Ethnic identity, demographic timebombs and global warming are far bigger problems than the ones we hear about, argues HA Hellyer
Why are the region's biggest woes still not getting the attention they so desperately deserve?
On Tuesday, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani declared that Kurds had overwhelmingly voted for independence following a referendum. Meanwhile, scientists are warning that large parts of the Arab world will be too hot to live in by the end of the century, while the average age in Egypt is about 24 and declining. What do all these facts have in common? That the world is moving at an incredibly fast pace, with trends that are tremendous and possibly uncontrollable. All the while, the region appears to be sleepwalking in response, or worse, focusing on absurd and ridiculously minute issues rather than the larger macro-realities that are truly impacting this region.
The forces of ethnically inspired nationalism are not unique to the Middle East – and they are not necessarily the worst of them all, either. After all, the forces of an extreme form of ethno-warfare led to massacres in Rwanda, virulent anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar, a war in the Balkans following the break-up of Yugoslavia and many other examples along those lines.
Yes, the Kurdish vote is troubling. More importantly, it shows a certain kind of unfinished business in the region. Indeed, such is a trend that many in the region haven’t fully accepted and one that continues to be a problem.
The strength of Kurdish nationalism is a narrative in itself, one that dictates that a people of more than 20 million who were promised self-determination ought to have the right to rule over their own affairs. The story is far more complicated than that, but it is an attractive argument nonetheless.
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Meanwhile, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran are concerned about how that will play out, but their concerns are far greater than just the Kurdish question.
The bigger dilemma is how ethnic identity in this region is incorporated into multi-ethnic states or rather, how the failure to do so effectively – or even create a faint perception of that – will ultimately lead to undesirable outcomes. If Kurdistan becomes a political reality, it won't only be Iraq that sees a change, but the region at large.
The baggage of the colonial and post-colonial era is not the only factor to consider. There are others, including the fact that the regional map may look very different in the future. Is the region preparing for that, or at least laying the groundwork to avoid it? Or is it simply, as it appears, sleepwalking towards the inevitable?
The irony is that these are possibly the easier issues to engage with and yet already, they are massive in scope. The harder problems are those that are behemoth in comparison, and they are coming.
For instance, while the demographic challenge in a region where the average age is so young can be seen as an opportunity (particularly given the presence of a declining birth rate in so many parts of the world), it is also a huge challenge to confront.
Egypt, for example, the largest country in the Arab world, has a population approaching 100 million. The vast majority of the population is under the age of 35. As such, managing the needs and requirements of a population with demographics like that, whether in terms of education, jobs or health care, is an immensely difficult task.
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And Egypt is not alone in facing such a challenge. These considerable structural issues affect the region far more generally and yet, they are not attracting nearly as much attention as their urgency merits.
And there are larger issues still, ones that affect many parts of the planet, but definitely with a lot more intensity in this part of the world.
While global warming is a crisis for the world at large, a number of scientists in the past few years have warned that it may very well render large parts of the Arab world uninhabitable within this century. This is not an unimaginable situation. On the contrary, it is entirely plausible.
And yet, while the immediate consequence of global warming may have been felt in this part of the world before it is in others, has the challenge been met by perseverance and resolve in the region’s corridors of power? Or, as seems to be the case, does the focus remain on problems that are, frankly, second-tier issues at best?
This part of the world is in the news all too often for a myriad of woes, ranging from radical violence by both state and non-state actors to abuses at the hands of various forces and disputes between different parties and factions. And it is not that these matters aren't important. It is that they will cease to be of much significance if the very fabric of what we have taken for granted as the region's bedrock is struck at the core. Indeed, far too many risks exist and far too little emphasis has been placed where power and emphasis ought to be focused.
Dr H A Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and the Royal United Services Institute in London
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