On the Arab Spring's 8th Anniversary, Is the Mideast Poised for Breakthrough?

There’s no shortage of optimism, but the region seems to be sinking deeper into malaise

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Tunisia, 2014: A celebration of the Arab Spring.
Tunisia, 2014: A celebration of the Arab Spring.Credit: AP

If you get through January 14 without seeing a single headline or TV news report marking the day, the eighth anniversary of the Arab Spring, don’t be surprised.

Eight years ago today Tunisia’s leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to step down in the face of mass protests, thus becoming the first of a Middle East dictators to fall in what became known as the Arab Spring.

But it all led to nothing. True, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak succumbed less than a month later; Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi  went the following October  and Yemen’s  Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2012. But Bahrain’s rulers held on as, it now appears, will Syria’s Bashar Assad. All the Arab world’s other kings and presidents for life are still here.

Even where the despots lost power, the glorious future of freedom, prosperity and democracy never arrived. Egypt’s economy is recovering, but the country is ruled by a Mubarak 2.0. Libya and Yemen have been destroyed by civil wars. Even Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring and the only country that could even be remotely counted as a success story, is struggling politically and economically.

The Arab Spring was written off a long time ago, but it seems some still believe in the "new Middle East" –– take Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, and his ambitious plans for Saudi Arabia, or the World Bank, which recently published a report on the region’s “immense potential” for high-tech development.

But before we look at the brilliant future, let’s see what the depressing present has to say.

When revolutions fail

The International Monetary Fund predicts that the economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) plus Pakistan (MENAP) will grow by 2.7% this year and 3.6% annually in 2020-23, far below the average world rate. And that growth is led by the region’s oil-importing economies, which are expected to expand 4% this year and 4.3% annually in the years that follow.

But it’s a testament to how dismal things are in the region that the estimates don’t even include Syria, Libya or Yemen, none of which are in good enough shape for anyone to even hazard an educated guess on what will happen going forward.

In any case, this rate of growth is not enough to boost the Arab world’s standard of living or create enough new jobs for all the young people entering the workforce. MENA’s unemployment rate is 10% and its youth unemployment rate is among the highest in the world. The opportunities for starting a business are poor in the extreme.

Given these parameters, a political scientist might well conclude that the region is ripe again for revolution. Nothing much has changed on the economic front versus 2010 when the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi sparked the Arab Spring by immolating himself to protest his treatment by the authorities.

That the parlous state of the region’s economy and the absence of political change haven’t created a new Mohamed Bouazizi is probably due to the popular frustration over how the last revolution failed so badly, or perhaps it's due to the dumb luck of the current crop of dictators.

The only Arab leader who has anything like a real reform agenda is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman, who wants to wean the kingdom off oil and erect a high-tech economy in its place.

The World Bank has an even grander vision of the Middle East, but it's gauzy. Citing the region's large, well-educated population of young people, in particular women, and their heavy use of mobile devices, the bank declares that MENA countries “possess all the ingredients they need to leapfrog into the digital future.”

The World Bank also cites some obstacles to turning the region into Startup Region, among them a low rate of internet penetration, a difficult environment to start up a company and government  protection in established telecoms and financial service companies where new tech-driven market entrants could make their mark.

But by and large the World Bank evinces the same optimism that the Crown Prince does, namely that the Middle East’s economic maladies are just a matter of fixing the legal and tax systems. It barely touches the cultural problems that have created schools focused on rote learning rather than critical thinking, or that discourage women from entering the workforce, in high-tech or anything else.

These problems are deep and will take a generation or more to change, if they can be changed at all. A government may make rules and regulations that enable women to work, but if the woman’s father or husband say she should stay at home (a widespread view in the region), they will add up to nothing. If the change is going to happen, it has to come from the bottom up.

Even before the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi undermined Mohammed's credentials as the great Saudi reformer, his grand plans hadn’t made much progress for that very reason.

The Middle East’s desperate state has inadvertently been a help for Israel. It’s distracted its enemies from the war against us and assured that no country has the economic wherewithal to arm itself for a conventional war. The region’s technological backwardness means our enemies are always a step or more behind us when it comes to the new high-tech instruments of conflict, such as drones or cyberwarfare.

However, it does mean we will be living in a region of seemingly perpetual crisis created by an unbreakable circle -- governments can’t deliver the basics to the people and the people don’t want the social revolution that would enable them to deliver them to themselves. Eight years after the Arab Spring was sparked, the Middle East seems as unlikely as ever to stage a breakthrough.