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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

In 2016-2019 an international consortium of think tanks and universities from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa carried out a large-scale research project “Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture: Mapping Geopolitical Shifts, Regional Order and Domestic Transformations”. One of the final results of the project was the report “Imagining Future(s) for the Middle East and North Africa” as an attempt to outline possible scenarios for the development of events in the region in the short term, as well as in the long term.

Scenarios are based both on the synthesis of relevant forecast research made by participants of the project and on the involvement of a significant number of external experts. The authors of the report emphasize that they tried to take into account various points of view, including pro-government and opposition politicians, public officials, diplomats, members of security forces, experts, civil society activists, members of the private sector. In addition to respondents from the Middle East and North Africa and the corresponding foreign diasporas, the authors sought to include the views of experts from Europe, Russia, China, and the US.

What sounds alarming is that beyond the scope of the current security agenda, European experts generally don’t see Moscow making any significant contribution to the future of the MENA. They write a lot about China, about the European Union, about Africa, but not about Russia. Analyzing the long-term challenges of the development of the region, the authors mention Russia only twice — as one of the major food exporters to the region and as an important partner in the development of nuclear energy in the MENA. On other issues - from digital economy, climate change and energy revolution, to urbanization and international migration - Russia is not indicated at all.

Probably, Russian specialists in oriental studies will not agree with such an underestimated assessment of Russia’s potential. They can refer to successful experience of large-scale oil and gas projects in the region performed by Russian business, participation of Russia in the development of regional infrastructure, coordination of pricing approaches in global oil markets, and many other examples of Russian-MENA cooperation that go beyond traditional security. Nevertheless, the experts who do not belong to the category of professional haters and detractors of Russian foreign policy deserve some attention.

Let us recall that the popularity of the Soviet Union in the MENA was determined not only by the fact that Moscow had been acting as a geopolitical counterweight to Washington and supported the Arab countries in their confrontation with Israel. In addition, the USSR provided its own version of the future for the region, its development model, and its own recipes for solving pending socio-economic issues for the MENA countries. And although the Soviet model ultimately failed, its impact on the elites and societies of the region is particularly acute even today.

Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is now in no position to act as a development model for the MENA countries or for anyone else in the world. Many of the acute problems characteristic of the MENA states — dependence on hydrocarbon exports, social inequality, poor governance, corruption, poor motivation for innovation, etc. — are to the same extent or almost to the same extent typical of modern Russia. It is precisely the commonalities of problems and challenges that create additional opportunities for equal cooperation. No longer claiming the role of teacher and mentor for the region, Russia could offer the MENA countries to solve the difficult tasks of socio-economic and political modernization of “semi-peripheral” countries in the global world of the 21st century.

Perhaps it is time to think about a long-term Russian strategy for the region, taking into account not only today's military-political realities but also the challenges and opportunities that so far are just vaguely emerging on the MENA horizon. For example, Russia and the MENA hydrocarbon exporters face the common challenge of the global energy revolution. Joint preparation for this inevitability in the future may turn out to be no less important than reaching agreements on oil extraction quotas in the OPEC+ format.


In 2016-2019 an international consortium of think tanks and universities from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa carried out a large-scale research project “Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture: Mapping Geopolitical Shifts, Regional Order and Domestic Transformations”. One of the final results of the project was the report “Imagining Future(s) for the Middle East and North Africa” as an attempt to outline possible scenarios for the development of events in the region in the short term, as well as in the long term.

Scenarios are based both on synthesis of relevant forecast research made by participants of the project and on the involvement of a significant number of external experts. The authors of the report emphasize that they tried to take into account various points of view, including pro-government and opposition politicians, public officials, diplomats, members of security forces, experts, civil society activists, members of the private sector. In addition to respondents from the Middle East and North Africa and the corresponding foreign diasporas, the authors sought to include the views of experts from Europe, Russia, China, and the US.

The sociological survey included expert polls, in-depth face-to-face interviews, focus group discussions, brainstorming sessions, and the Delphi survey to convey the outcomes. The authors state that they also used the materials of fifty-eight earlier future studies that have been written about megatrends and trends in the MENA region.

This report is based on the conclusions drawn from research conducted over three years and lays out scenarios with two-time horizons: short term (2025) and long term (2050). The first horizon is determined mainly by current trends in the socio-economic, political, and military spheres, while the second horizon is more dependent on what the authors designate as megatrends, that is, on the fundamental processes free of the current conjuncture that occur both within the region and at a higher, global level. Naturally, the two sets of scenarios are significantly different from each other; the second set is not necessarily a logical development of the first.

I. 2025 Horizon: Total Pessimism and Timid Hopes for a Miracle

It’s only about five years until 2025, and most experts agree that over the course of these five years, the current, mostly negative trends and processes with a high impact on the region are unlikely to be reversed or even significantly limited. Their inertia is too significant and, according to a popular belief, it will last at least a generation or even two generations. At the same time, however, against the background of a generally unfavorable picture in the MENA region, there are some real success stories that deserve special attention.

1. Scarce Natural Resources: Water, Food and the Effects of Climate Change

By 2025, environmental degradation in the region, coupled with demographic growth (to well above 500 million people in the region) will lead to a serious deterioration in the quality of life, which, in turn, will have major political, social and economic ramifications. The main concern, most likely, will be global warming, because of insufficient adaptation policies within the region to build resilience. In 2025 there will be less precipitation and climate change will aggravate water scarcity in almost all countries of the region. Although to date some countries have seen an increase in water supplies (mainly Turkey owing to better rainfalls, but also Sudan and Egypt as they rely on the upstream countries of the Nile Basin). However, increased temperatures and growing pollution of water resources have neutralized the potential benefit for agricultural production.

