The renovation processes in the Middle East and North Africa in the 21 century
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The renovation processes in the Middle East and North Africa in the 21 century
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Aleksandr A. Tkachenko 
Occupation: Head, Centre for North African and African Horn Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Affiliation: Institute for African Studies
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Konstantin Tkachenko
Occupation: Научный сотрудник, Институт Африки РАН
Affiliation: Институт Африки РАН
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow

The article shows renovation/modernization processes that were started in the last quarter of the XX century in the Middle East and North Africa. Those renovation/modernization processes impacted nearly every of 23 countries of the region, but the impact varied in time and forms/depth. The effects of the processes were different, though there were a number of reasons for the transformation/renovation shifts, which in a way could be considered common for a big group of quite different countries.

One of the most striking features of this phenomenon, named differently in countless articles and monographs, devoted to this country, regional and global sociopolitical event – a mass protest movement, an uprising, a turmoil (fitna), revolutions, upheaval, civil wars, the Arab Spring – has become a wide range of assessments made by experts and politicians [1]. This range included both bashing and blasting, and a Nobel prize awarded to a group of credible public organizations of Tunisia – the birthplace of the Arab Spring (to the General confederation of Tunisian trade unions, Tunisian manufacturing, Trade and crafts confederation, Tunisian league for human rights and Tunisian lawyer union) – the initiator and active participant in reconciliation talks.

This article is devoted mainly to an attempt to determine the near future and the more distant perspective of the Southern Mediterranean and the Arab Peninsular countries in the light of more or less established assessments of reasons and consequences of political turmoil in the region at the end of 2000s – early 2010s, and the lessons learned from the Arab Spring. This may be done with regard to a wide range of factors affecting development of the Arab states "from within" (country-specific circumstances of development, cultural and civilization processes) and "from outside" (regional and global factors), particularly to globalization and progressively evolving uncertainty in international relations at the second decade of XXI century.

Middle East, North Africa, modernization, Arab Spring, civilization processes, globalization, Islam, world economy, ecology, conflicts, international safety
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2 Geopolitical and geo-economics parameters/ features of the object of the study – the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries predetermine significant differences in the nature and dynamics of renovation/transformation and development of selected states. This is due to significant differences in historical-cultural development, ethnic and confessional composition within a large group of countries, and their population with undoubted dominant professing Islam (though not the solid Islam but Islam divided/composed into/of the two conflicting and mutually hostile branches – Sunni and Shia).
3 This group includes 23 states that differ in natural and geographic environment and have a rich historic background with its particular case in each/every country. Today there exists a rather mixed picture of positions that selected countries of the region hold in the “world ranking” of the level and dynamics of economic development, quality of human capital, scale of poverty, investment climate, framework conditions for investment, and other indicators/elements. All of this directly affects implementation of renovation/modernization concept – the key mega trend of social development of the region in recent decades.
4 An important place in forming the ideas about renovation processes is held by the key macroeconomic indicators, among which are the level and dynamics of annual income per capita, dynamics of labor productivity, changes in investment climate and volume of foreign investment, etc. In 2019 the per capita income in the least developed countries – Mauritania, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti, varied between $2,000-4,000; in the slightly more developed countries – Syria (prior to the civil war), Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq (present) this figure was closer to $5,000-12,000. The per capita income in the even more developed states – Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, was $12,000-15,000, in the richest states – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, it was significantly higher – $50,000-130,000 [2]. A sharp contrast!
5 The other differences in the social sphere are no less significant. In the capital-rich Gulf countries important elements and institutions of social protection common for the highly developed industrial states, have become a reality: full education, medical services, modern urban services etc., affordable for practically the majority of social strata or even the whole population. But even in these rich countries some social problems are still not gone for good.
6 Table 1. Unemployment rate in selected Middle East and North African countries in the 2010s, %

