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Why Did the Middle East Fail?

 by Ambika  Vishwanath for The Leadership Review —


The Middle East, in 2015, saw two important and transformative elections. In early March, Israel re-elected a right wing government that ran on a platform that was even more conservative than it had ever been. Whether we agree with the outcome is not important, the majority of Israel voted to retain some measure of the status quo; change was not the need of the hour for them. In early June, Turkey, after 13 years did not give the ruling AK Party a parliamentary majority in the government. Whether the country voted for the newly confident left party or against the current leadership due to its authoritarian shift in politics is a question worth examining. Whatever the reason, the country voted for change, in the hopes that it might bring a different system of governance.

The study of democracy teaches us that power is vested in the people, who have the ability to change the course of their lives. In many ways Turkey and Israel are examples of this old adage, where free and fair elections are an essential pillar of a democratic state. Yet current realities demonstrate that accepted concepts do not work in all societies. Free elections without inclusive institutions or separation of powers without dignity of life are not indicative of a democratic just society. This is evident in the current situation in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and many other countries, where the struggle is beyond the simple search for a democratic nation. The struggle is two-fold and competing. On the one hand the common man is struggling for a better future with dignity of life, a system of governance he can believe in and institutions he can trust and on the other hand extremist forces and terrorist organizations, benefitting from the break-up of fragile states and implosion of societies, are struggling to transfer the balance of power in their favour.

The Middle East today is going through a period of tectonic change, one that is destructive and likely to last for years if not decades. It is easy to fall into the trap that history has cursed the land and that this region is doomed for failure, as many analysts are wont to argue. Yet, what is also true is that the ancient land of Babylonia lies in this region; it is a land that invented instruments of math and medicine, it is a land that was endowed with the riches of knowledge and learning long before oil was discovered. It is up to the people of the region, to find in that glorious history, a way to move forward. It is not an easy path, but history does tell us that great empires were borne out of the ashes of revolution, and even greater nations rose from the dust of war.

At this time it is important to closely examine and understand the factors that have created the Middle East of today. The following chart, though by no means exhaustive, gives us an indication of how key factors or derailers have charted the course of these nations, and why they have failed or derailed. It also tells us that there are commonalities to be found between Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iran, and indeed many other countries in the wider region. What are the roots of discontent in these countries and how did the situation explode to the state that it is today? Is it as simple as blaming it on oppressive regimes and narrow elites, or is it widespread poverty and lack of opportunity amongst the growing youth? Is it simply that the periphery has not been allowed to prosper due to rampant corruption and repression or is it a combination of factors? The chart tells us that it is beyond a combination of factors, it is in-fact a domino effect and a sum of it all. As Mohamed El Baradei, former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wrote on Twitter on January 13, 2011 “Tunisia: repression+ absence of social justice+ denials of channels for peaceful change= a ticking bomb.”


For Egyptians, the factors that have held them back from prosperity include an ineffective and corrupt state, lack of opportunity and a narrow elite class that used the state for their own benefit. Many Syrians and Iraqis fall into this same category. Put in simple terms, an extractive economy is a system where a small section of society reaps the benefits of effort by the larger masses. Such a system is usually accompanied by extractive policies, which ensures that the ruling elite are above the law and the power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Such systems of governance allow for rampant corruption and institutional malaise, creating vast disparity amongst the general public and the ruling elite. This has lead to growing discontent and rising frustration amongst the people in these countries.

A Snapshot of the Middle East

Added to these factors are deep religious, ethnic and sectarian divisions that simmer below the surface, and are encouraged and enforced in countries like Iraq, Iran and Syria and Egypt. One of the most common complaints against the previous government in Iraq, run by Maliki, was that he was extremely sectarian, favouring the Shiite Muslims over the Sunnis, which helped fuel the spread of ISIS and the uprising in 2014. In Lebanon, while divisions are not openly encouraged by all, there are numerous religions and ethnic groups that make up the country, with little cohesion and pluralism. Here, a multi-ethnic country is deeply divided over politics and governance, hampering the potential for growth and prosperity.

Divisions are not uncommon to the people of this region and date back to the original division between the Sunnis and the Shiites in seventh century Arabia. There is no doubt this historic phenomenon has risen in intensity over time, but the brutality of modern tensions can be traced back to the 1979 Iran revolution and the 2003 Iraq war which effectively catapulted the Shiites into greater power tipping the balance in their favour. There is a growing Sunni fear of greater Shiite control and Tehran’s growing influence in the region, from Baghdad to Beirut and Damascus to Sana’a. This has led to a greater following of the Sunni led terrorist organizations and pockets of populations giving them greater credence. It seems that a great ideological battle on the definition of Islam and political Islam is being played out between these groups, from the highest seats of government in the region, to the battle fields across the countryside. Religion has become an excuse in the great power game across the Middle East.