Countries with available financial resources have been able to maintain water provision with the help of desalinization plants, but the rest of the MENA region is suffering from frequent water shortages. The sector that has been most affected by water scarcity is agriculture, and the dependence of the region on food imports will increase. An additional effect of climate change and volatile rainfall patterns is desertification, which is likely to accelerate significantly over the next five years. These factors are said to be among the many that push inhabitants from rural areas to urban and peri-urban areas, when significant numbers of former peasants, unable to maintain their traditional way of life, will be forced to move to already overpopulated urban agglomerations. Social tension in cities will increase accordingly.

The authors consider the alternative (although unlikely) scenario to be the beginning of a “green revolution” in the MENA region, changing the structure of agricultural production, increasing its efficiency, and ensuring stable and diversified grain imports on acceptable terms. By 2025, a number of countries in the region (Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey) will have increased their share in the world fruit and vegetable markets. The oil-rich Gulf countries continue to invest in food sectors abroad (including countries such as Argentina, Australia, and Canada), thereby helping to stabilize global food markets.

2. Oil Still Matters – But Decarbonization Is Unstoppable

Up to the year 2025, the overall energy demand is expected to increase in MENA countries (plus 15 percent, global average being plus 25 percent). The structure of energy balances in the region is gradually changing in favor of renewable sources, even if this transition takes longer than in many other regions. Several countries from the region have increasingly been looking at investing in nuclear energy, but its share in the overall energy balance remains very modest. Most of the announced ambitious plans regarding the development of alternative energy by 2025 will not be implemented even in oil- and capital-rich states of the region. There is also little hope for a sharp increase in the energy efficiency of the regional economy. Natural gas has gained importance, accounting for more than half of the total energy demand, oil has shrunk to below 40 percent. The geographic structure of hydrocarbon exports is gradually changing in favor of the countries of East and South Asia (Japan, China, South Korea, India), followed by Europe. The United States is becoming the main energy competitor for Middle Eastern hydrocarbon producers, replacing Saudi Arabia as the regulator of global energy markets.

The most significant consequence of the changes taking place on world energy markets will be the inevitable decline in "oil rent" that the exporting countries of the region are taking advantage of today. The dynamics of such a decline are difficult to predict, but the authors of the report believe that already in 2021, trade balances for energy-exporting countries will be negatively affected, putting state budgets under stress, which will require more stringent financial discipline and a reduction in current social programs. In turn, even a partial cutting of social paternalism and an increase in the tax burden on the population can result in a new wave of protests and opposition political movements.

Positive alternatives to the region’s energy future are based on the potential contribution of the renewables to total primary energy in North Africa (Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia), as well as in Turkey. It is possible on the basis of large-scale attraction of external sources of financing and advanced Western technologies. The authors also believe that energy diversification will require gradual abandonment of government subsidies for hydrocarbons for both business and the public. “Denationalization” of the energy sector will be a painful but effective way to increase its effectiveness.

3. Social Contract Under Threat: Inequalities in the Forefront

According to official statistics, income inequality within individual MENA countries is not very high when compared with international statistics. However, according to the authors of the report, official statistics hide the true state of affairs, especially if we consider inequality not only within individual countries of the region but also between them (for example, between rich Qatar and poor Yemen). Currently, 10 percent of the population have 61 percent of the income, and by 2025 the concentration of national wealth in the hands of small groups of the political and economic elite will grow even more. In addition, inequality will continue to grow particularly between big cities and coastal areas on the one hand, and rural areas and small and medium cities, which are poorly connected and have deficient economic and social infrastructures, on the other. Even in some of the most developed economies of the region this divide is a major problem. Turkey is a good example.

The gap between the elites and the main part of the population will grow, social elevators will in many cases be disabled, the number of new jobs (especially for youth and women) will be limited, and deficient public services, corruption and nepotism will flourish in most countries of the region. The authors of the report believe, that the increase in inequality, combined with the low efficiency of public administration and the reduction of “oil rent” can lead to the scenario of the “second Arab Spring”, mass street activity in order to overthrow the ruling regimes, already in 2021. However, most likely, governments will be able to curb the protest movement, and the authoritarian regimes, for the most part, will resist (owing to the efforts of the explicit or implicit support from non-regional great powers). After the defeat in the capitals in 2022-2023, the increase of scattered protests will move to peripheral regions of the countries of the region, where local leaders will increasingly undermine the positions of metropolitan elites.

The only significant positive trend that can at least somehow level up a negative scenario is considered probable progress in female emancipation and projecting new gender roles. This movement has already been outlined at the present time, and if this trend continues, by 2025 its positive socio-economic consequences will be significant — from the increase the participation of women in small and medium-sized businesses to the development of civil society and success in family planning.

4. Fragmented Societies: Polarization and Pluralization

Persisting socio-economic inequalities forecast by the authors of the report over the coming years will inevitably be coupled with a general strengthening of collective identities along sectarian, ethnic, ideological, regional, tribal, generational, and gender-related lines. The boom of these "alternative identities" was observed at the beginning of the "Arab spring". In countries such as Libya and Syria, these collective identities have led to fully-fledged intra-state conflicts, and by 2025 even countries with relatively strong state institutions (Turkey, Israel) may be nonetheless affected by this socio-political fragmentation trend. The authors of the report consider the tendency of “fragmentation of the Islamist camp” to be very dangerous, which, in their opinion, will continue in the coming years. Moreover, it’s not only about the confrontation between Shiism and Sunni, but also about increasing conflicts over authority within the Sunni religious-political camp (Turkey - Saudi Arabia), as well as the widened distinction between moderate Islamists and more radical Islamic groups.

