Apr 04, 2023
The Arab World Hangs Over a Faultline, International challenges exacerbate crises and put the countries and peoples of the region at risk
Ziad Abdel Samad
The Executive Director of ANND

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Ziad Abdel Samad

The Arab World Hangs Over a Faultline, International challenges exacerbate crises and put the countries and peoples of the region at risk. - Ziad Abdel Samad


All available reports and data on the progress in implementing the sustainable development plan are indicating that it will not be achieved by 2030 by current means. The impact of global developments in the past few years cannot be ignored. However, two main factors must be emphasized. The first is the structural imbalance in the global system and the absence of democracy and equality in its management. The second factor is related to the political, economic, and social trends that cause great social disparity and fuel the struggle over influence and global markets.

The pandemic revealed the weak response of many regimes to its health and social repercussions and impact on the economy and trade. It also revealed a fragile global system and its institutions. The global crisis is also evident in wars and armed conflicts in several parts of the world. It has led to a growing social gap, inequality in wealth and income distribution between and within countries, the spread of poverty and marginalization, and a growing food, energy, and climate crisis. On the other hand, it was a major blow to several financial and banking sectors around the world.

Back to War

Europe is back to war for the first time since the end of World War II (with the exception of the Balkan wars following the fall of the Berlin Wall), international tensions, forging new alliances, and causing an unprecedented food and energy crisis. The Russian-Ukrainian war led to an influx of millions of refugees from inside European borders. Defense budgets in several countries expanded (primarily Germany and the EU in general), and so did military spending on armaments and security. Relatively neutral countries decided to join NATO. The war also led to year unprecedented tensions in the China Sea after the escalation of the struggle for influence between the US and China. For the first time since World War II, China appeared as a military power after it sought over the past decades to appear as a soft economic power with a limited political role on the international level.

The Globalized Financial System in Crisis

The bankruptcy of three US banks (Silicon Valley, Signature, and Silver Gate), considered among the largest banks in the country, is another indicator. It pointed to the crisis in exaggerating the financialization of the economy at the expense of the real, productive economy, which currently constitutes a mere 2% of the volume of global exchange. The collapse was a major setback for this model. It necessitated immediate intervention by the US administration and the Federal Reserve to find a remedy and radically address the crisis before it spread to other countries. One of these banks, Silicon Valley, does not work on individual accounts and is dedicated to the accounts of emerging and medium companies. Its collapse could lead to the bankruptcy of tens of thousands of such businesses across the world and hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. The structural nature of the crisis was confirmed when Switzerland's second-largest bank (Credit Suisse) followed suit, leading to a major state intervention to contain the collapse.

Weakening the UN

International organizations have appeared weak against the crisis. The Security Council appeared unable to maintain global peace and security, its main tasks since WWII, due to the permanent member states' rights to veto its decisions. On the other hand, UN organizations concerned with development and human rights (ECOSOC and the Human Rights Council) moved away from the concept of social justice that prevailed in the late twentieth century, as the share of private funding increased to 80% of the total funding of international organizations. Added to that, private financing is limited to implementing specific programs and does not push for development and rights-based policies and strategies.

Climate Change and Austerity

The negotiations at the climate change summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2023 (COP 27) did not make any significant progress except for the initial approval of the establishment of the Loss and Compensation Fund. However, there is still no agreement on its work mechanisms, management, and beneficiary criteria. The Summit revealed a sharp global division. On the one hand, the countries of the South have been victims of industrialized countries' practices. On the other, the countries of the North are evading their responsibility for greenhouse emissions that cause a rise in global temperatures. The Russian-Ukrainian war and its repercussions on energy security led countries such as Germany and Britain to go back to coal despite the agreement at the Climate Summit in Glasgow in 2022 to ban its use.

On the other hand, while IFIs are beginning to modify their rhetoric, they still rely on the same approaches that weakened developing countries during the past decades. Quantitative indicators are still being used to measure progress at the expense of qualitative ones that measure policies. IFIs are also far from addressing structural imbalances that impede progress and prosperity and still cling to free market mechanisms and deregulation. However, these traditional austerity measures for addressing deficits in the budget and the trade balance always come at the expense of comprehensive and sustainable development and human rights. In other words, they prioritize financial and economic stability at the expense of solidarity and social justice. These policies have exacerbated the public debt crisis in developing countries, which contributes to more poverty and inequality.

Responsibility of Donor Countries

Although donor countries claim to provide aid to achieve development and fight poverty, they do not do so based on partnership principles, such as national ownership and mutual accountability in line with their international commitments. Instead, they contribute to fueling local and regional conflicts through the arms trade. According to SIPRA, the region accounts for 30% of the global arms trade. These weapons are sold at the expense of development and humanitarian programs and projects.

Similarly, regional development indicators do not indicate a positive trend. The most optimistic reports indicate high levels of poverty (exceeding 60%), unemployment (exceeding 17%), and a wide gap in wealth distribution (the richest 1% of citizens have almost 60% of the wealth). International institutions do not predict a way out of the vortex in the coming years, except for the Gulf oil states.

The Situation in the Arab world

The Arab region suffers from deep structural imbalances that are not dealt with appropriately. Persistent denial and failure to address crises lead to their exacerbation. It is not merely the absence of political intention but that the political intention is the reluctance to deal with crises and maintain the status quo. Solutions, it seems, will be at the expense of the privileges of those in power, their cronies, and their clientelist system. Thus, it would lead to reducing their privileges and limiting the use of influence to make more profits.

