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Hard Times in the Arab World
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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.

• Category: Foreign Policy, History • Tags: Arab Spring 
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  1. I don’t think the US political class is capable of what you want. Even if an administration wants to constructively help the region it can’t because the political class is unable to be impartial. It is in their interest to instigate violence that they can later try and solve. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a security threat that should have been dealt with a long time ago. If anything the Obama administration like previous administrations is being too generous. People in the Middle East are deeply conservative and they will elect deeply conservative governments which our political class cannot tolerate (Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood). I think they want to live in communities with people like themselves and be governed by people like themselves. I blame Sykes and Picot for the sectarian violence. We need new countries drawn up to reflect what is actually there. The US put military bases in Saudi Arabia and set the whole thing on fire with the Iraq war. Before the US invaded in 2003 there were people who said it would lead to sectarian violence. It set the whole region on fire.

  2. Don Nash says: • Website

    Interesting article Mr. Deford. There will of course be a chorus of “solutions” coming from inside the Beltway. “Bomb Iran” will be top of the list.

  3. I would only add a couple of observations to this excellent article. First, the author didn’t mention the proposals in the South Sudan and Ethiopia to dam the upper reaches of the Nile River or its headwaters. These projects would have a devastating impact on Egypt if they were built. Second, he also didn’t discuss the impact of China on the region. Currently large tracts of land are under cultivation by the Chinese in the Sudan. To my knowledge, none of this food production is available to the local population, and the cultivation uses up large quantities of scarce water. As far as the author’s point about the desirability of coming up with a regional plan, I am pessimistic. The United States has allowed its policies in the region to become subservient to the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel. In my opinion, neither of these countries is playing a constructive role in the region at the present time.

  4. Ed says:

    I remember reading a few months ago that Egypt & Ethiopia may go to war in the near future if Ethiopia goes ahead will plans to dam their portion of the Nile. Evidently this would jeopardize Egypt’s food supply. Odd this wasn’t mentioned is this no longer a factor?

  5. Shia hegemony is encouraged by the West. Iran has fomented trouble in all Sunni majority countries. Its funding of Shia death quads resulted in the cleansing of Sunnis form Baghdad and assassination of Sunni professors and intellectuals. It collaborated in the occupation of Afghanistan and is now using its surrogate and military in Syria in the genocide of the majority Sunnis. So where is the Suni extremism the writer is talking about. Iran is like a ripe plum that will fall into the designs of Western powers. It is a matter of time. Right now it is competing with Israel as the sole interlocutor for the Mulsim world, even though Shias are a minority of 10% .
    It appears the author seems top have fallen f0r the deadly Persian charm and the increasing Iranian presence in think tanks and policy forums in the US.

  6. @sutjihadi A system in terminal decay’s an opportunity for end-state consumers. Carrion feeders. This was Insightful:

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