In 2025, the continuing weakness of state institutions in most countries of the region will create favorable conditions for the consolidation of both subnational and transnational collective identities. At the same time, authoritarian political regimes still regard diversity not as a source of strength, but as a source of weakness, pursuing a policy of hidden or open discrimination and segregation of minorities, deflecting dissent, enforcing the imposition of “national” identities, etc. Even in Turkey and Israel, five years later, the entrenchment of illiberal trends, right-wing, ultranationalist political forces, prevent any attempt to resolve the Kurdish and Palestinian conflicts, respectively.

The authors consider the processes of national consolidation in Iraq to be a notable exception to this general trend. By 2025, this country will be able to achieve sustained political stabilization by uniting disparate groups around topics such as the fight against corruption, education, healthcare, environmental degradation, etc. The general agenda allows for a compromise between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan, to find an acceptable balance between interests of Iran and the Arab Gulf monarchies in Iraq, and most importantly — to ensure rapid economic growth and improve the economic situation of all sectors of Iraqi society. Despite the many unresolved problems and continuing challenges, with a favorable set of circumstances in 2025, Iraq is turning into a symbol of success for the entire Middle East region. It is very important that success is achieved not by building an effective authoritarian pyramid of power, but on the basis of a carefully calibrated balance of sectarian, ethnic, regional, and political interests.

5. Intrusive Authoritarianism: Control, Repression and Disinformation

In 2025, it is quite possible that many of the current authoritarian leaders will remain in power in the region - Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Abdul el-Sisi in Egypt, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia. According to the authors of the report, many of the regional autocrats will have to face the second wave of the “Arab spring” already in 2021, since post-2011 strategies of social and political control were insufficient to contain social unrest. Moreover, most of these causes (economic inequality, unemployment, corruption, and weak state institutions) have only escalated. Nevertheless, the authors believe that the authorities will be able to suppress the second “Arab spring” with a higher level of repressions against leaders of all protest movements - from environmental to gender. The task will be facilitated by the fact that the protest movements will be divided and, in many cases, competing with each other. At the same time, the ruling regimes will improve in the art of socio-political manipulation, including using and utilizing high-tech and the latest technologies (following, in particular, the experience of China). Western countries will only declaratively condemn the practice of large-scale political repression; the experience of the first “Arab spring” will force the West to abandon the idea of economic sanctions and de facto support the status quo in the region.

Another threat to stability will arise closer to 2025 in connection with the inevitable conflicts within the ruling groups of the countries of the region. A new generation of Gulf monarchical dynasties of the countries should establish itself in power, with the election of a new supreme leader in Iran, and the speculation about post-Sisi’s Egypt. The unsolved problems of political transit create favorable conditions for all kinds of palace and military coups, conspiracies, etc. The authors write about a possible attempt of a coup in Riyadh, which, however, in their opinion, will be unsuccessful. Chronic political instability in 2025 further reduces the effectiveness of public administration, stimulates corruption, fuels radical opposition, and impedes socio-economic modernization.

The authors believe that considerable access to the Internet in the region in 2020–2025 is a likely positive trend. The Internet and related network technologies can become not only an alternative source of information, but also a new mechanism for social and political organization (especially in Iran, Iraq, and the Levant). Authoritarian regimes’ attempts to control digital media have failed, facilitating the rapid emergence of a “virtual public sphere” with the participation of the traditionally least active groups of the population (women, unemployed, minorities). The activity of these groups is becoming an important factor accelerating the social and political transformation of the region.

6. A Militarized and Brutalized Region

By 2025 the Middle East remains one of the least peaceful regions in the world, accumulating unsolved conflicts and persistent humanitarian crises. It is also one of the most-militarized regions in the world with mobility of tactical alliances and coalitions and a low level of trust - in relation not only to potential opponents but also to allies. The level of support or opposition to Iranian policies in the region remains a polarizing factor. The unilateral actions and hegemonic claims of Saudi Arabia reinforce centrifugal trends in the Persian Gulf. Prospects for cooperation with ultranationalist Israel once again split the Arab world and lead to an acute crisis in Jordan. The authors admit the possibility of the eruption of a third intifada already in 2020, which could lead to a new regional conflict. The ideological rivalry between Turkey and the UAE is escalating and affects the entire region - from the Horn of Africa to Libya and Palestine.

The civil war formally ended in Syria, but the radical opposition retains the potential for demonstrative military operations against Damascus, which forces the Assad regime to rely on the support of the Iranian Quds Force and cooperate with the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The result is constant tensions between Damascus and Turkey and Israel. The conflict in Yemen will have formally ended after a peace conference in 2020, but the country has yet to recover from one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in 2025. Libya is also far from being stabilized and the hopes for a unifying effect of the upcoming 2026 national elections do not look convincing. Al-Qaeda proves to be resilient (using bases in Yemen and the Sahel), ISIS mutates into a plethora of mafia-like organizations, which later on sporadically launches violent operations pretending to defend the rights of disenfranchised Sunni communities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Extremists have made significant strides in using the Internet - both regionally and globally. At the same time, a process of progressive militarization of the region is observed - steady increase in military budgets and the arms trade (Israel and Turkey have benefited from this situation by positioning their arm industries in the regional and world markets), the privileges of security elites in the region have increased, widening the gap between the security apparatus and the rest of the population.

