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04/20/10

Middle East's Outlook in the Next Decade

By Dr. Mohammad Hossein Hafeziyan, Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC); translated By: Iran Review

The Middle East enjoys high geopolitical importance as the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The region has been a cradle for civilizations, birthplace of three Ebrahimian religions, a hub of trade, a major base for vast empires, the source of 60 percent of the world's oil reserves, the origin of political and ideological movements, and a ground for the most explosive and lasting conflicts following the World War II.

The contemporary Middle East, for various reasons, is internationally depicted as an enigmatic and turbulent region which nurtures terrorism and religious extremism and is home to dictatorships.

It is, therefore, very difficult to predict future trends in the Middle East and many forecasts fail as a result of high pace of international developments in the region and the role of big powers. As put by Homayoun Katouziyan, one would need prophetic knowledge to be able to predict future course of the Middle East with any degree of certainty and even in this case, predictions may go astray.

The Middle East is among the world's least stable regions and unlike most other developing areas of the world, regional conflicts, especially the one between Arabs and Israel, are still in full swing even two decades after the end of the Cold War. Therefore, the general atmosphere in the region is still under heavy influence of security issues due to presence of rich oil resources and emergence of Islamic fundamentalism which is a potentially great risk to the interests of western countries, especially the United States.

Many analysts have noted that conditions in the Middle East are different from other parts of the world and have specifically pointed to the fact that the region is lagging behind dominant political and economic trends of the world. Waterbury maintains that what makes Middle East exceptional is a host of features which work to stymie growth of legal pluralism and democracy.

The ongoing developments in the Arab - Islamic region have fostered a new viewpoint, which maintains that part of the world is moving too slowly in adapting to democratization and even resists that process. While southern parts of Europe followed by East Europe and Latin America have opted for democratic rules, this region is still infested with the rule of totalitarian governments.

There were only two democratic governments in the region in 1975 and that situation has not changed as yet. In fact, only two countries allow free elections in which opposition parties can take part. Therefore, many Middle Eastern regimes are faced with various degrees of legitimacy crisis. Despite unprecedented rise in oil prices during recent years, rentier states have been losing ground. Reduced oil prices and depletion of oil reserves in regional countries will cause regional states to pursue economic and political development according to successful models of East Asia, which in turn, prevent those states from gaining legitimacy as a result of economic welfare in the Persian Gulf littoral states. This will be a great threat to rentier states in the Middle East.

In a democratic Middle East, Iran is sure to witness changes in its surrounding environment. Establishment of democratic rules will eliminate main breeding grounds of extremism and Islamic fundamentalism, thus, reducing the resultant security threats to Iran. Establishment of democratic governments in the region will also stabilize regional countries as it reduces political tension and regulates political rivalries within those countries. Stability in those countries and the fact that democracies do not fight each other will bring stability to the whole region.

Undoubtedly, democratization is a great threat to the existing political systems in the Middle East because most of them are not able to manage democratization trend in such a way as to ensure survival of the existing regimes. Since most political elites in the region are products of totalitarian conditions, they will not be ready to get along with democratization because they basically have no faith in it. It is clear to them that the first outcome of democratization is for them to step down and give way to political elites who are faithful in democracy through free elections. In fact, there are rare examples among political elites in the Middle East that are qualified enough to stay in power in a democratic process.

Democratization of Arab countries will greatly reduce threats posed to Iran as a result of their militaristic, adventurist and anti-Iranian policies. Therefore, the Islamic Republic of Iran should foster democratization in the Middle East as a means of ensuring its own national security and to protect its national interests. Of course, the most important threat which may arise out of the democratization process in Arab countries is empowerment of fundamentalist Sunni groups who are against Shias and the government of the Islamic Republic. Efforts to prevent empowerment of these groups in Arab countries, which would trigger new conflicts between Shias and Sunnis, on the one hand, and between Iran and those countries, on the other hand, should top the foreign policy agenda of Iran and contacts should be made with other political forces in those countries which oppose fundamentalist groups.

Another challenge to face Iran in the next decade is considerable economic growth in countries which have emerged as new economic powers through a free market economic system and integration into global economy. On the opposite, a centralized economic policy and overreliance on oil revenues in addition to inadequate foreign investment in the Iranian oil sector due to US sanctions against Iranian oil and gas industries is sure to cause economic problems for Iran.

Apart from healthcare in which gaps between men and women have greatly narrowed in the Middle East during the past decades, participation of women in economic activities is not remarkable. Statistics on political activities by women and their presence at high decision-making levels depict a far worse picture compared to their economic status. During the next decade, women in regional countries will seek to get equal rights with men and the dominantly masculine state of economy and politics in the region is sure to change in favor of gender equality.

Growth and development in the Middle East has solely taken place in economic and technological fronts and political elites have largely ignored the necessity of political development. Saudi Arabia is a clear example where state-of-the-art technology is seen in parallel to a medieval political system. The only thing which is modern with such governments is methods of oppression used by them. Most Middle Eastern countries only fare good in terms of per capita income, but lag behind with regard to human development. In these countries, wealth is not translated into improvement in everyday lives of citizens. Elsewhere in the world, countries with the same per capita incomes provide their citizens with better conditions in terms of healthcare or occupational training. In Middle Eastern countries, the political elites claim the lion's share of the national wealth which is credited to their accounts in foreign banks or is spent on purchasing military equipment. Therefore, people in the Middle East are grappling with problems resulting from incorrect decisions made by their leaders.  As the number of educated people increase in the region, maintenance of the status quo becomes more difficult for Middle Eastern regimes. Young leaders are gradually succeeding older ones in the Middle East and this has led to changes in the political situation which are sure to take up more speed in the future. The international community, especially the United States, will certainly seek to find a lasting solution to the longstanding conflict between Arabs and Israel in the next decade. It seems that international community has reached consensus over a two-state solution and establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The Middle East has been so far largely spared from the pressures of globalization, but it is hard to believe that regional states would be able to resist that process in the decade to come.

Generally speaking, the Middle East is in for major changes in the coming decade which will make up for the region's backwardness in keeping pace with global developments. This requires changes in the Islamic Republic of Iran's policies to match future developments in the region.

Endnotes

1. Colbert C. Held, Middle East Patterns, Boulder: Westview Press, 1989, p. 3

2. Beverly Milton-Edwards, Contemporary Politics in the Middle East, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003, p.1

3. John Waterbury, "Democracy without Democrats: The Potential for Political Liberalization in the Middle East," in Ghassan Salame (ed.), Democracy without Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World, London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 1994, p. 25

4. Ghassan Salame, "Introduction: Where Are the Democrats?" in G. Salame (ed.), op. cit., p.1

5. William B. Quant, "The Middle East on the Brink: Prospects for Change in the 21st Century," Middle East Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 9-1

About Iran Review: Iran Review (www.iranreview.org) is the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website - organization representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran's political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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