State resilience in the Arab world

Thinking on future trends

Marty Harris

International relations, National security | Asia, The World

26 July 2017

We should be preparing for scenarios in which societal conditions in Arab states deteriorate further, Marty Harris writes.

Civil wars, failing states, authoritarian recovery, and members of the region’s most successful economic union cutting ties with one of their own. The Arab world looks rather messy right now.

Yet it could get much worse. Many of the trends slated to affect the Arab world in coming years will only make it harder for state structures to cope, with implications well beyond the region.

A key message from former US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s recent engagement at the ANU National Security College was to highlight ‘state resilience’ as a more coherent way to measure a nation’s strength and its ability to cope with future disruption. His analysis drew on the latest iteration of Global Trends, which highlights six factors enhancing the resiliency of states: capable governance, diversified economies, integrated and prepared societies, robust infrastructure, capable and trusted security apparatus, and diverse natural resources.

Applying these metrics to the Arab world, it is kind of surprising that many states have endured at all. The Arab world’s political, economic, societal and climatic problems have been mollified somewhat by hydrocarbons (and the largesse richer Arab states have dispersed to poorer ones) and the unifying force of Palestine.

The social compact embodied in Dimuqratiyyat al khubz (‘democracy of bread’), where Arab strongmen have received political deference from their peoples in return for the provision of publicly subsidised services — such as education or health care — has undoubtedly helped many countries stave off collapse.

More on this: The Middle East: a zone of frenemies?

However, with low oil prices and a litany of future shocks on their way, the prospects for Arab peoples might get significantly worse.

The demographic pressures that helped facilitate the uprisings from 2011 — huge numbers of underemployed young people — persist, with a third of the population aged 15–29 and a quarter of that cohort unemployed. Moreover, these numbers are skewed by the much richer GCC countries, where unemployment and the proportion of the population considered youth are both lower.

A youth bulge is not inherently bad, as many Southeast and East Asian states have demonstrated. Arab countries have, however, often struggled to convert higher levels of education into growing employment, even when their economies are expanding, a phenomenon known as ‘jobless growth.

Advances in literacy and huge investments in education mask problems with the education systems in many Arab countries. The authors of Brookings’ Arab World Barometer summarise this well:

“students in the region do not learn what we call twenty-first-century skills like working in teams, problem-solving, being innovative, risk taking. So, there is a problem with the curriculum that is too traditional, that is too much based on rote learning, learning things by heart.”

Others cite a chronic misalignment between education systems and employment markets, leading to large numbers of unemployed university graduates. Around the time of the uprisings, a quarter of Egypt’s male university graduates were unemployed, and almost half female graduates. Call it ‘jobless education.’

The effects of the uprisings compound these demographic and education issues. Extreme poverty, declining gradually over the last couple of decades in most Arab countries, is rising again in those countries most marked by the ‘Arab Spring.’

The Arab world is the only region in the world where extreme poverty has increased since 2010.

More on this: Russia in Syria: a win-win situation?

This leads many to warn of a ‘lost generation’ — unschooled and shell-shocked children with poor health outcomes, long-term unemployed or underemployed youth, and declining economic outcomes — vulnerable to radicalisation.

Land and water resources are extremely tight in the Middle East, and have the potential to get far worse as population growth continues, urbanisation increases and climates shift.

According to Global Trends, of the 30 countries expected to face extreme high water stress by 2035, half are in the Middle East.

A NASA climatologist stated recently that “the whole region is already highly sensitive to drought because of the limited water resources, and this area is a place where we really expect the drought-related impacts of climate change to be particularly important.”

This has led to many breathless reports over the years stating that climate change will result in parts of the Middle East becoming uninhabitable by [insert your year prediction here].

Combine these trends with the more oft-cited problems in the Arab world — violent extremism, historical political, sectarian and ethnic divisions, geopolitical interference, etc. — and we should be preparing for plausible scenarios in which things get much worse.

Migration pressures from this part of the world will continue, exacerbated by security, climate, and economic shocks. Conflicts will continue and new ones will likely begin, drawing in political and military effort from the international community. All governments, local and international, should be planning to mitigate these trends and their potential implications. Ignoring them is risky.

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