience, and many societies are divided by ethnic and sectarian enmity.

At one extreme, some suggest that the Middle East’s challenges are a consequence of Western meddling, which has left the region weakened and divided. At the other are those who argue that the Middle East’s problems are a consequence of ancient hatreds and oppressive customs that are rooted in the region’s history and which the West has been unable to squelch. The truth is more complicated and lies somewhere in between.

Inarguably, though, many of the region’s challenges emerge from a less culturally weighted source: the failings of central governments. Their centralization of control saps local initiative, their allocation of resources based on patronage divides societies, and their incapacities build distrust.

Technology now provides an opportunity to bridge the divide between states and societies in the Middle East. Facilitating the adoption of those technologies will allow Western governments alarmed by state-society relations in the Middle East to play a constructive role addressing it.

As the CSIS Middle East Program discusses in its recent report, Sustainable States: Environment, Governance, and the Future of the Middle East, public services such as power, water, and waste provide a powerful lens through which to view the actual interactions between governments and societies, and between elites and the public, in the Middle East. These utilities account for massive amounts of public spending, and they affect the lives of every resident. In many middle-income countries, including the ones under study, these utilities have become increasingly contentious as governments have strained to meet swiftly escalating demand. Many efforts to meet that rising demand have layered incremental solutions on top of incremental solutions. The results have been expensive, environmentally unsustainable, and ultimately inadequate for national needs.

Technological advances in recent years provide opportunities for more affordable and sustainable solutions. Operating costs are lower, negative environmental impacts are minimized, and reliability is increased. As an added benefit, many of these advances can be managed locally, connecting communities to services and creating jobs for young people.

And yet, widespread skepticism of government inhibits the adoption of many of these technologies. Overly centralized organization, a checkered record of performance, and deep perceptions of favoritism and self-dealing make millions doubt that sustainable solutions are sustainable at all. The public fears that such efforts will only enrich the powerful and exacerbate the unfair status quo. In addition, the political economies of many countries do not reward entrepreneurs working in these fields, in part because of inadequate support for entrepreneurs in general, and in part because of the political benefits that accrue from sustaining the status quo.

Yet, those same obstacles signal the importance of success in this endeavor. Sustainable delivery of services will do more than merely improve environmental conditions in the Middle East and provide more reliable services to broad populations; it is also a vehicle to address the corrosive lack of trust in many Middle Eastern societies. That distrust is growing as governments are increasingly unable to meet the needs of their citizens. Building the capacity and accountability of local authorities will change their relationship with citizens for the better. Governments that are able to model effectiveness, efficiency, and fairness in the provision of services will win greater compliance in a range of regulatory activities. Nurturing a climate that fosters and rewards innovation in the environmental field will have ancillary benefits as well, not only creating a market for technological innovation but also providing opportunities for talented young men and women to advance their countries while they advance their own careers.

A serious effort to increase the environmental sustainability of utilities would have a positive impact well beyond its notional parameters. It would have a halo effect on many of the most serious social, economic, and political challenges facing these societies. Technological advances allow services to be provided more effectively, economically, and sustainably than they are now, reaching larger populations more efficiently.

For Western governments ready to throw up their hands at the challenges of the Middle East, environmentally sustainable public services provide a pathway for a new kind of engagement with a new set of outcomes. The systems, habits, and behaviors necessary to adopt such technologies are within reach, and their benefits would extend far beyond the narrow realm of the services themselves, to areas that Western governments have identified as long-standing priorities in the Middle East.

While technology can provide the pathway, it is not enough. Governments and citizens alike must be willing to seize the opportunity. Some are likely to decline to even start, and some others may bungle it. Yet, for those in the region and outside of it who are tempted to give up hope for a better future, sustainable public utilities could spark a whole series of positive changes.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzenzinski 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.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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