At the end of August, Egypt’s central newspaper Al-Ahram published a major article about the turmoil and confusion in which the Arab East finds itself. The author believes that there are many reasons for these developments, but it is primarily sectarian and ethnic divisions, encouraged and exploited by external forces.
The roots of this phenomenon go back to recent history, when Western European powers, especially England and France, turned many Arab states into their colonies. The situation was exacerbated by the “imperial games” of the Americans, who pursued policies based on their own interests, disregarding the needs of the peoples living there.
The almost 80-year-old Palestinian problem periodically gives rise to sharp tensions over the actions of the West. It is the Western powers that have been responsible for the permanent crisis in Iraq, once the second most important country in the Arab East, lasting more than 20 years. Libya, a dozen years ago quite a prosperous country, was turned by NATO bombing into a hotbed of sustained civil strife and has been facing hard times ever since. Yemen, Syria, Somalia and some other countries are experiencing enormous difficulties. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern states spent $168 billion on arms purchases last year.
A few weeks ago, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia published a report which concluded that the Arab region was particularly unequal compared to other parts of the world and that there was a serious “risk of social cohesion erosion.” Income inequality is actually a time bomb – the 10% of highest paid employees account for more than 60% of national income, compared to 52% globally.
Factors contributing to this enormous divide include demographic dynamics, poor education, weak institutions, the digital divide, corruption, lack of transparency, inaccessible housing, etc.
Gender inequalities are systematically higher than worldwide – the Commission estimates it will take 179 years to eliminate them.
Youth unemployment, which is 3.8 times higher than for adult workers, was the highest in the world for the last 25 years.
According to observers, all these points could lead to new social cataclysms.
These factors are compounded by the traumatic impact of the so-called Arab Spring on the economies of the most vulnerable Arab countries: Tunisia is in political and economic crisis; from Syria to Yemen and from Lebanon to Libya, key development indicators are declining. Realistically, many states are now close to becoming insolvent.
Over the past two years of the pandemic, supply chain problems, shortages of goods, have been exacerbated by ongoing conflicts and internal turmoil. The situation is exacerbated by a growing debt burden. According to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the Arab region’s gross public debt had reached an all-time high of $1.4 trillion as of October last year.
Much of the debt, the Commission estimates, is a by-product of a combination of corruption, poor governance, high public spending and a sprawling shadow economy.
Rising US interest rates mean that debt service will eventually consume larger and larger chunks of already tight public budgets, leaving little or no room for fighting climate change or strengthening social safety nets weakened by the pandemic.
After all, faced with rising debt-servicing costs, governments are likely to resort to raising already disproportionate taxes in a desperate attempt to increase government revenues, leading to inflation and ultimately shrinking the economy.
The Middle East, like many parts of the world, is facing serious climate warming and drought, as climate change makes the region hotter and drier. Some states, primarily in the Persian Gulf, are expanding research efforts to identify new sources of water. Pioneers in this work include the UAE, which has embarked on a grand program of “cloud seeding,” injecting chemicals into the clouds to try and induce precipitation. In 12 of the 19 countries in the region, precipitation has fallen by 20% in the last 30 years, so they are desperate for any freshwater increase. 60 years ago there were 100,000 people living in the UAE, now there are 10 million. The demand for water has increased dramatically, with each UAE resident consuming about 147 gallons of water per day (the global regional average is 47 gallons). Desalination plants currently meet this demand, but each facility costs more than $1 billion to build and requires huge amounts of energy.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the way in modernizing the region’s economy and social fabric. The Emirates are making significant investments in Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
It is notable that almost all Arab countries have refused to join the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by Western powers, while there is a clear trend towards increasing ties with Moscow and Beijing. Saudi Arabia has invested more than $600 million in three Russian energy companies and doubled the amount of fuel oil it buys from Russia for its power plants.
Coordination of Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s policies with Russia is at the core of OPEC+.
Even the New York Times noted on September 14 that these moves represent a clear shift by Saudi Arabia towards Moscow.
The late summer and early autumn of 2022 have shown that the Arab states increasingly expect to expand cooperation with Russia and China, considering the West, and especially the US, an unreliable partner. It is very significant in this regard that at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Samarkand, five states from the Arab East – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Syria and Egypt – declared their desire to join the association (Algeria had announced its desire to become a BRICS member earlier).
Arab media note that virtually all Arabs share the conclusions of the Samarkand Declaration of the SCO summit, most notably that economic sanctions can only be imposed by decision of the UN Security Council and that interference in internal affairs under the pretext of combating terrorism is unacceptable.
Most Arabs see the way out of the crisis in establishing cooperation with Russia and China, the BRICS and the SCO, which, by virtue of their principles of equal cooperation, are becoming “communities of common destiny.”
Veniamin Popov, Director of the Center for Partnership of Civilizations at MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Candidate of Historical Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.