No Shared Future
The Arab world is experiencing a time of extremely grave events and, essentially, deadly revolutions that are fraught with more than just economic losses. A powerful blow has been delivered to the humanitarian values and psychology of the people who have found themselves in the midst of the tragedies that have unfolded throughout the extensive spaces of the region.
Naturally, over their multiple centuries of existence, Arabs have repeatedly experienced all sorts of turmoil that has left behind a trail in their fate. But there has never been anything like the current explosion of exasperation in the modern history of the Arab world. The region has been plunged into a series of conflicts that have grown into a massive civil war that has climaxed with what we are currently seeing in Iraq and Syria.
Five years of an armed struggle has led to unexpected shifts. Stable regimes have crumbled, their former leaders have paid the price, new governments and movements have been established, and new semblances of elites have also formed. There was a hitherto unprecedented Islamic quasi-state, which coined the criminal practice of governance and management.
The appearance of such a strong player that utilizes explicit and implicit assistance from other seemingly respectable states, from leading democracies to monarchies, has revived the darkest forces in the Arab world and far beyond its borders. The international terrorism that has emerged on this basis has transformed previous notions about Islam, distorted the profound understanding of jihad, and created an environment of epidemic violence and destruction in the centers where they are based.
The region has entered into a state of intense agitation, and its shift has intensified to the extreme as the interests and complaints of world and regional powers converge there, thus leaving the Arab governments with too little room to maneuver. Most of the Middle East is taking on a complex pattern that, apart from the military action and diplomatic activity of the giants, is interwoven by a wide range of local players – from the sheikhs of tribal militias to low-level warlords. This has seriously complicated the situation, often placing it on the verge of unpredictability, and the multiplicity of players has shattered the landscape and created areas of secondary and tertiary importance, while the dragged out solution to the problem makes it impossible to outline starting points for the peace process.
The Arab East is a multi-faceted and highly peculiar cultural and civilizational phenomenon that perhaps cannot ultimately be understood. This is particularly felt in the era of massive disturbances that have literally led to tectonic shifts in the body of the region. Nevertheless, it is obvious that during the post-war period, the Arab world will certainly face the problem of selecting models and paths of development
The form of its actions will be dictated, in addition to the inherent Arab pragmatism, by the consequences of civil wars. Moreover, this will not only concern the states directly affected by such wars, but also those that remained on the sidelines to a certain extent. After all, even the pronounced individuality of specific countries, combined with the inherent diversity in the region, does not preclude the systemic qualities that make it possible to see the region in general terms in the period to come.
And after the war with Islamists, the factors that have had a predominant influence on the region will remain, although they will undergo certain changes depending on the position of particular countries in the local coordinate system.
Above all, the Arab East, which occupies a considerable territory in Asia and Africa, should retain its geopolitical importance and remain the subject of intense scrutiny among the major world powers that have direct economic, political, military, and other interests there. Its influence could grow over time within the framework of globalization processes. As the region accumulates the prerequisites for economic growth and conditions are created internally for secure development, major niches in its territory could turn into hubs for international investment, trade, and recreational activities. For now, this primarily applies to the Persian Gulf monarchies that are persistently implementing their idea of a unified transportation and energy center with access to all countries. Egypt also aspires to the idea of a hub at a greater distance from them and on a smaller scale. This is a serious objective for the future, but for the rest, it is an eventuality taking into account the consequences of the Arab revolutions and the general disarray and vacillation that has engulfed the Middle East and North Africa.
In general, the Arab East, juxtaposed with the enormous progress achieved by Western civilization, with the different objectives seen in Arab areas – from destructive to constructive – and even with its active interest in advanced technologies and civilized relations, will strive to stick to its positions. The enormous traditionalist enclaves in its mass consciousness, stereotypical outlook, and actively conservative trend will serve as a protective barrier between the region and the outside world, ensuring that it preserves its identity. But this obstacle is not perceived to be absolute, and the political environment will obviously evolve under the influence of Western liberal programs to ‘improve’ the political and economic climate as well as promote democracy and free trade.
In this sense, the situation in Saudi Arabia, which is considered the strongest stalwart of the Arab protective idea, might not prove to be so unexpected. Paradoxically, however, it may become the center of new developments in the region as the preconditions for this gradually build up in Saudi society.
The Arab East truly needs to undergo a major process involving the modernization of its productive forces and improve its macroeconomic performance as part of structural reforms in the economic sphere. The scope of the reform processes will be dictated by the political preferences of the ruling regimes. Over the coming decades, or even in a shorter time, additional incentives may emerge for a reduction in the state’s role in the economy, the development of the middle class, and the emergence of atypical types of activities for Arab capital such as startup companies, venture projects, innovative systems, and the like. This is all a sore spot for the region. But the subject is already being raised, while Arab monarchies such as Qatar and Dubai have become directly interested in new forms of business. In other countries, the movement is minimal for now in anticipation of better times.
At the same time, the Arab world will be gradually saturated with the new scope of attempts to democratize their countries, expand the sphere of civic activism, and diversify the decision-making processes. However, it would be reasonable to assume that this will be the democratization of ‘the Arab identity’, i.e. the way it is seen and understood by the people.
