If you thought the Middle East has hit rock bottom and may finally emerge intact from a decade of upheaval and conflict, think again.
The economic, political and societal realities in the region are going from dire to horrendous, with no end in sight. They could spiral out of control towards a more violent and chaotic future with unforeseen international ramifications.
The killings may have relatively subsided in some places, for now, but the wounds of war are not healing and are being exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and its associated economic hardship. The greater Middle East is hurting far more than meets the eye.
In 2010, the region was also heading into the abyss, but with little fanfare. Today, the writing is on the wall. If similar but milder situations have led to a violent and destructive decade, today’s apocalyptic dangers could lead to a much worse outcome.
Predicting a hot winter
“This is going to be a hot winter,” I wrote in an internal Al Jazeera memo in November 2010, forecasting the political temperature of the coming season.
“The Middle East’s falling temperatures will do little to cool off what appears to be a hot winter season. As a number of fragile or deadlocked states heighten tensions toward a major crisis, conflict, and possibly terrible violence, it’s paramount that we at Al Jazeera reflect and prepare for various scenarios including the worst – war.”
The list of countries was long, and they shared similar characteristics: deepening division, frustrated populations, compromised sovereignties, instability, and the threat of inter- and intra-national conflict and violence.
The region may have suffered terribly over the previous century, but at no time in recent memory had the Middle East looked so gloomy as in the first decade of the 21st century – its ruling elites so cynical, tensions so high, and impoverishment so widespread.
Within months, popular protests broke almost everywhere, leading to a short “Arab Spring”, which was soon followed by turbulent seasons that brought the region to its knees.
Today, like back then, anger and despair linger on every street corner. At the turn of this decade, just as at the turn of the previous one, the region is facing a global economic crisis. And once again, Middle Eastern nations are suffering not only from the incompetence, repression, and corruption of their regimes but also from foolish and reckless US foreign policy which backs autocrats and provokes instability.
But now, unlike back then, the region hurts from not one but two decades of conflict: civil wars, proxy wars, and imperial wars that have left Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq in tatters.
Indeed, the melancholy of 2010 hardly measures up to the depression and simmering anger of 2020. If the tension in the air was palpable then, you could now cut through it with a knife.
The melange of political corruption, geopolitical paralysis, and economic depression have paved the way for unprecedented brutality and violence.
From bad to worse
If in 2010 the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” was deadlocked, today it is dead, period. The military occupation has deepened, and tensions have risen amid looming Israeli annexation of a third of the occupied Palestinian territories.
The Iranian regime was and remains bombastic, but the tension with its neighbours has only intensified following its military interference in the civil wars of Syria and Yemen – wars that have destroyed much of the two countries, leading to the death and displacement of millions.
And for the past four years, the Trump administration has fuelled tensions in both the Gulf and Near East as it has supported the Israeli expansionist policies and walked away from the Iran nuclear deal while imposing harsh sanctions on the country and its trading partners, which have bankrupted and infuriated its regime.
The violent tit for tat between the two sides could escalate to open conflict, especially if Trump is re-elected in November. One could only imagine the death and destruction another imperial war against a regional power may produce.
The same goes for the destructive Russian intervention and counterproductive European interference in regional affairs.
North Africa and the Sahel region continue to suffer from insurrection, drought, and regional disputes, with the civil war in Libya spiralling out of control amid increased foreign military intervention.
Even those smaller nations once bizarrely referred to as “islands of decency”, like Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan, are facing instability and simmering tensions. Another, the United Arab Emirates, has turned into a “police state” and rather indecent destabiliser, playing a pernicious reactionary role from Libya to Yemen.
Tunisia, which has been considered the only “Arab Spring” success story, is mired in political volatility and economic hardship, while Lebanon and Jordan have struggled with social upheaval and empty coffers.
Dwindling oil prices are hitting and hurting all countries of the region – the energy-producing countries, from Algeria to Iraq through Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states, as well as the poorer countries in the region that depend on remittances. The result is higher unemployment, poorer public services and assured instability.
One of those dependent nations is Egypt. For decades, the most populated Arab nation has been governed by an incompetent authoritarian regime. But today it is ruled by a brutal and inept dictatorship that has imprisoned tens of thousands of political opponents and ordinary people.
Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over power through a military coup d’etat in 2013, promising Egyptian revival, his inept and corrupt regime has only produced paralysis and depression.
The hope in some western capitals that General el-Sisi would take after Chile’s military dictator Augusto Pinochet and – apart from brutal rule – would also achieve some stability and economic growth turned out to be no more than wishful thinking.
Now that his Gulf backers are not able or willing to provide him with additional billions of dollars, humanitarian, economic and political crises will likely ensue.
The same regimes that unleashed a reign of counter-revolution characterised mainly by violence, terror and repression are today doubling down on their brutal rule.
Morally, financially and politically bankrupt, their power is completely and utterly dependent on brute force and foreign support.
Nowhere is that as obvious as in the Iranian-Russian support for the bloody Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Saudi-Emirati support for the el-Sisi regime, US support for the extremist Israeli regime, and Emirati-Egyptian support for the warlord Khalifa Hafter in Libya and Emirati support for the separatist stooges in Yemen.
The situation has been so dire for so long throughout the region, nothing short of divine intervention would be needed to undo the damage of the past decades. Not even a miraculous fall of repressive dictatorships and the retreat of their international backers would be sufficient to resurrect Arab countries in the years, nay decades, to come.
It is only the people of the region who are able to pull away from the brink. In the past two decades, they have shown they are capable of the most peaceful, most enlightened revolt but also of the darkest, most violent insurrection.
How they choose to go about changing their unbearable reality will go a long way in shaping their future.
An earlier version of this paper was published by Al Jazeera on August 3, 2020.