In the year 2011, the Middle East entered a convoluted new phase of political and economic turmoil. This has led to a number of prominent Arab political leaders expending their authority among local populations, and consequently being severely isolated. This outcome was generated by mass discontent, which resulted in a dramatic rhetorical shift and a drastic decline in the Middle East. The overall episode came to be referred to as the Arab Spring.
In other words, these events can be regarded as the first stage in the manifestation of a general crisis in the Middle East, subsequently intensified by the West’s intervention. This was followed by a sharp degradation in the socio-economic climate and the intensification of social, political, and economic processes in a number of the region’s key countries.
The second stage of the Arab Spring can be viewed as the organisation and rise of ISIS, the epitome of the tragic new occurrences in the Arab world. The consolidation of ISIS in territory captured across Syria and Iraq became the premise for reformatting local political and socio-economic structures and for destructive trends which have in turn worn away the means of production and totally destabilised the entire region’s political situation.
For more than five years, the lingering Arab Spring has become a major catalyst in the breakup of a number of Arab countries (Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria), which could see them imparted with a new configuration. These countries are managing to survive, but only in a formal sense. Their governments are not capable of fulfilling basic obligations (control over their territory, monopoly over their armed forces, tax collection and distribution, etc.). Operating within the aforementioned countries, fundamentalist insurgents have declared themselves the Islamic State (IS) and have begun threatening not only the stability of numerous countries in the Middle East, but also the world far beyond.
Thus far, neither the military actions of Middle East government forces, nor the bombings by the US and its NATO allies, nor the analogous actions of the Russian Aerospace Forces have provided any political clarity, due to the fact that there is not a single political entity in the region capable of fully controlling its territory.
It should be noted that the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has not increased the living standards of its respective populations, has not improved the status of individual rights and freedoms, and has not inspired a more open and tolerant society. The results would seem to show that the American political model–which initially recommended the overthrow of former authoritarian regimes, followed by the inception of free democratic elections that in turn were to deliver the grounds for peace, stability, and economic growth– has turned out to be totally unviable.
The Islamic State is presently the most destructive force in the Middle East. It has swelled into a quasi-government, without necessarily having pursued the status of a fully-fledged state. Its operating mechanisms were created spontaneously for the organisation of a certain logistical base, as a means of funding subsequent expansion into neighbouring territories and other outlying targets. The creators of the Islamic State planned for these measures to precede the transformation of neighbouring countries into constituent elements of the Islamic Caliphate. It is understandable that such prospects should be suppressed in order to avoid the complete re-carving of the Middle East’s political map, which in turn would inevitably give rise to a chain of disturbances in other Muslim countries. Having designed such large-scale objectives, the plan was executed by conceiving effective instruments for the systematic accumulation of financial resources, including ruthless initiatives such as the coercive seizure of indispensable products directly from manufacturers.
With the aim of expanding the Islamic Caliphate over the largest possible area, its leaders obviously neglected to consider the consequences of a goal of this kind, and essentially operated in a reflexive manner, with the intention of realising their plans in the shortest possible timeframe. The endeavour to create both institutions and infrastructure under these circumstances was chaotic and was designed for immediate results. This can be substantiated by oil price dumping, which occurred on the basis of captured deposits in Syria and Iraq (Amelina and Arashev, 2015, 41). This environment has fostered a streak of heightened mobility within all of the Middle East’s political and socio-economic systems, which presents a precondition for a diversity of potential scenarios, combined with a high degree of ambiguity as to how trends will evolve.
The Arab Spring and the appearance of the Islamic State affected countries in the Middle East to varying degrees. The area has not witnessed any profound strategic changes that were inherent before these events. Firstly, for example, the gap between poor and rich countries remains unchanged. This will most probably remain a prevalent factor in the region. Its existence is a natural condition, predetermined by the schism between those countries graced with energy resources and those lacking raw materials and their related revenues.
If we set aside negative possibilities and take everything above into consideration, the most feasible development trajectory of the rich group of countries will be the ongoing growth of their existing material and technical foundations and socio-economic infrastructure. These two components confer a tangible likelihood of realising the national development goals outlined for the years 2030-2040 (see Qatar National Vision, 2030; Saudi National Vision, 2050; a similar text is in preparation for the Sultanate of Oman). These countries are successfully attempting to join the world economy as independent parties within the framework of world economic relations, especially on the Indian Ocean rim. The present authors expect that these countries will pursue their advance as determined by the Western developed world and will replicate Western models.
