June 04, 2022
Despite the International Monetary Fund’s predictions of a 4 percent growth in economies in the Middle East and North Africa this year, geopolitically the Arab world is still muddling its way through an unprecedented cascade of global shifts and rifts, compounded by the disruptive effects of rising tensions and a pandemic that has so far resisted eradication.
The expectations for economic growth are certainly welcome, given the challenging climate. However, the longer the region remains hobbled by crises, home grown or otherwise, the more challenging it will be to make credible predictions about how Arab countries will fare in a world upended by, for example, the worsening effects of climate change, rising commodity prices, energy transitions, supply chain issues, record inflation, and conflict, to list but a few.
Naturally, these emerging shared threats compound the woes that are unique to the Arab region, intensifying the effects of regional fragmentation due to low levels of coordination and cooperation among Arab capitals, even when faced with irregular migration and potentially disruptive risks to the food-water-energy security nexus.
Meanwhile, high youth unemployment and the low participation and inclusion of key demographics in Arab economies, politics and societies adds yet another complicated dynamic to these multi-tiered sets of challenges.
Without serious, painstaking efforts to resolve a growing number of challenges simultaneously, a near impossible feat, only a bleak future lies ahead in what was supposed to be a decade of decisive transformations toward resilient, self-sufficient and inclusive Arab societies.
Already, narrowing fiscal and monetary space in most Arab economies portend an inescapable reality of uneven recoveries for the foreseeable future, with debt servicing crowding out a growing list of urgent priorities, including mass inoculations.
One of the biggest contributory factors to the tepid outlooks on regional recoveries stems from the fact that several Arab countries have vaccinated fewer than 10 percent of their populations against COVID-19. This will likely lead to the resurgence of the virus and, perhaps, its mutation into new, more virulent strains.
Granted, eradicating vaccine hesitancy and corralling populations exasperated by rising poverty, dwindling opportunities and increasingly out-of-touch governments will not be easy nor quickly accomplished. However, the key is to make a start and maintain a level of persistence that is more or less equal to the urgency of the moment. There is simply no room for kicking the can down the road, a preferred method of crisis mitigation by Arab governments since time immemorial.
If anything, using the same old playbooks is not only counter-intuitive, it will also derail ongoing efforts to build resilience into Arab societies surrounded on all sides by threats to their development and closer integration.
Any credible resilience-building strategies must incorporate at least five elements: Preparedness, by planning for most outcomes in both the long and short terms; adaptability, by embracing versatility and flexibility; collaboration; responsibility; and trust.
Clearly, the disruptions are not going away. If anything, they are likely to intensify in the years ahead. As the Arab region begins to craft national or regional strategies to cope with, or emerge from, what will probably be a gloomy two or three years ahead, a different kind of thinking must pervade the corridors of power and offices of decision-makers in the region’s capitals.
Climate change mitigation must be a cornerstone of medium-to-long-term policy planning in Arab capitals.
Beyond simply coordinating robust and inclusive recoveries, crisis interventions must increasingly center on the private sector, women and youth. After all, as hinted earlier, record public debt-to-gross domestic product ratios, which are still rising, are leaving very little fiscal or monetary room for traditional top-down interventions in which governments simply try to outspend or out-borrow the problems.
It is no longer optional to pursue much more inclusive approaches to safeguard post-crisis recoveries, which must involve proactive engagements with the private sector and grassroots civil-society organizations to ensure interventions deliver the desired results and work to maximum effect.
Furthermore, by including those traditionally marginalized or relegated, it is possible to make great strides in addressing a few of the Arab region’s most endemic crises, including unemployment and the participation of women.
The latter issue has become more relevant and there is high-level discourse on how the MENA region can unleash huge untapped potential through the empowerment of women in workplaces and politics.
Most Arab countries lack coherent national strategies to close the gender gap and adequately equip all their citizens, especially their youth, with the skills needed to participate and succeed in highly competitive labor markets that span the globe and are no longer immune to external influences.
It is estimated that it will take more than 140 years for Arab countries to eradicate the social, cultural, political and even economic barriers to the equal integration of women.
Put another way, it means much of the positive growth in recent years is only half of what the region is capable of given that close to half of its 560 million population is still unable to fully participate in economies. This is locking away enormous potential that will take more than a century to unleash. It is folly to continue to delay efforts to remove the obstacles to this key for explosive growth, development, sophistication and resilience.
Next, ongoing transformations, or even mere crisis interventions, must incorporate climate change-related considerations given that the region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, despite a relatively low emissions footprint of about 8 percent.
Citizens are increasingly witnessing or experiencing the destructive effects of a warming planet, regardless of where they live.
Inland areas are increasingly water-scarce while coastal areas must grapple with the growing threat of flooding. With dwindling economic opportunities in rural areas, citizens are drawn to crowded urban areas, which creates new challenges or complicates old ones.
Climate change mitigation must therefore be a cornerstone of medium-to-long-term policy planning in Arab capitals, not least because of the clearly visible risks but also to tap into the region’s potential as a net exporter of renewables such as solar, wind and hydrogen power.
Finally, the Arab region will never unleash its maximum potential in the current, unstable geopolitical environment, which is anathema to coordination, cooperation, constructive dialogue and the fostering of geo-regional strategic interdependency.
At least four countries are hobbled by instability, while a few others are still unable to shake off the fallout from the political upheavals in 2011 and now lie in almost perpetual limbo, stuck between disinterest in full democratization and intense opposition to a return to autocracy.
Meanwhile, domestic priorities in wealthier nations are shrinking capacities to grant monetary and other forms of support to Arab nations that are thanklessly providing the global public service of hosting refugees.
The longer many MENA countries remain hobbled by domestic crises that leave little room for concerns about their neighbors, even over crises that can easily spill across borders, the less likely that appetites for closer cooperation and integration will improve.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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