The Middle East in 2050: Precarious Politics and the Future of the State

1st Jun 2021 by Simon Mabon

The Middle East in 2050: Precarious Politics and the Future of the State

This essay is part of a SEPAD report reflecting on the Middle East in 2050. 

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, the contours of political life across the Middle East appeared to have entered a period of consolidation. Following the parabolic pressures of the previous decades - notably the invasion of Iraq, Arab Uprisings and ensuing violence and instability - stemming from the reticulate interaction of local and regional politics, a key challenge for rulers by the turn of 2020 was to work towards the survival of their rule and the betterment of their societies, albeit haunted by questions about the nature of social inclusion and belonging (Mabon, 2020).  

In spite of many observing that the dreams of the Arab Uprisings have been extinguished, the roots of this frustration and anger remain. Central to this are questions about the very nature of political organisation and the ways in which relations between rulers and ruled may play out across the region in the coming decades. While not attempting to predict the future, in what follows I seek to identify a few areas for consideration in the coming years. 

Although the challenges faced by futurologists are well known, it is worth stressing a few caveats at this point. Data used in what follows is largely taken from pre-covid19 datasets; it remains to be seen how the fallout from the pandemic will affect the social fabric of states across the region. Similarly, with a number of delicate fissures cutting across the Middle East, predictions about the future remain hostage to fortune. In spite of this, there are a number of challenges that can be identified moving forwards.

1.          The nature of States 

The state will remain the predominant form of political organisation across the region. While there have been experiments aimed at fostering greater levels of political inclusion within the Gulf Co-Operation Council, or indeed, within a caliphate, the salience of the state remains. As Ibn Khaldun observed in The Muqadimah, politics is about the survival of the species, yet the nature of challenges facing rulers differs dramatically, conditioned by the peculiarities of time and space. Across the Middle East, a range of different forms of states exist, from monarchies to republics, replete with varying levels of democracy. Much of the anger that emerged in the 2011 protests stemmed from a combination of democratic deficits, frustration at the organisational capacity of the state, economic challenges, corruption, and demographic changes (Mabon, 2020). The main point of commonality within states able to survive the protest movements did so because of their ability to mobilise the coercive capabilities of sovereign power, regulating life through controlling all facets of it. Yet these issues will remain pertinent in the coming decades. Much of what happens in the coming decades will be shaped by the resilience of states- and their often-embedded leaders - and the extent to which the status quo will serve as a source of security for elites (Valbjorn, 2019).

2.          Areas of Uncertainty 

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing states in the coming decades concerns developing fluid responses to change. Three main areas will shape the nature of political life in the coming years: demographics, economics, and geopolitical. 

Demographic Change

According to a UNICEF report, the population of the Middle East will increase dramatically by 2050, from a population of around 500 million in 2020, to 724 million in 30 years. Within this increase there is a sizeable youth bulge which places a particular set of pressures on states. The challenges facing some states are more severe than others. UNICEF estimates suggest that in Egypt, the population will grow by 60 million by 2050 while in Iraq the population will increase by 45 million. 

These demographic changes open up existing social cleavages within states, notably around questions of identity and belonging (sectarian affinity, ethnicity, gender, nationality), the role of religion, age, and geographical location. The complexities of demographic change also increase intersectional challenges, exacerbating existing points of discrimination and xenophobia. Furthermore, as a SEPAD report notes, these developments and interactions take place in a heavily urbanised environment - 65% of the region’s population live in cities, a number that will increase in the coming years - and cities are often sites of intersectional challenges. Adding to these projections are concerns about environmental change, with suggestions that temperatures across the region will be 4 degrees C higher (Max Planck).   

Economic Uncertainty  

Economic uncertainty is perhaps the most important of these challenges in the coming decades. Demographic changes will mean that an estimated 300 million will be coming on to the job market by 2050, requiring the dramatic transformation of regional job markets (World Bank). An overwhelming majority of people polled in a 2020 Arab Opinion Index survey suggested that economic issues were the most pressing problems for their countries to address (Arab Centre, 2020). A further 91% of respondents believe that corruption exists in their home countries, with some estimates suggesting that around $1 trillion has been lost to corruption across the past 50 years. Corruption, as Bassel Salloukh (2019) observes, is a key factor in protests in Lebanon, a point echoed by Toby Dodge (2019)  in his analysis of Iraq. 

As Melani Cammett (2014) observes, the distribution of largesse, resources and contracts has a key role to play in exacerbating communal tensions – mapped neatly onto the political system in the case of Lebanon – which increases anger amongst those not benefitting from this distribution. As hardships increase, the precarious conditions people find themselves in also increase, leading to spikes in anger, violence, and, as Lucia Ardovini argues in this collection, drug usage. 

An additional challenge emerges when considering the transition away from a reliance on oil in ‘Rentier’ economies across the Persian Gulf. While some steps have been taken to ween economies off a dependence on oil - perhaps best seen in Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project - such efforts remain in their infancy and the true cost and human consequences remain to be seen. Moreover, as recent developments in Lebanon and Iraq can attest, bringing about economic reform – even if necessary – is rarely a smooth process. Although the distribution of oil and gas rent has historically been used by a number of states across the Gulf as a means of regulating political life, rising economic pressures stemming from diversification, dwindling oil prices and the covid19 fallout will make this increasingly difficult. In spite of this, demand for economic support, access to jobs and basic needs is rising. Without a dramatic transformation in relations between rulers and ruled, it is hard to see the situation changing. Despite the challenges ahead, if the plans of Mohammad bin Salman (Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince) area realised, then the future will involve flying cars, robot cleaners and genetically modified humans (World Street Journal, 2020). 

Regional Security 

The precarious nature of regional security underpins many of these concerns. Dating back to the Cold War, Middle Eastern security has long been shaped by the position of regional states within the context of broader international currents and the interaction of local and global politics. Any dramatic shifts in the global environment will, like other geographical locations, reverberate across the region, perhaps most likely including either a US pivot to Asia, or increased Chinese or Russian involvement. Such developments may well provoke the realignment of regional security, most notably for the Gulf monarchies who have long relied on Washington as a guarantor of security. The impact of this shifting security environment are discussed in more detail by Banafsheh Keynoush, Chris Phillips, and Guy Burton in this collection. 

Prominent security issues of the moment will, most likely, have been resolved, most notably questions of Iran’s nuclear programme, and conflict in Syria and Yemen. While power sharing agreements have often been touted as a means through which conflict can be resolved, as John Nagle observes in this collection, the capacity of such agreements to facilitate a lasting peace remains to be seen. As such, the repercussions of the conflicts may well continue to resonate, a number of which will impact on politics within and between states, particularly around the salience of violent groups - religious or otherwise (both Islamist and Jewish settler movements) - who challenge the very nature of the state. Questions about the role of religion within political projects have become more prescient in recent years, opening up new challenges for rulers.

3.          Responding to Change 

 How states choose to respond to the aforementioned challenges will determine the nature of political life in the coming decades. The Arab Uprisings of 2011 were the manifestation of decades of socio-economic marginalisation but prompted a particular form of response from regimes across the region, (re)shaping the nature of social contracts or regulating all aspects of life in a form of creeping authoritarianism. Similar patterns can be found when looking at responses to the covid19 pandemic, which suggest that creeping authoritarianism may be a feature of the coming years as rulers seek to hold onto power; this feature is discussed in more detail by Staci Strobl in this collection. 

The ability to regulate life will be a key feature of the coming decades. In addition to a creeping authoritarianism, states have the capacity to regulate all aspects of life as a consequence of the ways in which society is ordered. In some instances, this ordering involves the manipulation of societal schisms in pursuit of regime/elite/group interest, perhaps most obviously leading to rising sectarian schisms (Mabon, 2020; Aldoughli, 2020). The creation of lines of exclusion as a feature of governance and political life will continue, yet it remains unclear as to where these lines of exclusion will be found, ranging from nationality, ethnicity, sect, religion, class, tribe, political affiliation or otherwise (Mabon, 2019). This issue is explored in more detail by Rahaf Aldoughli in this collection.

These strategies will be supplemented with the strengthening of security sectors, in the case of authoritarian states, often tied to ruling elites rather than the polis as a whole (Quinlivan, 1999), an issue discussed by Maria Louise Clausen in this collection. While economic largesse has previously been used as a means of placating populations, increasing financial pressures may well curtail this capacity; indeed, taxes are steadily being imposed across Gulf states who have previously relied on their financial capacity to ensure stability. An alternative approach points to reform of social contracts in an effort to create greater investment and engagement with the state, supported by moves towards democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights. This would, however, require the transformation of relations between rulers and ruled, and the former embarking on compromises that they may not be willing to make. 

Moving Forward

There is much that remains uncertain about the nature of states in the coming decades and the mechanisms through which they will regulate life and impose order (Mabon, 2019). While the state will almost certainly remain as the central unit in regional politics, the nature of these states and relations between rulers and ruled is much harder to ascertain. Much of what follows will rest on the answers to three questions: 

1. How successful will rulers be in addressing the intersectional challenges of demographic and socio-economicchange?

2. What strategies will be used by rulers to regulate life within the state?

3. To what extent will regional dynamics shape local politics and vice versa?

The answers to these questions will reveal much about the vision of political organisation held by those in power, their capacity to regulate life, and the nature of political life more broadly.