The Greater Middle East — defined as the Arab world, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus — is the site of the world’s largest supply of fossil fuels and a place where several ambitious powers actively seek regional hegemony. It is a region where the United States has key allies as well as important interests, and where weapons of mass destruction are being actively developed. Not entirely by coincidence, it is also the place — the Persian Gulf, specifically — where the United States fought its last major war, in 1991, and it is the only region of the world where more or less permanent U.S. forward-based military deployments have expanded since the end of the Cold War.
Hence, the Greater Middle East is appreciated in the West as a region of great importance but also great trouble. This is so even if one sketches the region without reference to U.S. interests. Despite unprecedented prospects of Arab-Israeli reconciliation, the area still exhibits many and sundry depredations. It has a high concentration of despotic and dysfunctional regimes and, aside from Israel and Turkey, no institutionalized democracies. It is also the site of politically radical, militarized Islam, which, if not a mortal threat to its host societies and its neighbors alike, is at least a significant irritation and source of instability. Several parts of the region-from Morocco to Lebanon’s Bek`a valley to south-central Afghanistan-supply a large volume of illicit drugs to many parts of the world. The area is also a cauldron of sectarian and ethnic rivalry. Finally, it is hard to think of any 25-year period in the documented history of this diverse region when there has not been at least one major spasm of civil or cross-border warfare.
As one looks ahead, such a legacy is perhaps disheartening — and the next 25 years pose new forms of potentially destabilizing change. Three come readily to mind. First, whenever a great empire collapses it produces a shatterbelt of instability around its periphery, and the headlong collapse of Russian power is a pertinent example for the Greater Middle East. For the first time in more than three centuries, three core countries of the region no longer directly abut Russian power: Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. Traditional commercial and cultural contacts between lands south of the Oxus River and those beyond it in Central Asia have been restored after nearly a century of interruption. The Silk Road is slowly being revived, and patterns of exchange are appearing more reminiscent of the 15th century than of the 19th. Not only have Muslim Central Asia and the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus been reunited with the rest of the Middle East, so have the Muslims of the Balkans thanks to the painful, slow-motion disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Farther east, the collapse of the Soviet Union left India without a superpower patron to balance China, which in turn probably accelerated India’s desire to demonstrate open nuclear weapons possession. India’s test was also the spark for Pakistan’s public nuclear arrival, and that has made Iranian aspirations to acquire a strategic balancer virtually impossible to slake-quite aside from the threat to Iran from Iraqi efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
So far, the post-Communist shatterbelt has produced or prolonged war “only” in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. By historical standards, however, it is still too soon to conclude that the dust has settled. The number of wars, small and not-so-small, that even reasonably sanguine analysts may justifiably expect to see in this region over the next 25 years is large, and several may be attributed to the aftershocks of the Soviet collapse.
A second source of change is demography. For the first half of the period out to 2025, most of the countries of the Greater Middle East will experience rapid population growth and a significant drop in the mean population age. A youth bulge is making its way through many populations in the region, and that bulge will strain the natural environment and the social environment through the need for potable water, housing, education, and medical services. Unemployment, income disparities, and ethnic tensions generated by such problems may also contribute to significant internal migrations and some cross-border migration, as well.
A third source of change concerns the tumult we expect from the continuing economic integration of the globe. Even a mainly benign, successful process of integration will introduce many stresses to the non-Western cultures of this area. Secularization is but one; new neo-universal norms of Western origin concerning human rights, minority rights, and particularly women’s rights are another. Should global economic integration produce repeated cycles of boom and bust, should it produce patchwork polarizations of success stories and failures within regions and countries, or should it empower certain states and groups militarily so as to produce sudden perturbations in security relations, the region could succumb to very harrowing times.
One might gather from the foregoing that the Greater Near East will not be a prime zone for enterprising Americans, Japanese, or Europeans to go sell insurance or take leisurely vacations. Not necessarily. There are optimistic as well as pessimistic possibilities with which one may view the future of the Greater Middle East. What could go right? Plenty, and one of the main reasons lies in the challenge of global economic integration and the social power of religion to absorb its shocks.
