When the Middle East Seemed Stable

Can Arab countries learn from each other to find a model that works?

Citi Hofra, near Algiers
Citi Hofra, near Algiers (Louafi Larbi / Reuters)

Whatever one considers the “Arab world” to be, sometimes it all just seems to be falling apart. Bombs went off in Baghdad and the Sinai killing dozens, jihadis broke into a jail and freed hardline prisoners in Bahrain, ISIS shot down an Iraqi helicopter, and more than 10,000 refugees fled Mosul. And that was all just this week.

What we should be seeing in the chaos, though, is not how much conditions are the same across the Arab world. We should be seeing instead just how different they are. Less than a decade ago, the 20-odd Arab states were converging, with their economics, politics, and societies becoming more like each other. Then the “Arab Spring” happened, even if its harvest seems less and less spring-like with the passage of time. Now politics and societies are diverging, and they will continue to diverge in the years ahead.

The incoming Trump administration doesn’t seem much inclined to have a policy toward the Arab world, which is a problem given the challenges the region now presents. Governments will be experimenting, some will be failing, and the United States has an interest in what lessons they and their neighbors learn from the whole thing. There is a huge opportunity here.  A successful U.S. strategy could make the difference between a region that is settling down and one that continues to shake, and by extension, shakes the world.

In the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, observers had gotten so used to thinking that the Middle East was unstable that we missed the stability unfolding under our noses. In the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionaries toppled monarchies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and beyond. Guerrillas pushed out colonial forces in Algeria after a bloody conflict. Countries like Syria had coups and countercoups. Syria even had a short and ill-fated union with Egypt.

Then, it all stopped. For all the talk of Middle Eastern instability, between 1969 and 2003, the kings and presidents of the Arab world endured until death. The last monarch in the broader Middle Eastern region to fall was the Shah of Iran in 1979. Over time, the differences between governments diminished. The Arab monarchies, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, all started looking more and more like republics, empaneling weak legislatures that played nominal advisory roles to a strong monarch. Republics such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq had weak legislatures, too; they also had presidents who often acted like kings and seemed to envision passing their positions to their sons.

Economically, too, the old divisions between Arab socialism and capitalism broke down. A consensus emerged across the Arab world for a paternalistic state with a strong social safety net and high levels of state employment. Political Islam was fine as long as it was contained; all states reacted fiercely to any challenge that legitimized itself with religion. It seemed that the governments, working individually and collectively, had worked it all out to their satisfaction (although millions of their citizens might disagree). They helped each other, they learned from each other, and to a certain degree they even emulated each other.

And then, with the Arab Spring, they went separate ways. The Gulf Arab states concluded that much of what was amiss was material deprivation, so they sought to increase state employment and other forms of subsidies. King Mohammed VI of Morocco had far shallower pockets, and he put himself forward as a broker between competing factions. King Abdullah of Jordan rallied his nation amid rising external threats and sought money from wealthy patrons. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has tried to go back in time, reviving the Nasserist model of a technocratic military-led government that is on high alert against internal insurrection. Tunisia, alone among the post-revolutionary states, tried muddling through by empowering a diverse legislature and turning away from the lure of a strong executive.

State collapse in Syria, Libya, and Yemen (and some would say, Iraq) shows the consequences of failing to find the right model. But the diversity of approaches also reflects the fundamental differences among Middle Eastern countries, which, for all their convergences, have very different problems to solve and very different conditions in which to govern. Some states are big and some are small. Every Qatari citizen on the planet could fit comfortably into any of 20 neighborhoods in Cairo. Some states are wealthy and some are poor. The United Arab Emirates, for example, has 4 percent of the citizenry of Yemen, and Yemen has a GDP that is 4 percent of that of the United Arab Emirates. Some countries have natural resources, and some lack them. Some have homogenous populations and others more heterogeneous. Some have skilled workforces and others are untrained. And of course, governments vary a great deal in their competence.

With economies hurt by falling oil prices, burgeoning youth populations, and communications technologies that draw attention to new and innovative messages—never a government strength—governments all find themselves struggling for stability, each with a different toolkit. With growing constraints, each will need to experiment, and as with all experiments, the results aren’t foreordained. For more than three decades, Arab states had the luxury of moving slowly. The events of 2011, and the oil prices that fell in 2014 and have settled at less than half of their high, mean that luxury will be hard to come by.

A central and unanswered question is whether authoritarian governments make the region’s problems better or worse. Put another way, was former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s mistake, as far as maintaining his own power, that he was too repressive, or that he was not repressive enough, and how should Libya’s new leader, when one emerges, handle the country’s fragmentation? Is the violence in today’s Iraq a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s autocratic rule, or a justification for it? While many in the United States see liberalism as the best possible response to radicalism, many in the region have far more faith in cautious conservatism.

Another set of questions concerns how to guide young, literate, and networked populations, especially with the demise of political ideology. Loyalty and obedience have loomed large in the Middle East for millennia, but their utility may be diminishing.

Some of the most difficult questions concern how to establish a viable economic strategy for Arab states, which have burgeoning youth populations, relatively small industrial sectors, and low productivity. Where are countries’ comparative advantages? In many of the wealthier states, wages for citizens are uncompetitive in global terms and low output only compounds the problem. Women’s workforce participation is slowly increasing, but a relatively small number of workers still support large numbers of non-working women, children, and the elderly. Governments throughout the region share an instinct that material deprivation played a large role in the 2011 uprisings, but they are pursuing widely differing strategies in very different circumstances to boost their own economies.

Almost certainly some of these governments’ experiments will be more successful than others, and some will be more transferable than others. While it is surely true that the United States cannot make decisions for other countries as they consider their paths forward, it is also true that an American president has influence. The United States played a role encouraging East Asian development in the 1950s, and it was a partner to eastern European governments in the 1990s. How countries view their choices, and how they learn from their own outcomes and those of their neighbors, will shape the region’s path for years to come. The United States has an interest in how that process unfolds, and it also has a role.