The last two sessions of the 9th Valdai Club’s Middle East Conference took place on Tuesday, February 18. The experts discussed the ongoing wave of protests in the region and possible future scenarios.
The “Arab Spring,” which began almost ten years ago, spilled into a smouldering confrontation between society and authorities, almost throughout the entire Middle East. The revolutions that led to a change of power in a number of countries remained, at best, unfinished, and at worst escalated into bloody civil wars. The fifth session of the conference was dedicated to a new wave of protests, which last year affected Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
All the problems faced by the societies of the region are far from being resolved. The main ones are pervasive corruption, which persists despite a change of power, and unemployment, especially among young people. According to one expert, the protests will continue, and the youth will remain their main driver, despite the region’s many years of tragic experience with instability and civil wars. The young people realise that there is simply no other way to solve long-standing problems, and are ready to seek solutions through conflict and even violence.
The high propensity towards conflict is one of the features that will determine the future of the region. Possible scenarios were discussed at the final session of the conference, which was open to the media. According to Mustafa Aydın, President of the International Relations Council of Turkey, the Middle East is a region where all negative forecasts come true. Thus, the Middle East experts predicted the events of the “Arab spring” in the early 2000s, which was reflected in a number of reports. However, the knowledge of the impending storm did not help policymakers prevent it.
We are in a similar situation today. Experts generally agree with the assessment of the main sources of future problems. This is an impending shortage of natural resources, including water, constant demographic growth; a growing share of youth in the age structure of the population, a high level of unemployment; a polarisation and fragmentation of society; environmental degradation; and the inability of oil-producing countries to prepare for a reduction in global demand for hydrocarbons as a result of the transition to green technologies.
One of the unexpected consequences of the “Arab Spring” was that the expert community is talking less about democratisation and more about the importance of state institutions. Indeed, amid the chaos that many countries of the region have experienced, the existence of a more or less capable state is beginning to be perceived as a blessing. And in some Middle East countries, government institutions are really strengthening. But the consequences can be twofold: on the one hand, this is a chance to stabilise societies, and on the other hand, a cause for concern about the strengthening of authoritarianism. However, even Western experts noted that Middle Eastern governments, which are considered authoritarian, have demonstrated a high degree of adaptation and resilience. Examples here are Saudi Arabia, which has embarked on a path of reform, and Iran, where the authorities have learned to co-opt elements of civil society.
All this has been overlapped by a high degree of foreign interference in the affairs of the region, which was the main theme of the first day of the conference. Which scenarios become dominant depends on how much the external players will be able to agree among themselves, said Maria Khodynskaya-Golenishcheva, moderator of the last session. So far, cooperation has been relatively successful between Russia, Turkey and Iran. One of the reasons is that Russian foreign policy remains pragmatic and not is driven by ideology.