8 Source: [4].
9 Moreover, some of these problems are new to these countries and can only be solved within the framework of ongoing social renovation and social reforming. This applies to unemployment in particular. In Saudi Arabia where the per capita income is the same or higher than in Europe, the unemployment rate is estimated between 6-14% and more per cent of economically active population [3]. In Libya (prior to the political turmoil of 2011 and the fall of Qaddafi regime) this figure accounted to 30% of the population (see Table 1).
10 Another growing problem is social inequality that has sharply increased after the first revolution of world oil prices in 1973-1974. Only this time the inequality has a new form: at the regional level – between 5-6 Gulf states and more than a dozen other Arab countries of the Middle East, at the country level – between a small per cent of the rich and superrich and 20-40% of the population relating to the “social bottom”. Finally, no less urgent is the situation of millions of migrants (around 1/3 of the population of selected Gulf states are migrants) which leaves much to be desired [5].
11 The social inequality in the Arab states and on a larger scale – in the Islamic world, is particularly acute and painful, many times giving rise to a social outburst in the form of mass protest movement. That said, there exists no coherent picture of the social inequality either in the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council – the most prosperous group of Arab countries, or in any other groups.


13 Although implementation of social and economic reforms and renovations became headliner of social and political life almost in the whole region at the dawn of XXI century (except for deeply marginalized countries – Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen), the social picture of certain countries remains quite mixed.
14 At the same time, in a large group of countries of the region, during the past decades of slow renovations or time marking, there appeared consistently problematic areas, for which either no solutions are seen at the moment or they exist but will be implemented only in the long distant future. In this context one should mention in particular three problems: firstly, the long-term unemployment rate (ca. 15-20-30%, which is much higher with the youth – 40-50%), secondly, a huge and herewith growing social inequality and thirdly, disparities of political power [6].
15 Ironically, all 4 groups of the above mentioned countries are at the moment much more alike politically, than socially and economically, which is very telling. Disparities in the long-established, historically inherited political model that remains hard, inflexible, non-renovating or slowly renovating even after the Arab Spring, are common for the 3 groups of countries with modest or low income per capita. However, in Tunisia and in some Gulf states the choice is made for gradually renovation/ modernization, including some renovation steps of the established political models. Essentially, both the speed and nature of these renovations are countryspecific [7].
16 This process resembles what was happening in South-East Asia in the second half of the XX century: renovation here started in the relatively tight space – South Korea and Hong Kong but gradually spread to the whole region, where the archaic way of life strongly opposed to any renovation, and succumbed to it only decades later.