The optimistic forecast is based on the scenario of national reconciliation in Syria. The movement towards reconciliation begins already in 2020 and is the result of the interaction of internal and external factors. On the one hand, after the end of the civil war, the regime in Damascus is under increasing pressure from various groups (business community, local authorities, religious minorities) that insist on moving the country on a peaceful footing. On the other hand, Russia and Iran, make it clear that their support cannot be permanent. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is forced to compromise with the international community, in particular, the EU and some of its member states, particularly France and Germany and take steps aimed at partial decentralization of power, as well as the selective and gradual return of refugees. Stabilization in Syria has a significant positive effect for the entire region, opening up opportunities for multilateral cooperation in other areas.

7. Foreign Meddling and Rebalanced Global Ambitions

Although the role of the US in the region is still fundamental by 2025, the region’s importance in the US global strategy is declining regardless of the balance of domestic political forces in the United States. In Washington, the main principles of the Donald Trump Administration remain: comprehensive support for Israel and pressure on Iran with the ultimate goal of regime change in Tehran. This excludes any effective American role as a broker in the region. China’s presence is multiplying in investment and infrastructure, with trade, the implementation of major infrastructure projects, and soft power. At the same time, Beijing is able to separate its relations with the Middle East region from the tightening of politics in Islamic Xinjiang, where tension may increase.

Russia as a whole maintains its position as a key external player in the region and remains an indispensable participant in any arrangements regarding regional security. At the same time, the Kremlin is not ready to invest significant irretrievable resources in the region and would like to transfer relations with the Middle East to a self-supporting basis. In this regard, Moscow invests a lot in its bilateral relations with regional leaders - primarily, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. The European Union in 2025 remains a secondary player in most of the area. The Maghreb and the Sahel are the exceptions, but even there Europeans face Russia’s political competition and China’s economic expansion. Moreover, this is a space where European states compete rather than cooperate: for example, repeated French attempts to increase its own influence in the region fail because of insufficient critical mass and lack of coordination with other European governments. The rise of radical right-wing populism on the one hand and the effects of a second economic crisis in 2020 on the other force European leaders to focus on domestic affairs.

The optimistic scenario concerns not so much the Middle East region as a whole, but the Arab countries of North Africa. By 2025, a booming economic expansion begins on the African continent, and the countries from the Maghreb successfully place themselves as the connector between the two continents. These countries are becoming important platforms for the implementation of multilateral European-African projects in energy, transport, and infrastructure, education and culture. The multilateral nature of these projects allows to overcome mutual mistrust and competition within the Maghreb (for example, between Algeria and Morocco), lay the foundations for new inclusive international organizations, reduce the severity of migration problems, and prevent the intensification of political radicalism and extremism.

II. Scenarios for 2050: Megatrends and the Uncertainties

Thirty-year forecasting differs significantly from a five-year forecast. If in the first part of the report the authors proceed primarily from the inertia of current trends in the region (business as usual), then in the second part of this research they try to look beyond the realities observed today or reflect those global and regional processes that are only gaining strength, but quite capable of having a decisive influence on the Middle East by the middle of the century. Of course, as the forecast horizon moves further, the ranging in estimates increases significantly, therefore, instead of the usual scenarios, the authors just list the opportunities and the risks that each of the megatrends implies.

1. Unstoppable Climate Change

By 2050 climate change will be a decisive global reality, but its impact will differ from one region to the other. The countries of the MENA will be among the most affected: the effects will be felt across the region in the form of extreme weather phenomena, heatwaves and droughts, desertification, and severe water shortages. The rise in sea level will have a great impact on the countries of the region, where a sea-level rise of about 50 cm could force 4 million Egyptians to resettle to other areas from the flood-prone Nile Delta. The countries of the region will have to deal with scarcity of natural resources, including food, price volatility and the risks associated with new pandemics. Environmental degradation will amplify economic and social challenges, particularly as this will coincide with a significant population increase.

Opportunities:

  • Awareness of the threats common to the region can help overcome current political differences, form a common agenda and contribute to the emergence of currently inactive regional solidarity;
  • Environment could become a fertile ground for trust-building and cooperation between countries of the MENA region and of the European Union; The EU will have to pay more attention to allocate more resources (financial and technological) to the countries of the Middle East;
  • Environmental movements could be a catalyst for new forms of activism and social innovation;
  • Search for effective means of minimizing the negative effects of climate change may prove to be a catalyst for new technological and managerial decisions, diversification of national economies, and the creation of new jobs.

Risks:

  • The countries likely to be most affected by climate change lack sufficient financial resources to invest in mitigation and adaptation measures; tourism and agriculture, which form the basis of many economies in the region, will be at stake;
  • By 2050 climate change could be responsible for a sea-level rise of 1 meter, directly impacting on densely populated regions along the coasts of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and the Gulf; Forced internal and international displacement could materialize with all the attendant problems for the region and its neighbors.
  • Numerous economic and social challenges associated with climate change will undermine political stability; Deficient water supplies, agricultural losses, energy blackouts, recurrent natural disasters could fuel social unrest and eventually lead to violent conflict;
  • Changes in the geography of world trade (for example, as a result of increasing the economic attractiveness of the Northern Sea Route) can reduce the trade and economic importance of the Mediterranean Sea and put currently attractive port cities in a difficult position;
  • Global warming could endanger vulnerable ecosystems (cedar forests in Lebanon and Syria, reed marshes of Iraq), and change the geographical distribution of disease vectors such as mosquitos, which will create large-scale problems for the states in the Middle East that do not have effective health systems.

2. Post-Oil World

By 2050 a post-oil world order will be in place. Although the physical exhaustion of hydrocarbons is not expected in the next thirty years, alternative energy sources will become available, affordable, and much more popular than today. The two fastest-growing world powers, China and India, will champion this transformation that Europe and other regions of the world will join. This megatrend will have a very significant impact on the Middle East and North Africa.

Opportunities:

  • Global energy transition could have a positive impact by reducing the pace of global warming, which will reduce the risks listed above for the Middle East region;
  • The countries of the region - wealthy exporters of hydrocarbons - can join the energy revolution and even take a leading position in some of its areas by investing part of their oil and gas dividends in new technologies and the new economy; these efforts will somehow affect the region as a whole;
  • Most of the oil-importing countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Israel) will be able to reduce their dependence on imports by developing alternative energy in their territory;
  • The energy revolution could be a fertile ground for new potential opportunities in expanding cooperation between the countries of the Middle East with China, India, as well as with the European Union; at the same time, a decrease in the importance of the region in global energy will reduce the incentives for great powers to interfere in its affairs.

Risks:

  • Drop in oil and gas prices will be a serious challenge for regional hydrocarbon exporters, particularly in heavily populated countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria and Iraq. The governments of these countries will have to cut social programs, review existing paternalistic social contracts, which may trigger repression and region-wide destabilization;
  • Transition to a new energy sector will be difficult for many countries in the region due to economic, social, political, regulatory and technological obstacles; the region may be at the forefront of the global energy revolution;
  • Global economic and, consequently, political weight of the MENA in the world may shrink, and the influence of the region on international processes may decrease;
  • Some of the MENA countries may open new nuclear power plants, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey. This could raise regional and global concerns regarding military uses of those nuclear programs.

3. An Urbanized Region

The MENA region is characterized by high urbanization: some 60 percent of the population is already urban. And this trend will not be reversed by 2050; cities in this region will host 130 million additional residents. New megatrends include: climate change and environmental degradation that can accelerate the process of urbanization and create many new problems. Along with such major urban agglomerations as Istanbul and Cairo, Baghdad and Khartoum (15 million each), Tehran (11 million), Riyadh and Jeddah (8 and 7 million) will come next in size on the map of the region, Algiers and Casablanca (well above 5 million), etc. The socio-demographic structure of the region will undergo radical changes.

Opportunities:

  • Big cities and urban agglomerations will attract foreign capital and foreign investment because of their density, highly diverse labor force, a sufficient infrastructure and attractive market opportunities;
  • Urbanization could be a catalyst providing new economic opportunities for youth and women; social and professional “elevators” work more efficiently in bigger cities than in small towns and rural areas.
  • Metropolitan agglomerations can act as laboratories for urban solutions to environmental and social challenges, particularly if local governments have financial and administrative autonomy for the implementation of their plans;
  • Urban areas could be the launchpad for a new generation of politicians who can expand the horizons of the political space and challenge the conservative and archaic old elites.

Risks:

  • Accelerated urbanization in some cases can help consolidate existing social stratification and segregation: elites could gradually relocate to gated communities, while former peasants and refugees will be forced to live in crowded peripheral neighborhoods and informal areas with deficient public services, poor urban infrastructure, or even having no legal status of urban residents;
  • This could generate tension between the privileged metropolitan agglomerations and all other urban centers, financed on a residual basis and requiring the redistribution of resources in their favor;
  • In conflict and post-conflict zones urban segregation is likely to be a contentious issue (e.g. building new settlements in disputed territories in Israel or new development projects in Jerusalem);
  • Persistent political instability in the region may hinder the development of urban autonomy and prevent any move towards decentralization necessary for effective urban governance.

4. Digitalization and Automation

By the middle of the century, the world will finally enter the era of the digital economy, which will radically change the rules of competition in global markets, as well as many fundamental parameters of politics, social organization, and culture. Automation and Artificial Intelligence will bring both new solutions and new challenges for the MENA, and the consequences of the transition to a new technological structure will be different for different countries in the region. While the Gulf region and Israel may adapt more easily to these changes, other countries with large working populations and low social mobility (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Turkey) could face major social problems in the process of adaptation.

Opportunities:

  • Successful digitalization and automation could integrate the region into the emerging new global value chains, particularly if this coincides with a broader dynamism of Africa and the implementation of the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative”;
  • New, rewarding jobs could be created, and at the same time a reduction of working hours, new sectors of the economy will positively affect traditional sectors;
  • New opportunities will open up for female participation in the job market;
  • Current rural–urban gap could be reduced; new technologies will create additional business opportunities outside the big cities, living standards in rural areas will increase;
  • Digitalization could offer new opportunities to bypass state monopolies and crony capitalism, which will lead to an increase in the efficiency of the economies of the region as a whole.

Risks:

  • Automation could aggravate the lack and loss of jobs in traditional sectors and increase income gaps among the countries of the region and within individual countries
  • In the absence of adequate mechanisms of social and professional mobility, significant groups of the population will begin to turn into new marginalized people and paupers, prone to political radicalism and protest activity in various forms; this, in turn, can push the authoritarian governments to repress their own populations;
  • Adoption of digitalization creates additional opportunities not only for communication, transparency, education, etc., but also for various forms of political control, censorship, manipulation, and repression. Current trends in the MENA suggest that the authorities have more opportunities to use new technologies to solve their tasks rather than society to solve theirs.
  • If the region does not adopt strategies to cope with these technological developments, it could become increasingly peripheral in global terms.

5. Religiosity, Individualization and Citizenship

    The role of religion in the MENA in 2050 can vary widely and will largely depend on decisions made by the political elite of a country. It can be assumed that a common megatrend for the region will be further religious fragmentation and centrifugal dynamics in religious life, and a decrease in the influence of official religious hierarchies on individual religious choices.

    Opportunities:

    • Religious diversity and the movement toward individualization in religious matters will push societies towards greater tolerance and overcoming the consequences of old identity-related conflicts;
    • While collective identities and communitarian structures are likely to continue to play a prominent role, the increased emphasis on individual freedoms and rights will allow consolidating the priority of national identity in relation to other group affiliation;
    • Forced to fight for the loyalty of congregation, religious institutions and organizations will separate from the state power and refuse to politicize religious disputes and focus on the immediate needs of local communities;
    • All this could pave the way for a more robust and result-oriented inter-faith dialogue in the MENA region.

    Risks:

    • Fragmentation dynamics may lead to a new polarization, separating the proponents of secularization and religious Orthodox (as already observed today, for example, in Israel); these could become entrenched and take up a life of their own beyond the control of state authorities and community leaders;
    • In the quest to help strengthen national identity, regional governments can revert to traditional secular authoritarianism, sacrificing human and minority rights to their aspirations;
    • In the absence of strong state institutions and experience in reaching compromises, pluralism can evolve towards the fragmentation of societies, which will entail strengthening the ethnoreligious discourse and discrimination against religious minorities.

    6. Strong or Fierce States

    Currently, many of the region’s problems stem from the weakness of MENA states, some of which are de facto “failed” states. Nevertheless, there is a reason to believe that by 2050 MENA states could prove more resilient, controlling the state will remain the main and often only guarantee for elite survival. Accordingly, the strengthening of states and their agents (state elites, the public sector, security apparatuses) and the socio-economic characteristics associated with the state (clientelism, state capitalism, etc.) will remain predominant.

    Opportunities:

    • Modern and forward-looking leaders can use state institutions for the purpose of effective socio-political mobilization, that makes successful national modernization projects possible;
    • Robust states can act as a legitimate arbiter and balancer in relation to various, sometimes opposing, economic and social interests;
    • Likewise, only a robust state can ensure a stable and effective balance along the vertical axis of center-periphery dynamics, and successful and creative attempts to decentralize power without risking an uncontrolled collapse of the country;
    • A strong state is able to become a responsible participant in supranational cooperation, including regional arrangements and associations; MENA regionalism is only possible with the participation of strong states.

    Risks:

    • States in the region could face the old capability–expectations gap. Citizens expect to maintain a paternalistic social contract and new social elevators, yet in practice, they feel that the state’s main goal is to control them, the gap between the ruling elites and societies will inevitably widen with all the negative consequences for socio-political stability;
    • States may project strength through repression, especially in cases where the state is forced to make unpopular decisions. Fierce states would constantly learn from each other how to cope with social discontent and curb political opposition;
    • At the regional level, state elites may aim at maximizing their power, approaching relations with their neighbors on the principles of a “negative-sum games” and trying to take advantage of the differences between the great powers. This approach makes the creation of a MENA collective security system even at 2050 horizon unlikely;
    • Favoring state fierceness mechanisms against their own citizens can lead to the erosion of state legitimacy, provoke political revolutions, and give an additional incentive to separatism.

    7. Managing the Effects of Today’s Conflicts

    It is impossible to determine which of the conflicts current today will be solved by 2050 and which will be still in place. Let alone to predict new ones that may emerge and be among the most significant in thirty years. Nevertheless, we can take it for granted that the effects of today’s conflicts will continue to be felt in the MENA countries in 2050. It is equally obvious that many of the above megatrends will somehow generate additional new drivers in the region and create risks for the revival of old tensions, national stereotypes, and historical grievances.

    Opportunities:

    • Successful post-conflict reconciliation in Syria and Iraq could be key to smoothing sectarian tensions in the region, particularly in composite societies such as Lebanon;
    • Due to the deep emotional attachment of large parts of the Arab public to the Palestinian cause, any successful efforts to bring this conflict to an end would redirect many energies towards economic and social development across the region. “Peace dividends” could be very high for all sides;
    • Climate change and environmental degradation could become a unifying factor that unites the countries of the region, a new “green agenda” could revamp regional cooperation, particularly successful in the Maghreb and the Levant;
    • Gradual disengagement of the United States from the MENA in the absence of an alternative “external hegemon” may stimulate the efforts of the MENA states to find independent solutions in de-escalation efforts and to take steps towards a new regional security architecture.

    Risks:

    • Syria could become the new Palestine. The lack of an effective reconciliation process could result in protracted refugee situations (like the Palestinian refugees today) as a constant background of the political life of the MENA, destabilizing the Arab world and creating a potential basis for the growth of political extremism, terrorism and mafia-like groups in the region;
    • Well before 2050, the question of creating a Palestinian state can be completely removed from the agenda, and the conflict could evolve from a territorial one to a rights-based issue. If Palestinian citizens are further marginalized, Israel will be on the way to international isolation;
    • Militarization of the region and post-conflict reconstruction efforts could divert many resources from other social and environmental needs. The countries of the region may miss the time to prepare for the challenges of the middle of the century, and face a complex development crisis, with which they will no longer be able to cope;
    • By 2050, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates may have developed their own nuclear weapons, which they will consider the only reliable guarantee of ensuring their national security.

    8. China: Primus Inter Pares

    By 2050 China is likely to be the world’s largest economy. The authors of the report proceed from the assumption that Beijing will be able to maintain a steady rate of economic growth, despite all the tensions associated with this growth. Although the United States and the European Union will continue to play a prominent role in the global economy, China’s economic hegemony will be undeniable in Asia. The successful implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative has the potential to drastically transform the socio-economic landscape of the Asian continent and of the MENA region. The willingness of MENA’s authorities to engage with China will further increase.

    Opportunities:

    • Chinese investment could modernize the infrastructures and increase the connectivity of the MENA region to the rapidly growing markets of East and South Asia;
    • If the implementation of Chinese infrastructure projects is successful, the importance of the Middle East in the global economy will be determined not so much by the presence of hydrocarbon resources in the region, but by its privileged geospatial position at the crossroads between major integrated regional markets - East Asia and Europe; this strategic location creates the preconditions for long-term sustainable growth;
    • China’s ability to articulate solid alternatives to Western economic and financial institutions and regimes will impress a large part of the MENA elites; the same can be said of Beijing’s rejection of the universalism of liberal Western values.

    Risks:

    • In the event of a consistent rapprochement with Beijing, regional autocrats could embrace new Chinese technological mechanisms of social control (for example, social scoring) to perpetuate their power and prevent political change;
    • Belt and Road Initiative will consolidate asymmetrical relations in the economic ties between China and the countries of the region. By consolidating its privileged economic relations, Beijing may try to entrench them in unequal agreements or claiming political and military-strategic hegemony in the region;
    • China's economic expansion in the region may lead to increased regional competition for the position of "strategic partners" of the PRC. The possibility of developing some kind of consolidated position of the regional states with respect to China seems extremely unlikely; rather, the MENA countries will compete with each other in providing Beijing with the maximum possible benefits and preferences, which will further strengthen the asymmetry of cooperation with China for the region as a whole.

    9. Game-Changing Africa

    By 2050 the African continent could be home to 2.5 billion people, i.e. twice as many as in 2019. Nigeria’s population will have reached 400 million. The African continent will become the main source of labor on a global scale, creating previously unprecedented internal and international migration flows. The MENA borders directly on the African continent and the Arab countries of North Africa are an integral part of it. Therefore, the global opportunities and risks posed by Africa will primarily affect the situation in the region.

    Opportunities:

    • 80 percent of Africa’s growth is likely to be concentrated in urban areas, which will thus require significant infrastructure investment. These development sectors could provide economic opportunities for the private sector in the MENA region, particularly in the Maghreb.
    • Middle Eastern and African countries will be forced to cooperate in the use of shared natural resources (for example, in regulating the water resources of the Nile basin), in minimizing the negative effects of climate change and in managing migration;
    • Joint projects with Africa can help either overcome the contradictions between Arab countries or reduce the significance of these contradictions (Morocco and Algeria);
    • Magnitude of the opportunities and challenges in Africa may be an additional incentive to expand cooperation between the countries of the Middle East and the European Union.

    Risks:

    • Increased pressure on natural resources and geopolitical ambitions can aggravate relations between individual countries of North Africa and their southern neighbors (for example, Egypt - Sudan, Mauritania - Senegal);
    • Combination of demographic growth, environmental degradation, deficient infrastructures, and dysfunctional institutions could destabilize many African countries, which will have consequences such as the escalation of violence, forced migrations and recurrent humanitarian crises. Due to its geographic proximity, the MENA region is, after Africa itself, the region that could suffer most from the effects of these challenges; attempts to "fence off" from Africa and its problems will apparently prove futile;
    • Forced migration from sub-Saharan Africa to the countries of the Maghreb could trigger racism and xenophobia, particularly among those sectors of the population that are also in dire economic and social need; this will certainly become a serious obstacle to cooperation;
    • Likely disagreements between European and MENA governments on how to handle this situation could prompt recurrent crises among them, which would only reinforce Europe’s and MENA’s securitized visions when looking south;
    • If Europe and the MENA countries are absorbed dealing with their own crises, they could miss opportunities in Africa that would certainly be seized by others, namely China but perhaps also India.

    10. Europe and the MENA Region: A Family Issue

    Like at present, in the middle of the century, geographic proximity will remain a key factor in the relations between Europe and the MENA region. What is likely to change is the intensity of the societal bonds between these two spaces, significantly due to the fact that by 2050 the proportion of Europeans with some sort of MENA background will be much higher than it is today. Such people will no longer be perceived as second- or third- generation migrants but as an integral and ever-growing part of European societies like Euro-Arabs, Euro-Turks, Euro-Kurds, and Euro-Amazighs. They will be fully represented in all areas of European life, including economic and political elites. In addition, it cannot be ruled out that in 2050 some Middle Eastern countries (primarily Turkey) will become members or reinforce their association with the EU, which will have a profound impact on the European Union as a whole and its relations with the Middle East, in particular. In any case, Europe, unlike the United States or China, will not be able to distance itself from the Middle East region either in 2050 or later.

