Arab World Undermined by Crisis, Confusion


The Arab world is in the midst of a broad crisis spawned by political instability, economic stagnation and growing social ferment, and accelerated by the collapse of the Mideast peace process. And the region’s ability to cope is fast declining, according to U.S. analysts and Mideast experts.

With Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arriving in the troubled region today, the crisis is likely to complicate U.S. diplomatic efforts as the new Bush administration struggles both to revive Arab-Israeli negotiations and to build consensus on a new Iraq strategy.

In fact, many of the premises on which U.S. interests and diplomacy have been based since 1991, when the Persian Gulf War ended and the Madrid Conference launched the latest peace process, are crumbling.


“There’s a sense of total political confusion in the Middle East today,” said Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland. “The enduring assumptions are disappearing. We can’t go back to the peace process as we know it, leaving relations between Arabs and Israel totally uncertain. And containment of Iraq has failed.”

The broader crisis has long been building. But it was contained until recently by hopes that another round of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations might end half a century of enmity. Those hopes faded last month during the waning days of the Clinton administration.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict and then the peace process to solve it relegated other, more fundamental issues to the back burner, just as the superpower rivalry relegated issues of democracy and economic reform to the back burner,” said Henri Barkey, a Mideast expert formerly at the State Department and now a professor at Lehigh University.

The crisis is playing out on several levels.

Politically, much of the Arab world has resisted the democratic reforms that have swept through the rest of the globe. Most Arab states are still ruled by tiny elites, dynasties and monarchies, headed by some of the world’s last ruling kings, sultans and sheiks.

“Millions of people in the Middle East hate their governments because they are corrupt, unresponsive and are not meeting the basic needs of the population in virtually every country,” said Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University political scientist.

“It’s not that democracy is on everyone’s lips, but people do want to walk into a government office and meet with responsive officials whom they don’t have to bribe with half their salaries,” Norton said. “Because of the Information Age, people understand that they’re not getting what they’re due, so the single word on everyone’s lips is ‘change.’ ”


Egypt--one of America’s closest allies and the recipient of more than $2 billion a year in U.S. aid--is a case in point. President Hosni Mubarak has backed away from promised political and economic reforms. Although he has been in power since 1981, he still has no political heir. His death would leave Egypt in a political vacuum.

“Egypt is like many Arab states. Instead of opening up, they’re going backward,” said Geoffrey Kemp, who directed Mideast policy for the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. “What you see today among many leaders is rather scary.”

The Arab world is also suffering economically, despite the vast petroleum reserves along the Persian Gulf.

Kemp, now a senior fellow at the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington, noted that per capita income in virtually all Arab countries, including most of the Gulf states, has fallen in real terms in the last 10 years. And the trend is likely to continue because of high population growth rates, he said.

The situation in Jordan illustrates the problem. King Abdullah II, widely considered a savvy modernizer committed to political and economic reform, wanted to transform the poor kingdom into a Silicon Valley of the Middle East. He was banking on a peace accord that would open the region and encourage foreign investment. That hasn’t happened.

As a result, trade with Iraq--large parts of it in blatant violation of U.N. sanctions--is the backbone of Jordan’s economy, according to Telhami. Jordan has no other choice.


Abdullah now faces a worsening water shortage and growing unrest in a nation where Palestinians make up more than half the population. Many Jordanians are dissatisfied with the limited results produced by Jordan’s peace with Israel, and with the deadlocked negotiations on a broader peace accord.

The Gulf states face bleak times. Two years ago, the Saudis were having trouble paying their debtors, a situation alleviated by the recent rise in oil prices, Telhami said. That experience is likely to constrain the Saudis’ traditional financial support of the region’s poorer states. And it may diminish their ability to accommodate the interests of the United States and other oil importers.

Unofficial studies say unemployment in Saudi Arabia has jumped to more than 30% from about 12% over the past five years. Per capita income has fallen as hundreds of thousands of young Saudis join the work force each year.

The demographic pressures are among the leading “drivers” of instability in the region, according to a new CIA analysis of expected global trends for the next 15 years. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Libya, Yemen and the Palestinian Authority have some of the world’s highest population growth rates.

In most Arab countries, at least half the population is now younger than 17, according to Norton.

“This is an immensely vital and interesting young generation which sees the world through satellite news, communicating on the Internet and foreign videos, and which now wants more,” he said. “But many governments are clueless about meeting these demands, and others are at best only marginally successful. They need to educate the young and connect them with meaningful jobs to prevent future trouble.”


Another transforming trend is the increasing literacy among women in the Arab world. Although they still lag behind their male counterparts in educational achievement, Arab women are attending school in increasing numbers and expressing growing interest in getting jobs and playing active roles in society.

“Don’t leave females out of this, because it’s not just young males that governments must worry about now--a factor which almost doubles the numbers of a generation ago,” Norton said.

U.S. officials and policy experts express concern about the effect of the deepening crisis on Arab sentiment toward the United States.

“Following the end of the Cold War,” Kemp said, “there was a growing optimism that eventually the conflict would be replaced by economic prosperity and growth.

“That hasn’t happened. So the breakdown in the peace process and the anger and the tension over Iraq have become lightning rods for new frustration, a significant part of which is directed at the United States.”