First Tunisia, then Egypt, and on to Jordan and Yemen. Ought we to have been surprised by recent events in North Africa and the Middle East? No! Despite the timing of the revolutions now under way, I don’t think that we ought to be surprised at all. Some futurists have been pointing to the fragile nature of this region for some years. In his book “High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years To Solve Them” (published in 2003), J F Rischard warned us of the potentially volatile and toxic mix of a growing cohort of young men in North Africa and the Middle East, who are impoverished (yet live on the fringe of unimaginable wealth), unemployed (who see their corrupt elders lining their own pockets), and bored.
At a seminar at the World Future Society conference in Chicago in 2009, as a demonstration of the International Futures computer simulation model, Professor Jay Gary and Dr Tom Ferleman showed us that a combination of economic and demographic trends, in conjunction with a number of social and political trends, were leading to the possibility of a significant event in North Africa and the Middle East in this decade. For a reasonably sustained period, the warning bells have been ringing and those investors and businesses that have been tuned into this potential hotspot are now able to deploy their contingency plans.
It is easy, one might object, to be wise after the event. The important factor now is to consider what might happen next – to look to the future rather than to the past. To my mind, the most significant future factor is that the ‘youth bulge’ in North Africa and the Middle East has yet to peak. Over the course of this decade, even more unemployed, impoverished, and bored young men will reach the age when they might be pre-disposed to action in changing their world. If this cohort can be fulfilled, then the prospect of the future (growth, employment, and prosperity) is very bright. If, on the other hand, nothing changes, then the prospect is quite dim.
The question with which we should be concerned is how we move from the default setting (unemployed, impoverished, and angry young men) to a better setting – both for the young men and for us. It seems obvious that such a transition is unlikely to occur without a great deal of external assistance. A consideration of the origins of that assistance is quite instructive. Let us first consider the two Asian superpower wannabes – China and India. North Africa and the Middle East is important to both China and India, not only as a source area for oil and gas, but also as part of a key trade route between their home markets and Europe. This importance to China is underlined by the region seeing the only area of naval deployment outside of the Pacific Ocean (combatting Somali pirates on the trade route). India also sees the western Indian Ocean as part of its vital national interest and has deployed its navy accordingly. The Arab world is important to both China and India, and yet both are unable to influence events there. This suggests that if this is the ‘Asian Century’, then it still has a very long way to go before it becomes apparent.
Russia remains a significant force in the world, but, once again, seems unable to influence events in North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps this reflects a scaling back of Russian geopolitical ambition? Perhaps it reflects an inability to project influence in the Middle East? Either way, Russia now seems less of the force that it once was during the Cold War. This naturally leads on to a consideration of the other contestant in the Cold War – the United States. America is still suffering from the legacy of the Bush years (perceived as anti-Muslim, pro-Israel). The current President has done little to allay that view and may come to rue his disregard of the Middle East. Whilst the US may have sufficient hardware to guarantee the peace of the Middle East, it does not really have the trust of many in the Arab world. It will continue to suffer from this lack of trust until its support of Israel is less uncritical.
We could almost stylise the situation as America having the hardware to guarantee a solution, but not the software to do so. The vital software could be provided by the European Union. There are key post-colonial cultural links between North Africa and some of the EU member states. Europe has started to spread its influence southwards in recent years and may be tempted to accelerate the pace of this trend. North Africa has a ready source of young people that Europe needs, whilst Europe has an abundance of opportunities that would go some way to absorb the energies of the young people in North Africa. There is the potential for a very agreeable relationship here. Indeed, one could argue that if European jobs don’t go to North Africa, then North African workers – either legally or illegally – will come to Europe.
For this to happen, prosperity and the chance of self-actualisation that democracy promises needs to spread across the Mediterranean. There is an opportunity for the UK and France (the two primary former colonial powers) to take the lead here, followed by Spain and Italy (two secondary former colonial powers). Backed by the EU, underwritten by the US, the Youth Bulge could become quite a positive feature. If not, then we open ourselves to the spread of fundamentalism and radicalism that would be harmful to western interests.
By happy coincidence, France is now due to chair the G20. Let us hope that their tenure is used wisely!
© The European Futures Observatory 2011