To be specific, among the rich group of countries are the Gulf monarchies, with plentiful oil and gas reserves, sufficient for a period of 80-100 years or more (CIA Factbook, 2013; DP Energy Outlook, 2012, 31). These circumstances should have a positive effect on the overall situation in these countries. Thus the Gulf will continue to breakaway in accordance with its economic growth, distancing itself from environments like those that have come about in Libya and Iraq, thanks to significant foreign meddling, and from the fertile grounds for internal political upheavals, as seen in Algeria.
For a long time, the monarchies have been actively adopting– and directly participating in the development of – alternative, ecologically clean, and energy-efficient technologies. They have been intensifying the diversification of their economies, broadening their infrastructure with advanced projects (Filonik, 2013,1).This option appears to be the most acceptable long-term scenario. However, within this projected period of development we should expect some revolutionary energy-saving technological solutions to arise from industrially developed countries. This will severely decrease the importance of hydrocarbon energy sources. Should the demand for energy fall to a minimum, due to the impact of scientific and technical progress, the Arab Gulf monarchies will remain an important source of fossil fuels for less developed foreign markets, thereby supporting their own vitality through their petro chemistry and refineries, not to mention the revenues from their foreign assets and investments. The reform of their economies through the implementation of alternative (essentially solar) sources of energy appears most likely, and there are two reasons whereby this could prove profitable. It represents a saving with regard to mineral energy resources and a reduction of greenhouse emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreements. The basis for this scenario is currently being formulated, as evidenced by the present interest of the Arab monarchies in alternative sources of energy that compensate power generation shortages, which are essential for the operation of local industrial enterprises and seawater desalination processes.
Irrespective of this option, the present soundness of the economic and social parameters of this part of the Arab East is by no means a panacea for the presence of so many destructive processes, and we consider their stability highly relative in the light of the Arab Spring and the civil unrest seen in Saudi Arabia. Under certain circumstances, tensions could spill over into the small monarchies and further exacerbate problems across the whole Arab environment. For the time being, the situation in the Gulf monarchies appears relatively calm, and the emergence of threats can only be envisaged as a future scenario. However, essentially relying on oil cannot guarantee the safety of these regimes. The experience of other oil exporters can easily corroborate this assertion.
Libya lies in ruins and, for the foreseeable future, hydrocarbons alone cannot restore its former potential. The same deduction can be made with regard to Iraq as well. Although to a lesser degree, Algeria is also exposed to similar challenges, and it will not necessarily be able to circumvent the kind of tragic incidents that precipitate devastating sectarian strife. These are the reasons why oil-producing countries in the region are undergoing an extremely complicated period of historical evolution and are subject to such ambiguous futures. The Gulf monarchies could also reform according to totally unpredictable stratagems.
There are no particular arguments for maintaining that the ingrained destructive processes will diminish, or that they have outlived themselves, such that the affected countries might grow under normal circumstances. Actually, the vitality of the Islamic State, alongside the vitality of various destructive Islamic elements in the Arab world, brings forth entirely different expectations and speculations.
We should stress that the Gulf monarchies presently constitute a special and unique construction within the Arab world. As its collective financial leader, they sustain a weighted average of economic indicators and financial values at an acceptable level (Gukasyan, 2014, 70-71). The incumbent regimes persist in a development concept based around financial spending, regardless of expenditures. Obviously, this trend will be prevalent in their financial policies for the near future, and their intention is to pursue this in the long term. This is evidenced by their current development strategies, which set goals looking towards the middle of the present century (as noted above).
The key intention is to transform their integrated economic and social infrastructure, consolidate the region’s internal markets, and increase the interest – both in the Gulf as a financial and industrial enclave and in its function as a transit region – of foreign investors, manufacturers, international distributors, and service providers. The Gulf authorities are thereby intent on fully monopolising their region by becoming its preeminent economic force, in complement to being its undisputable financial power. They want this to send a message to the outside world, minimising the pressure from influential Western partners through the diversification of foreign policies and economic relations, the expansion of contacts with other partners, and the transformation of their environment into a major Arab outpost, secure and firm in its position.