18 Since the mid-XX century, especially under influence of accelerating scientific progress in the world economy, from which a considerable number of MENA countries were able to benefit, and also under influence of changing formations – historical phases in the centers and partially on the margins, under the influence of globalization processes, the difference between the MENA countries has increased significantly.
19 Consequently, the models of development have also differed. In several countries that are now at a crossroads – Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia stagnant or regressive trends have emerged, and at the moment it is hard to say how and when the tide can be turned.
20 Besides, though among the national development goals, one can find a lot in common (mostly pork barrels), the instruments to achieve these goals, despite having minor similarities, are distinctly different, in particular the instruments used by capital-rich Gulf states and by poor countries.
21 It’s a stretch to say there are any monumental historic bonds that undoubtedly play the key role in global renovation processes. This is hard proved by historic experiences of South-East Asia, China, Japan and other developed states.
22 Today the role of historic bonds in social, political and economic processes of the Arab world in the XXI century remains under-examined. How strong are these bonds and how do they compare with the key trends of world development in the light of the Arab Spring – in the center of civilization and on the margins, and how strong are they in the MENA countries in the light of centripetal and centrifugal trends? On top of that, perhaps the region is a unique mix of both positive and negative/conservative bonds, and that shows in a number of ways – in rigid authoritarian model/system of power, in immensely strong impulses to overcome this system, in the forming of remodeled authoritarianism, and in the influence of diverse Islam.
23 It is essential to give quality characteristics of how the economic, social and political renovation affect the processes happening with various speed in the vast MENA region. Turkey is particularly interesting in this regard, since it belongs to two “worlds” at once – mostly to the world of Islam but also to Europe. The experience of Turkey contains answers to many questions about renovations in the Arab-African region, it shows that renovation is appealing to the general population. It is clearly reflected in elections of various levels – municipal, parliamentary, presidential, both in Turkey and some other MENA countries: the voter turnout is consistently high reaching 65-85% [8].
24 One of the crucial components – if not the key one – of evaluation of renovation processes under social transition is the definition of political, social and economic transformation vectors in the Arab states. These vectors were formed in 2000s under influence of confrontation/dispute between archaic and renovation, secular and religious, traditional and modern.
25 Changes in each of the Arab states since the beginning of reforms in the last third of the XX century have followed the old templates in one way, but were quite diverse in the other. For the past 30–40 years in the region, it has been common to see a combination of false start in implementation of political and social reforms, and moderate economic liberalization. One should note that the more conservative – compared to North Africa, Gulf regimes have been more active at renovating the political landscape (excluding sometimes the top of political power).
26 However, this is more a “catching-up” activity: the policies regarding women’s participation in social, political and economic life have become more liberal, personal freedoms have somewhat increased, but certain deeply medieval features and traditions have maintained. On the whole, for the past 50 years the shifts have been limited (but anyone could say that this is just the beginning).
27 Renovation processes of the last third of the XX – first decade of the XXI century can be generally characterized as faltering [9]. That is why the political turmoil – the Arab Spring, did not come as a surprise The scale and depth of these turmoil however, exceeded all expectations: growing of sociopolitical problems due to, among others, the degradation of authoritarian power/ruling and demographic factor, the systemic nature of the authoritarian crisis were due to globalization, formation of single information space, etc. The role of a leader, head of regime, the tribal aspect (or its absence), the nature of interfaith relations, the presence or absence of reliable social and political buffers, as well as other characteristics of historic development, defined the specifics and depth of the crisis in each one of the countries affected by the Arab Spring.
28 Apart from differences in social and economic development, the authorities, the authoritarian political models were also peculiar. Independent Algeria had mostly existed as a one-party, military rule – until the early 1990s the country was de-facto governed by army/military and security forces. Libya had never had either a multi-party system or parliamentarianism. In Morocco the political model that was formed in independence, can be defined as constitutional parliament monarchy where the monarch both reigns and rules. The royal court (makhzen) also plays a prominent and somewhat defining role. There are some similar features of political power in Gulf Arab states.
29 Egypt, prior to the 1952 July revolution, had for a long time had a multi-party system, a multi-party parliament – People’s Assembly but with limited power/functions. In Tunisia, the country that used to be seen as a showcase of “Destour socialism”, and the most developed one both economically and socially, the president-parliament republic had nonetheless been turning into a rigid authoritarian regime, with signs of absolutism, over time. These signs showed themselves in the trend of the latest period towards inherited power.
30 One could not deny that there used to exist democratic elements (modern and/or traditional) in political systems of all the countries, but their role was always limited if not figurehead. The political life was dominated by the head of state, who concentrated (as usual) unlimited power.
31 As a result of the system crisis that led to the “Great Arab revolution”, a number of regimes fell, in some of them a bloody civil war broke out.
32 Since the end of 2010 – early 2011, a new vector of political development has formed in the Middle East and North Africa, this vector is evolving mostly (but not entirely) under influence of a struggle between two trends. The first, and the dominating one, is the trend of maintaining the real power in the hands of a relatively small group, mainly or partially represented by army/military and security forces and entourage of the head of state, while pursuing figurehead or proto-democratic reforms. This vector of political evolution can somewhat be defined as a “corrected”, transforming and tendentiously renovating rigid authoritarian model. This model is much the same as the older one, but altered with account of the lessons learned from the Arab Spring, and containing a germ of renovation.
33 The other (limited) trend is forming of a basis for Eurocentric democracy (separation of functions between the three relatively independent power branches, the truly multi-party parliament, significant role of NGOs, free relatively independent mass media, constitutionally limited political role of the army, etc.) with national historic specifics and traditions (significant role of Islamic spectrum of politics). This trend has emerged and exists as a result of the Arab Spring, as a trend towards formation of grounds, structures and institutions of civil society, all of which might become embedded in renovating power with a differing balance between its parliament and president branches. The specifics of the second emerging model is a much broader participation of the allegedly moderate Islamic political forces representing the balance of the Islamic and secular specters, in political life.
34 Large-scale political turmoil, civil wars have brought high tension into interstate relations in both regions of the Arab world – Maghreb and Mashreq, and led to new conflicts including the armed ones. That said, the process of dissolution of the “old” and formation of “new”/morden states is not and in some/majority cases far from complete. Contradictions between the key players on the global arena have intensified. The tensions in international relations, caused by the never fully eliminated consequences of the Cold War, have increased in the recent years. All of this cannot but affect the political processes, transformation and evolution of power relations and structures.


