“The Sick Man of the 21st Century” Will Not Die in Peace

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is, with the exception of Africa, the part of the world least affected by Covid-19. Yet the economic and political repercussions of the pandemic presage a major disaster whose impact will be felt lastingly-beyond the region, with the emergence of new waves of refugees and migrants. Europe should be alarmed by this.

Sanaa, 2013

Despite that the Middle East and North Africa region is one of the least affected by COVID-19, the economic and political repercussions of the pandemic forebode a “long-term” catastrophe that will likely spillover beyond the region and that may produce waves of refugees and irregular migrants and other waves of terrorism.

The brewing disorder instigated by the pandemic led international figures and institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations Secretary General to all but lament the looming crises through their reports. The IMF and the UN were particularly alarmed by the unexpected decline in economic indicators, which have reached “their lowest levels in 50 years.” This doesn’t have to do with the immediate health repercussions of the pandemic but rather with the ensuing economic repercussions.

Unaccessible information

The collapse of oil prices and shrinking of economic activity exacerbated the effects of the structural deformations and the distorted patterns of growth prevalent across the region, be it oil exporting or importing states. Authoritarian-ism has also taken its toll on the economies of Arab states, monarchies and republics alike. Given such outlook, 17 million jobs will be lost, bringing the total number of unemployed to 30 million. The middle class will lose 3.14 million people, raising the total number of those living in pov-erty to 115 million; a quarter of the region’s population.

This does not mean that the region would witness a third wave of the Arab Spring, but rather that the millions of newly poor and unemployed would fuel a prolonged state of chaos and collapse of rule of law amidst social protests and political unrest. Increase in radicalisation and recruitment of terrorists are but one of many results to the previous scenario. The reason such social catastrophe would undoubtedly turn to a political one (that may amount to state failure) is the “deep structural crisis of confidence” vertically (between peoples and their states) and horizontally (between groups of citizens) within a region that suffers the highest rate of inequality on a global level. The lack of vertical confidence is best reflected through the inability of citizens and economic experts to access information. According to the World Bank, MENA is the only region that witnessed absolute decrease in transparency. The chronic restrictions on free-dom of information mislead those responsible for devising economic strategies on the macro and micro levels and accordingly contributed to a decrease in the region’s economic growth, making it 20% less wealthy than it should while individual incomes decrease by 7% to 14%.

In the 19th century, Tsar Nicholas I had described a declining Ottoman empire, whose areas of influence were falling one after the other into the hands of neighbouring countries, as a “sick man”. Since then, the term has often been used to refer to a European country facing great difficulties, often from an economic point of view. The Arab world is the largest importer of arms, yet, because of the economic and political context that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring, it has become the “sick man” of the 21st century, whose body is being torn apart by other countries. And it is to his detriment that the economic and military expansion of Turkey is taking place, whose troops, accompanied by cross-border Syrian mercenaries, are present in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Turkey is only the latest state to expand in the Arab region, before that Iran got involved an armed conflict in Yemen through the Houthi militia, and dominated political, security, and military decisions in Lebanon through Hezbollah, not to mention its limitless influence in Iraq through its allied Shia militias (which seek to mimic Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon). Part of those militias, along with Hezbollah, assist the Iranian revolutionary guard to shore up Presi-dent Bashar al-Assad in Syria and his attempts to reengineer the religious and ethnic demographics in Syria.

Military intervention policies

Russia also supports Assad, carving up a military base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, while it rests in Libya on its Wagner mercenaries. Israel took a similar path though much earlier on as it created settlements on lands it occupied in 1967, annexed the Golan Heights, and is effectively in the process of de facto annexing the West Bank. Even within the Arab region, the UAE developed an aggressive policy. After its alliance with Saudi Arabia to back the internationally recognized gov-ernment in Yemen against Houthi rebels, the UAE decided to back separatists in the south against the government.

The UAE has also provided military support to the so-called Libyan National Army under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar in his rebellion against the internationally recognized govern-ment in Libya and established a military base there. The UAE-Israel agreement indirectly reflects both states’ recognition that Egypt’s regional role has been permanently extinguished. The goal of the agreement goes beyond “normalising” a two-decade-old relationship and aims to establish an alliance that perpetuates the aggressive approach of both states in a sick region suffering a luring power vacuum.

The hollow economic and political structure of the states of the Arab region cannot solely explain this compounded catastrophe. The vacuum of power caused by the political withdrawal of the US from the region, which started under President Obama and was later reinforced by President Trump’s administration was a major contributor. The short-sighted policies of the European Union, which hoped that authoritarian figures could maintain some form of fragile stability was also a contributing factor.

International responsibility

One of the most important facts that the Arab Spring revealed was that the 70-year-old social con-tract of Arab states has expired. That could explain why three international institutions with somewhat conservative tendencies issued recommendations that were radical in nature, including calls for a “new social contract” and “to build back better.” However given its own assessment, the UN may need to restructure its role in the Arab region and consider a set of recommendations I submit-ted to the UN Secretary Generalsix years ago, in order to fulfil the recommendations of its report. The new US administration needs to assess the policies of its two previous successors while Europe also needs to revisit its approach to the region and adopt policies that would contribute to long-term sustainable stability.

The desperation oozing from the reports of the international institutions likely stems from their au-thors’ knowledge that Arab rulers are unlikely to respond to the long-ignored calls to reform. It doesn’t seem that the reports address Arab rulers as much as they are signalling that the sick man of the 21st century won’t die in peace.