This week has shown that Arab regimes are tough on dissent, but much less interested in its causes. This will create problems for years to come as these states struggle to recover from the pandemic. Tunisia’s presidential power grab is a test for Joe Biden’s democracy and human rights agenda. War has impoverished ancient centres of Arab civilisation. The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia this week pointed out that poverty now affects 88% of the population in Syria and 83% in Yemen. Even nations once considered wealthy have been brought low by an unhappy meeting of leadership failures and Covid-19. Lebanon’s leaders are begging for foreign assistance after the local currency plummeted in value and the population ran short of food, fuel and medicine.
The Arab world is a varied place. The latest UN survey shows it diverging into wealthy Gulf absolute monarchies; a set of middle-income countries with more people than their oil reserves can comfortably afford; war zones in some of the largest nations such as Iraq; and very poor states. The oil-rich sheikhdoms are pulling ahead and using their financial and military clout to extend their influence, often with disastrous results. The Arab region, says the UN, hosts more than six million refugees and more than 11 million internally displaced persons. There is little coordinated action to deal with the numerous social challenges, including growing poverty, increased unemployment and persistent gender inequalities. Food insecurity has spread. One can be too downcast: the UN hopes for a silver lining in the prospect of peace in Libya.
But there are many more Covid clouds on the horizon. The Arab region has a greater urban population in slums than Latin America and the Caribbean, but fewer hospital beds and half the number of physicians per 10,000 people. Dictatorial regimes have responded to the crisis: in Egypt, cash transfer programmes helped a million people; the United Arab Emirates granted state employees with small children leave with full pay. The UN estimated that Arab states spent $95bn to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, but this was a sliver of the global spending of $19tn in 2020.
Left intact is the economic model reliant on high levels of imports offset by dollars from oil and tourism. This has produced external debt crises and inequalities that populations have rebelled against. Change is needed, but dictatorship is how Arab states ended up in this mess. Governments remain in the grip of an often hereditary elite who question whether democracy is compatible with Islam. Populations will lose trust in preserving institutions when they cannot effect change in the way they are governed. Protesters became so angry last year with their governments that in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria they called for regime change. In 2019, uprisings in Algeria and Sudan ended with their leaders being ousted, bringing the number dislodged by street protests since 2011 to six.
Arab regimes think that they can dispel such threats by further tightening their grip. This only puts off a reckoning. Transitioning peacefully to a different society and economy is not easy. Democracy is needed in the Arab world for good governance and for the checks and balances it brings. It also provides the least worst mechanism for power-sharing in complex plural societies. There is no alternative. The oxymoronic idea of a benevolent dictatorship is not an answer to the Arab world’s problems.