This year, the Middle East marks the centenary of the Arab revolts of 1916, which set in motion many of the nationalist trends of the 20th Century in the region. This anniversary coincides with a heightened sense of transformation in the Arab world today – and in many instances, the change is not for the better. As history books recount how our forefathers struggled to shape their futures after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire while world powers crudely carved up their spheres of influence, today’s headlines speak of internal strife, proxy wars, mass migration and international interests colliding in the region.
However, there is more to the rapid pace of change today, from the transfer of information to the lowest oil prices since the last financial crisis. All of these developments are impacting societal changes and the identity of 330 million people in the region, especially those of young Arabs grappling with sectarian and political labels being forced upon them. How this identity is developed and protected will be instrumental for the future of the region.
Conflict and exodus are impacting those escaping conflicts and their host communities. As over 60 million refugees and displaced peoples are on the move around the world, the Middle East and North Africa is witnessing the largest displacement the world has witnessed since World War II. The immediate humanitarian crises due to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are transforming the societies of those countries, in addition to the fallout being felt in neighbouring countries.
For a Syrian girl who was born in a refugee camp in Jordan at the start of the conflict, she is now ready to enter school. All her initial memories will be of the hardship of being a refugee and uncertainty in the future. Young men and women who didn’t complete their education or have the chance to earn a living due to years of displacement inside Iraq, where there are over 3 million displaced Iraqis according to the IOM, their identity is being shaped by sectarian violence. Young people, especially children, are being hit the worst in areas of conflict. UNICEF estimates that 13 million children are out of school in the Middle East and North Africa due to conflict.
The past year witnessed Europe struggling to deal with refugee flows, as over one million refugees arrived by sea and hundreds of thousands crossed land borders. The erection of border controls for the first time in six countries of the Schengen area warn of a transformation of Europe itself, not just the Middle East and North Africa. However, the real transformation is happening in the MENA region. The impact on host communities cannot be underestimated, where one-fifth of Lebanon’s population is now made up of Syrians, Jordan has entire towns with Syrians forming the majority of residents, where Libyan refugees struggle to be acknowledged in North African cities. As months become years, the relationships between refugee and host communities change and the fabric of these societies is also changing. One of the many phenomena at the moment is a sectarian tension that is heightened by regional rivalries, namely between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As for those not in areas of conflict, there remain fears of instability, whether due to terrorism, war or economic shocks, in addition to questions of identity in a fast-paced world. Plunging oil prices are also creating a dynamic of change that in the long run will be instrumental in transforming the economies of oil-producing countries. The recent announcement of Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that his country may consider selling shares in Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, is a case in point. From Doha to Riyadh, the plans to introduce taxes and to cut subsidies heed a call by the IMF’s Director of the Middle East and North Africa, Masood Ahmed, a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Middle East and North Africa, to face up to the reality of longer term low oil prices. The influence of taxation on representation will mean that political questions will arise more frequently in the oil-producing countries.
This is becoming increasing evident in the digital age and a greater boldness to express ideas and concerns. More than 100 million people access Facebook on mobiles across the MENA region today, while it is one of the fastest growing regions on Twitter and Instagram.The transfer of information is accompanying a wave of political and social changes carried throughout the region, often by young people aged between 15 and 29 years old representing close to 30% of the population. There are over 108 million young people transitioning into adulthood, the largest number in the region’s history.
They provide a lifeline to a civil society struggling to maintain its independence at a time of heightened fears. Young people transitioning into adulthood are also relying increasingly on entrepreneurship and the private sector. According to the World Bank, job creation in the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by ‘young companies’ that will need further support to expand employment and a vital sense of opportunities.
The Arab world is being transformed by war, conflict and strife. However, it is also being transformed by a new generation of Arabs who are questioning the status quo, both in politics and business. As governments and influencers in the Arab world witness these changes, countries like the United Arab Emirates and Oman are proving that ‘legitimacy by competence’ is the best way forward while modern national identities are being formed. Increasingly, the people of the region, especially those who are more fortunate, will need to face up to the current generation’s responsibilities, and no longer blame the past or older generations for the challenges of today.
While many question whether the current borders of the Levant can survive 100 years after the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, the real issue is how to allow the people living within these borders and crossing them to live a life of dignity.