In the Middle East and North Africa, the transition toward equitable economic development and transparent and accountable rule of law will take a very long time.
Transition is the name of the game in the Middle East and North Africa. The question is transition to what?
Dominating the answer is an Arab autocratic push for a Saudi-led regional order that would be based on an upgraded 21st century version of autocracy designed to fortify absolute rule.
To achieve that, autocrats have embraced economic reform accompanied by necessary social change that would allow them to efficiently deliver public goods and services.
It is an approach that rejects recognition of basic freedoms and political rights and is likely to produce more open and inclusive political systems that ensure that all segments of society have a stake.
At the core of the volatile and often brutal and bloody battle that could take up to a quarter of a century is the determination of Arab autocrats to guarantee their survival at whatever cost.
Geopolitics plays a major role in Arabic autocratic ambition. To compensate for their inherent weakness and lack of the building blocks needed for sustainable regional dominance, Arab autocrats (except for Egypt, the one Arab state with the potential of being a dominant, long-term regional player) need to contain first and foremost Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey.
It is a geopolitical struggle, dominated by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has enveloped the Middle East and North Africa for almost four decades and progressively undermined regional stability.
This has fueled the rise of extremism and jihadism. It has also encouraged supremacist, intolerant and anti-pluralistic tendencies far beyond its borders in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. And it is also what has turned it into the most volatile, repressive and bloody part of the world.
Littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying, countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been scarred for generations to come. They are struggling to ensure territorial integrity against potential secessionist ethnic, regional and religious challenges.
Possible U.S.-backed Saudi efforts to destabilize Iran with attempts to stir ethnic unrest carry the clear risk of the Islamic republic and Pakistan becoming the next victims. Countries such as Lebanon already teeter on the brink.
Restive populations hang in the balance, hoping that their continued surrender of political rights in new social contracts unilaterally drafted by autocratic leaders will bring them greater economic opportunity.
In some countries like Egypt, expectations have been dashed. In others such as Saudi Arabia, expectations are unrealistic and poorly, if at all, managed.
The successful and brutal Saudi and UAE-led counterrevolution has killed hopes and popular energy that exploded onto the streets of the Arab cities during the revolts of 2011 and produced tyrants and mayhem.
For now, it has all but erased popular will to risk challenging autocratic rule that has failed to deliver or that has created expectations that may prove difficult to meet.
Autocratic regimes riding high
Autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa are, for now, riding high. They are buffeted by five potent facts on the ground.
First, the ability to divert public attention with promises of economic change. Second, the specter of Iran as a foreign threat. Third, U.S. support for regional autocrats and, fourth, the related containment of Iran. The fifth factor is the fueling of ethnic and sectarian tension.
At best, that strategy buys Arab autocrats time. The risk is festering and new wounds that are likely to come to haunt them. Four decades of global Saudi propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism has turned Arab Shiites and their militias into potent political and military forces.
The specter of the Houthis organizing themselves on the border of Saudi Arabia on the model of Lebanon’s Hezbollah is but the latest example.
Autocratic self-preservation and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, coupled with disastrous U.S. policies, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have wracked countries across the region.
This has fostered a generation of Syrians and Yemenis that is likely to be consumed by anger and frustration with their human suffering.
Equally troubling, this translates at best into a slow rebuilding of their shattered countries. After all, the very existence of these countries in their current form and borders is quite uncertain.
In short, transition, in the Middle East and North Africa has deteriorated into a battle for retention of political control. It constitutes a struggle for the future of the region.
With near certainty, it will produce more conflict as well as black swans that could create even more havoc long before it yields sustainable solutions.
The transition toward equitable economic development and transparent and accountable rule of law will take a very long time.
**James M. Dorsey is a scholar and award-winning journalist.
James M. Dorsey is a scholar and award-winning journalist. A senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, James is one of the pioneers of the exploration of the political, social and economic aspects of Middle Eastern and North African soccer.
James has published widely in scholarly journals, writes a syndicated column, is the author of the acclaimed blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a recently published book with the same title.
His book, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa( co-authored with Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario), was published in July 2016.
He is currently working on three forthcoming books: China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom, Creating Frankenstein: Saudi Arabia’s Export of Ultra-conservative Islam, and Shifting Sands: Volatile Transitions in the Middle East and North Africa, Essays on Sports and Politics
A two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and a 2013 finalist for the European Press Award, James started covering ethnic and religious conflict as a foreign correspondent in the 1970s.
He served as a foreign correspondent for Dutch newspaper Trouw, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Dutch and Belgian radio and television. James was based in Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo, Teheran, Kuwait, Riyadh, Dubai, Larnaca, Athens, Istanbul, Washington, Lima, London, Paris and Amsterdam.
Beyond the Middle East and North Africa, James has also reported over the past four decades from most major conflicts zones in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia, including Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Congo, Eritrea, Yemen, the Western Sahara, Columbia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Kashmir, Thailand and Bangladesh.