Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 July 2019

True cost of Arab Spring is still unclear

A new report puts a financial figure on the uprisings, but there is much else to consider
A female protester pleads with soldiers to allow her through the razor wire barricade outside the Tunisian prime minister's office on January 24, 2011 in Tunis. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
A female protester pleads with soldiers to allow her through the razor wire barricade outside the Tunisian prime minister's office on January 24, 2011 in Tunis. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

When a young Tunisian set himself on fire in protest almost six years ago, he began a series of revolts that swept across the Middle East and North Africa. Historians will argue when the Arab Spring ended or whether it is still ongoing, but what is certain is that the consequences of the uprisings in five Arab countries are still being felt.

No country in the Middle East, and indeed few across the world, has been unaffected. Some countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, have suffered the effects of a mass movement of refugees from Syria. Others, such as Saudi Arabia, have seen the consequences of lawlessness in countries on their borders.

Now a United Nations agency has tallied the financial costs of the uprisings and concluded that the four years from 2011 to 2015 caused a net loss of approximately $614 billion (Dh2.3tn) in economic activity across the region. The actual loss will be even greater, taking into consideration the continued effect of the wars and instability throughout 2016.

That is a vast sum, equivalent to 6 per cent of the region’s GDP, and it must be understood in terms of its effects on the people of the region. There are millions of Arabs across the Middle East who have had their education and health affected, their businesses curtailed and their chances to work, travel, study and provide for their families reduced.

Yet the harder part to assess is the question of what could have been. Because, beyond the financial cost, the Arab Spring also exacted a toll on the political and social possibilities of the Middle East. One of the positive aspects of the uprisings was the way they unleashed a wave of new ideas and new ways of thinking about the organisation of society, gender roles, the role of the state and the military, and the very future of the region.

That the Arab Spring in at least three countries – Yemen, Syria and Libya – has taken a dark turn has meant that most of these questions have been pushed to the background, in favour of survival. The energy that was unleashed has been rerouted into simply dealing with the vast consequences of the uprisings.

Yet there is still a better future ahead for all five of the Arab Spring countries. It will not be easy and it will take much political effort inside those countries and assistance from neighbours and allies, but it is both possible and achievable.

Updated: November 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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