For much of the last decade, the Arab world has faced overlapping challenges as it has tried to navigate political turmoil and a historic transition that followed the 2011 Arab Spring and its aftershocks.
The dramatic events that have been reshaping the region seem to signify a major juncture in the modern history of the Arabs, as their countries try to recover from crises and catch up with the rest of the world.
Given the unforgiving dynamics of regional geopolitics and the new trends that have complicated the Arab world’s ability to deal with multiple internal and exaternal challenges, the implications for policymakers and planners are stark.
Among the most prominent challenges is what sort of a future can the Arabs foresee. Will it be prosperous, safe and stable?
As many key Arab countries mark the centenary of their founding this decade, a general sense of disappointment prevails, with many considering that the Arab world is in poor shape. Each Arab state built by the post-independence elites needs tremendous transformational efforts to rejuvenate itself into a moderate and prosperous society in all respects.
Even before much of it was gripped by disenchantment at the Arab Spring, the Arab world was in deep trouble and sometimes even gave the impression of being in perpetual crisis.
Although the failure varies from country to country, one major reason is the dysfunctional character of the nation-state in the post-independence era, which sometimes sowed the seeds of political disorder, disintegration, ethnic conflicts and civil wars.
As the Arab world stands on the threshold of another century, all eyes are on the region to see whether it has learned the lessons of the popular uprisings of 2011 and whether it has forged a new path for the much-hoped-for transition from nation-formation to building strong and prosperous states.
These questions are central because they remain imperative if the cycles of gains and losses by political regimes involved in building the modern Arab states are to be broken.
But while considerable attention has been focused on developing the political system of each country, the Arab region as a whole is entering a new phase of geopolitical uncertainty when the long term impacts of the Arab Spring remain largely unknown.
The persistent instability in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, the faltering transition in Sudan and Tunisia, and the threats, risks and vulnerabilities which other countries face continue to unleash internal dynamics transcending national systems and affecting the political order in the whole of the Arab world.
The turmoil has encouraged non-Arab powers, primarily Iran and Turkey, to try to fill the void and to promote their selfish national interests, pursue more assertive policies, and seek to gain influence and sometimes territory in fragile Arab countries.
While the costs of their expansionism could outweigh the benefits, the two countries’ adventurism continues to add considerable uncertainties in the region. In addition to the regional geopolitical shifts, one of the possible consequences of their interventions is domestic transformation in the targeted Arab countries with further implications for the political order.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remain deadlocked as Israel prolongs its occupation of the West Bank and fails to recognise an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem its capital. With several Arab countries normalising their relations with Israel and building strategic partnerships with it, Israel continues to impose its de facto annexation of Palestinian land with demographic changes to follow.
Israel’s actions have created greater dangers that could trigger a new shake-up in an already turbulent region. The destructive Israeli war on Gaza in May, the fourth on the Strip since late 2008, serves as testimony that the US-sponsored peace plan by Israel and certain Arab countries, dubbed “the deal of the century” but dismissed by the Palestinians, will not bring closure and another war could come soon.
The illusion that Israel’s normalisation of its relation with the Arabs will encompass a “broad range of areas” for cooperation and will achieve a comprehensive regional peace is unlikely to materialise any time soon, and the status quo could spiral into rising tensions.
As the Arab world heads for its next centenary, economic stagnation and rising inequality are scuttling the dreams of millions, especially among young people struggling for education and job opportunities.
While the richer countries have made strides in mending their economies, they lag behind comparable nations elsewhere, and the low-income Arab societies continue to face momentous challenges battling poverty and unemployment.
One of the major consequences of the Arab world’s economic difficulties is that income inequality has increased, whether one looks at inter-regional or in-country measures.
This is because the richer Arab nations have grown faster and richer people within each country have benefited more than low-income people and the poor, making the Arab world one of the most unequal regions in the world, according to the World Inequality Lab.
While extreme inter-regional inequality, demonstrated by the huge gap in incomes between the energy rich Arab countries and the others, signals vulnerability in the conflict-driven uncertainty of the entire Arab world, it also underlies potential troubles in the less fortunate countries.
In both cases, the structural disparity undermines attempts to move towards greater political stability and democracy in the region.
As a result, the unbalanced economic order faces risks from geopolitical conflict at the regional level and political and social obstacles to growth-inducing reforms at the domestic one.
Looking at income inequality in the Arab world as a whole can be eye-opening and part of a questioning of the potential for action and the coordination of policies between the Arab countries. Efforts to bridge such inequality trends by solidarity and cooperation are vital in order to reach a level of “regional justice” that could address the income imbalance and the polarisation it causes.
One of the biggest challenges the Arab world has to face in the coming years is climate change, which is already impacting many of its countries in dire ways. Reports by world organisations including the World Bank have warned that global warming will do the region great harm, hitting hardest in countries where summer temperatures are expected to rise by more than twice the global average.
While some cities in the Arab region are said to be at risk of disappearing beneath the sea as climate change causes sea levels to rise, prolonged hot weather, desertification and droughts will also make parts of the Arab region uninhabitable.
The dangers could put intense pressure on agriculture and potentially trigger environmental-induced migration and even demographic conflicts.
An immediate challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has reached almost every country in the Arab world with various degree of intensity depending on how effective and rapid was the governmental response and available resources.
Although the number of cases of Covid-19 in the Arab countries has remained relatively small compared to other parts of the world, it is feared that the less wealthy countries, which struggled to control the outbreaks of successive waves of the virus, will continue to suffer long term effects.
The Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be an immense challenge for most Arab countries, impacting major sectors such as healthcare and education. While the effects may have been mild in the wealthy countries thanks to their available resources, the low income countries will have to deal with the damage to their businesses, their hospitals and their schools, as their governments continue to struggle with structural economic problems and a shortage of resources.
In addition to democratic backsliding and geopolitical and socio-economic problems, the Arab region is facing other problems such as a severe education deficit, a science and technology gap with the developed world, and a rapid and steady increase in population growth rates.
All these challenges place the region at a crossroads, and depending on the answers to these challenges, the results will range from everything from regional cooperation and stability to disintegrative conflicts in the Arab world.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly