The real crisis in the Middle East

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A Syrian refugee girl plays outside her home at a tent camp on the outskirts of Izmir on April 27, 2016 in Izmir, Turkey. For many Syrian refugees, living in Turkey has become their only option. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Poison gas. ISIS. Terrorism. The Arab Middle East has experienced more than its share of attention-grabbing horrors. But the 24-hour news cycle, with its focus on the here and now, obscures the greatest problem the region faces: the threat to human security.

The United Nations Development Programme defines human security as “the liberation of human beings from those intense, extensive, prolonged and comprehensive threats to which their lives and freedom are vulnerable.”


At present, human security indicators for the Arab world are trending in an alarming direction. Here is a list of the half-dozen greatest threats:

  1. Violence and bad governance: As the Arab uprisings of 2010-11 demonstrate, violence and bad governance are no strangers to the region, and they feed off each other. According to The Economist’s “Democracy Index 2016,” there is not a single full democracy in the Middle East. The highest ranked Arab state is Tunisia, 69 out of 167 countries surveyed. Among the 22 members of the Arab League, The Economist labels 16 as authoritarian. Misrule was one of the two most important complaints lodged by protesters during the Arab uprisings. The other was poor economic conditions. As of 2014, 28 percent of Iraqis, 33 percent of Libyans, 38 percent of Gazans, 54 percent of Yemenis and more than 85 percent of Syrians lived in poverty.
  2. Population growth: As of 2015, there were approximately 392 million people living in the Arab world — more than twice as many living there in 1980. The dramatic increase has strained available resources and state capacities, particularly when it comes to providing healthcare and education. Population growth has diminished the region’s most valuable resource: water. Increases in population have led to overgrazing, unregulated land use and soil exhaustion. And water resources are getting scarcer. In 1955 three Arab states were below the water poverty line; that is, people living in those countries had fewer than 50 liters of water a day—the bare necessity—for drinking, personal hygiene, bathing and laundry needs. By 1990 there were 11. By 2025, it has been predicted there will be 18 — out of 22 states in the region.
  3. Economic stagnation: Besides oil, the Arab Middle East has little to export. The region was less industrialized at the beginning of this century than it was in 1970. What are the reasons for the Arab world’s economic malaise? Certainly violence and state breakdown have contributed. So has the low price of oil. But there are more fundamental reasons, such as the poor state of higher education. Of the top 300 universities in the world, only one — Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia — is in the Arab world.
  4. Subordination of women: Every year, the World Economic Forum publishes its Gender Gap Report which ranks countries based upon such variables as women’s participation in the workforce, literacy, health and inheritance rights. According to the 2016 report, the Arab world is the worst region on earth to be a woman. The highest-ranking Arab country on its list was Qatar, which ranked 119 out of the 144 countries surveyed. Yemen came in dead last. The Arab Middle East is also the worst region in the world when it comes to women’s workforce participation (25 percent). Why is this important? When it comes to development, economists place women’s workforce participation as the most important factor.
  5. Climate change: The Middle East is particularly vulnerable for two reasons. The first has to do with food. The Middle East has a high dependence on climate-sensitive agriculture. It is also dependent on agricultural imports from other areas that will be affected by climate change. Ninety percent of Egyptian wheat, for example, comes from abroad, mostly from Russia. The second reason the Middle East is vulnerable to climate change is that a large proportion of the region’s population lives in coastal areas. As temperatures rise and polar ice caps shrink, sea levels rise. Scientists estimate that a temperature increase of 2 to 5 degrees would expose six to 25 million North Africans to coastal flooding.
  6. “The vulnerability of those lost from sight”: The United Nations used this phrase in a 2009 report to refer to the plight of those at the margins of society: abused women, child soldiers, migrant laborers and the like. Also among those lost from sight are refugees who have not crossed an international border. There are about 4.8 million Syrian refugees, for example. The Arab Middle East has the highest number of such refugees of any region in the world.

While he was in office, Barack Obama tried to get the United States to “lighten its footprint” in the Middle East and pivot to East Asia, where, he believed, the history of the 21st century would be made. In light of the real crisis in the Middle East, his reasoning was sound.

James L. Gelvin is professor of modern Middle East history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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