The Middle East: Some hope, much despair

Yemen, pictured above, will remain a tragic story of war and destruction in 2018. Assaulted by Saudi military equipment purchased from the U.S., 20.7 million people, including 11.3 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. (Photo: Ibrahem Qasim)

Yemen, pictured above, will remain a tragic story of war and destruction in 2018. Assaulted by Saudi military equipment purchased from the U.S., 20.7 million people, including 11.3 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. (Photo: Ibrahem Qasim)

Who would have predicted a missing-in-action Lebanese prime minister, one of the deadliest earthquakes in the world and that Syria would lapget ahead of the U.S. in climate policy by joining the Paris Agreement? Change in the Middle East defies prediction. Political leadership has a tendency to swing from the tedious (such as the 42-year or 30-year leadership terms in Libya and Egypt) to the erratic (such as the execution of Yemen’s former president, or the overnight deposing of Saudi royals and locking up of dissenters). In pulling together 10 predictions for the Middle East, we threw our bets behind people-centred trends. Those who suffer for decades — refugees, the impoverished and migrant workers — know that each New Year brings few surprises. But the people of the region are its heartbeat, and inspire us in our research — which is why we focus our predictions on the possibilities of a better life for all of them.
1. Privatization in the Middle East
Privatization will hit energy, water and transport, in a continuation of the trend toward selling off public goods and services. Privatization has already claimed billions of dollars in public assets across the Middle East. Between 1998 and 2008 in Egypt, $15.7 billion worth of assets were privatized at below-market-value prices. The prediction for 2018 is that Saudi Aramco will go public, likely on the New York Stock Exchange. But more will hit the auction block across the Middle East, including schools, health care, tourism, telecommunications, banks, real estate, foods, steel and — yes — sports teams. Speculation has already begun on interested bidders, such as Tokyo’s SoftBank. A long list of conventions and expos will help facilitate this new market that will ultimately build railways, boost entertainment and network banking and financial services. If traditional trade fairs aren’t your thing, you could visit Beautyworld, Fitness Middle East (FITME! for short) or Middle East Film & Comic Con featuring “Manga, Comics, Collectibles and more.”
2. Syria: A resolution-free endgame
As the Syrian civil war limps into its seventh year, the shape of its endgame is beginning to firm up.
Most regional players have reduced their direct involvement. Saudi Arabia is too focused on Yemen; Qatar has reverted to quiet diplomacy and Turkey is focused on its own territorial security and the Kurdish question.
Russia and Iran will continue to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his local allies. The Islamic State and similar groups will continue to lose territory and traction and the popular opposition will continue to be politically and militarily marginalized.
Eventually, the al-Assad government will rule over a Syria whose population, infrastructure and social fabric have been destroyed, not least by its own forces. But neither militant groups nor the advocates for democracy and open civil society will be satisfied by this conclusion, so the fundamental conditions that launched the war will remain and provide the seeds of future conflict.
3. Hard-fought intense elections
Libya, Bahrain and Lebanon are due for parliamentary elections. There are presidential elections in Egypt and general elections in Iraq in 2018. Each state is dealing with various forms of instability that may come to the forefront in these races. But don’t expect these elections to tell you everything you need to know about politics in those countries. Because of the limited space for parliaments to act in most Arab countries, the actual composition of the parliament doesn’t matter very much when it comes to what actions the government takes. Political elites will fight hard against each other for slightly bigger pieces of the pie, but executive powers will continue to dominate, within the constraints of the military and security infrastructures. Meanwhile, most citizens will be focused on livelihood issues and personal freedoms. The real elections worth watching are at the municipal level, which can be surprisingly good tests of political sentiment, such as 2017’s Beirut Madinati slate of nonpartisan, technocratic candidates, which nearly beat the establishment in the Beirut municipal elections.
4. Mobility restrictions
This is one prediction we wish would not come true for 2018, but is the most likely of all. Have you ever applied for an “exit” visa? If not, you have yet to experience a key limitation faced by millions across the Middle East. Israel, for example, controls the free movement of 4.8 million Palestinians, including nearly 2 million in the Gaza Strip, most of whom may never be allowed to leave the 365-square-kilometre zone. But Israel is not alone in restricting movement: Lebanon is infamous for its internal checkpoints, particularly for refugees, and most states in the region impose exit visas on citizens and visitors. The costs of these restrictions are mounting. In 2017 in Libya alone, more than 400 bodies have been recovered from among those trying to reach Europe by sea because they had no legal means of migrating.

 

In Beirut, Syrian artist Hello Psychaleppo works in the electro-tarab genre, mixing traditional Arab instruments with pounding club backbeats.Indie music will remain major part of the economic and social life in the Middle East and across the Arab world. (Photo: Andrew Cagle)

In Beirut, Syrian artist Hello Psychaleppo works in the electro-tarab genre, mixing traditional Arab instruments with pounding club backbeats.Indie music will remain major part of the economic and social life in the Middle East and across the Arab world. (Photo: Andrew Cagle)

5. Entrepreneurship on the rise
It’s been a rough few years for social change in the Middle East. Social movements have lost momentum and exhaustion is pervasive. For disillusioned university graduates who want change, entrepreneurship seems like a way to make a difference (and a living). With an emphasis on disruption, responsiveness and novelty, clusters such as the Beirut Digital District, Le15 in Tunis, Flat6Labs in Cairo and 212 Limited in Istanbul are supporting a flurry of new ventures in tech and other sectors. Social entrepreneurship is particularly hot, including ventures such as marketing traditional crafts to urban hipsters (Cairo’s GebRaa), recycling waste into hip furniture (Beirut’s 2B Design), or offering traditional agricultural products and heirloom seeds together with contemporary design (Beit Sahour’s El Beir Art and Seeds). Within the bounds of profit incentives and government constraints, entrepreneurship provides opportunities for social engagement while ducking some of the political challenges facing social change.
6. “Ripped from the headlines”
The peak television season in the Middle East is Ramadan, when channels run 30-part series, one episode per evening. (The rest of the year is reruns and reality TV, for the most part.) Musalsalat (a genre often translated as “soap opera,” but which includes what westerners might think of as prestige drama, as well as comedy-drama) are the prime players in this race, and each channel wants to get the biggest stars, the most elaborate premise and the most viewers. It’s a safe bet that 2018’s crop of musalsalat will focus on political relevance and topical drama. Last year’s hits included the second round of El Gama’a, about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Haiba, which focused on smuggling along the Lebanon-Syria border. Next year? Who knows, but it will definitely be relevant, and it will keep people talking long after Eid.
7. Indie music goes back to its roots
Everyone knows the shiny spectacle of the Middle Eastern culture industry: Film industries, amusement parks, opera houses, stadiums, racetracks for cars and camels alike and thousands of other entertainment options have been a focus of state and private investment and are a major part of the economic and social life of the region. But so is a flourishing indie music scene, with performers working in genres from heavy metal to hip-hop. The trend in indie music has traditional musical roots. In Beirut, Syrian artist Hello Psychaleppo works in the “electro-tarab” genre, mixing traditional Arab instruments with pounding club backbeats in the interest of inspiring tarab, a climactic feeling of musical ecstasy. Meanwhile, in Istanbul, BaBa ZuLa mixes psychedelia with ancient rhythms and instruments to celebrate the country’s pre-Islamic, pre-Christian heritage. Can’t get to the club scene to check it out live? Try Mideast Tunes, a platform featuring dozens of bands in dozens of genres from all over the region, to find a new favourite.
8. Hungry and homeless

Money is flowing in the Middle East, with companies such as Quebec's Bombardier scoring a $1.1-billion deal selling C Series jetliners to Egypt. (Photo: Bombardier)

Money is flowing in the Middle East, with companies such as Quebec’s Bombardier scoring a $1.1-billion deal selling C Series jetliners to Egypt. (Photo: Bombardier)

Across the Middle East, the situation is particularly dire for those subject to ongoing military repression. In Yemen, assaulted by Saudi military equipment purchased from the U.S. to the tune of $100 billion yearly, 20.7 million people (including 11.3 million children) are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.
A second wave of cholera/acute watery diarrhea, with more than 660,000 cases, covers the country, killing thousands, more than half of whom are children.
Famine, too, has gripped the country, and more than 68,500 children have been treated for malnutrition. More than three million children and pregnant or lactating women with acute malnutrition risk starving to death. In Iraq, 4.2 million are internally displaced, about a quarter in camps and emergency sites. Will 2018 bring solace or survival?
In Palestinian territories, Israeli forces have demolished hundreds of homes and blocked the rebuilding of many previously demolished, causing tens of thousands to be homeless or displaced; 6,200 Palestinians languish as political prisoners, including nearly 300 children.
Mass killings by Israeli forces have been the pattern since September 2000 — accounting for nine in every 10 people killed, and totalling 9,524 Palestinians, including 2,167 children — with almost random events as triggers. The forecasted shift of the United States embassy to Jerusalem could be one such trigger in 2018.
9. Trading investment for support
The company’s tag line reads, “By 2018, Siemens and Egypt will have advanced history.” Replace the company and country names, and that could be the true for most any country across the Middle East.
Money is flowing. Military exports from Canada to Egypt jumped 182,873 per cent after the 2013 coup, from less than $4,000 to more than $7.2 million (still a fraction of total exports, which were last reported at $428 million).
Quebec’s Bombardier just inked a $1.1-billion deal to sell jet airliners to Egypt; and another $4 billion may be on the table for a metro line. Boeing sold $42 billion in planes to two United Arab Emirates airlines and its defence ministry.
And, taking it with the grains of salt that American journalists have compiled, the claim that Saudi Arabia plans to invest $110 billion in American arms remains big news for the coming year.
What are the returns on investment? Planes, trains and automobiles, and a gold star from certain Twitter accounts.

10. Openings for democratic action
With so much upheaval and so many displaced people, one of the biggest signs of hope in the region is that, the more open and democratic a country is, the more likely it is to be welcoming and hospitable to newcomers. Turkey’s fragile but hotly contested democracy hosts millions of Syrians and others, who, contrary to common practice in most of the world, are given near equal status with citizens, with freedom of movement and, crucially, freedom of employment. Lebanon’s political system may fall short of ideal democracy, but Lebanese and the more than two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees they share their country with have access to a vibrant civil society. Refugees in Tunisia — which had one million at one point — have access to education, health care, language training and employment assistance. Whenever we see openings for civil society action, dialogue and autonomy, we see that citizens and refugees are more able to survive and work together. We may not be able to predict what the progress (or backward movement) for democracy might be this year, but we can hope that openness, free debate and hospitality will become only more common, for both those at home and those displaced.

Nadia Abu-Zahra is an associate professor of international development and global studies and a member of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. Emily Regan Wills is an assistant professor of comparative politics in the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Nadia Abu-Zahra is an associate professor of international development and global studies and a member of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. Emily Regan Wills is an assistant professor of comparative politics in the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *