It has been another turbulent year for the post-Arab Spring Middle East and North Africa region, and given current trends next year is on track to be worse. The symptoms that prompted the 2011 revolt that swept the region have not abated, and in many cases have worsened significantly. Could 2017 see a second wave of revolution?
When the first Arab Spring rocked the Middle East and North Africa, millions of citizens took to the streets demanding a better life. Unemployment and living costs had grown, while salaries and subsidies were falling. These conditions have not abated, and are in fact mostly worsening. Youth unemployment amongst the region’s 105 million 15-29 year olds is growing dramatically from its current shocklingly high base of around 30%, while extremist Islamism continues to expand to fill the void left by the retreat of nationalism and state institutions in the wake of the 2015 oil price collapse. As hydrocarbon-dependent state budgets continue to suffer, welfare spending, subsidies and even comfortable public-sector salaries are shrinking, generating additional discontent against the already-turbulent backdrop of worsening economic conditions and insecurity.
Given the advanced age of many state leaders across the region, it is highly likely that 2017 could see a succession of leadership in one or more of these states that is viewed by the public as a continuation of the “old guard”, which in turn could be the spark that ignites building anti-establishment frustrations among a young and restless population that is eager to see change. With social media having further developed the interconnectivity of the region’s youth since 2011, and many governments facing economic exhaustion and a subsequently degraded ability to respond financially to unrest, it is probable that a second-wave of the Arab Spring would spread more quickly, and more effectively than the first.
By 2020, 75% of the Arab world will be vulnerable to conflict.
In addition to growing youth unrest, given the lack of clarity around U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s Middle East policy, and a well-tweeted repertoire of opinionated comments made against previously U.S.-supported governments such as the Saudi Arabian monarchy, many of these states may find themselves lacking international support in the face of growing domestic unrest.
Despite this, the region’s governments and ruling families learned many lessons in the years following 2011, and many have made significant efforts to strengthen their positions against such civil disorder. As such, the violent suppression of unrest is a distinct possibility should such a second wave of regional instability occur in states with more entrenched regimes, and in many cases this could escalate into a Syrian-style civil war given the easy access to weaponry in the region. The November 2016 United Nations Arab Development Report makes a similarly bleak assessment, noting that in 2002 only five Arab states were in a state of conflict, whereas by 2016 eleven were. This same report suggests that by 2020, 75% of the Arab world will be vulnerable to conflict.
In addition to economic instability, 2016 has seen a deepening of the regional rivalry between the predominantly-Shi’a Iran and the Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, with the two states having ceased diplomatic contact early in the year. This rivalry has seen the emergence of violent proxy conflicts in Yemen and the Levant, and is has the potential to significantly intensify in 2017. Given the risk of economically-driven unrest across much of the MENA region, Iran will likely face opportunities to support protest and anti-government movements, especially should such unrest emerge in the Gulf monarchy states.
While 2016 has been marked by territorial Jihadism through the Islamic State conflict in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, battlefield losses by all branches of the so-called Caliphate will also likely see a return to more traditional asymmetric terrorism in 2017, as large numbers of foreign fighters in these IS provinces begin the process of returning to their home states and the group seeks to prove its resilience through the perpetration of attacks internationally. This in turn will further contribute to the growing instability of the region, and security forces may find themselves overstretched to the point of breaking by a combination of counter-terrorism duties and domestic unrest. This will further contribute to the problem; as the provision of basic law and order is degraded, citizens will further criticize their governments.
One final factor which may contribute to this dangerously heated year in the region is a looming famine in al Shams. The ongoing major rural-urban offensives in the fertile Euphrates and Tigris regions of Iraq and Syria throughout the winter planting season will result in a sharp drop in agricultural output in 2017, which will almost certainly bring major humanitarian consequences in mid-2017 alongside economic losses. The region’s farms already suffered under the Islamic State, which was unable to import the needed fertilizers and farming materiel. The damage to the agricultural “breadbasket” of northern Iraq and eastern Syria will have profound long-term consequences on the population of this region, and will likely contribute to increased regional migration, which in turn will bring further urban and inter-ethnic instability, and increase the pressure on already overstretched governments.
While the 2011 Arab Spring rocked the region, many of the underlying causes remain unaddressed and few of the local revolutions (with the notable exception of Tunisia) actually succeeded in bringing about true democracy. Beyond universal suffrage, the Middle East and North African population is seeking improvements to deteriorating economic conditions. The region has an appetite for change, and 2017 may just be the year it truly comes.
Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence officer turned private sector Geopolitical Intelligence Analyst who specialises in the Middle East and North Africa region.