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Trendspotting Future Challenges in the Middle East

Photo of the panel members: Anders Persson, Rola El -Husseini Dean, Mo Hamza, Rouzbeh Parsi, Lina Eklund and Karin Aggestam
Anders Persson, Rola El -Husseini Dean, Mo Hamza, Rouzbeh Parsi, Lina Eklund, Karin Aggestam

The war against terror is coming to an end. Has China become the victor? The Middle East seems to be moving towards more authoritarian regimes. A large influx of migrants and refugees and increasing population growth are likely to affect the region over the coming decades. And what about climate change? Is the Middle East becoming wetter, drier, or both? Watch five Middle East scholars trendspotting future developments in the Middle East.

During the University's "Future Week" CMES organized a panel with five researchers from different disciplines  who provided each ten minutes of trendspotting analysis of the Middle East. 

– Trendspotting is difficult but important because it increases the possibility to address, manage and prevent future problems, said Karin Aggestam, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies.

Watch the panel discussion on Lund University YouTube


What are power structures in the Middle East? What can make governments fall? What trends and patterns do we see today that will impact the future?

Rouzbeh Parsi, historian and Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (Utrikespolitiska institutet), argues that it is a mistake to believe that unpopular authoritarian regimes inevitably will collapse and be followed by a more democratic development. 

– People have a tendency to believe that democracy has an intrinsic value, states Rouzbeh Parsi. People do not want democracy because it is fun to vote, but because they want to achieve something. If a government is unable to rule a country and give its people what they need, then democracy is not too much of use, he argues. The current unfolding events in Tunisia are an example of this:

– In Tunisia, like in many other Middle Eastern countries, unemployment rates are very high while the educational level among the population is increasing. This triggers discontents and revolts, even though Tunisia is the only country that has moved towards democracy in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Rouzbeh Parsi points out two important factors that will inevitably have a large impact on the development in the Middle East:

  1. The population growth is enormous. Today, there are 500 million residents in the region. By 2050, the population is estimated to be 750 million, e.g., an increase by 50%. 
  2. The two major powers in the region - Saudi Arabia and Iran - are dependent on their oil exports and will inevitably have to make significant adaptations in the near future. 

Migration – a dilemma in the Middle East

Mo Hamza, Professor at the Division of Risk Management and Societal Safety at Lund University, conducts research on risk management and vulnerability. At the event, he discussed migration in terms of security in the Middle East. 

According to statistics from 2015, there are 7.1 million Syrian migrants (within and outside Syria), 4.7 million Iraqis, 2.9 million Jordanians, 2.8 million Yemenis and just as many Turkish migrants. The large influx of refugees and migrants affects the security of the region in several different ways. For instance, the ethnic makeup of countries can be disrupted, which may influence the stability in places where there are already ongoing tensions.

– However, it is not possible to isolate a single security issue since they are all interconnected, Mo Hamza argues. Climate change, lack of water, military threats, unemployment, demographic changes and economics - all of these factors interact with each other. 

Demographic changes partly depend on large groups of refugees as well as labor migration primarily to the Gulf states, and partly on changes in the makeup of local populations. 

– The number of young people is increasing rapidly throughout the Middle East, but an even larger increase can be seen in the number of people over the age of 64, Mo Hamza says. This results in significant pressure on the social welfare of the region. 


"States can for sure become uninhabitable due to heat"

An already dry region will become even drier. Sand-storms and fires are expected to become more frequent, as well as downpours. Lina Eklund, geographer at Lund University, conducts research about the environment, migration and conflicts in the Middle East. At the event she spoke about IPCC's latest report on what we can expect in terms of climate in the region. 

– Some areas, such as the Gulf states, may become uninhabitable due to rising temperatures, in particular for older people and poor people who lack the possibilities to protect themselves against the heat, Lina Eklund says.

Water shortages are already a significant problem in the Middle East - in 1970, the water reserves that exist in the region were exceeded.

– There is an expectation that the conflicts of the 21st century will be about water issues, she says.


Authoritarian regimes are becoming stronger and some states are collapsing

Rola El-Husseini Dean, sociologist at Lund University, begins her trendspotting analysis by emphasizing that most predictions about the region are incorrect.

– Nobody predicted the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the advancement of islamism during the 1980s, the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, 9/11 2001 or the Arab Spring in 2011, she states. 

However, it is possible to identify several trends in the Middle East. Rola talked about three such trends:

(1) In Egypt, and perhaps also in Tunisia, we are witnessing more authoritarian regimes. 

– The Egyptian President Al-Sisi has made sure he can continue ruling until 2030 and the country is less free today than it was during Mubarak's reign, Rola El-Husseini Dean argues.

Tunisia was a success story until 2019 when the populist President Kais Saeid was appointed. He has since then, at an alarming rate, procured more power. The appointment of a female Prime Minister in October 2021 is mostly window dressing, according to Rola. 

(2) The civil war in Syria has contributed to continued state power for the authoritarian Assad regime. 

– We might even see his son take up power in the future, Rola El-Husseini Dean points out.

In Libya and Yemen, the civil wars have led to state collapse, so called failed states.

(3) All of the region's eight monarchies have, despite some disturbances, proven to be resilient and have not collapsed as a result of the Arab Spring's revolts.


How has the War on Terror impacted the Middle East?

Political scientist Anders Persson believes we are headed towards the end of the 20-year War on Terror.

– I think we will look back on this period of time as an interim period between two cold wars, he argues. The Cold War between the East and the West, and a forthcoming cold war against China. 

Anders Persson argues that it is impossible to win the War on Terror, but if he has to pick a winner, it is China.

During the twenty years since President George W Bush declared war on global terrorism, new terror organizations have been established and the political and civil rights in the Middle East are still at an all time low according to the independent organization Freedom House. The only exception is Tunisia, a country that has taken a big step in the right direction.


This article has been translated from Swedish to English by Linda Eitrem Holmgren.

Read the article in Swedish here