36 Blurred forms of the Egyptian, Libyan, Tunisian, as well as of the Turkish and Iranian models of political development, are also possible [10]. Which country of the region will follow any of the above mentioned paths, is a topic for another day. A symbiosis, e.g. a mix of Iranian and Turkish model, is also probable, and that as a matter of fact, happened in the recent history of Iran under the ayatollah Rafsanjani and President Khatami, when the moderate Islamic political forces came to power.
37 Each model has naturally different perspectives. The interims, transitional options are difficult to discern. These perspectives or, in other words, viability of a model will, just like they did before, much define the outcomes of economic development. The rigid authoritarian model is not capable/viable of, or as the revolutionary turmoils have shown, does not have a potential enough to provide (the most) favorable conditions for a stable national development, for a long perspective. However, ideal (or close to ideal) circumstances necessary to secure a democratic trend (along other trends including renovating traditional institutions and structures of democracy such as “shura”, “divania”, etc.), are still not in place – this is an opinion of many experts, though an debatable one [11].
38 Table 2

40 Source: [2].
41 Macroeconomic indicators of the Middle East and North Africa, 2014-2016
42 It is possible that as a transitional model, the rigid but “highly educated and cultured” authoritarian power that has existed historically in a number of South-East Asia and several other regions (some of them with majority of Muslim population), has the best chances for success. This model however, was also a recipe for disastrous results in the past – due to weak structures of authoritarianism and weak bonds.
43 The range of emerging and developing/ transforming political power models in the region containing more than twenty states with hundreds of tribes, clans and unions, is very wide. The measure of success of a forming model, its ability to respond to realities, can be a choice between archaic and modern, renovating (evaluated by level and dynamics of such indicators as GDP growth, income per capita (see table 2), as well as by participation of women in social and economic activity, unemployment, Human Development Index, share of industry in GDP and export, labor productivity, share of education and medicine expenditure in GDP, etc.).
44 The region is therefore at a crossroads, and the range of opinions and estimates regarding the near or medium future of the countries among the experts, is broad [11, pp. 8-24, 28-29, 97-117; 12].
45 The outcomes of development in the region of the last 30-40 years, the collapse of several regimes, and the Arab Spring, have stronger than before drawn attention to the necessity of reforms, but effective and gradual and not imitative, reforms. The situation at the end of the second decade of current century has beсome significantly more complicated, and now it is more obvious than at the turn of the century, that a combined approach towards political, economic and social reforms has no alternatives. This makes things more difficult for politicians as they need to overcome the conditions that have led to the turmoil, to achieve the intermediate results of changes introduced, which would be convincing to constituencies.
46 Such results/targets in political sphere are a constitutional reform, an electoral reform, actual (wider) independence of all power branches – representative (eliminating rubber-stamping, let alone de-facto single-party parliaments), judicial, executive, a (wider) independence of mass media, actual and not imitative, support of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other institutions and structures of civil society. Implementation of such a program will undoubtedly demand a lot of time and resources – intellectual, moral/ethical, material, financial. Extensive external assistance will also be a must.
47 Desired social reforms suggest a set of measures to cushion social contrasts, reduction of unemployment, development of efficient, internationally recognized mechanisms of fighting total corruption etc.
48 The economic sector requires advancing the creation of a solid foundation for self-developing market economy and development of socially responsible state, through relevant programs. Among these programs, the key one is a support of small and medium-sized enterprises that can solve a number of critical issues, above all the massive youth unemployment, and most importantly, become the basis for a gradual development of elements and structures of civil society.
49 The speed and depth of the ongoing reforms, and methods of their implementation, are the most important actively discussed aspects of the reform course. And here each country can only follow their own “reform map” with the exceptional importance of the often forgotten but absolutely necessary component of the reforms – the art/skills of politics. This raises some serious questions – about the nature of political culture of political elites, about the democracy tradition, its entrenchment or an absence of such, the role and positive influence of external factors and their ties to globalization and development of single/unit information space, with international law, etc.

* * *

51 Summarizing the review of the Arab Spring legacy, it should be stressed the following: the issue of power model and its change, is not in the choice between the leftist (partially populist) ideas, and the right-wing, the liberal or liberal-democratic ones, but is the choice between the modern and the archaic order in each country, including domestic economy and society. In an attempt to give a brief explanation to the political turmoil that have happened, one can suggest several names – unrest, mutiny (fitnain Arabian language), mass protest, upheaval, revolution.
52 It seems that each one of these definitions is entitled to exist, each one has its own facts and reasons behind it, but the last one – revolution, likely gives the most accurate (but not absolute) depiction of what is happening in the region with its negative and positive trends and rezults. Indeed, if the announced reforms of the electoral and constitutional law, economic, social and political renovations, are implemented, they will cause such drastic changes in the Arab society, that this could legitimately be called a revolution. Whether the Arab Spring brings the long expected benefits, is however a big question – the toll of the prolonged systemic crisis in the countries of the region after decades of the rigid authoritarian regimes, is too heavy [10].
53 Ideally, a successful implementation (an actual one, and not on paper alone) of the announced reforms, above all of electoral and constitutional system, which could lead to election of new, legitimate authorities, gives hope that authorities will regain the confidence of the masses/society, that the political regime can be legitimized, the mood on the streets eventually changed and, in a distant perspective, the long overdue economic, social and political renovations carried out.
54 And yet, the problems revealed by the Arab Spring, are so deep and large-scale that one should not expect a quick fix. This increases concerns widespread in scientific and expert community, about a possible next wave of protest movements with unpredictable consequences, especially since many countries lack reliable social and political buffers. Without such buffers it is difficult or (in several countries where the systemic crisis is especially deep) impossible to prevent social disintegration or even erosion of the state [13].
55 That said, new problems in the region become more obvious. The countries, including the relatively prosperous ones that have surplus capital, are facing an increasingly acute challenge of “technologies of the XXI century”. These technologies would first of all combine the incompatible – labor-intensive solutions that would prevent the mounting unemployment (most notably the qualified youth unemployment), with the modern high-efficiency processes that would maintain both the economic growth and the renovations, which is crucially important especially for the countries that run behind the innovations, stuck in the second half of the XX century.
56 Also acute (and worsening), though countryspecific, is the dilemma of combining the “green” technologies with the high-tech that provides economy renovation/modernization.
57 For the majority of the countries in the region, the North African ones in particular, the task of scalingup foreign investment, has become significantly more relevant. Foreign investors are well known for bringing in not only the needed financial resources, but also the crucial management experience, modern technologies, that are becoming more and more diverse and affordable.
58 The unique quality of investments from developed countries is that they introduce and implant the modern business ethics. Any successful renovation carried out without this “toolkit”, is hardly possible. In the meantime, while the foreign investment stock in Saudi Arabia (over $258 bln), United Arab Emirates ($132,5 bln) and Qatar ($35 bln), is quite significant, it is not that big in Algeria or Iraq, and is small in Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Mauritania, let alone Somalia and Eritrea. Furthermore, even in these countries largely bypassed by foreign investments, one can spot a slowly growing trend of inflows, that are crucially important for renovation of domestic economy. This trend was especially pronounced in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia during the certain periods of 2000s.
59 Nevertheless, one should not idolize the role of foreign investment as they are accompanied by some negative phenomena (increasing dependence on occasional self-interest of counterparts – major corporations, high price of erroneous decisions of a local authority/host Party, etc.). That said, positive effects from such investments often become perceptible with a significant time lap.
60 Finally, turning to the most important macroeconomic indicator – the GDP growth rate, the picture is the following:
  • the countries torn by civil wars (Libya, Syria, Yemen and others) are experiencing a decline in GDP;
  • a large group of countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan, Lebanon and some others including several Gulf states) are experiencing limited GDP growth of 1-3%;
  • the capital-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan are experiencing uneven and, notably, modest growth rates [2].
61 This says a lot about the nature of (the beginning of) renovations: the course is not quite stable or highly effective yet. Economic renovation, the signs of which are indisputable, even in the relatively welfare countries of the region, cannot be viewed in short and medium perspective as a solid guarantee of renovations/modernization in social and political life. This in turn weakens the general course of renovation of the Arab part of margins and submargins.
62 Meanwhile, issues unresolved in due time, cause more and (often as usual) growing problems. Whereas, in the past, one could confine to renovations in the economic area, it is currently necessary to carry out comprehensive reforms hoping to catch up and get synergic effects. This greatly increases political risks, with all that it implies.


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