Trends in the Middle East Through the Valdai Lens

Despite some lull due to the pandemic, the Middle East continues to change, and new trends are noticeable in the economy, in public life, and in international relations. The Valdai Club Middle East Conference, held in Moscow in February, showed that the region maintains its long-term role as an energy hub and is looking for ways to overcome the crisis legacy of the so-called Arab Spring.

Economically speaking, two issues are most relevant for the countries of the Middle East — the energy markets and the post-pandemic recovery. Most participants in the energy industry share confidence in the long-term demand for hydrocarbons in world markets, despite the continued energy transition. The experts stated that this process will not be revolutionary, but evolutionary, i.e. it won’t occur due to a hasty rejection of fossil fuels, but through the introduction of new technical solutions and more efficient equipment. The rejection has been hampered by governments’ fears of imposing taxes on emissions. It is significant that even those Western politicians who paid increased attention to the climate agenda before coming to power are behaving much more restrained after being elected.

At the same time, the challenge for the industry is to strike a balance between energy security and climate protection in the face of growing energy demand. A possible answer is so-called “green” oil, produced with minimal damage to the environment. However, in order to achieve this, the problem of underinvestment must be resolved, which raises the question of maintaining sufficiently high oil prices.

Increased attention is paid to partnerships in the energy sector in the interests of maintaining the stability of the global energy market. The experts agreed that for the normal development, exploration and the development of deposits, it is necessary to maintain the price per barrel at a level of 70-80 dollars, since otherwise it will be impossible to provide the required volumes of investments in production and processing. From this point of view, the key role is played by the OPEC+ format, which is considered to be an efficient, already-established mechanism. The bet on OPEC+ is a significant trend. It gives hope for the end of price wars.

By the beginning of 2022, the trends in the economic development of the region as a whole became quite clear. Despite the optimism that prevailed in expert circles a year ago, the recovery of the economies of the countries of the region after the pandemic was slower than expected. Inflation and the rising cost of living have become a serious problem. A separate cause for concern is the increase in food prices, since this hits the low-income segments of the population hardest. Another difficulty is the problem of public debt, which has increased significantly during the pandemic, as governments actively resorted to various stimulus measures, creating a serious strain on budgets.

The problem with the rise in the price of the food basket may be aggravated due to the crisis in Ukraine, which, along with the Russian Federation, is a major supplier of food to the world market and the Middle East. All this calls into question the food security of the Middle East countries.

Against the backdrop of continuing, and in some places worsening economic difficulties, one has to reckon with the threat of possible outbursts of discontent among the general population, especially amid a fairly rapid impoverishment of the middle class and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. A year ago, the participants in the previous Valdai Club conference noted that the social contract has not been renewed in the Middle East, and sooner or later this will lead to social and political instability. Moreover, even the Tunisian model of democratisation, which was considered the most successful in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”, turned out to be inefficient, and did not provide a solution to the country’s problems

In this regard, the question of the role of youth in social processes in the countries of the Middle East remains relevant. The negative experience of the previous generation, which was the driving force behind the “Arab Spring”, has influenced this mood. Experts have noted that protest activity has generated disappointment. Intellectuals talk more about democracy, while social mobility and job security are more important among the population. This, in particular, is indicated by the relatively uncomplaining acceptance by the population of Tunisia of the actual resumption of authoritarian rule in the summer of 2021. Instead, a growing number of young people are considering emigration, however, amid the pandemic, such options are limited.

Interestingly, the assessment of the role of youth has also changed. In particular, experts urge not to overestimate the role of youth, as it was the case in the wake of revolutionary euphoria after 2011. Due to demographic circumstances, as a rule, they make up the majority of the protesters, but the mass protests in Algeria and Iraq have demonstrated that young people are not able to formulate a positive agenda or put forward their own alternative leaders — a potential counter-elite. That is, young people, for all their passion, lose the confrontation with the old elite, especially if the security forces take the side of their foes.

In international relations at the regional level, the trend towards de-escalation and the reduction of tension remains relevant. The countries of the region, weakened by the economic consequences of the pandemic, are not interested in continuing conflicts. However, there is a pragmatic understanding that a complete and final settlement is not possible everywhere; the minimum task is to prevent new outbreaks of hostilities. This attitude is noticeable in relation to the crises in Syria and Libya. At the same time, there is a tendency to further normalise relations between the Arab countries and Israel and turn it into a partner.

There is an obvious demand for the creation of mechanisms to maintain regional stability. However, there is still no clear vision of these mechanisms. Most likely, the basis of the new security architecture will be the system of checks and balances created by the countries of the region themselves, and not security guarantees from external actors. That is, we are talking about a self-regulating system where the states of the region would exercise foreign policy more independently.

Another important trend, which is becoming more and more obvious, is the bet on the transparency of military activities and the development of multilateral monitoring mechanisms. First of all, they are needed where a quick settlement is impossible, and therefore the task is to ensure the detente. For example, the emergence of mutual monitoring mechanisms in the Persian Gulf in the future may contribute to a more objective assessment of the threats and military capabilities of the parties, and, consequently, help reduce tensions between the Arabian monarchies and Iran.

Another notable trend is flexible alliances. This term refers to forms of interaction that allow regional players to cooperate in some areas, for example, to maintain economic ties, despite disagreements on other issues. Flexible alliances can be perceived as another mechanism for reducing regional tensions, as they help to avoid the escalation of individual clashes of interests into a large-scale confrontation. It is noteworthy that the idea of ​​flexible alliances is actively promoted by Ankara, which is clearly determined to defend its interests in the Middle East, but at the same time is trying to avoid confrontation with other regional heavyweights.
One more tendency draws attention: the desire of the countries of the Middle East to avoid being drawn into a global confrontation, while maintaining good relations with both the West and the East. From this point of view, the willingness of external players to allocate resources to promote their interests in the region will be of great importance; therefore, interest in China is becoming more noticeable. The Arab world sees how the centre of international tension is shifting from the Middle East, and even a few decades ago this would have caused concern, but now one can increasingly hear the opinion that this is good, since it will save the region from external interference that upsets the balance and generates instability.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.