This article is part of the Futures Forecasting series. We’ve asked experts to identify crucial trends – from a shortlist of categories – that will influence national security out to 2035 and how those trends might intersect in a future scenario.

In this article, which explores the future of governance, Dr Raihan Ismail concludes that whilst the regions authoritarian leaders are likely to use COVID-19 as cover for increased control, environmental impacts are likely to cause greater longterm social instability across the region.

Key trends

1Authoritarianism: The COVID-19 pandemic will offer authoritarian states the potential to increase their control of populations

The Arab spring uprisings that began in late 2010 gave rise to aspirations for a more democratic Middle East. However, apart from Tunisia’s relative success in securing the gains made during the revolution, other parts of the region have witnessed conflict, civil wars and the revival or entrenchment of authoritarian regimes. The military takeover in Egypt after a short-lived democratic government, and a more autocratic Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his son Muhammad bin Salman, signify the shifting of tides in favour of illiberal governance in the region.

The revival of authoritarianism in the Middle East has been assisted by a number of regimes, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, to name a few, banding together in an anti-democratic quasi alliance. The group, led by Saudi Arabia, collectively punishes countries that do not conform to their efforts to combat dissenting voices. The main victim of this punishment has been Qatar, subject to economic blockades for sympathising with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and allowing its news channel, Al-Jazeera to report freely on the protest movements in the region.

Technological developments were first used to the advantage of protesters and reformists, utilising social media to mobilise, but have more recently become tools for state repression. From social media surveillance to hacking activists’ phones, authoritarian regimes have attempted to control public spaces both in the physical and digital realms.

The COVID-19 threat is giving greater ammunition for repression. In Iraq and Algeria, social restrictions have forced many protesters to retreat.  A number of autocratic governments have imposed responsible measures to control the spread of the virus but which also present an opportunity to limit protest movements. It is likely that regional autocratic states will not be able to resist the temptation to use the pandemic response as a way to institute greater control and marginalise opposition even further.

2Environment: Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change will be put at risk as Middle Eastern states focus on keeping populations healthy during a pandemic

The lived experience in Middle East has been affected by environmental challenges caused by demographic and social change, conflict, water scarcity, urbanisation, poor management, and climate change.

Water scarcity is affecting many parts of the region including Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and the UAE, leading to poor agricultural output, weaker food security and reduced economic capacity. It has also contributed to geopolitical tensions. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance dam has led to observers fearing the possibility of a military confrontation. The Egyptian government believes that the upstream dam’s operations will contribute to increased water stress for the nation. Some countries in the region suffering similar shortages, including Israel, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have invested in water desalination technology. However, this technology is expensive and not affordable for all Middle Eastern societies.

Recent military conflicts have also caused greater environmental degradation in countries such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, where systems and infrastructure has been damaged, cutting access to clean water or the water sources available have been polluted by the ordinance used by militaries and the remnants of damaged targets.

The Middle East is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels, more frequent and severe desert storms, flooding, and unprecedented extreme heat are factors that most governments of the Middle East will have to manage. Many countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, have shown commitment to addressing climate change challenges, including by promoting economic diversification away from fossil fuels, investment in renewable energy, and improving agricultural practices and water‑management efficiency, but in many cases tangible results are yet to be seen.

Human existence in the Middle East is especially vulnerable to environmental change. Even whilst countries are endeavouring to mitigate the impact of climate change, shorter-term crises such as conflict and global pandemics seem likely to continue to force these efforts lower in priority for regional governments. The impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are likely to be experienced with increasing severity by Middle Eastern society.

2035 future forecast

Whilst the region’s authoritarian leaders are likely to use COVID-19 as cover for increased control, environmental impacts are likely to cause greater longterm social instability across the region.

Increasing authoritarianism will likely lead to greater political instability in the region. So long as governments engage only limited efforts to address underlying grievances by combatting corruption, inequality, economic hardship and the erosion of individual and collective liberties, the region will likely continue to see political instability. Pockets of protests challenging regimes will not abate. So far, the reaction of regimes to protest movements in the region has tended to be to pursue even more authoritarian measures. Countries with large populations and poor economic performance, as well as crumbling social services, will be more vulnerable to continued instability. Smaller resource-rich countries, especially the UAE and Qatar, are more likely to maintain their stability.

Increasing authoritarianism will likely lead to greater resilience among activists in the region. The opportunity that the COVID-19 pandemic has offered authoritarian regimes to increase their domestic control is likely to cause dissidents to become more creative in their forms of rebellion. Activists will continue to use digital platforms to highlight human rights abuses, corruption and repression. Iraqi protesters, for example, who had been taking to the streets against repression have utilised virtual protests during the COVID-19 outbreak to maintain momentum. The network of activists in the Middle East transcends national boundaries. In-country activists share information with exiled dissidents through cryptic social media messaging for broadcast to the world. As technology evolves, authoritarian governments will increasingly attempt to control and monitor their citizens, while activists will increase ingenuity and cooperation to circumvent state surveillance.    

Increasing environmental challenges in the region, if unaddressed, will likely cause further irreversible environmental degradation. In the short term, the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 will likely further prevent countries in the region from addressing the structural inequalities that have contributed to the ongoing grievances in the region. Attempts to mitigate the impact of climate change are likely to be substituted with efforts to cope with the consequences of the pandemic. By 2035 the effects of climate change will likely displace larger swathes of the Middle East’s population, resulting in increased poverty within the region. The effects of unmitigated climate change will likely cascade into greater instability and conflict wit in the Middle East at greater levels than experienced in the recent past.

What would this mean for Australia?

Threats to the international order and of extremism radiating outward will continue to draw Australia into the region, at least diplomatically and economically, if not militarily. Broader cooperation with regional partners will likely continue in order to counter challenges to shared interests and security.

Australian exports of live animals, agricultural products and food will likely be increased as the Middle East struggles with the impacts of environmental challenges and becomes more reliant upon imports for food security. Australia’s reputation for economic and political stability, which should survive better than most through the COVID-19 crisis, could become an opportunity for the higher education sector, which has tended to lose out to the United States and the United Kingdom in attracting students from the Arab world.

Raihan Ismail

Senior Lecturer
Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, ANU

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