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Driven by a burgeoning youth population, stagnant economies and the regionally unpopular U.S. war on terrorism, domestic challenges in many Arab states are nearing critical mass. Arab governments are moving to counter this trend and have taken a number of unusual or unprecedented steps in recent months. But the measures so far are half-hearted at best and will not resolve the underlying pressures nor halt a surge in popular unrest in the coming year.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrived in Jordan March 12 on the first leg of an 11-nation tour that includes nine Arab states, Israel and Turkey. The vice president will talk with government leaders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and likely is hoping to build support for a U.S. campaign against Iraq.
But bringing Arab governments on board will be difficult. Mounting social and economic pressures, combined with the U.S. hunt for al-Qaida, has made maintaining the status quo in the Arab world impossible. The added pressure of a U.S. war against Iraq could seriously destabilize several regimes in the region. Several Arab leaderships are now taking extraordinary steps to maintain calm, but their efforts are limited and may not stave off an explosion in popular unrest within the next year.
Washington’s hunt for al-Qaida is heating up in the Middle East, with U.S. troops deploying into Yemen and Somalia and now possibly preparing for an assault on Iraq. But the U.S. campaign is widely unpopular in the Middle East. According to a Gallup poll released in February that surveyed Middle East opinion after Sept. 11, 61 percent of those surveyed did not believe the attacks on the United States were carried out by Arabs, 77 percent said the U.S. war in Afghanistan was unjustified and 53 percent held an unfavorable opinion of the United States overall.
A U.S. military campaign against Iraq will only exacerbate these resentments. Many Arab governments such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia may not support the war. But given their own intimate relationships with the U.S. government, they aren’t likely to oppose it with anything more than rhetoric either. This will stoke tension between frustrated and angry Arab citizens and their governments.
Moreover, the tensions surrounding Iraq complicate an already explosive situation. There are several reasons why Arab governments are already feeling threatened, the most important being that the Arab world as a whole has missed out on the economic boom brought about by globalization. Indeed, although the last decade has allowed for some economic development, many Arab economies remain sluggish and tied to extractive industries. Only Egypt and Jordan fall within the list of top 50 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index.
At the same time, a population bulge combined with high unemployment is creating a pressure-cooker scenario across the board. More than 50 percent of the population in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria is under 25.
To counter the looming social problems and deflect the tension created both by the U.S. war against al-Qaida and the cooperation of Arab governments with Washington, many regimes now are taking wide-ranging and unusually proactive measures.
The most telling example is the recent proposal by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah offering Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for a return of all lands claimed by the Palestinians. The initiative is highly unusual because Riyadh has never directly involved itself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also is the first time any Arab government has promised the hand of all Arab states in recognizing Israel. Saudi Arabia is hoping that by becoming a key peacemaker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it can deflect U.S. pressure for internal reforms and avoid participating in U.S. military operations in the region and especially against Iraq.
The Saudi example is only one of many. In Syria, President Bashar Assad is weakening the stranglehold his own ethnic group, the Alawites, has on the government and the military in order to open up jobs for a younger generation and strengthen his support among that age group. In Bahrain, the Sunni Muslim king recently transformed the emirate into a constitutional monarchy to pacify the majority Shiite population. Jordan’s King Abdullah has gone the way of Egypt by actively supporting Washington’s campaign against al-Qaida. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is openly allowing U.S. forces to hunt the terrorist group in his country, and Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is dismantling dynastic monopolies on imports and implementing unprecedented value-added taxes.
These reforms, measures and initiatives are meant to diffuse popular resentment. But most are little more than cosmetic. For example, the Saudi peace proposal does not have the full support of all the Arab states and isn’t likely to get it, despite Riyadh’s claims to the contrary. In Bahrain, the king will establish a dual parliament, one elected and one appointed, which limits the legislative power of the Shiite majority.
Since the steps taken are not decisive, they will not resolve underlying pressures in many countries. For instance, Bahrain’s Shiite majority is willing to accept the concessions made by the Sunni ruling elite, but only for the moment. Once it becomes obvious that these measures are insufficient, the frustration and dissent that prompted the changes will only resurface.
Arab governments are hoping that buying time will be all that’s needed to keep things from boiling over. But they may be miscalculating the level of frustration that millions of unemployed youths feel. Though military coups are the most common source of regime changes in the region, they often ride a wave of widespread social unrest. In the Arab world, such waves of protest are now on the horizon. Who takes advantage of them is the next question.