The first two decades of the 21st century saw the return of mass movements to streets around the world. Partly a product of sinking confidence in mainstream politics, mass mobilisation has had a huge impact on both official politics and wider society, and protest has become the form of political expression to which millions of people turn.
Following moments of open class warfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, battles against the political and economic order became fragmented, trade unions were attacked, the legacy of the anti-colonial struggles was eroded and the history of the period was recast by the establishment to undermine its potency. In the post-Cold War era, a new phase of protest finally began to overcome these defeats.
This revival of protest exploded onto the political scene most visibly in Seattle outside the World Trade Organization summit in 1999. If 1968 was one of the high points of radical struggle in the 20th century, protest in the early 2000s once again began to reflect a general critique of the capitalist system, with solidarity forged across different sections of society.
The birth of the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle was followed by extraordinary mobilisations outside gatherings of the global economic elite. Alternative spaces were also created for the global justice movement to connect, most notably the World Social Forums (WSFs), starting with Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. It was here that questions over what position the anti-globalisation movement should take over the Iraq War, for example, were discussed and debated. Though the WSFs provided an important rallying point for a time, they ultimately evaded politics.
In the years leading up to and following the banking crisis of 2008, food riots and anti-austerity protests escalated around the world. In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, protests achieved insurrectionary proportions, with the overthrow of one dictator after another. After the Arab Spring was thwarted by counter-revolution, the Occupy movement and then Black Lives Matter gained global attention. While the public, urban square became a central focus for protest, social media became an important – but by no means exclusive – organising tool.
To varying degrees, these movements sharply raised the question of political transformation but didn’t find new ways of institutionalising popular power. The result was that in a number of situations, protest movements fell back on widely distrusted parliamentary processes to try and pursue their political aims. The results of this parliamentary turn have not been impressive.
Crisis of representation
On the one hand, the first two decades of the 21st century have seen soaring inequality, accompanied by debt and the neglect of working people. On the other, there have been poor results from purely parliamentary attempts to challenge it. There is, in other words, a deep crisis of representation.
The inability of modern capitalism to deliver more than survival for many has combined with a general critique of neoliberal capitalism to create a situation in which wider and wider sections of society are being drawn into protest. More than a million people have poured onto the streets of Lebanon since mid-October and protests continue despite a violent crackdown by security forces.
At the same time, people are less and less willing to accept unrepresentative politicians – and this is likely to continue in the future. From Lebanon and Iraq to Chile and Hong Kong, mass mobilisations continue despite resignations and concessions.
In Britain, the Labour Party’s defeat in the recent general election is attributed largely to its failure to accept the 2016 referendum result over EU membership. Decades of loyalty to the Labour Party for many and a socialist leader in Jeremy Corbyn calling for an end to austerity couldn’t cut through to enough of the millions who voted for Brexit.
In France, a general strike in December 2019 over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms has revealed the extent of opposition that people feel towards his government. This comes barely a year after the start of the Yellow Vest movement, in which people have protested against fuel price hikes and the precariousness of their lives.
The tendency towards street protest will be encouraged too by the climate crisis, whose effects mean that the most heavily exploited, including along race and gender lines, have the most to lose. When the protests in Lebanon broke out, they were taking place alongside rampant wildfires.
As protesters gain experience, they consciously bring to the fore questions of leadership and organisation. In Lebanon and Iraq, there has already been a conscious effort to overcome traditional sectarian divides. Debates are also raging in protest movements from Algeria to Chile about how to fuse economic and political demands in a more strategic manner. The goal is to make political and economic demands inseparable, such that it’s impossible for a government to make political concessions without making economic ones too.
There has also been a resurgence of the far-right in many countries, emboldened most visibly by parties and politicians in the US, Brazil, India and many parts of Europe. This resurgence, however, has not gone unchallenged.
The convergence of crisis on these multiple fronts will reach breaking point, creating conditions that will become intolerable for most people. This will galvanise more protest and more polarisation. As governments respond with reforms, such measures on their own will be unlikely to meet the combination of political and economic demands. The question of how to create new vehicles of representation to assert popular control over the economy will keep emerging. The fortunes of popular protest may well depend on whether the collective leadership of the movements can provide answers to it.
The economy, corruption and unemployment. These are by far the top concerns amongst citizens across 18 Arab countries, according to a ground-breaking new poll released by YouGov this week.
The optimism and hope that inspired the Arab Spring nine years ago has vanished, upended by a new wave of anger sweeping the region. The result has been the toppling of Algeria’s president and protests across Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt.
The poll also revealed most Arab citizens feel their leaders should prioritise the economy over all other issues, be they national security related, religious or sectarian.
Arab leaders must take note of this data. But it should also inform the decision-making of EU policymakers too. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) after all are the EU’s backyard. MENA and the ripple effect of what begins there will inevitably reach Europe too; the refugee crisis proved that.
The poll results also suggest the EU has a timely opportunity to encourage positive reform in the MENA region. The EU has long hoped to encourage reform through initiatives like the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the Union for the Mediterranean. The basis for these initiatives was “shared values.”
This new poll, draw from the responses of thousands of Arabs across 18 MENA countries, shows these shared values exist more today than ever before. Respondents supported economic liberalisation, women’s empowerment, religious minority rights, greater transparency and criticised the politicisation of religion. You could say Middle Eastern citizens increasingly embody the values of the EU itself.
One of the biggest historical criticisms of EU initiatives like the ENP and the Union for the Mediterranean has been that it seeks to impose European standards in an imperial “civilising” effort towards Europe’s neighbouring regions.
Dr. Saqib Qureshi Senior business strategist and expert on democratic policy development
This is particularly notable given one of the biggest historical criticisms of EU initiatives like the ENP and the Union for the Mediterranean has been that it seeks to impose European standards in an imperial “civilising” effort towards Europe’s neighbouring regions.
But with the emergence of a new generation of Middle Eastern citizens embodying home-grown, forward-looking values, it is unlikely such EU efforts will now be viewed by Arab people as an attempt to impose alien values upon the region.
But the window of opportunity is narrow. Should the economic situation in nations like Iraq or Lebanon continue to deteriorate (both nations cited corruption as the biggest problem for their country), the inclination for the masses to rally around more extreme political positions may once again return.
Indeed, economic fears were present across the MENA region. 61% of respondents across the Arab world believed the future would be better if economic matters were put above all other policy issues, be they political, religious or sectarian.
Such a decisive majority opinion on this issue is likely to be due to the sheer anger in the Arab world over corruption. Respondents from every MENA region overwhelmingly cited corruption as the single biggest problem for their country. 42% of respondents were concerned about unemployment, hardly surprising given that across the region, 30% of young people are currently unemployed.
This all makes it timelier than ever for the EU to leverage its trade relations with the MENA region to help bridge the divide between citizens and the State in the Middle East.
But here, too, the EU’s efforts are under threat. The EU’s trade leverage is competing with that of economic powers like China. China’s investment in the Arab world and the conditions attached to them – in relation to equal opportunities, economic participation and fair competition – differ to those of the EU.
Not only is China not concerned with using its economic ties to support forward-looking values and principles, it could potentially halt or even reverse some of the progress that has already been made.
Dr. Saqib Qureshi Senior business strategist and expert on democratic policy development
Not only is China not concerned with using its economic ties to support forward-looking values and principles, it could potentially halt or even reverse some of the progress that has already been made.
If the EU fails to scale up its engagement with the Middle East soon, countries like China will fill the vacuum.
This increases the imperative for the EU to ensure that it engages with the Arab world in a way that strengthens it economically.
Increasing the opportunities and economic standing of Arab populations will alleviate some of the frustration and anger they feel that has built-up as a result of a lack of opportunity. However, this engagement must also build on the increasing convergence of shared values which will lead to a more tolerant and liberal MENA.
Dr. Saqib Qureshi is a senior business strategist and expert on democratic policy development who has advised governments in Canada, London, Washington DC and Dubai. His forthcoming book is The Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Efficient, Representative, and Accountable.
Peter Welby in his December 15, 2019, write up describes An alliance of people of goodwill in the Gulf, as More than 500 religious and political leaders, academics and civil society activists from over 80 countries gathered in Abu Dhabi last week to launch a set of principles that champion the shared values of different religions and promote joint action for the global common good and against extremism.
The image above is: A group of the world’s most respected Islamic scholars and faith leaders, joined by experts from governments and representatives of civil society organizations signed a new charter to build global peace, based on tolerance and religious freedom. (WAM)
It is notable that this took place in the Gulf, and not in Europe or the US. The UAE has long prided itself on its promotion of tolerance — naming this past year the Year of Tolerance — but the event was attended by religious leaders from across the region, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia. The Charter of the New Alliance of Virtues is devoid of most of the usual platitudes that can form interfaith charters, and is based on an idea that could be embraced by all without being seen as owned by any one religion. This is because while the original Alliance of Virtues upon which this project was based is known of through the Islamic tradition, it predates Islam. The story goes that following the period of conflict around Makkah known in Islam as the Sacrilegious War, a Yemeni trader brought some goods to the city, and sold them to a Makkah nobleman, who refused to pay what was owed. The trader climbed Mount Safar, the place for public appeals at the time, and denounced his fraudulent purchaser and all those from Makkah who allowed one of their own to act unjustly. Other noblemen were appalled by the treatment meted out to this guest, in violation of the rules of hospitality let alone the rules of trade, and so convened an Alliance of Virtues that committed to defend the values deemed common among them, including the defense of the weak against the powerful. We know about this because Muhammad, before his prophethood, was there, and spoke about it later. And although it took place in pre-Islamic Makkah, he said that such was the value of this alliance that if he had been asked to join after the coming of Islam he would have done so. And despite this endorsement from the Prophet of Islam, the alliance can be viewed with equal approbation by other faiths too. The Alliance of Virtues was not formed by Christians or Jews, but by people whose goal was simply to do good work. This means that although this new Alliance of Virtues is designed with the Abrahamic faiths specifically in mind, it is open to any who share the values it espouses.
The Charter of the New Alliance of Virtues is devoid of most of the usual platitudes that can form interfaith charters, and is based on an idea that could be embraced by all without being seen as owned by any one religion.
But in the idea of shared values between the faiths lies the question. The interfaith world has long been dominated by a philosophy that seeks to downplay differences and focus on commonalities. There are plenty of commonalities to choose from, particularly in the Abrahamic faiths; for example, the belief in one God who created the universe and all that’s in it, and is directly concerned with the actions of humanity. But there are also profound differences, which will not be overcome by ignoring them. Moreover, the classical interfaith model is dominated, particularly among the Christian and Jewish participants, by religious liberals, occasionally operating well outside the orthodox parameters of their faiths. This domination leads to fears among many conservative believers of syncretism that the purpose of interfaith work is to deny that differences between religions are significant, and to push the belief that all paths to God are equally valid. The problem is that the social hostility and mutual suspicions between religions, at both a local and the global level, are often dominated by the conservatives. Gatherings dominated by liberals will fail to make significant movement toward overcoming these hostilities — they are preaching to the converted. Herein lies the delight of the new Charter. Not only are its values truly shared, at least in orthodox theologies of the Abrahamic faiths (values including human dignity, freedom of conscience, justice, mercy and peace), but it is backed by a number of US evangelicals, who among the Christian groups are most vocally hostile to Islam. They are also within the Christian tradition focused on the truth of the bible and the imperative to proselytize. They are not even close to syncretism between religions. The purpose is to draw on those shared values not to edge toward some specious “ever closer union,” but for shared action. Between them, the Abrahamic faiths account for more than half of the global population; if these principles are acted upon, it can have a powerful and wide-ranging effect. But here lies the challenge. Writing the Charter is only the beginning. Unlike many documents, it has been written, targeted at and signed by individuals rather than institutions or governments. Modeled upon the previous Alliance, it is an alliance of people of goodwill. But as with any Charter, its only value will come if it is acted upon. It must turn into practical reality. This will be the challenge for its signatories over the coming years.
Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion and Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
Tolerance holds different meanings for different people.
For some, it means not being prejudiced. For others, it’s the ability to endure the existence or behaviour of those they disagree with.
According to the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it’s a conscious decision to recognise people’s fundamental rights and the inclusion of their diversity.
In some parts of the MENA region, tolerant societies remain a work in progress, according to London’s 2018 Legatum Prosperity Index, which measures the wealth and well-being of 149 countries.
The UAE ranks 39th globally, the highest among Arab states on the list.
UAE TOLERANCE INITIATIVES
The emirates appointed a Minister of State for Tolerance in 2016, dedicated to promoting the qualities of acceptance and inclusion among residents.
The country also held its second National Festival for Tolerance this year.
The nine-day-event hosted multicultural activities and musical performances for UAE residents from more than 200 countries.
The festival highlighted inclusion and the accomplishments of people with disabilities. It also featured a cricket match in which foreign workers, primarily from the subcontinent, took part.
Abir Kazbour, an author and filmmaker originally from Lebanon, is a member of the UAE Champions of Tolerance program, which teaches residents methods to communicate the message of acceptance and understanding.
Kazbour is currently working on a short film to recreate a personal experience she had of a cultural misunderstanding when should would regularly extinguish her Indian flatmate’s candles.
Unknowingly, she was disrupting her fellow roommate’s prayer rituals and once the cultural clash was cleared up, the pair were brought closer together.
“When we talked and there was dialogue between us, we could understand and sympathize with each other,” says Kazbour, recalling the anecdote from her book called The Key of Tolerance.
For Kazbour, the issue of tolerance hit home at an early age in 1997, when she was visiting family in Tripoli, Lebanon.
“Most of them were from one sect,” she says. “So, when we said we were going to our neighbour’s, for example, they would say, “No! How can you go to them? They’re from a different sect, they hate us.”
This type of closed mindedness went some way to helping the author decide to live outside of Lebanon.
TOLERANCE & UNITY IN LEBANON
This October, Lebanese nationals came together and took to the streets in protest about the actions of the government.
Lebanon is governed by 18 different religious groups, which decide how citizens marry, inherit money and even how they’re buried.
Some believe this has contributed to the country’s social and economic malaise.
Beirut organisations like Adyan have been working to unify Lebanese people through education since 2008.
“What we need to do is to get people to live that diversity as an enrichment, and not as a fear from each other,” says Dr. Nayla Tabbara, the director of the Institute of Citizenship and Diversity at Adyan.
POTENTIAL REMEDIES FOR EXTREMISM
Dr. Tabbara says that in addition to unifying people and encouraging positive societal change, practicing tolerance can also help prevent isolation and radicalism.
“We see a direct connection actually between extremism and tolerance,” she explains. “Extremism is, by definition, when you don’t accept difference – a different point of view.”
Forces which also make people vulnerable to extremist groups include a lack of economic incentives and sense of belonging, according to Hedayah, a global counter-terrorism centre in Abu Dhabi.
In partnership with the European Union and other groups, Hedayah works to create educational programs for youth in Kyrgyzstan.
Together they’ve developed ways to inform young people about the importance of having a strong sense of identity and belonging within their communities.
They cite that cultural and recreational activities can help young ones, especially in rural areas, follow the right path.
SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: CELEBRATING TOLERANCE
Prince from India captured this moment at the National Festival of Tolerance in Abu Dhabi, saying it reflected the joyful mood of the event.
In any part of the region, interconnected populations realise the commonality of their dreams and they want a stake in their respective countries.
Lebanese demonstrators gather outside the Telecom company during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon (Saida) on November 8. (AFP)
The fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, on November 9, 1989, was a testament to the irrepressible human yearning for freedom.
Restrained for too long by communist rulers, Eastern Europeans just wanted out. They saw greener and freer pastures beyond their borders.
Well before East German border guards opened the Berlin passageway in October 1989, the authoritarian governments of the time saw the writing on the wall.
In June 1989, Hungarian and Austrian foreign ministers were cutting through the barbed wire separating their countries. Others soon followed suit. They were removing long-standing separations that much of Eastern Europe erected after Hungary built a 260km fence on its Austrian border in 1949.
More than simply physical barriers, these were ideological and political walls consecrating the regimes’ distrust of their citizens and their inability to move away from dogmatic constraints.
History shows crossing borders is always the last resort when resources are scarce or when living conditions become unbearable.
Similarly, for decades, breaking through geographic barriers has been the goal of too many among young Arabs. Disillusioned and surrounded by nothing but dead ends at home, they look to emigrate — even illegally.
Today, many desperate people in the MENA region are more than willing to risk their lives to escape on the makeshift boats of human traffickers, voting with their feet in much the same way Eastern Europeans did for many decades until the 1980s.
Nearly 700 people died while trying to break through the Iron Curtain from East Germany and many more in MENA are no less committed to their cause. Thousands have died trying to cross the Mediterranean during the past few years, driven by poverty, war and a lack of opportunity.
However, unlike Eastern Europeans who fled authoritarian environments, MENA’s desperate youth have few places to find safe harbour.
Since independence, governments south of the Mediterranean have been striking deals with Europeans to fight illegal emigration and, while cooperation in that area was in order, the governments lacked the political vision and ability to draw the right lessons from the steady exodus from their shores.
Many Arab youths, unwilling or unable to leave home, have grown angry staring at walls that need to be torn down. They see prohibitive and oppressive obstacles of sectarianism, failed post-independence policies, bureaucratic and corrupt practices and a lack of freedom. More than anything else, there is a huge wall of distrust between them and their politicians, whom they see as responsible for making their lives miserable and robbing them of their chances for a better future.
Arab protesters may not be acting out against authoritarian communism but they are rebelling against equally rigid norms and obsolete rules. It is not the conflicting interests of a regional power such as Iran that will change the equation. Much like the unhappy populations that suffered under Soviet rule, they see their leaders clinging to the past, or worse, living on another planet.
If the governments of Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria and a few other Arab countries are having a tough time dealing with protests, it is because for too long they have been reluctant to initiate genuine reform. They felt they had too many vested interests at stake to volunteer change.
After years of procrastination, such change is much more difficult to introduce in a way that satisfies demanding and disgruntled populations. Much more than in the 1980s, the value systems of good governance, equal opportunity and, above all, freedom have gone global and the Arab region is no exception.
Such forces overpower the image of strength, awe and fear that assailed political regimes used to project and rely upon to preserve their rule. Whatever tools of repression they possess are not enough anymore.
In any part of the region, interconnected populations realise the commonality of their dreams and they want a stake in their respective countries.
With a lack of real and timely reform, radical and abrupt regime change often becomes the alternative.
As Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev told East German President Erich Honecker in October 1989: “Life punishes those who are too late.”
Streets demonstrations in the vast and populous countries of the MENA region’s Algiers, Khartoum, Cairo and finally, Bagdad chasing some long-time running democratic awakening appear to be stalling. However, these capital cities of the so-called republics’ populations seem to be going through a quasi-general disenchantment with their respective establishments because of all the prospects for future development in political and security terms have become uncertain given this sudden but not surprising worsening regional situation. Like throughout all these countries, Iraq protests expose the fallacy of the country’s democracy. Technological advances in the world and their penetration in the MENA region could definitely be behind all these upheavals.
Whether these media as social or just digital distribution of news, they did help to connect citizens and build linkage to an unprecedented level. Government organisations always in desperate need of credibility fell short to keep up with how fast the region’s peoples demands of more democracy, etc. This article elaborates on the specifics of Iraq’s.
Violent crackdown against Iraq protests expose fallacy of the country’s democracy
When Muhanad Habib, a 22-year-old Iraqi from the Sadr City district of Baghdad, posted on Facebook in late September, he probably didn’t imagine that his demands for a better life and basic rights would be met with bullets.
It will be a huge and angry public revolution in Baghdad … We will take to the streets protesting … Enough silence about what’s going on in Iraq. We cannot just watch Iraq being destroyed when we have armies of jobless and poor.
This was how it all started. Angry youth from Baghdad took to the streets. Unaffiliated with any political party or with well-known activists, the protesters – the majority of whom were born in the late 1990s or early 2000s – despaired about any prospect for change in Iraq.
Yet, Salih’s statement raised questions about who is actually running the Iraqi state. And despite his and international condemnation, the crackdown continues on the ground.
Calls for a homeland
Endemic corruption, unemployment, flawed institutions and poor public services linger in Iraq and have prompted protests since 2011, including notably in Basra in 2018. The recapture of Iraqi lands from the grip of Islamic State (IS) gave many Iraqis hope that lessons would be learnt about the repeated failures which gave rise to IS, and that those in power would take sincere steps to reform. But that hope has been diminishing every day.
The most recent protests came in the wake of multiple smaller demonstrations by different groups, including PhD graduates, doctors and engineers in September 2019.
They followed government actions that caused widespread anger. Impoverished people were outraged at a recent state campaign to destroy unlicensed properties and market stalls across Iraq, leaving many homeless and jobless.
It also followed the removal of a key general, Abdul Wahab Al Saadi, from his position as commander of the Counter-Terrorism Service, followed by his demotion to a lower post at the Ministry of Defence. The marginalisation of a figure admired for his role in the military campaign against IS enraged many Iraqis.
The new generation want a homeland. “We want a respected homeland,” and “I am taking to the streets to get my right,” were among the slogans on display during the protests. “The issue is not about water or electricity, but about a homeland,” shouted another protester.
The immediate crackdown of the protests has surprised, shocked, and shaken Iraqis. The suppression turned a protest about anti-corruption and unemployment into an uprising against the status quo and what participants see as foreign interference, particularly from Iran.
Tear gas, live ammunition, and snipers were used to quell the protesters. As one protestor put it: “They did things to us they never did to IS. They beat and insulted us. They used live fire and grenades. What have we done? All what we are asking for are our rights and all people’s rights.” The protestor’s words were used as the opening of a new rap song titled “Iran’s tails” released in the wake of the crackdown by an Iraqi expat in solidarity with the demonstrators.
The violent oppression and state’s authoritarian measures to cover up the carnage are reminiscent of the days of Baathist rule and former president Saddam Hussein’s oppression of a 1991 uprising. In 2019, such measures included an internet blackout across Iraq except in the Kurdistan region, curfews in Baghdad and other provinces in the south, and blocked roads leading to Tahrir square in Baghdad where demonstrators gathered. Comparisons were also made with IS, who also cut off the internet in Mosul when Iraqi troops were advancing to retake the city in 2016.
Offices of media agencies covering the protests were attacked and reports emerged of protesters, activists and journalists being threatened and arrested.
By disconnecting Iraqis from the outside world, the authorities in Iraq tried to control the circulation of videos that showed civilians killed in broad daylight. But they also pushed the narrative of Iran-backed political parties and officials: that “intruders” – an implicit reference to Baathists or actors backed by an external agenda – were responsible for riots. A similar narrative was echoed by Iranian media outlets to undermine the legitimacy of the protests, accusing foreign powers of being behind them, an indirect reference to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Despite the internet blackout, which remains partially in place, footage of the live shooting at the protestors and ambulances carrying the wounded were shared on social media as some Iraqi protesters resorted to innovative methods with the help of Iraqi expats to reveal the scale of the violence.
The heartbreaking scenes caused uproar among the Iraqi diaspora who protested in several countries around the world in solidarity. But for people inside Iraq, many still don’t know the scale of the atrocities as they haven’t been able to access social media sites.
The fallacy of democracy
Since the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, successive governments have failed to put an end to Iraqis’ grievances. Time and again, only empty promises were made, and superficial measures taken. The electoral system has helped to produce and perpetuate a hybrid form of kleptocracy, authoritarianism and kakistocracy – a government run by the worst, or most unscrupulous people. Armed groups, tribes, foreign powers and religious clergy have all maintained this system.
The latest protests may have been suppressed but they revealed that democracy in Iraq is nothing but a facade. What sort of democratic government kills its own people, taking away their hopes and dreams? And can it still be called legitimate? Reacting indifferently to the deadly crackdown of innocent people in Iraq, the world needs to at least recognise that the root causes of Iraq’s ills are in the post-2003 system itself.
Gulf wealth: all that glitters is not gold. Little suggests that fabulously wealthy Gulf states and their Middle Eastern and North African beneficiaries have recognized what is perhaps the most important lesson of this year’s popular uprisings in Algeria and Sudan and the 2011 Arab revolts: All that glitters is not gold.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and to a lesser extent Kuwait have in the last decade invested billions of dollars in either reversing or hollowing out the revolts’ achievements in a bid to ensure that political change elsewhere in the region does not come to haunt them.
Qatar, in a counterintuitive strategy that has earned it the ire of the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has sought to achieve the same goal by attempting to be on the right side of the region’s forces of change.
The irony is that both approaches, despite also involving huge investments at home in economic diversification, education, and healthcare, could produce the very result Gulf states seek to avoid: a region that has many of the trappings of 21st century knowledge states but that is incapable of catering to the aspirations of a youth bulge expected to annually increase the work force by a million people over the next 12 years.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, concluded earlier this year, that the region’s youth bulge was a double-edged sword. It could either pose a threat to regional stability or be an asset for development.
Turning the youth bulge into an asset “requires urgent and significant investment to create opportunities for meaningful learning, social engagement and work, all of which are currently limited, particularly for young women and the most vulnerable,” the UN agency said in a report entitled MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Generation 2030.
UNICEF arrived at its conclusion even though Gulf states have adopted grandiose plans that envision them becoming within a matter of a decade or two diversified, knowledge-driven economies that enact the social reforms needed to create opportunity for all segments of society.
The group’s conclusion applies as much to the wealthy Gulf states as it does to the Arab beneficiaries of their politically motivated financial largesse.
The problems with the flexing of the Gulf states’ financial muscle as well as the implementation of reform plans are multi-fold.
They relate as much to quality of the upgrading of services such as education as they are about how political intent shapes development efforts and how high domestic debt in countries like Egypt, where 27 percent of government expenditure goes to interest payments, and Lebanon, which spends 38 percent of its budget on debt servicing, benefits Gulf banks and stymies social and economic development.
Credit rating agency Fitch recently downgraded Lebanon’s credit rating to CCC from B- because of “intensifying pressure on Lebanon’s financing model and increasing risks to the government’s debt servicing capacity.”
“In Lebanon, just over 50 percent of the country’s bank assets are held by GCC-related banks, in Palestine this figure is 63 per cent, and in Jordan it is as high as 86 percent,” Mr. Advani wrote in a review of political economist Adam Hanieh’s study of Gulf finance, Money, Markets, and Monarchies.
Mr Hanieh argues that the bulk of the debt payments are to financial establishments whose major shareholders include Gulf institutions in a process in which “the Arab state…increasingly mediates the transfer of national wealth to large Gulf-related banks.”
Mr Advani warned that “indebted governments are compelled to intensify a politics of austerity, further trapping these societies in cycles of debt. Investments in social programs or infrastructural developments are often stalled. Popular movements are unable to realize their demands at the state level due to the requirements of foreign creditors and domestic capitalists. The ensuing scenario is one where alternative politics are asphyxiated and increasingly circumscribed by an atrophied status quo.”
That may well be the purpose of the exercise with economic diversification efforts in the Gulf being driven more by the need of autocracies to upgrade their autocratic style and create opportunity for a restive youth in a bid to ensure regime survival rather than by the acknowledgement of a government’s responsibility to serve the people.
The result is a flawed approach to all aspects of reform.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 economic and social reform plan that calls for greater private sector involvement has turned into a top down effort that emphasizes state control with the government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) as the key player.
A combination of depressed oil prices and the recent replacement of energy minister Khalid al-Falih as chairman of the board of Aramco by PIF head Yasir al-Rumayyan, a close associate of Prince Mohammed, raises questions about the state oil company’s positioning in advance of a much-touted initial public offering.
Ellen Wald, an energy analyst and author of a history of Aramco, the kingdom’s main source of revenue, noted that at PIF Mr. Al-Rumayyan had overseen investments more geared towards speculative gains than the sustainable growth of Saudi wealth.
Nonetheless, Ms Wald cautions that Mr Al-Rumayyan’s appointment “doesn’t necessarily bode well for Aramco, which is a different kind of company. It has to make stable decisions for the long term,” she said.
By the same token, UNICEF warned that poverty, violent conflict, restrictive social norms, patriarchy, rights violations and lack of safe spaces for expression and recreation were limiting opportunities as well as civic adolescent and youth engagement.
Gulf emphasis on geopolitical dominance, regime survival and return on financial investment produces short term solutions that often exacerbate conflict, produce little trickle-down effect and few prospects for long-term stability.
“As a result, adolescents and youth in MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) feel disillusioned, with girls and young women, refugees, those with disabilities and the poor being particularly marginalised and underrepresented,” the UNICEF report said.
“Youth unemployment in the region is currently the highest in the world. Education systems are failing to prepare adolescents and youth for the workplace, and markets are not generating urgently needed jobs,” the report warned.
Gulf wealth glitters but if the UNICEF report is anything to go by, it has yet to demonstrate that it can produce the gold of a development that is sustainable and benefits not only all segments of Gulf societies but also of those across the region that have become dependent on it.
Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.
The skills gap poses a genuine threat to economic progress and could leave nations stalled, millions unemployed and prosperity dwindling.
Only one in five working-age women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has a job or is actively looking for one, according to the World Bank and the region has one of the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world.
If the MENA region continues along this trajectory, it could take at least another 150 years to match the current global average for female labour force participation.
Despite good progress in some countries, challenges and inequities persist.
Increasingly, there is a realisation that the levels of female unemployment are not simply a mirror of the business cycle, but a persistent structural issue that has distinct causes and requires specific solutions that cut across socio-economic and education policies.
This not only represents a great loss of human capital, but it also seriously hinders the region’s potential for social and economic development.
Across MENA, restrictive barriers including limited mobility, restrictive laws and closed industries, coupled with long-standing political and social issues, continue to impede women’s access to the labour market.
However, one factor that stands out is that education does not always lead to employment. There is a persistent mismatch between employers and jobseekers – whether in terms of skills, attitudes or expectations.
For example, in Saudi Arabia, female enrolment in tertiary education has doubled in the last decade (68.5% in 2017 compared to 34.2% in 2007), but still only two in ten working-age women participate in the labour force.
In Egypt, unemployment among women with advanced education is almost six times that among those with basic education only, according to World Bank Development Indicators. While in Tunisia, only 41% of women are enrolled in tertiary education and they represent just 26.5% of the total labour force in the country.
This skills gap poses a genuine threat to economic progress and has the potential to leave nations stalled, millions unemployed and prosperity dwindling.
I believe that women can be change-makers for the political, economic and social development of MENA.
However, participation from governments, employers and education providers is needed to bridge the gender gap, increase regional output, and put MENA on a more sustainable and inclusive growth path in the long run.
Companies can do their part by engaging in thoughtful planning, cooperating with others and getting strategic about their staffing practices. This could range from supporting access to soft and technical skills programmes, endorsing philanthropic partnerships, designing policies and spearheading discussions among the education community to pushing inclusive job opportunities.
Over the next decade, it is estimated that 50 million women will come of working age in the region. Therefore, corporations are in a unique position to bring about significant change through empowering a previously untapped human resource.
Despite increased focus and spending over the past decade, MENA governments still have a long road ahead in improving women’s social and political barriers to employment. Without a drastic overhaul of personal development and soft skills programmes, companies will continue to struggle to fill jobs across the region.
The influence and investment of companies is crucial to start to re-shape the position of women across MENA and successfully bring them into the workforce – ultimately shaping a stronger, more inclusive economy.
Carmen Haddad is the Chief Country Officer of Citigroup Saudi Arabia and the Citi Saudi Arabia Business Governance Head. Citi Foundation has partnered with international NGO Education for Employment to tackle the MENA unemployment crisis.
* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Chatham House Reports of one of its Middle East and North Africa Programme elaborates on the still on-going conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The excerpts of the published Executive Summary reproduced here below do not include its Recommendations for Western policymakers, etc.
The conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions. In seeking to explain the violence that has struck the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over the past two decades, analysis to date has focused predominantly on ideological and identity-based factors. This report expands this discourse by incorporating approaches adopted from the literature on the political economy of war to examine the conflict economies of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
motivations, at the individual and group level, are key to understanding
the wars in these countries, yet have tended to be overlooked
in the MENA context. (As the wars have progressed and evolved, the
national and local economies in which conflict is embedded have also changed.)
Such motivations can offer an alternative or complementary
explanation for armed group membership and armed group behaviour. While some
groups will fight to promote or defend a particular identity,
others fight for economic survival or enrichment. For many more actors,
these motivations are tied together, and separating out ‘greed’ and ‘grievance’
is a difficult, if not impossible, task. Even
if economic motivations did not spark the wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and
Yemen initially, it is clear that such factors now play a critical
role in the persistence of open fighting, localized violence and
objectives of this report are twofold. First, it seeks
to develop a framework for comparative analysis of conflict
economies at the local level in the MENA region. Traditionally, the
idea of a conflict economy has been tightly linked to the
funding for arms, ammunition and fighters. Further, most analyses
of conflict economies are conducted at the national level. Even where
research is conducted on a regional basis, discussion
of the impact of conflict is brought back to the national
level. In contrast, we see a broader political economy
of war at work in the region. Our analysis illustrates how
a conflict economy is embedded within a complex local socio-political
system, in which many variables and agendas interact. We deliberately
avoid characterizing conflict economies in terms of ‘black’ and
‘grey’ markets that somehow need to be ‘cleaned up’, as this
erroneously implies that they can eventually be converted into licit
markets like their peacetime counterparts.2 A more
nuanced and multifaceted reading is essential. For the purposes
of this report, we define a conflict economy
as a system of producing, mobilizing and allocating resources
to sustain competitive and embedded violence, both directly and
we show that a ‘political economy of war’ framing offers new
approaches for reducing competitive and embedded violence. ‘Competitive
violence’ can be defined as violence ‘deployed by warring elites
to contest or defend the existing distribution of power’.4 Fighting
between rival armed groups for control over resources and rents, among other
things, usually falls into this category. ‘Embedded violence’,
in contrast, underpins ‘how a political settlement5 works,
as the deals agreed between elites may revolve around who has the “right”
to use violence’.6 In practice,
this could mean that one group is ‘permitted’ to use violence against
another group – and no punishment will be enforced. In the
context of this study, the use of armed force to assert the
status quo to limit the number of ruling elite members is one
example of embedded violence.
of conflict economies has mostly focused on state-level dynamics.7 However,
less attention has been paid to the development of conflict sub-economies that are specific to certain types of
location. This study demonstrates three distinct types of conflict sub-economy:
(1) capital cities; (2) transit areas and borderlands; and (3) oil-rich areas.
Our analysis highlights how each sub-economy creates distinct location-based
patterns of resource production, mobilization and allocation
to sustain competitive and embedded violence. The rents available
in these areas vary. In capital cities, rents focus on control
of the distribution of revenues and assets from the state and private
sector. In transit areas and borderlands, rents centre around taxation and
arbitrage. In oil-rich areas, rents are related to control
of the area itself (and therefore the ability to levy taxes upon
the oil sector), bearing in mind that the level of achievable
taxation depends on the extent to which a given actor controls
the supply chain.
As this report will elaborate, factors specific to each sub-economy type play a role in conditioning the nature of economic activities in each locality, and in determining whether and by which means violence is dispensed. For this reason, national-level generalizations and in-country comparisons of conflict economies are inadequate: for example, the conflict sub-economy of Baghdad has more in common with that of Tripoli than that of al-Qaim, an Iraqi town on the border with Syria. In turn, the conflict economy observed in al-Qaim has more in common with that of al-Mahra in Yemen than al-Mahra does with Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.
Read more on the original document or download its PDF 873 KB.
A new study shows 15m Facebook subscribers in the MENA region; a big increase in Arabic language users. In fact, it was found that not only this platform does help socialise but does also contribute above all to informing on the goings-on in any particular country and/or intercountry affairs.
There are more subscribers to Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) than there are copies of newspapers circulated in the region, a new report has said.
The study by Spot On Public Relations said Facebook has more than 15 million users in the region, while the total regional Arabic, English and French newspaper circulation stands at just under 14 million copies.
“Facebook doesn’t write the news, but the new figures show that Facebook’s reach now rivals that of the news press,” said Carrington Malin, managing director of Spot On Public Relations.
“The growth in Arabic language users has been very strong indeed: some 3.5 million Arabic language users began using Facebook during the past year, since the introduction of Arabic support and we can expect millions more Arabic language users to join the platform,” he added.
Five country markets in MENA now account for some 70 percent of Facebook users – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the report added.
The study said only 37 percent of Facebook users in the Middle East are female compared with 56 percent in the US and 52 percent in the UK.
Egypt’s 3.5 million Facebook subscribers helped to make North Africa the largest Facebook community in MENA accounting for 7.7 million out of a total of 15 million MENA users.
It added that 33 percent of the UAE’s population uses Facebook and it also now stands as the country’s second most visited website after google.ae, according to websites ranked by Alexa.com.
Some 68 percent of Facebook users in the UAE are over 25 years old, flying in the face of perceptions that social media is a ‘generation Y’ phenomenon.
However, much of Facebook’s growth across the rest of the region has been driven by the under 25s, the report said.
Over 48 percent of Facebook subscribers in Saudi Arabia are under 25 years old, with an equal split between English and Arabic users.
However, about three times the number of Arabic users have joined Facebook in Saudi over the past year, compared with the number of English language users.For all the latest UAE news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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