Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:28 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:28 | SYDNEY

Five Middle East crises: 5. Internal unrest


Anthony Bubalo

26 February 2009 08:57

Unlike the previous four Middle East/West Asia crises dealt with in this series, the fifth is a wild card. As I noted at the outset of this series, the Obama Administration will have to respond to ripening crises on the Arab-Israeli, Iraqi, Afghanistan/Pakistani and Iranian fronts pretty much all at the same time. 

But it might also be forced to deal with an unexpected event over the next year-and-a-half, and the one I would point to is a major internal crisis or unrest in any one of a number of states in West Asia – including some key allied ones. 

Few observers of the region get points for predicting domestic crises. Most states seem perennially on the verge of a nervous breakdown — afflicted by variations of aged rulers, stagnating bureacracies, unproductive or underproductive economies, poor education systems and endemic corruption — though most seem creak along without ever quite collapsing. 

But, in the Gulf in particular, a new generation of political and business leaders, combined with small, relatively well-educated populations and spectacular oil and gas incomes have helped some West Asian states forge a new and less decrepit image of governance in the region, becoming major international hubs for finance, trade and travel.

In fact as this discussion notes, the region’s youth bulge (15-29 year-olds make up a third of the population), often seen as an impediment, can, under the right conditions, be considered a positive. That is, large youth populations combined with high energy incomes (or, in non-energy producing countries, relatively high levels of foreign investment) has created the potential for economic growth by reducing dependency ratios, increasing per capita labour inputs, and raising rates of savings and domestic investment.

These demographics might be a boon in good times, but they exacerbate problems in bad times. As this discussion notes, while Middle East growth rates might not be slashed as hard as those in other parts of the world, even with relatively high recent growth, these countries were still struggling to generate sufficient employment opportunities for domestic populations. 

We still don’t have a clear idea how the GFC will impact West Asia, even if it is pretty clear that it will vary. Spectacular growth among some Gulf economies may simply become steady growth, though the heavily leveraged, like Dubai, are probably in for bigger problems. 

But as Pakistan’s near penury demonstrates, it won’t just be those West Asian states most closely tied to the globalised economy and financial system that will suffer. States like Egypt and Jordan will also have to respond to the challenge of slower growth, declining exports and reduced investment, though the pressure this puts on ruling regimes will be partly offset by falling food and fuel prices.

There will also be flow-on effect from any slowdown in the Gulf as it impacts on employment, remittances and intra-regional investment.

The real problem, however, is one of leadership. The GFC represents a policy challenge of a perhaps unprecedented nature almost everywhere. But for slow-moving or underdeveloped bureaucracies in countries like Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and perhaps even Saudi Arabia and the Gulf it will add to the domestic challenges they are already struggling to respond to. In Pakistan this is already happening.

A major domestic crisis or unrest in Iran or Syria might not bother an Obama Administration too much. But in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and even Yemen, given its strategic location, it is a different story.

In all of these countries, ties to the US have in recent years been a liability for the domestic legitimacy of rulers — something the war in Gaza underlined yet again as local populations looked with continuing frustration at the inaction and powerlessness of their leaders.

Of course, most of these countries retain significant coercive resources to contain any unrest – and this should not be underestimated. But as David Hardaker’s report for the Institute on the new media in the Arab world illustrated, opposition movements have also benefitted from the information revolution. Not only can they access information more easily, but they have already used tools such as Facebook to organise demonstrations.

In short, it is not any one single thing that points to a growing potential for domestic unrest in the Arab world over the coming eighteen months, but a combination of factors, forces and trends, some of which have been developing for many years.