    Opportunities:

    • Long-term Europe’s influence in the MENA will largely depend on its capacity to appear as a unified, credible, reliable and generous actor; and major test of these qualities will be the ability of the European Union to adequately manage migration flows from the region;
    • Political deadlock in many MENA countries could propel the EU to further engage with societies and promote people-to-people cooperation programs, the activism of Europeans of MENA background could being a major driver.
    • Development of the European Union itself towards greater cultural and religious pluralism will increase the attractiveness of the “European model” of development for the countries of the region, creating additional opportunities for cooperation.

    Risks:

    • Persistent racism and xenophobia in Europe against parts of its own populations with roots in the MENA could add new tensions in relations with some countries of the region beyond the governmental sphere to social interaction;
    • If the European Union begins to implement the “Fortress Europe” strategy, securitizing the borders as much as possible, limiting migration flows and distancing itself from growing problems in other regions (primarily in Africa), the Mediterranean Sea could become a widening gap by the middle of the century with numerous negative consequences for both Europe and the Middle East.
    • As the share of MENA immigrants in the European population increases, Europe can import ethnic, secular, and political tensions from the region via citizens of MENA descent. Europe’s political and social elites may not be well equipped to understand what is at stake and could unwillingly add fuel to these tensions, and as a result, Europe will become a platform for violent clashes between the MENA groups.

    III. Afterword: What about Russia?

    The report of the European experts does not give much attention to the role of Russia in the MENA region. The authors acknowledge that in the time horizon until 2025, Moscow will remain as one of the MENA’s most active non-regional actors to solve major security issues in the region. They also forecast that Russia’s influence will not completely disappear in 2050, although they believe that its influence (as well as the influence of the United States and other Western countries) will significantly decline in the long run.

    It does not follow from the text of the report that the role of Russia in the Middle East and North Africa is purely selfish, cynical, destructive and that it is Moscow that impedes the solution of immediate or long-term tasks the countries of the region are facing. In most cases, the authors do not consider the European Union and Russia as principled opponents or implacable competitors in the Middle East. Certain aspects of Moscow’s Middle East strategy raise questions among the authors, but many more questions are addressed to Washington.

    What sounds alarming is that beyond the scope of the current security agenda, European experts generally don’t see Moscow making any significant contribution to the future of the MENA. They write a lot about China, about the European Union, about Africa, but not about Russia. Analyzing the long-term challenges of the development of the region, the authors mention Russia only twice — as one of the major food exporters to the region and as an important partner in the development of nuclear energy in the MENA. On other issues - from digital economy, climate change and energy revolution, to urbanization and international migration - Russia is not indicated at all.

    Probably, Russian specialists in oriental studies will not agree with such an underestimated assessment of Russia’s potential. They can refer to successful experience of large-scale oil and gas projects in the region performed by Russian business, participation of Russia in the development of regional infrastructure, coordination of pricing approaches in global oil markets, and many other examples of Russian-MENA cooperation that go beyond traditional security. Nevertheless, the experts who do not belong to the category of professional haters and detractors of Russian foreign policy deserve some attention.

    Let us recall that the popularity of the Soviet Union in the MENA was determined not only by the fact that Moscow had been acting as a geopolitical counterweight to Washington and supported the Arab countries in their confrontation with Israel. In addition, the USSR provided its own version of the future for the region, its development model, and its own recipes for solving pending socio-economic issues for the MENA countries. And although the Soviet model ultimately failed, its impact on the elites and societies of the region is particularly acute even today.

    Russia is not the Soviet Union. It is now in no position to act as a development model for the MENA countries or for anyone else in the world. Many of the acute problems characteristic of the MENA states — dependence on hydrocarbon exports, social inequality, poor governance, corruption, poor motivation for innovation, etc. — are to the same extent or almost to the same extent typical of modern Russia. It is precisely the commonalities of problems and challenges that create additional opportunities for equal cooperation. No longer claiming the role of teacher and mentor for the region, Russia could offer the MENA countries to solve the difficult tasks of socio-economic and political modernization of “semi-peripheral” countries in the global world of the 21st century.

    Perhaps it is time to think about a long-term Russian strategy for the region, taking into account not only today's military-political realities but also the challenges and opportunities that so far are just vaguely emerging on the MENA horizon. For example, Russia and the MENA hydrocarbon exporters face the common challenge of the global energy revolution. Joint preparation for this inevitability in the future may turn out to be no less important than reaching agreements on oil extraction quotas in the OPEC+ format.

    The report describes the problems of asymmetry in relations between the countries of the MENA and China. Russia could turn out to be quite a good actor, offering its partners in the region a connection to multilateral structures (for example, to the SCO or BRICS+), where Beijing's inevitable dominance would be mitigated by the specifics of decision-making procedures. Apparently, negotiations on the creation of free trade zones between the leading countries of the region and the EAEU can be accelerated.

    Like the members of the European Union, Russia would greatly benefit from expanding the range of its partners in the region through civil society institutions, leading universities, and influential think tanks. This is especially true in the context of the upcoming transformation of the political elites of the region. There are many graduates of Soviet and Russian universities and there are Russian Diasporas living in the MENA region, and the interest in Russian culture remains.

    But this foundation is not strong enough for building relations. It is important that Russia is associated not only with the past of the MENA region but also with its future, not only with maintaining stability and resolving security crises but also with the ambitious tasks of socio-economic development. Unless, of course, Moscow approaches the future of the region not only in terms of potential threats and challenges for Russia but also in terms of new opportunities and prospects for itself.

(votes: 3, rating: 5)
 (3 votes)

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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