The major geopolitical transformations in the region will have repercussions on its people, especially the role and reality of civil society. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement under Chinese auspices reflects major shifts in regional relations. It comes after tension in Gulf relations since the outbreak of the war in Yemen and the growing Iranian role in the Arab Levant countries, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and its impact on inter-Arab relations (Arab divisions) the role of the League of Arab States, and thus the Arab regional system as a whole. It also impacted Arab relations with international parties with regional interests, such as the US, the EU, and the European member states (France mainly) that entered into negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The same applies to relations with Russia and Turkey. During this period, China has turned into a major trading partner with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which in turn is witnessing very important internal political transformations as well as in its regional and international relations. China has also entered into a trading partnership with Iran.

On the other hand, the Abraham Accords to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries (Bahrain, the Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Sudan, and Morocco), which Lebanon joined through the maritime border demarcation agreement, may pave the way for a new phase and may constitute a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict, in the absence of clarity about the fate of the Palestinian people under occupation and the fate of their legitimate and usurped rights. In addition, the internal conditions in Israel are unstable as a result of the exacerbation of internal divisions and the challenges resulting from the growing popular resistance that the Palestinian people are waging under the occupation. In turn, it is witnessing fundamental political shifts in the map of the active political forces and in the methods of confronting the occupation after long suffering from political division and international sanctions.

A Coup Against Democratic Transition

Faltering democratic transition is perhaps the main challenge facing the countries of the region since the beginning of this century. The situation is characterized by the absence of democracy, the suppression of individual and public freedoms, the restriction of civic space, the absence of political participation, and the disruption of accountability mechanisms. The past few years have witnessed the growing role of the military and security establishment, allied with the private sector and companies, in managing political affairs. They have increased their control over public life and over resources and wealth, preventing all attempts at change and peaceful democratic transition. The bold challenge that civil society in Sudan decided to undertake through its involvement in the path of political transition in partnership with the armed forces witnessed dangerous turns after the armed forces violated the agreements and launched negotiations on new agreements that were signed recently, prior to the elections to be organized to reconfigure authority. The same applies to Tunisia, which witnessed a coup against the democratic path through the measures taken by the president, concentrating powers in his hands, diminishing the authority of parliament, and undermining the independence of the judiciary. It led to a wave of protests, which the authorities confronted with repressive measures and arbitrary arrests.

The arbitrary involvement in the global system led to more unnecessary liberalization, increasing the private sector's influence and role, particularly in international companies with a regional and local presence, and strengthening their relationship with the ruling groups. Cronyism spread and affected the legislative system and policy space in light of the promotion of a new discourse that considers that the solutions are by strengthening the beneficial partnership between the public and private sectors with the aim of acquiring the largest amount of profits and sharing risks.

In light of this situation, the role of the state and its institutions is declining, and the public sector and public services are eroding. Consequently, inequality is multiplied, and wealth gets concentrated in the hands of the ruling few at the expense of the vast majority of citizens.

An Advanced Role for Civil Society

These international and regional conditions and their local political, economic, financial, and social repercussions raise a serious question about the role of civil society in overcoming the crises, especially in light of the systematic targeting of civil space and public freedoms. In view of the security situation and armed conflicts, civil society is busy with humanitarian work and providing services under the weight of oppression, restrictions, and persecution on the one hand and pressure from donors and funding conditions on the other.

The foregoing calls for a return to a comprehensive approach that links political change with social and economic change. It includes strengthening regional alliances between networks and civil and political actors and preserving the unity of the forces of change despite the diversity and differences in specializations and orientations. Civil forces of change must realize the importance of rapprochement with popular and political movements, the private sector affected by crises and corruption, and civil society, which is forced by circumstances to transform into a force for social change. It requires linking the political, economic, and social paths of change, linking civil and research efforts to the process of change, and creating a new alternative developmental narrative to confront the prevailing traditional narratives. In this context, achieving gender equality and liberation from patriarchal-masculine domination over the public and private spheres becomes necessary, and so does the protection of public and individual freedoms, focusing on integration and diversity, and youth participation. Accordingly, networking between the main actors and concerned parties must be strengthened, including with trade unions, in order to build a historical bloc capable of increasing the chances of success in achieving change toward development and human rights.

In addition, more pressure must be exerted on international institutions to shift from vertical services and programs into comprehensive public policies and human rights approaches, putting an end to random and ill-conceived austerity policies. Finally, there is a need to address public debt, which has become a burden that exceeds 30% of public spending in most cases, with an emphasis on comprehensive structural reform that precedes agreement on debt rescheduling or cancellation.

A new social contract
The peoples of the region need a new social contract that strengthens citizenship based on rights and effective democratic participation and regulates the relationship between citizens and the state. The social contract must deal with the political aspect and state-building where accountability, transparency, participation, and separation of powers prevail. It must also deal with the social, economic, and environmental factors of diversified, productive, competitive, and solidarity economies, coupled with a fair distribution of the returns of economic growth and the generation of decent job opportunities. Finally, it must prioritize the needs of the national and local community away from corruption, favoritism, and clientelism.

In short, what is required is a transition from the neo-patrimonial state to a modern, civil, democratic, and developmental state.

Ziad Abdel Samad

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