In this regard, the ruling regimes, which, at present, are broadly classified as authoritative, will perhaps take on a new type or form, but without losing their inscape. In the Arab East, the authoritarianism of the government has strong roots, and it will remain popular in the context of confessionalism and centrifugal tendencies. I believe the Arab environment will retain the need for a strong government and authoritative leader who is capable of maintaining constitutional order and organizing a movement for national purposes.
Ethno-confessional and inter-religious conflicts will remain a stumbling block, not only for the states that have suffered from terror. Communities and minorities that have been subjected to persecution will long retain the memory of the abuse and violence they endured and will not let up in the struggle for their rights, turning it into a leitmotif of post-war settlement. It would appear the highest level of activism should be expected from the Kurds. After the expulsion of Christians and other communities, the Kurdish theme has become further exacerbated and could trigger a chain of major crises. In any case, the Kurds will not give up the idea of having their own government or, at a minimum, the autonomy that they acquired over the course of the armed struggle against ISIS. Syrian Kurds will be particularly insistent in this regard, having seen the example of Iraqi Kurdistan and being aware of their own role in combating Islamists.
There is no doubt that the Arab East will emerge from these trials suppressed physically and mentally. And the alarm and fears of relapses into organized violence will continue in a society for a long time, particularly since the idea of a caliphate is unlikely to be buried. This is especially true when one considers that the remnants of the jihadists and future neophytes will be pushed out to other areas and are certain to produce seedlings. Consequently, terrorism will remain in the form of guerrilla warfare that will continue to ferment in the minds of the societies affected by this evil idea, and not only in them. As a consequence, there is a high probability that criminalization will continue, in addition to the archaism of social processes amid conditions of chaos, i.e. a return to the practice of crony patronage. In Syria, where the process is particularly intense, intra-family ties have commenced in full force. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of internal refugees have converged on their relatives in safer areas, particularly on the coast, where an island of stability has been maintained.
The repercussions of these events may spill outside the conflict zones and resonate with the Arabian monarchies that support terrorism. Internal discontent has long been accumulating there, little by little, as antagonisms strengthen within the elite as well as the rivalry between them. The fully explainable convections toward these elites could be organically supplemented by long-smoldering discontent caused by the deep rift in the Arab world along the line of ‘prosperity – poverty’.
One day, this all might result in an explosion, which if it does not overwhelm the Persian Gulf states, would shake their foundations and force change in the context of a new development paradigm. Major oil exporters would almost exhaust their energy reserves for the next 80 to 120 years. And this is a guarantee for their prosperous future, even if the era of alternative energy sources materializes. In this case, however, they would still hold onto petrochemicals from which revenue in crises would be a source of conciliation for public resentment as income from oil had previously been.
Nevertheless, the specific directions in which the ruling regimes will evolve remain unclear. It is possible that some of them would be radicalized, while others would be liberalized. However, the phenomenon of American democracy will remain unacceptable for the Arab East, which develops according to its own traditions along with the principles and foundations of civilization. If the US policy of exporting democracy remains unchanged, this aspect could considerably heat up the situation in the Arab East and be used by the elites to govern it.
The Arab world is a world of two poles: prosperity and relative welfare bordering on poverty. The widening gap will continue to hinder integration processes as the basis for development and cause the rejection of collective actions unless the issue of cohesion brings the need to combat terrorist organizations or protect sovereignty to a head. Even the Gulf Cooperation Council – the only currently successful Arab integration association – does not always have a common vision of processes and problems at the regional level.
These circumstances, along with numerous others, are destroying the development potential of Arab countries as a unified whole and force us think that, in the future, they will continue to move along diverging paths. But both groups will remain in line with global processes at their respective levels to varying degrees by replicating the global dynamics that determine the vector for the evolution of the global community.
In my view, it is obvious that Arab countries will continue to play catch-up for the foreseeable future. This is an ongoing, imperative factor that defines the nature of the economic and social policy in the countries of the region. This equally concerns states with both a capital surplus and a capital deficit. The only difference is that the gap between the former and the world leaders may be maintained at an established level or inasmuch as they are ready to borrow and transfer the latest technologies to their territory. The latter is more likely to increase the gap, not only from industrialized nations but also from their affluent neighbors, which have stable revenue sufficient to prevent but not eradicate the disparities in principle.
Against the backdrop of this process, the Arab world will continue to seek to overcome the transience of its standing. But the glimmer of light that appears after half of this world achieves peace will narrow under the influence of budget deficits as well as resource and other imbalances. And this will further impact the Arab position on many issues of our time to which the attitude will remain reactive in the future. It seems the evolutionary approach will even continue to hold back the elite and ruling regimes from taking urgent steps, substituting them with partial measures or palliative solutions by virtue of their inclination to take a wait-and-see approach or their unwillingness to accept reality as it is.It is obvious that there will be no shared future apart from a presence within the natural borders of the region. Each country will develop within its own niche, both politically and economically, while seeking to modernize the political systems and reproductive mechanisms in order to improve its position in regional ratings. The Arab East will opt to maneuver between such options as ‘energy for all’ and ‘a return to the desert’. This meager choice will not grant the region any special advantages, but perhaps will help it to remain afloat in spite of the gargantuan challenges it will face in the future.