The allure of global economic integration may finally break the spell of etatism in several major regional countries. Political and economic elites are liable to find themselves with an unpleasant choice: either tie in to the global economic flow, with all the disruption it promises, or remain poor, stagnant, and relatively worse off than one’s neighbors as demographic and social pressures mount. In other words, the very dangers of social disruption will perhaps furnish the incentive to change — if economic, social, and demographic pressures are strong enough to persuade governments to open up, but not strong enough to overwhelm them before new approaches bear fruit.
Almost certainly, the top managerial echelons of business and government will be fully up-to-date in nearly all oil- rich countries and many others as well. Israel and a few of the Arab states (most likely Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and possibly Iraq and Saudi Arabia as well) will feature fully modern economies; Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and other regional states will have, at the least, advanced sectors within their economies. Several countries in North Africa — Morocco, Tunisia, a recovered Algeria, and a post-Qadaffi Libya — may attract substantial funds from East Asia both as investment in their energy resources and as ways to penetrate into Europe via European Union trade agreements with North African states.
Led by a new generation of Western-educated elite, some countries may also become both successful niche producers and major international financial hubs. Economic restructuring and advancement could transform several regional states into important capital markets, and the establishment of an effective Middle East Development Bank that would help stabilize the region’s oil have-nots is not out of the question either.
One result of rapid growth, no doubt, will be greater economic disparity among regional states between those plugged into the world economy and those that are not. Whereas in the last quarter of the 20th century intra- regional economic differences were explained mostly by the chance occurrence of fossil fuel deposits, in the first quarter of the 21st century differences will be explained mainly by the variable development of human and social capital, economic openness, and political dynamism. But the most important thing is that everyone in the region will see that real change, and real success, is possible. If some major countries achieve an economic takeoff in tandem with the tides of global economic integration, the region will never again be the same.
There is no question that financial resources will be available to finance growth. Some $500 billion in Arab money rests in banks and investments outside the Arab world. If economic rationalization can bring most of that money back into the region, the pool of capital for investment will be enormous. Most of developing East Asia will also remain heavily dependent on oil and natural gas from this region, and investment in the Near East by East Asians should also expand. Turkey may attract funds from other Turkic-speaking regions: Turkmenistan, rich in natural gas, Azerbaijan, which sits on oil and gas, and even Uzbekistan, the largest and perhaps in future the most economically dynamic of the Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia. Israel will attract funds globally due to its special richness in human capital attuned to the information age.
New wealth and the new economic patterns that go with it may have important positive political implications. Virtually all national elites and much of the middle classes will be connected technologically to the developed world. The demonstration effect of such new technology, including its pop cultural forms, will initially worsen social divisions within countries, but to the extent that growing wealth, literacy rates, and urbanization connect over time with the communications infrastructure of a “wired” world, authoritarian control will grow much more difficult.
At the same time, new economic patterns suggest that traditional government control of significant commerce as well as traditional attitudes toward education and educational authority will also likely erode, and significant anti-authoritarian social implications flow from both. The weakening and potential transformation of Middle Eastern autocracies, if it does not come too suddenly, stands to do enormous good for the region. While such a weakening could pose a danger of populist demagoguery in many countries, the growth of political pluralism in time will help build more stable civil societies and a more peaceful regional environment.
Political liberalization largely driven by economic reform could well take root in a number of Arab countries. Whether it does or does not will owe much to two general social conditions: the adaptive capacities of Islamic civilization, and the vast generational change now taking place throughout the region. The prospects for both to aid the process of political liberalization are good.
It is also possible that in the next quarter century the Arab-Israeli conflict will be finally settled and that the Iranian theocracy will collapse. Both, but especially the latter, would send shock waves through the Islamic world and undermine radical Islamist movements everywhere. It would open the way for a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement that could have broadly positive effects in the region and beyond. In turn, if the theocratic regime in Iran and the Ba’athi regime in Iraq are deposed or sharply moderated before they acquire and deploy nuclear or biological weapons, the pressures on other states to match step may dissipate. The threat to use such weapons would also decline if regional disputes fall to diplomatic amelioration. The status of weapons of mass destruction would suffer, and the diplomatic and domestic political costs of building them might come to exceed the presumed benefits.
Having paid our dues to optimism, we would be remiss not to note more pessimistic possibilities for the region. There are many and, as suggested above, the key to which direction the future will take comes down to a relatively small number of contingent events, namely whether major wars can be avoided and whether regime changes in major countries proceed in a positive direction. The capacities of major states to adapt to changes in the global environment will, of course, affect both classes of events.
Avoiding major warfare and the occasional violent regime collapse will not be easy. More than one major regional war will probably occur, causing a deterioration of the general regional security environment, and making it more difficult for any power or combination of powers to moderate political enmities and minimize local arms races. The candidates for such a war are many, ranging from North Africa to the Levant to Southwest to Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is highly unlikely that most potential conflicts will become actual conflicts over the next 25 years. But it is even less likely that none of them will.
Indeed, very bad things could happen in the broader security sphere as well. The Greater Middle East will remain heavily armed, and could be the region where the majority of new nuclear states emerge. Iran and Iraq are real possibilities, and should either state acquire demonstrable weapons of mass destruction capabilities, it would seriously undermine the U.S. posture in the region — a very significant potential example of the problem of inverted deterrence. Other states, too, such as Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco are keeping their options open, even while remaining parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Prospects also exist for states and terrorist groups in the region to acquire chemical and biological weapons. Long range missiles are under development in many countries as well. Over the coming 25 years, we should expect that such weapons will be used in regional conflicts, as well as in attacks against Americans abroad and possibly at home.
As for regime change and national coherence, here we must examine the potential downside of the social and political challenges noted above. It is possible that despite generational leadership transitions the political characteristics and global orientations of the region’s major regimes will remain unchanged. Currently autocratic regimes may remain autocratic and resist pressures to change. Given the demographic, economic, and social conditions ahead, such an approach would surely breed at least episodic social unrest, religious violence, and ethnic conflict in several states in the region.
Resistance to political change suggests that the elites of some major states may react to globalization pressures with new forms of corruption and fake privatization schemes that only benefit the well-connected. Indeed, many regional elites may do in future what they have done in the past in accordance with an attitude toward civic duty sometimes called the rentier model.
While in most countries citizens pay taxes to the state and the state provides services, in many Arab countries the flow of money has been the other way around. States accrue resources from external sources — oil revenues, port fees, banking services, and so forth — and then distribute the money as patronage down into the population. The rentier model functions as a means of control for the state elite, but it vitiates the ties of citizenship produced by a more standard model of reciprocal obligation between citizen and government.
This is an important factor militating against elite support for any form of technology-driven entrepreneurship that the elite cannot control. All non-hierarchical forms of social power would upset traditional arrangements, and most elites will oppose them even at the cost of overall economic stagnation.
It is also possible that Islam will not provide a means to soften and advance social change. One could argue that Islamic societies tend to cling to the two anchors of social authority they know and trust historically to ward off chaos: religion and extended family. But these anchors cannot solve the demographic and social problems before them, and a downward spiral of insularity and dysfunctional government may end up dividing such societies ever further from the world’s successful models of development.
It is possible, too, that oil and natural gas supplies from the region will no longer figure prominently in global markets, either because turmoil and conflict will have disrupted their flow or because alternative sources of energy are developed. If that were to happen, many regional countries could become dramatically and rapidly poorer, and the stability of these economies and regimes would eventually become less important to the United States and other major advanced countries. Contrarily, the absence of energy alternatives, set against the inexorable limits of fossil fuel reserves, could lead to another sharp rise in prices between now and 2025. Oil-rich countries might then use bloated revenues to pursue regional political and military competitions, as they did in the 1970s. Corruption would increase — as would resentment against elites. Another global oil shock would send the international economy once again into the doldrums, and that would again spell disaster for the non-oil-rich states of the region.
The accumulation of bad news could ultimately trigger regime collapse in major states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. That, in turn, could also lead to dramatic shifts in regional political and military balances. It could be, for example, that after two generations of a flowering of Islamic neo-orthodoxy, the stage will have been set for the reemergence of fundamentalist movements amid economic depression and the failure of secular political parties to provide viable political leadership. Regime upheavals might therefore produce several ultra-conservative religious regimes in the region, each successive case gaining moral and possibly literal support from the ones before.
In sum, things may turn out well in the region, or they may not. The future, however, is not written in any book, or in the stars. It is contingent, a result of what Middle Easterners and others do — not least the U.S. government. One thing can be said with reasonable certainty: educated observers of the Greater Middle East will not be bored over the next quarter century. Indeed, we may bear witness to more excitement than we would like.