Middle East and North Africa

Political upheaval will characterize the next five years in the Middle East and North Africa, as populations demand more from entrenched elites and civil and proxy wars are likely to continue in a number of failed states. Contests among religious and political forces are likely as low energy prices weaken institutions. Such contests are likely to include security competition among Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and perhaps Egypt, and could involve China, Russia, and the United States. The endemic leadership and elite disconnect from the masses will almost certainly persist for many countries in the region through the period. Socioeconomic and popular challenges will worsen and tension rooted in the region’s legacies of authoritarian rule, repression, and dependency could stoke calls by subnational groups, particularly the Kurds, for greater representation.

  • The central challenge for the region is to boost growth and create political conditions and economic opportunities to engage its young working-age residents. If this is not done in ways that recognize the potential of people and are consistent with traditional beliefs, however, the absence of justice and respect will continue to foster despair and maltreatment of others. In extreme cases, the absence of dignity can contribute to religious radicalization, often in tandem with the rise of secularism, which the Arab world experiences through globalization, Western foreign policies, and social media that conservative religious believers find offensive.

The turmoil of recent years has interrupted what had been a period of significant progress in poverty reduction and individual empowerment. Extreme poverty in the region has declined gradually since 1987, with the greatest progress in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt. The share of the population living below the poverty line in Egypt, for example, declined from 12 percent in 1981 to only 2 percent in 2005, although upheaval undoubtedly has halted—or even reversed—this progress in the most affected countries. Similarly, Iran since 1979 has reduced poverty and expanded its middle class and literacy rates. Absent outside assistance, countries that have been less volatile but have large refugee populations, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, probably also will see this improving trend begin to reverse as refugees strain already limited economic resources and continue to overwhelm health care systems. Meanwhile, low oil prices are squeezing the budgets and economies of the Gulf countries, limiting their ability to bail out strategically critical countries like Egypt or to offer aid to others.

  • The region has not been conducive to much self-generated growth, with revolutionary and counterrevolutionary dynamics in Egypt; civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen; and the persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict—all of which have undercut any efforts to provide meaningful political and economic opportunity.
  • The usual tool in the region for managing public discontent—subsidies and other cash payouts, funded by hydrocarbons and foreign assistance—is faltering with oil prices well below pre-2014 levels and unlikely to recover. After nearly a decade of capital surpluses—at least some of which found its way to non-oil states through aid—and strong investment and remittance flows, the region will see a distinct capital shortfall. The richer oil states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will draw on their reserves to sustain domestic spending but will have less to share. Middle-level producers like Algeria and Iraq will struggle to continue buying social peace, increasing the risk they will resort to crackdowns on dissent. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia will see less Gulf largesse, worsening the economic conditions and increasing the risk of instability in these countries. The non-Arab, non-oil states of Israel and Turkey could escape these pressures, but neither has a large enough economy nor sufficient regional ties to be a major source of regional growth.

In the next five years, states’ failures to meet popular demands for security, education, and employment will continue to provide fertile ground for violent radicalization. Support for illiberal religious and sectarian elements could expand in popularity, reducing historic tolerance of minority groups and preparing the ground for a violent push to create a more homogenous region. Alternatively, the actions of extremists still could discredit radicalism and encourage more citizens to rally around state institutions.

  • Civil conflict and lower oil revenue are stressing governance structures in the region, resulting in a decline in overall governance and service provision. Prolonged periods of conflict are also taking a toll on institutions: from 2004 to 2014—with civil war and regime change in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya—regional states’ scores on the World Bank’s Governance Indicators declined in the key areas of voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, the rule of law, and control of corruption.
  • In light of these shortcomings of central governance, individuals and tribes are likely to play a larger role in political debate, organizing and mobilizing at a subnational level. The creation of local and municipal councils in the war-torn states of Syria and Libya may exemplify this trend.

Geopolitical Relevance of Region in Next Five Years: Contagion and Competition. Progress toward a regional security framework is likely to be limited at best, with large-scale violence, civil wars, authority vacuums, and humanitarian crises persisting for many years. Similarly, the region will be shaped by state and nonstate actors who seek political and strategic advantage for their own versions of religion but also work to manipulate the views and behavior of wider circles of believers.

  • The intensity of violence in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula threatens to further fragment the region—creating distinct political and economic conditions in the Gulf, Levant, and Maghreb regions—and to spread contagion well into Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and Central, East, and South Asia via transnational radical Islamist ideas and movements.
  • The area is especially vulnerable to water stresses and local, national, and transnational tension over access to water resources. Even the wealthiest countries in the region, which use desalinization plants for water supplies, face existential vulnerabilities if those plants are compromised.

The region’s ills are unlikely to be contained, ensuring that growing humanitarian crises and civilian victimization will continue to undermine international conflict and human rights norms. Heavy touting of these norms by the West without sufficient backing or material support further weakens the West in the eyes of Arab publics. Perceptions in the region’s capitals that the United States is not a reliable partner—whether due to the US pivot to Asia or Washington’s decision not to support Mubarak and other Arab incumbents in 2011—has opened the door to geopolitical competition with Russia and possibly China and to hedging by Arab states regarding commitments to Washington. Amid persistent conflict, refugee flows will persist—although some may be forced to seek destinations other than increasingly inhospitable Europe.

Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Turkey may remain powerful and influential relative to states in the region that are grappling with instability but they will be at odds with each other on a variety of issues, and several face looming domestic challenges that are likely to affect their regional aspirations. Iran’s growing power, nuclear capabilities, and aggressive behavior will remain a concern for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some other GCC states. These concerns are exacerbated by the sectarian nature of Iranian and Saudi regional competition, with dehumanizing rhetoric and allegations of heresy fanning the conflict throughout the region.

  • Risks of instability in Arab states such as Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia will almost certainly grow in the long term, especially if the price of oil remains low. Riyadh is embarking on some economic reforms and much smaller social and political reforms. These efforts are significant and could increase job creation for Saudi youth but could also come too late to satisfy popular expectations. Moreover, the reforms are aimed at developing a Saudi Arabia that can compete with emerging Asian and African exporters as a low-cost option, or with developed countries in services, and will prove exceedingly difficult to meet. Lack of clarity about a Saudi transition after King Salman will also contribute to uncertainty about the prospects for the reform effort.
  • Global demand for the region’s energy resources—especially from Asian states—will continue to ensure international interest and engagement in the region, but external powers will lack the will or capability to “fix” the region’s numerous problems, and some will be drawn into its fights, probably protracting current and future conflicts.
  • Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some other GCC states are concerned that Iran will use funds from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to increase regional activities that will further erode regional stability. In the long term, these states also will be sensitive to Iran’s behavior as restrictions on Iranian nuclear activity are lifted under the JCPOA process. Tension between Iran and regional states will increase if Tehran uses its greater financial and military resources to aggressively assert its interests in the region or if Iran’s neighbors fear Tehran seeks to resume nuclear weapons work.
  • The return of great-power politics to the region, with renewed Russian engagement, will be another powerful force affecting future dynamics. Since coming to power in 2000, Russian President Putin has sought to project power into the region; Moscow’s military and intelligence support for Damascus may suggest overtures to other former Soviet allies, such as Iraq and Egypt, could be on the horizon.

Other Considerations. Demographic and economic pressure, as manifested in the ”Arab Spring” uprisings, probably will remain unresolved and could worsen if protracted turmoil fuels a major brain drain. Youth unemployment—certain to remain a challenge for years as a result of the region’s demographic profile—and the absence of economic diversification will further hinder economic growth, improved living standards, and integration into the global economy for most countries in the region. Land and water resources, already critically tight, are likely to get worse with urbanization, population growth, and climate change. Better management and sanctions relief have spurred Iranian economic growth, but whether economic improvement will help bring about political reform is less clear.  

  • An emerging lost generation of conflict-scarred children without access to education or adequate healthcare probably will create new populations vulnerable to radicalization. Continued instability is likely to make conditions for women throughout the region even worse, judging by the increased harassment and victimization experienced in recent years. Specifically, weak economic growth and concern about employment can fuel the growth of identity-based extremism. Arab youth questioned in the eighth annual Burson-Marsteller survey in 2016 overwhelmingly rejected the rise of the so-called Islamic State but simultaneously noted that a lack of jobs and opportunities was the top recruitment driver for the group.
  • In light of these dynamics, reinvigorated interest in the fate of the West Bank and Gaza could emerge as a galvanizing force among Arab populations. Recent events—including the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State—that have dominated the media are also prompting additional Palestinian refugee movement and concern about shortfalls in financial support for the Palestinian people. Palestinian studies suggest Gaza residents still need $3.9 billion for reconstruction and recovery support as a result of the Hamas-Israel conflict in 2014. Their needs are of interest to the rest of the region’s Arab populations: In a poll conducted in 2011 by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, over 80 percent of more than 16,000 respondents across the Arab world noted that the Palestinian question was the cause of all Arabs, not of the Palestinians only.

Risks for environmental crises, such as drought, extreme temperatures, and pollution will also remain high. Land and water resources are already critically tight and are likely to get worse with urbanization and the effects of climate change.

  • In Yemen, conflict zones, high water prices, and damaged infrastructure have aggravated already grim water problems, leaving 80 percent of the population without access to reliable fresh-water sources. Without adequate infrastructure, water stored for domestic use can become contaminated and expand the breeding habitats for mosquitos, malaria, dengue fever, and cholera.
  • In Jordan, the influx of refugees from Syria has forced the government to pump more extensively from declining aquifers. Egypt will face emergent water challenges from upstream development on the Nile, particularly as Ethiopia begins filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
  • Urban air pollution in the region remains among the worst in the world, particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Public health issues in the region will also be critical. Egypt is one of the countries in which the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus is now endemic in poultry and presents a risk to humans. Since 2012, Saudi Arabia has been handling an outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS-coronavirus) and there is ongoing concern that the virus could mutate and become increasingly contagious. A more widespread outbreak could contribute to instability if handled poorly.

Nevertheless, despite these pressures, a low-probability, more beneficial scenario for the region might emerge if oil markets tighten and prices begin to rise. Leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia would feel less pressure to focus on a zero-sum competition for oil market share, which could result in a lowering of their sectarian rhetoric. Better bilateral relations could defuse their proxy wars and help stabilize the region, potentially helping create the conditions for grassroots movements to offer a compelling and constructive alternative to authoritarianism or ISIL and Islamic extremism. A genuine public dialogue and economic development that is consistent with religious and other cultural norms could channel the frustrations that underlay the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Infographic - Egypt's Population Projection of 125,589,000 in 2035

aEstimates for religious affiliation are based on data from the World Religion Database and are rounded to the nearest one-tenth of a percent.

bTotal Fertility Rate is the projected average number of children born to a woman if she lives to the end of her childbearing years.

Note: Demographic data is presented for countries estimated to have the largest population in each region in 2035.