Undoubtedly one of the biggest indicators for the vulnerability or fragility of these states is the status of the people themselves, where dignity is effectively dead. Lack of opportunity, deep resentment, and the complete absence of hope have created a vacuum that has allowed fundamentalist and evil ideas to grow and take shape. Extractive economies that lead to extractive policies do not create incentives for people to prosper. The few that do benefit have the resources to build private armies, buy judges and ensure that elections are rigged and ultimately set up institutions that provide no checks against abuse of power. Such systems create a supply of disgruntled young people with no prospects and no hope for a better future, and thus allow terrorist organizations to gain ground. Similar to any market place, the supply of frustrated youth is exploited by organizations with money and extremist ideologies, leading to the horrific terrorism we see today. The revolution in Egypt, the civil war in Syria and the battles in Iraq are not being fought to create pluralism and just societies, but to capture power and enrich one group over the expense of others, leading to state failure and human suffering.

Resources in the region, both the abundance of some and the lack of others, have also been a key factor in the derailment of these states. Primarily agrarian in nature, the lack of water resources, due to mismanagement and conflicting interests, has rendered the land dry and unusable. This has caused mass migration of people to the cities leading to further strain on resources. The Arab Spring and subsequent civil war found thousands of unemployed and disgruntled men and women in the cities ready to rise up against the regime that had been unable to provide them with basic necessities in life. Syria and Iraq once had abundant water resources and ancient cities that were established along these resources. Yet decades of neglect, rising populations, bad management of the existing resources and lack of cooperation between countries have ensured that water became the fuel for further revolution.

The political borders of the region are important elements in any discussion of region and need to be taken into account. The modern Middle East was organized around a set of artificial borders put in place by Western powers following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and held together by power hungry leaders. These borders have eroded over time and while internal tensions have largely remained the problem of these states, the advent of the Arab Spring has cemented loyalties that transcended borders. The Arab Spring, which turned into an Arab Winter, did not bring the quick freedoms and new improved ways of life that people hoped to see but rather brought about the collapse of state authority and new forces of destruction that cannot be undone. These forces will lead to the creation of new states and it will not be surprising to see in the near new future, a whole ‘neo-modern’ Middle East. Added to this is the continuous deep rooted conflict between Israel and Palestine, which seems to have no end in sight. The extremist forces use the subjugation of their Palestinian brothers and the lack of a viable lasting solution as another rallying cry to attract people to their cause. There is a strong feeling that their Arab leaders have failed to help Palestine secure freedom, and that it is now on their shoulders, through any means possible, to defeat Israel and create a free Palestine.

Examining all these factors, Jordan and Iran have been offered as interesting contrasts. How has Jordan, a country with the least amount of water in the region, a country with a thriving network of the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groups, a country with the largest number of refugees, not derailed to the extent of its neighbours? Is it because the country does not fit all the factors that could lead to a nations failure, or because Jordan is carefully bolstered and supported by International friends, or is it because the people in Jordan still feel that there is hope for the future? Iran on the other hand, fits the bill for a state that should have also derailed and followed the path of Iraq or Syria. And while Iran is considered a failed or fragile state by many polls and indices, it is for all purposes a country that is still intact.

However, it would bode well for both Amman and Tehran and indeed many other leaders in the region to examine their countries in the light of these factors and put into place necessary measures that bring them back from the brink. In 2013, Iran had Presidential elections that heralded a new leader and hope for change, yet President Rouhani would do well to remember that elections alone are not tools for success but need inclusive institutions, a clear separation of powers and above all a population that has dignity of life and labour. Any current and future leader of Egypt would also do well to take these factors into account, for while Egypt might be relatively stable, it has a long way to go in ensuring that recent events do not repeat themselves.

Burning oil fields during the Gulf War.

Peace in the Middle East now seems a distant dream, one that will take generations. The factors outlined in the chart and many other factors are indicators in themselves as to what is required. A detente between Turkey and Saudi Arabia which could help lead to a detente between other Sunni and Shiite powers is the first step towards achieving any peace in the region. If there is no dialogue and cooperation, history will remember this time as the beginning of war between the Sunnis and the Shias. This has to be accompanied by a new regional order with Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, and certain Gulf States collectively taking the lead as well as involving other regional players such as Iran and Israel. Their shared histories and deep religious connections can be turned into advantages. A new regional order can then ensure that there is a conversation that involves all partners in each country, with the international community providing support as necessary. As we have seen, the breeding ground for terrorism are ineffective, corrupt and power hungry governments, and military solutions are not the only answer.

It is important to admit that no one is winning the war against forces of extremism, and the only losers are the people of the region. Every time a city is lost by one warlord, militia group or government army, another is ready to take over, and till there is a ceasefire or series of ceasefires acceptable to a critical mass of actors, the cycle will continue. State life has all but vanished, to be replaced by non state actors, most of them armed and all of them dangerous. While military coalitions and the movements of arms and ammunitions are key aspects in combating the immediate threats of the terrorist organizations, there will be no lasting solution unless the very fabric of governance and society is changed. Boundaries are unlikely to remain the same. Whatever the outcome, it is now up to the people of the region to decide if they want a future where shared values are upheld and there is dignity of life and labour, where power is not concentrated and there is prosperity of the periphery, or if they want superficial changes that reflect the past.

Ambika Vishwanath

Ambika Vishwanath is a Middle East specialist and an independent consultant working with governments in Europe and the Middle East.

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