The Middle East on the Brink: Prospects for Change in the 21st Century

By Quandt, William B. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Middle East on the Brink: Prospects for Change in the 21st Century


Quandt, William B., The Middle East Journal


In the past fifty years, the various leaders of the Middle East have tried to make the newly independent states work. On the whole, they have not done very well in forging viable economies or in providing a modicum of social justice for their populations. To do better as the 21st century approaches, they will need to improve the governance of their societies, which will entail some measure of democratization and accountability.

As the century draws to a close, one should reflect on what a remarkable era the Middle East has been passing through. Just a century ago, the Ottoman empire was still intact and was struggling to find a constitutional formula to keep its increasingly assertive national groups together. That effort failed, in part because of World War I. Then, the imperial powers of the day, primarily Britain and France, intensified their domination over most of the area. Inevitably, foreign domination gave rise to nationalist movements, and within a few decades newly independent countries, including Israel, were taking their place in the United Nations.

All of that happened, more or less, in the first fifty years of the current century; and the past fifty have been spent by various leaders and regimes trying to make the resulting national states work. On occasion, those leaders have resorted to force, and other times to diplomacy, to settle a wide variety of interstate disputes. On the domestic front, they have faced the need to create viable economies and provide a modicum of social justice for populations long denied the most elemental of rights. Everywhere, populations new to independence have struggled with the clash between modernity and various forms of tradition. Many wrenching changes took place in a relatively short period. Small wonder, given all of these challenges, that the Middle East in recent years has seemed like a troubled, confused, unstable, and sometimes violent region--a region of uncertainties.

One should not focus only on what has gone wrong, or poorly, in the Middle East in recent years. There have been some real achievements. Colonial rule was ended almost everywhere with comparatively little resort to violence (Algeria being the noteworthy exception). Despite the artificiality of borders, especially in the Arab world, most inter-Arab disputes did not lead to war (Iraqi president Saddam Husayn's 1990 invasion of Kuwait stands as the most glaring counter-example). The Arab-Israeli conflict, which so dominated the life of the region until recently, has been partially resolved, and the near-term prospects for war have been reduced. And here and there in the region, genuine development has taken place; great works of literature and art have been produced; and life expectancy and basic literacy have improved dramatically. All of these achievements deserve recognition.

On balance, however, one must conclude that the twentieth century has not been kind to most peoples of the Middle East. Far too many have died in wars; far too many have lived in poverty and ill health; far too many have been deprived of basic human rights; some, notably Palestinians and Kurds, are still denied secure national existence; far too many may still die in future wars in which weapons of mass destruction may very well be used; and far too many still live under repressive, unaccountable political regimes. For a region rich in human and natural resources, this is not a record of which to be proud.

A CRISIS OF GOVERNANCE

The worst part of this story is that none of it was inevitable. Of course, one can always find excuses--colonialism and imperialism were particularly harsh in the Middle East; foreign powers did continue to intervene even after most countries had achieved independence; loyalty to the new states was often weak in the face of both local primordial attachments and broader ideological claims; the Arab-Israeli conflict was devastating in its impact. And the list can be extended. …

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