Shifting Power in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Precisely half a millennium ago, Portugal's Vasco da Gama discovered an alternative all-water passage to India and the Orient via the Cape of Good Hope.

Diverting Europe's lucrative spice trade from the traditional Red Sea caravan routes transformed the Levant from a center of commerce to an economic and cultural backwater. The Arabs, in particular, suffered an incalculable loss of energy, creativity, and strength.

Their complacency and failure to respond effectively to this transforming event in the early sixteenth century cost the inhabitants of the region dearly. Indeed, it has taken until the present era for the Middle East as a whole to recover its lost pride, former economic and geostrategic prominence, and political independence.

Yet, at this moment of renewed Middle East opportunity and potential, history and the balance of power threaten once more to leave this pivotal but disunited and internally troubled region behind. Unless, of course, the present generation of leaders is better able to meet the multiple threat that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as "the convergence of geology, biology, and technology."

Fluctuating oil prices (geology), aging leaders (biology), and 24-hour cable TV and the ubiquitous Web site (technology) are daunting in themselves. However, twenty-first-century challenges go considerably beyond these. They include globalization, modernization, political integration, and, not least, democratization.

In the face of this frontal assault, just how favorable are prospects east of the Mediterranean Sea for timely, effective adaptation? What can Middle Easterners anticipate in the coming 5 to 20 years? And how might their stability or instability affect hopes for a pax Americana and peaceful world order?

Area specialists basically agree on what ails the region. The current agenda as well as looming problems essentially divide into distinctive clusters: domestic pressures, resource allocation, and a crisis of leadership at the top.

TROUBLES AT HOME

Among today's domestic problems in the Middle East, the foremost are:

Demographic pressures. In Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, growing numbers of young people are making increasingly heavy demands for housing, education, and jobs that governments are hard pressed to meet.

Economic disparities. With population expansion outpacing economic and industrial growth in countries like Jordan, where gross domestic product has actually declined over the last decade from $1,896 to $1,646 per capita, the gap between the impoverished and the wealthy continues to widen, swelling the ranks of the discontented.

The politics of grievance. This cycle of rising expectations, glaring inequities, and threatened breakdown in social services breeds mounting resentment among large segments of Arab society. Out of frustration, sometimes in desperation, those who see themselves as disadvantaged or disenfranchised are becoming more prone to seek recourse through extreme measures and solutions.

Political liberalization. On the other hand, a new middle class--also growing in strength and influence, and comprising 40--60 percent in most Arab countries--has begun to dispute the hegemonic authority traditionally shared among tribal elites and the entrenched civilian and military bureaucracies. Calling for peaceful reforms and greater transparency, accountability, and social justice, it points to the information revolution and to the necessity for Middle Eastern regimes and economies to voluntarily open up to the world.

RESOURCE DISTRIBUTION AND REPLENISHMENT

Here, the problem is twofold, posed by misguided priorities and attrition.

Misappropriated resources. Middle East defense expenditure is arguably the single most telling expression of assets squandered and opportunities lost at both the national and regional levels. …