Will the Middle East be as unstable 10 years from now as it is today? I posed that question this week to a class of students at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. About half answered yes — that things will be as bad or worse, no matter what the United States does.
These graduate students sense what many Middle East experts are beginning to vocalize: The region is caught in a turbulent vortex of change that’s likely to continue for many years, perhaps decades. The drivers are political, social, economic and demographic forces over which the United States and other outside powers have little control. For the next generation, instability may be the rule in the Middle East, rather than the exception.
Predictions about the future based on current trends are always risky because analysts can’t foresee the unexpected “black swan” events that produce radical change. Nobody could have anticipated that a Tunisian fruit vendor’s self-immolation in 2010 would begin a cascade of revolution and civil war in the Middle East. Similarly, we can’t forecast the process that may eventually restore balance.
Economic and demographic data show a region already stressed by slow growth and high youth unemployment. These problems are compounded by refugee flows from wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya — and worsened by falling oil prices that hinder Saudi Arabia’s ability to provide a buffer.
The International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook, released this month, presents a grim picture. Unemployment will top 13 percent in Egypt and Tunisia this year and reach nearly 12 percent in Algeria. Economies aren’t growing fast enough to provide enough jobs for young people: Growth this year is expected to be 1.3 percent in Iraq, 2.5 percent in Lebanon, 2.6 percent in Algeria, 3.8 percent in Jordan and 4 percent in Egypt.
Saudi Arabia’s growth forecast has been slashed more than 1.5 points to 3 percent this year and is projected to decline further next year because of oil prices. The Saudis are waging a bloody air war in Yemen, apparently convinced that threats to their security are external. But the more intractable problems may be internal, with the Saudi budget falling into what the IMF warns will be “substantial deficit” this year and next.
“Tepid” growth and falling oil exports mean larger trade and budget deficits, predicts the IMF. The region will suffer a cumulative current-account deficit of 1.9 percent of gross domestic product this year; even the oil-exporting countries will run a deficit of 1 percent. “Deepening conflicts and security disruptions in a number of oil-exporting countries could further undermine economic activity, delay reforms and dampen confidence,” warns the IMF.
The Middle East’s body politic, enfeebled by these disorders, has been ravaged by sectarian and civil wars. The International Rescue Committee estimated this month that 11.4 million Syrians, or about half the population, have fled their homes. The Syrian disaster has affected the whole region. To take just one example, poverty has more than doubled in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to a recent World Bank report.
As weak governance structures have buckled across the Middle East, extremist groups have become more powerful. The most potent is the Islamic State, which exploded out of the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But many other groups across the region are fusing popular rage with sectarian and tribal bases of support. Even if the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, can be “degraded” in Iraq and Syria over the next three years, as President Obama hopes, the underlying disorder in the region could spawn ISIS 2.0, or even 3.0.
Observing the devastation in the Middle East is a bit like watching a hurricane pummel a vulnerable coastline. Outsiders can try to mitigate the destruction and provide humanitarian relief. They must also try to protect themselves from collateral damage. But they can’t stop the raging winds and surging tides from leveling fragile structures. As disaster-management experts have learned, a big storm has to blow itself out before rebuilding can begin.
Graham Allison, who heads the Belfer Center here, argues that the U.S. government should be careful about trying to fix problems in the Middle East until it understands them better. He contrasts the deadly Ebola virus with the ideological contagion of the Islamic State. We know what causes Ebola and how to stop it, Allison wrote recently in Time magazine, but there is no such clarity about how the Islamic State toxin spreads or how it can be cured.
What we do know is that this extremist virus has taken root in a body that is already severely weakened and showing no signs of recovering soon.