However, should Gulf leadership under this development scenario endure naturally, the present patrimonialism and sultanship will eventually be legitimised in a new format. The economic sector will remain under the strict control of the authorities, in tribute to the historical omnipotence of the Arab nation. However, the political environment will witness an increase in freedoms, the appearance of considerable features of civil society, and concessions to new tendencies stimulated by Western political and cultural imperatives (Truevtsev, 2016, 297–313). This scenario is plausible because global warming is perceived as a universal threat to the Arab world, and the fear of it is combined with an exacerbation of ecological issues, a deterioration in quality of life, a shrinkage of food and water supplies, and the increasingly strategic importance of demography.
Understandably, for various reasons, it would be a mistake to extrapolate directly into the distant future from the dynamics of the present environment – for instance, the high pressure of external factors demonstrated in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, whereby persistent Western accusations of authoritarianism have had severe consequences. There are no guarantees that related actions will not be taken in the future with regard to ‘undesirable’ regimes. Furthermore, the rise of new technological civilisations can reform geopolitical and geo-economic environments in a manner that may lead to unpredictable shifts in the world order. This could lead numerous actors (including Arab monarchies), which have difficulty reforming when compelled by exterior forces, to seek new accommodations.
It is obvious that only certain development scenarios take into consideration the possible reform of Middle East oil export sectors. Certain countries can only remain ahead of their culturally related competitors in accordance with existing disparities in economic and political (and perhaps socio-cultural) disposition, which separate two discernible groups (oil-exporters and oil-importers) within the Arab East. As demonstrated by ongoing civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Libya neither group can make any guarantees against the future emergence of internal conflicts or destructive external factors.
Future paths of the two groups of countries may differ substantially due to the complications of geopolitical and geo-economic conditions, the accelerating processes of globalisation, and the growing contradictions between developed and developing countries as well as between Russia, the EU, and the USA. These factors could trigger the emergence of unpredictable incidents, unexpected circumstances, and factors capable of significantly affecting the development of the resource-rich group of countries, possibly changing the paradigm of their membership in international political and economic communities.
Something similar could be seen in Middle Eastern countries with scarce capital, notwithstanding their impoverished status compared to their wealthy neighbours. The symptomatic bygone era of planned socialist development (essentially truncated capitalism), and the considerable government allocations to the economic and social spheres, create the fully defined preconditions for safeguarding organisational functions within government, and for government participation in expansionary processes and in the creation of employment.
In any event, in the coming decades we expect that these circumstances will affect the speed and scale of economic and social processes in the non-oil part of the Middle East. The differences will be determined not only by these parameters, but also by the character and tempo of mobilisation for internal and external sources of savings, and by the extent of material-technical and financial provision for expansionary processes.
Understandably, Middle Eastern oil-importers differ in many ways. Uniformity cannot be achieved by individual paths of evolution, while their convergence would hardly be a means toward growth, accumulating strength, or the modernisation of economic sectors. What is most plausible is that technological and social progress will occur through a natural accumulation of indicators, without any great leaps, but with a definite inclination towards disruption in significant areas. Thereby, the poorer Middle Eastern governments will continue on their various trajectories of non-converging development paths, while implementing similar methods.
Overall, we think this part of the Middle East will in any eventuality shadow the path of global developments, its course echoing elements of the global dynamic and being determined by the global community’s evolution. This situation is one of the few (besides for example, the world economic situation, the state of economic relations with the industrially developed part of the world, the internal political situation in the oil-importing countries themselves, and the limited inflow of direct foreign investments as well) that suggests those Middle East countries “stuck in the middle” will be capable of following the world trend and will follow the course of global political, social, and cultural standards well enough to overcome the transitional nature of their current condition and adjust to modernity.
We can thereby affirm that, with regard to future development, the overall position of this group of countries is an active one. We can also expect that the trend for palliative solutions to complex issues will remain unchanged for several decades. They will be forced at all costs to thwart present-day peaceful demands for reform.
It is therefore quite possible that the Middle East as a whole will pursue expansion over the next few decades in a natural (i.e., an evolutionary, but not necessarily economical) way. Middle Eastern communities across the entire region consider this the right attitude with regard to socio-economic processes, in order to safeguard the integrity of their traditional legacies, local nationalism, and patriotism, which constitute a skeleton social consciousness for these countries and protect the population from the consequences of pro-Western attempts at reform. In this way, Middle Eastern communities determine the reference points that safeguard their identity and customary socio-cultural orientations in counterbalance to the prevailing threats of unacceptable moral values and advancing Western market reforms.
There is no doubt that the protective function of traditions will survive in the Middle East for quite some time, but the process of survival will be painful. The political and financial core of these local traditions is evident today, and notwithstanding the contemporary political and military problems in the region, sufficient evidence suggests that they will endure in the future. We see this reflected in the amorphism of the economic system, the distortion of macro-economic and structural reforms, and a predisposition towards etatism. It is also manifested in an intense concentration of corporate relations within a few economic entities, informal business relations, and the shadow structures of tribal networks, all participating in obscure allocations of not only economic, but also political resources. All these economic patterns and vestigial issues are present across the whole Arab World, where the traditional Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others, get along with the secular regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and so on.
We can infer that the countries of the Middle East are not prepared to accept the contemporary multi-dimensional economic and political order. Even supporters of relatively open policies in this respect consider the potential of reform across the region with great care. Serious obstruction comes from the archaic relationships of local elites, as we see in the rejection of the persistently systematic measures required for a new order by historical regimes, local intelligentsias, bureaucracies, and even by populations themselves. These properties are characteristic of the whole Arab East currently surviving a period of close interaction between eastern traditions and western modernity across almost all fields, including economic, political, cultural, and spiritual areas. (Yakovlev, 2015, 153-186). Nevertheless, current socio-political and socio-economic shifts in the world enable the assumption that some new trends will slowly permeate Middle Eastern social tissue. These qualitatively new and fast-changing conditions will encourage local cultures to reflect upon their future development paths. For example, a growing number of testimonies show that part of the Middle East has tentatively and cautiously begun to perceive the market in accordance with a Western outlook, and has begun, at least according to a few individual economic entities, to favour the idea of partial reform (Bocharova, 2016, 54–56). This process may receive added impetus in times to come, although in the short-term, the lack of large-scale manufacturing in relation to the Middle East’s financiers will hold such reforms back. If it is based solely on a locally constituted design, the entire process will not become appropriately efficient for the realisation of beneficial socio-economic reform.
The combination of these elements will preserve the aforementioned negative characteristics of Middle Eastern society for a long time. They are practically unassailable by means of customary bureaucratic therapies, as they are scattered throughout various recesses of society, ensuring political frailty and lowering economic productivity. Alongside these factors, there is evidence of deterrence of real market reforms, deficits in acceptable macroeconomic indicators, low capital formation, and a lack of direct foreign investments, all of which is followed by poverty and unemployment. The situation is also increasingly aggravated due to the depletion of resources, disruption of market relations, and the blurring of acceptable communal norms that together equate to a constantly worsening overall environment. These are devastating destructive factors that, if subject to conniving influence, could amass destructive forces preventing the establishment of new forms of society in the Middle East.
Under the limited competence of most local governments, the internal economic and political dissension in the Middle East actually encourages foreign actors–attempting to turn the situation to their own profit– to meddle in the region’s internal affairs. It is possible that asserting external pressure in various forms will in future become the prevailing method of industrially developed countries, regardless of how local regimes are orientated. Countries with a deficit of both resources and self-rule are particular targets for economic and political reform by industrial nations, as one can see in the cases of Tunisia, Iraq, and Libya.
We think the Middle East’s socio-economic expansion policies will continue to favour evolution essentially based on its own practices, i.e., slowly, carefully, and selectively. However, we should also take into account the overall acceleration of expansionary processes and universalisation of procedures and techniques seen in the world economy, including its expansion by way of totally new mechanisms, tools, and models. However, none of this will actually derail the Middle East from its established development path, and we believe that both its oil export and import sectors – representing capital inflow and outflow – will achieve a balance in their potential growth.
With this in mind, countries in the Middle East can hardly count on adequate development and improvement of their economic potential over the next several decades, nor on being fully prepared for a new phase of socio-economic reform charged with the technological innovations that will play an immeasurably greater role than they do at present. These countries will rather focus on safeguarding socio-economic parameters and proportionally retaining present production levels.
These major socio-economic properties will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the reform process of Middle Eastern countries. However, from a political point of view, this process will further develop and attract attention as a result of its extensively varied forms. It is understandable that a series of countries in the region are likely to lose their territorial integrity. For example, some countries have recently emerged in the region and exist de jure, but not de facto (such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen). Others, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, have the opposite experience. This process is far from over, entailing as it does a complicated political situation.
One thing is clear: the region at present, and for the next 10-15 years, will not be capable of uniting to pursue its interests in political and economic spheres. Too many diverging interests and priorities have arisen in the Middle East over the last few decades. The decisions and foreign policies of local regimes will depend substantially on external circumstances and will uphold their former discourse, remaining more reactive than proactive when it comes to concerns over foreign challenges and internal aggravations.
The region is unlikely to elude ethno-confessional confrontations due to the remaining antagonisms. For the foreseeable future, conflicts of varying intensity will continue to send shockwaves throughout the Middle East. Some countries could remain within the framework of today’s borders, especially since the status quo – which will be difficult to retain amidst the chaos of prevailing confrontations – could become a superseding imperative in view of a conclusion to the strategic struggle for the region.
The basis for this hypothesis is the specific environment developing around the Kurds. If the Kurdish issue is not resolved in the near future, it will continue to destabilise the entire Middle East. Major regional players are unwilling to comply with Kurdish demands and employ the internationally recognised principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even if Syria accepts Kurdish demands, the outburst of enthusiasm will not be reflected by an appeasing of nationalist and separatist sentiments, which will continue to impact adjacent countries, with inspiration from the Kurdish community in Iraqi Kurdistan. They will always strive for more and oppose those uninterested in a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish problem. As a result, the Kurds’ struggle for broad autonomy or independence will be a source of extensive turbulence in due time. This situation could embroil various political groups and armed groups capable of following the Kurds’ example, in an attempt to achieve their own goals. This kind of development strategy may seem realistic, but it is unproductive, and will not establish itself well enough to bear any real results. We should also note that stronger players such as Turkey and Iran, might take advantage of the circumstances in order to consolidate or improve their own positions by means of direct intervention or more intricate manoeuvring.
It is obvious that the Islamic State will not be totally destroyed and will not disappear from the region’s political scene, because its troops are capable of dispersing into the underground to carry out aggressive partisan warfare. This may become ineradicable in a post-war environment. Furthermore, in terms of priorities for legitimate governments, the necessity of investing substantial resources to restore the economy after the devastation of war will serve as a diversion from the struggle against the underground front (assuming that maintaining social institutions and caring for impoverished populations indeed remains a top priority).
Therefore, Middle Eastern national pragmatism will remain restrained and flattened by the commonalities of civilisational bonds. A multitude of contradictions will remain unaddressed, and various scenarios between certain groups and communities could emerge. Rivalries to monitor include those between capital-rich and capital-poor Middle Eastern countries; Sunni and Shiite communities; minorities and majority populations; military regimes and civil societies; Westernisers and traditionalists; secular and religious communities; and supporters of authoritarian and democratic principles and regimes. These divisions could eventually incite the regional environment towards new military actions, by way of the simple fact that numerous populations retain a lot of weaponry, which, if under persistent abuse, they could easily put into action.
Special attention should be given to the potentially bitter confrontations with regard to water reserves, which are vanishing fast in the Arabic Orient, especially in light of rising hazards from the greenhouse effect. Special attention to this issue will certainly be mobilised in each country in the region, but will serve as a stumbling block to the development of relationships between the most concerned countries.
As a result of both an observable retreat into family and clan society for protection and the predictable instability in the Arab world, situations of significant criminalisation may arise. Communities throughout the Middle East will be subject to constant difficulties and will have to operate under extremely tense conditions. The role of families and clans – as the sole protector of major segments of the population that have limited or non-existent access to social assistance –will flourish. The temptation to solve conflicts by force, alongside a growing black market, is likely to aggravate social conditions across the region. This in turn is likely to instigate hazardous initiatives among portions of the local population.
Key determinants of current circumstances include the intense psychological pressure generated by extensive military actions; ideological pressure; financial procedures; and the strong visibility of the Islamic State. In order to avert the destructive proliferation of Islamic State activities, stop the ongoing fragmentation of Middle Eastern communities, and prevent adverse shifts and transformations in the region, it is essential to implement consistent and enduring measures – measures unachievable by Middle Eastern countries alone. These are only possible through the coordinated mobilisation of the international community. However, this possibility remains just as unpredictable as any other aspect of the future Arab reality.
Professor Vladimir A. Isaev
Moscow State University
Dr. Alexander O. Filonik
Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
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