Working in the Middle East, or understanding what a geopolitical “seismic zone” is…
When working in the Middle East, it is important not to analyse things the wrong way: whatever events are currently unfolding, we must keep an eye on the deeper fault lines shaking the region, and that will continue to shake it for a long time to come. Even as the civil wars in Iraq and Syria appear to be drawing to a close, the Middle East continues to be riven by various conflicts and tensions whose outcome is hard to predict. In fact, political and geopolitical instability is now well and truly structural, and thus deep-rooted. This is notably because the nature of the sources of this instability has changed since the Arab Spring uprisings: there are now multiple sources, both internal and external.
From a geopolitical perspective, the United States’ loss of influence in the region is now plain to see and is affecting the region’s stability. After the failure of the second Gulf War (2003), which did not succeed in redrawing the regional political map more democratically, the Obama and Trump administrations continued (each in its own way) to lack any clear strategy on the region. At the same time, however, the US maintained a significant military presence in the region, both to secure oil routes and to contain the will to power among regional players, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular. In concrete terms, the United States is, in a way, dependent on local governments, if only to manage access to its troops.
More significantly, though, Washington increasingly appears to be a prisoner of its regional alliances, which sometimes keep America locked into hard-to-manage policies, Israel being the prime example. And the “Trump factor” clearly isn’t making things any easier…
Furthermore, the geopolitical decline of certain states, such as Egypt and Syria, and the political fragmentation of others, like Lebanon, have also allowed Russia and Iran – both keen to redraw the Middle East map to their own advantage – to project their power. Moscow and Tehran are also benefiting from increasing distrust of a Europe faced with both the failure of past attempts at political rapprochement (Barcelona Process/Euromed) and the emergence of radical Islam within its own borders, triggering a kind of diplomatic withdrawal of Europeans in the region.
It’s also important to note that, from Turkey to the Emirates, not forgetting Saudi Arabia and Iran, almost every country in the region has intervened in regional conflicts, not only on the Arabian Peninsula but also in Libya and Yemen. These interventions are aimed at securing their political or ideological influence in support of either strong state control or transnational political Islam.
To put it plainly, the geopolitical risks have become more complex: the region is now multipolar, shaped by the desire for power of a number of regional states. These risks are exacerbated by the weakening of multilateralism and of stabilising forces previously in operation.
Political developments in the region also became more complex and much more tense after the popular uprisings of 2011. The majority of regional powers – Tunisia being the notable exception – responded to popular demands with greater centralism and more repression, ultimately leading to renewed frustration among populations demanding greater political freedom. These sentiments further weakened the legitimacy of some leaders, and the recent popular uprising in Algeria is an illustration – as if any were needed – of people’s exasperation with authoritarian political powers that are worn out and very often outdated.
Furthermore, new transnational forces have become stronger, weakening individual states. One example is radical Sunni Islam, which is clearly not about to fade away with the end of the Islamic State; another is the Shiite militias now scattered across the Near East. These developments will fuel the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – two powers fighting for regional leadership – for a long time to come.
The political and economic trajectories of Middle Eastern countries will also be affected over the coming years by major social and demographic challenges. Population growth in the region remains very high, already posing significant challenges for public authorities, such as how to create millions of jobs for unemployed young people. This could have a disruptive effect on macroeconomic stability as well as on the level of inequality.
The predominant social contract in countries in the region is based on a kind of state-dispensed material comfort in exchange for relinquishing all political responsibility. This contract could be headed for a serious crisis due not only to demographic pressures but also to reduced external rents and slowing growth. Indeed, it’s important to understand that local political balances also depend on oil price trends and how external surpluses are recycled.
Lastly, while many governments seem aware of these challenges, the past eight years have brought little in the way of change: this is a risk in itself. How able are existing leadership teams to correctly diagnose risk and guide the necessary changes? For the time being, the answer appears to be “not very”, and this will only diminish further as strongmen consolidate their power. Unfortunately, this immobilism has further stoked people’s frustration. At this stage, painful but necessary social and economic reforms could trigger more acute social unrest unless also accompanied by greater political inclusion.
Meanwhile, bad governance is also fuelling political risk and potential popular anger. Improving it is therefore a major challenge – and an urgent one. In fact, governance in the region has deteriorated over the past two or three years: the rule of law is not guaranteed, some countries continue to be blighted by corruption and the informal sector shows no sign of retreating (and has even expanded since 2011 in many countries).
For all these internal and external reasons, political and geopolitical instability appears to be structurally entrenched in the Middle East and North Africa region, with a non-negligible risk of further political and social upheaval over the next few years.
Olivier LE CABELLEC - Olivier.LECABELLEC@credit-agricole-sa.fr