DUBAI: When governments lose their effectiveness and legitimacy, the result can be catastrophic. In the past decade alone, the rulers of several Arab states have lost not only control of their territory, but also their ability to provide basic services and their authority to make collective decisions.
In extreme cases such as Syria, the result has been civil war, economic collapse and mass human displacement. With so many recent examples across the region, it is perhaps unsurprising that government failure is considered among Arabs to be the number one threat.
The Arab News/YouGov pan-Arab survey asked participants to rank what they see as the three biggest threats to the MENA region. Among its 3,097 respondents across 18 Arab countries, 66 percent said government failure is the biggest threat. This was followed by economic slowdown (43 percent) and radical Islamic terrorism (33 percent).
Baria Alamuddin, an award-winning journalist and political commentator, says there are different levels of government failure.
On the one hand there are countries in a state of civil war, such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, which have lost control. On the other are countries such as Lebanon and Iraq, which are arguably in a state of paralysis.
Iran (20%), fifth on the list of important threats facing the Arab world, poses a more serious threat to Iraq (48 percent), Yemen (42 percent) and Lebanon (42 percent), according to the Arab News-YouGov survey.
“They are facing a confluence of crises: COVID-19, economic collapse, a failed clientelist model of governance and Tehran-backed paramilitary forces that aspire to be stronger than the state,” Alamuddin told Arab News.
In the case of Lebanon, she fears factions such as Hezbollah are actively preventing the implementation of solutions that could solve the country’s existential crisis — effectively jamming the gears of governance.
“I worry that in both Lebanon and Iraq matters have the potential to get far worse before there is a prospect of them getting better,” she said. “We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg for migration, with some polls suggesting that well over half of young Lebanese are considering moving abroad.”
Between July and September, UNHCR reported 21 migrant boats leaving Lebanon for Cyprus — a significant increase on the total recorded for 2019. “Those who leave tend to be the brightest graduates — the people most likely to flourish somewhere else overseas. This is a tragedy for Lebanon,” Alamuddin said.
Indeed, falling oil revenues have dealt a massive blow to trade and job creation all over the region. Further economic slowdowns, made worse by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, do not bode well for stability and could have a “generational impact” on Arab youth.
“We have a lot of frustrated young people, especially those with degrees, who feel entitled,” said Mark Katz, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
For Katz, the YouGov survey shows the Arab public has a clear sense of what is harming the region. While many in the West continue to attribute government failure to factors like Islamic extremism, it appears that uprisings against “stale governance” is a far more common cause.
If low oil prices become the norm, Katz said, Arab governments may be forced to raise taxation. As a result, they may be compelled to consult more effectively with their publics.
“If these regimes have to turn more and more to their citizens for support, they will have to make some concessions … so perhaps that’s the one ray of hope — prolonged low oil price environments may well lead to these regimes having to change,” he said.