Pessimist alert: the situation in what began as the Arab Spring is moving from bad — Egypt’s Mubarak, Syria’s Assad, Iraq’s Saddam — to worse: Egypt’s ever stricter military dictatorship, Syria’s three year-old civil war, Iraq’s renewed chaos. A downward spiral with no end in sight.
Two unrelated books, the first just out, the second published in 2012, interweave a scary picture despite an upbeat tone in one. The new one — it’s meant to be the upbeat one — by Marwan Mu’asher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, is entitled “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism,” the other, Lester Brown’s “Full Planet, Empty Plates.” Together, they portray a coming perfect storm.
Mu’asher’s book, which I haven’t read — I saw him in a compelling television interview last week — defines the problem succinctly. But the problem is that the pluralism, or across-the-board tolerance, that he cites as his solution, is — like the plaintive cry of the flower children of the late ’60s, “Make love not war” — much easier to verbalize than to bring about. Mu’asher is certainly no glassy-eyed idealist. He knows the answer which he gives in his title, pluralism, is no magic wand. Indeed, in the interview, he noted that while “the overwhelming majority” of the Arab world are not jihadists, the divisions have worsened in recent years. “It will take decades of work” before the Arabs can coalesce into a diverse but unified whole. But they don’t have decades.
The underlying problem, the basic roadblock to pluralism, is simple to pinpoint: religion, primarily the broad Sunni-Shia split, which has worsened in recent years because of the growth in fundamentalism, especially among the Sunni population.
What makes the solution so difficult is how easily it has proven to overturn what decades of education and exposure to the modern world achieved. The younger generation in Beirut in the late ’60s and early ’70s that I knew — in Lebanon’s long-ago golden days — were a mixture of Muslim, Christian and Druze. They were dating and even intermarrying, a shock to their more traditional parents, though a clear promise for the future. But it was a fragile land, and it all came crashing down when the pressure of Palestinian refugees overwhelmed the government and exploded into civil war.
Baghdad and Damascus began their own slow advance into religious pluralism in later years. And then their societies too were ripped apart.
In the far past, a strong central government, the Ottoman Empire, kept the varying sects at peace. Mobility in earlier centuries, and indeed well into the 20th was, of course, limited. Adjacent villages of different religions could co-exist quite peacefully.
But when weak or brittle governments take over and security falters, and the peace is broken, violence begets violence. As a friend of mine pointed out, the well-known Harvard philosopher George Santayana had it exactly wrong in his famous epigram, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The inhabitants of today’s Middle East remember too much of the past, too much of violence sprung from religion, too much of endless retribution.
Lebanon suffered through 15 years of civil war barely a generation ago. And now outside forces are once again stoking the memory pot and setting the stage for renewed violence. Syria’s tragic fate is fixed for years to come. Iraq’s Shia-led government has deepened the divide with its Sunni cousins and now Islamist extremists, many from beyond its borders, are pushing the country towards irreversible bloodshed. And with each backward spin of the wheel, the path to the pluralism that Mu’asher rightly envisions as the region’s last best hope is made just that much rockier.
All of which is bad enough, but as Lester Brown points out in “Full Planet, Empty Plates,” the Arab World is ground zero in the upcoming squeeze between an expanding population and a decreasing supply of food and water. Iraq’s population is growing at 3% a year, which means barring a rapid slow-down a doubling of the population by 2035. At the same time, the damming of the Euphrates River upstream in Turkey, and the on-going depletion of its underground water table, will reduce their water supply by 60%; some analysts, Brown points out, put the figure at 90%. Farmers, their wells dry, are abandoning their ancestral lands and moving to the jobless cities.
Syria faced a similar problem even before the civil war kicked in. Farmers were each year drilling ever deeper into the water table. With wells drying up, Syria’s grain harvest peaked in 2001 and in the decade since has fallen by over 30%. In Jordan, the results are even more dramatic, where groundwater withdrawals are estimated at twice the sustainable level. Jordan’s grain production, which in the 1970s was over 300,000 tons a year, is reduced to 55,000 tons. It now imports 90% of its grain consumption.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia could afford the technology to drill into its deep aquifers in the 1980s and actually became self-sufficient in wheat production. But their fossil aquifers cannot replenish, and after more than 20 years without having to import wheat, wheat production will cease completely within the next year or two making Saudi Arabia once again totally dependent on imported grain to feed its population. Unfortunately, its population has more than doubled since it first started exploiting its underground water supply. All this at a time when it will be facing increased political uncertainty.
The situation is worse in Yemen, which Brown depicts as “fast becoming a hydrological basket case.” As water tables have shrunk, the grain harvest has halved in 40 years, while the population has more than tripled to about 25 million. The Yemenis are now forced to import over 80% of their grain, but with their meagre oil exports declining, 60% of Yemeni children are physically stunted and chronically undernourished. Brown notes the country faces “a bleak and turbulent future,” a likely harbinger of what other non-oil rich Arab countries can look forward to. Ironically, the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, which in relative terms is better off than most Arab states, though its combination of poor government and massive unemployment is par for much of the neighborhood.
Secretary of State Kerry’s ambitious attempt to solve the Palestinian problem is admirable, despite the partial validity of the Israeli Defense Minister’s off-the-record description of it as “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor.” There are worse and more dangerous dilemmas ahead in the area. Understandably, as China competes with the developed world economically and asserts itself more aggressively with its neighbors, the US feels compelled to tilt towards Asia. But the importance of the Arab World is, unfortunately, not just in its oil production. As the US moves closer to energy self-sufficiency, the growing destabilization of the Arab World will continue to compel our interest.
Indeed, our focus must increase as the region’s instability increases: the civil war in Syria threatening both Lebanon and eventually Jordan; Iraq unravelling; Yemen’s move towards failed state status a risk to its neighbor Saudi Arabia; Egypt, its tourism dollars in decline, a new autocratic ruler facing an angry and potentially resurgent Muslim Brotherhood. And all this without considering the impact of “empty plates” that Brown foresees — and the radicalized jobless youth, more failed states, more angry young Muslims turning to al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
It’s not a region one can turn its back on. As it further unravels, its terrorist export potential — quite apart from the myriad personal tragedies it will spawn — poses an ever-increasing danger to the west. The US should be working now with its allies, with Russia, with the UN, to develop plans — or at least discuss ideas — about dealing with such a potentially bleak future facing a key part of the world. But like Mu’asher’s prescription of pluralism, international focus on the problem wold be merely the first step towards a solution.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, Mac Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.