CAIRO – In December 2013, at a makeshift cultural center in downtown Cairo, a young Sudanese recited poems from The Papers of Room No. Eight, a collection written by the Egyptian poet Amal Donkol weeks before his death in 1983. He finished his recitation with the poignant “Do not dream of a happy world”; tears sparkled in the eyes of the elderly woman next to me. It was a fitting reflection on current conditions in the Arab world nearly three years after the start of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”
Two-thirds of the 330 million Arabs alive today are under 35 years old. But almost all Arab educational systems do not, in general, produce graduates who are competitive in the global job market. This means that the jobs that have any wealth-creation potential are beyond their reach. The exclusion of a significant percentage of Arab women from the labor force exacerbates the problem.
For example, though the Gulf states have a very young native population, their economies are fueled mainly by the expatriates who constitute more than 30% of the region’s inhabitants (estimates vary widely). Meanwhile, the proportion of Arab Christians throughout the Middle East has dwindled from around 20% of the total population to about 5% over the last century. As a result, for the first time in at least two centuries, Arab societies are increasingly losing their cultural and intellectual diversity. If these trends continue, the Arab world’s demographic dividend will become a catastrophic burden.
Most Arab oil producers are major credit exporters to the West, and several Gulf states’ sovereign wealth funds are among the most dynamic – and influential – actors in global capital markets. And yet the Arab world remains almost entirely dependent on oil exports, with even countries that have no reserves relying on fiscal support and remittances from the oil exporters.
As a result, though several Arab economies are growing at 3-5% per year, they are highly vulnerable to disruptive technologies (witness the shale-energy revolution) and economic shocks (for example, recessions in the main oil importers). And, crucially, dependence on oil means that the single source of Arab economic strength is a mature industry that is detached from those that will shape tomorrow’s global economy: bio-engineering, robotics, computer science, molecular physics, and manipulation of “big data,” to name a few.
Arab soft power is a mixed bag. The Qatari-based broadcaster Al Jazeera has managed to become a leading force in international media. Moroccan and Tunisian films regularly feature in international festivals. And Dubai is now a commercial and logistical hub, as well as a notable tourist destination.
But the Arab world’s contribution to international literary, cinematic, theatrical, and musical production is highly disproportionate to its population. The region is also severely deficient in scientific and technological research. And the region’s value system – its attitudes toward human rights, gender equality, and the role of religion in political and social life – is hardly a model for others to admire and emulate.
Moreover, the Arab world’s internal and external relationships are increasingly complicated. The largest Arab countries – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have strained relations with the region’s largest immediate neighbors, Iran and Turkey. A permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains elusive. Access to key water resources is fraught. Even the strategic relationship with the United States, which has anchored the largest Arab countries’ foreign policy for decades, is confronting significant challenges, owing to the political tremors triggered by the Arab Spring, as well as to America’s increasing focus on Asia.
Militarily, the Arab world lacks advanced capabilities in ballistic missiles, anti-satellite missiles, and cyber-warfare. This, together with a relatively low level of soft power, suggests that the Arab world’s ability to convince, compel, or coerce external actors is severely limited.
Arab elites are also increasingly losing influence over their internal constituencies, with most Arab countries remaining acutely divided over politics, economics, and the role of religion. The resulting polarization has weakened the few functioning state institutions that the large Arab countries have managed to build since the mid-nineteenth century.
Of course, pessimism in the short to medium term must be tempered by sensitivity to constantly changing political and social circumstances. But, while the Arab world is a huge region with real power and potential, it has been systematically weakened in the past half-century – mainly from within.
Indeed, the Arab uprisings of the past three years can be viewed as a youth-led rebellion against not only entrenched elites, but also against a social and political narrative that is no longer viable. A new start is urgently needed.
To be sure, the past three years have been full of disappointments. But, for today’s young Arabs, there can be no restoration of faith in the old certainties and dogmas that have stifled social and political progress for decades. Millions of Arabs have opted out, with some of the brightest emigrating to the US and northern Europe, while some of the poorest risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, the transformative wave fueled by young people’s frustration remains full of energy and potential.
If, however, the wave peters out and current conditions persist, Arab prospects will remain dismal for years to come. In that case, Arabs will understand that it really is wrong to dream of a better world – with perilous consequences for the region and its neighbors.