Sunday, 20 February 2011

North Africa & Middle East: What Next?

The Moslem nations forming the edge of North Africa and the Middle East    (Algeria,  Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia: SEE TABLE ) appear to be characterised by :
  • young populations with a majority below the age of 30 (in the Yemen 50% are 17 or younger)
  • fairly low life expectancy (63.4 in the Yemen)
  • fairly low literacy rate (around 50% in Yemen and Morocco)
  • low GDP per capita 
  • economies which have grown appreciably but are now slowing along with the developed world 
These countries also are forcibly ruled by small powerful elites (often Sunni monarchies), reliant on censorship to preserve order and  beset with corruption. As well as religious divisions (e.g. Sunni vs Shia) there are innumerable tribal divisions (e.g. Berbers, Bedouins, Tuareg) and foreign nationals (e.g. Egyptians, Italians).

Living standards have been rising and progress is being made in education, even of women. Concomitantly, there are growing expectations which if thwarted, as has been happening recently because of the developing world's slow down, can quickly lead to  social unrest of the kind we have seen recently in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Morocco, the Yemen and Bahrain, and awareness via the social media of how the western world has been growing in prosperity can only add to the clamour for political reform. So far the discontent, although leading to violent clashes between demonstrators and the authorities, has not resulted in sustained armed conflict.

It is not out of the question that these nations could make a transition to relatively stable societies where  economic expansion and investment is possible, even when the oil revenue diminishes as the world  switches to a low carbon economy and gets what fossil fuels it needs from safer regions.

Most of these states were tolerably stable under colonial rule following the collapse of the 700 year old Ottoman Empire around the time of World War I (1914-18). Even Iraq gave its citizens a reasonably secure (by modern Iraqi standards) life under British rule for 38 years  (c.1920 - 1958), before it was declared a republic and was forced into submission by a succession of dictators up to 2003. Iran achieved a minimally democratic and stable society after the Islamic Revolution (which sprung from a secular one in 1978),, although even this now seems to be exhibiting social unrest.

Unfortunately, to help keep the populations happy, the ruling elites have been releasing extremist Jihad (and tribal?)  groups from captivity. These gentlemen are not noted for their moderation or modest ambitions and there is also, in many cases, fierce rivalry between the various  factions. Their internecine conflicts and barbarities seem to take on a momentum of their own both within and across borders.

 The availability of western arms and military methods is also not likely to bode well for  peace in the region; while Islamic fighters from the Sudan, Somalia and other parts of North Africa are bound to join in, or even initiate, conflict. 

As with most conflicts in today's world events have reached this stage because widely perceived social injustice has been allowed to build up until the population has become unstable. Now all it needs is for a few dominophiles to turn  unstable situations into conflict and make life a misery for millions across the region, if not most of the planet.

Author, 2077 AD