Over the last years, the Arab world has been constantly fighting internal crises and armed conflicts. Already far from being firm before the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011, in 2014, it faced a serious split when two Arab nations in the very heart of the Middle East found themselves at war with terrorism.
In this article, we are not going to analyze how ISIL (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) appeared in Syria and Iraq, what caused the wars in those two states and what roles the Gulf monarchies have in this huge “extremist” project. Here, we are just going to point out the key factors that are causing instability in the Arab world and the key challenges it is destined to face in the years or even decades to come.
In 2014-2015, at the height of ISIL’s power, the Arab world was the global epicenter of armed conflicts and humanitarian crises. Home to just 5% of all people in the world, in 2014, that region recorded 68.5% of all conflict-related deaths, 45% of all terrorist attacks, 57.5% of all refugees and 47% of all internally displaced people worldwide. According to Arab Human Development Report 2016, the key cause of the wars in the region was social unrest.
The Arab world is one of the youngest regions in the world: as many as 52.7% of all Arabs are 14-25 years old. And almost 50% of them are jobless. According to the UN, in order to avoid social outbursts, the Arab world should create 60,000,000 new jobs till 2020. In contrast, the average age of ministers in Arab states is 58.
The Arab Spring failed to solve the major problems of the region, particularly, it failed to remove the gap between the expectations of the young Arabs and the commitment of the “old” Arab governments to justify them. Even more, those problems are growing and may one day cause strong political outbursts with most serious trans-border consequences.
Political systems in the Arab world are not inclined to regenerate and are ready for only very limited social-economic reforms. The best example is Saudi Arabia, where the local elite and its leader, Crown Prince Salman, are not making any serious changes for neutralizing their internal challenges.
Most of the Arab political regimes are repressive. They control everything in their countries, including the opposition. Elections there are just a formality. As a result, the atmosphere in those states is electrified, with external aggravators making things even worse.
The key trans-border factors that are tearing the Arab world apart are as follows:
- Absence of a leader and a multilateral platform for consolidated decisions
Egypt has been shattered by constant internal conflicts and terrorist threats and has only one priority for the moment: to solve the social-economic problems of its 93,000,000 citizens. So, the Egyptian authorities have neither time nor resources for projecting their power beyond their borders. The most they can do is strike the bases of Libyan extremists near their frontiers.
Saudi Arabia has always had high chances to become the leader of the Arab world. Its key resource is its money. But over the last years, it has also faced trials. The Saudis screwed up their “victorious mission” in Yemen and have gained nothing in either Syria or Iraq.
As regards the Arab League, it is looking for new arguments for its further existence other than the needs to defend Palestine and to confront Israel. Despite the efforts of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Arab League has failed to come to terms on Iran. Iraq and Lebanon refuse to keep Iran in check, unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are even ready to cooperate with Israel for this purpose.
The future of the Gulf Cooperation Council is even vaguer. The last year’s crisis over Qatar has ruined Saudi Arabia’s hopes to bring the Gulf monarchies together into a strong anti-Iranian coalition.
- Excess of failed states
Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon are all sources of potential instability. All of them are prone to disintegration and stagnation and are unable to oppose external challenges.
- Absence of responsibility and political will
The Arab elites are used to relying on the key external player in the Middle East in whatever they do.
The Americans’ ties with the leading Arab nations have undergone serious tests since 2011, this particularly concern U.S.-Egyptian ties. But despite their wish to be multi-vector in their foreign policies, most of the Arab regimes remain strongly dependent on Washington. And one of the factors that prevents their wish from coming true is the dense network of U.S. military network in the region.
Another big factor is that the Arab world is extremely dependent on western technologies. Even Saudi Arabia, the “treasurer” of the Arab world, is forced to borrow money from western financial corporations and even to sell stakes in its state-owned assets (Saudi Aramco).
The Gulf monarchies do have money, but they do not seem to be efficient in using it. Recently, the Saudi government announced a tender for contracts to build five palaces in Neom, a mega-city to be built on the Red Sea coast. In other words, the key priority in this project for the Saud family is how many palaces the Saudi king and his son, Crown Prince Salman, will have. And one more example: in the next decade, the Saudi authorities are going to spend $64 billion on entertainment. More specifically, in al-Qiddiya, 40 km southwest of Riyadh, they are going to build an entertainment city for future generations. But nobody has asked those generations if they want to see new palaces or an entertainment city built in their country at the time when its economy is experiencing a crisis.
- Struggle against the “Iranian aggressor”
For the Saudis this struggle is one of the pillar of the concept of Arab solidarity, but in reality it is extremely expensive and is all but promising. In fact, it is a game imposed by the U.S. and Israel on Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies. For the Americans this is a guarantee of their further military dominance in the region, for the Israelis this is a way to distract the Arabs from Palestine to Iran. Who would have dared to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to announce plans to move the U.S. embassy there on May 14, 2018, had the Arabs been not as disintegrated and as refocused onto Iran as they are today? Nobody. But lots of things have changed in the Middle East since the Arab Spring and those changes are not good for the Arabs.
Only small Arab nations are still able to stay afloat but they will hardly manage to avoid the instability coming from bigger states. The Arab world is being drawn into some big geopolitical escalation.
According to a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, the Middle East is full of fear of some big war. The victory over ISIL has brought no peace to the region. On the contrary, armed conflicts are beginning to cross national boundaries and local governments are becoming less scrupulous in using military force beyond their borders.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau