By Behzad Shahandeh
The Middle East tops all regions in terms of media attention and is pictured as the least stable, drawing a bleak picture for the future. It is depicted as an area of constant conflict where the regional states are in disarray not only with their neighbors but also with opposition groups inside their respective countries. The result is the region being sapped of its wealth as more and more is spent on both internal and external security.
Most commentators take this as a true picture of the factors shaping internal politics, economies, and societies and their external interaction with the global system: a static Middle East, unchanging and unchangeable.
The key reasons for such a view are fourfold: (1) energy resources being more of a liability than a blessing, (2) the conventional geopolitical conflict: the unending Arab-Israeli and Arab-Arab conflicts (e.g. Persian Gulf wars), (3) socio-economic deficits and the highly regarded conflicted domestic environment, (4) the religious-political dimension and its mobilization effect and international spill-over. Though attention is drawn to the importance of religion in the region generally (e.g. Israel's birth and present politics), the emphasis is on Islamic protest.
But in reality, there are factors shaping the region that are overlooked but nonetheless will change the Middle East, making it a region to be reckoned with, a reminder of past glories. In fact there are four major factors that added together will usher on to the scene a region that will not only rival other successful regions, but overtake them since the impact being created will be a sustained one with a cumulative effect.
First and foremost is the region's blessing of being possessed of highly strategic energy supplies. The region still controls 68 percent of all world reserves. It exports about 35 percent of the world's total and by 2020 it is estimated that it will be exporting more than double that: just over 75 percent. The 1973 oil embargo lasted only five months but it caused panic in Western streets and recession in the world economy for years afterwards.
Oil prices quadrupled from $3 to $12, and brought riches to the oil producing states in the Middle East. But then the regimes of the day squandered the newly-gained wealth and went on a rampage to waste their money on luxury goods that brought no benefit to their nations.
Then, after 9/11, things began to change gradually and the states of the Middle East were pushed into a new era where things would never be the same again. The survival of the regimes was put in jeopardy, and along with it people pushed for transparency and accountability in the actions of governments. The demands on the state had been simmering for some time, but the 9/11 tragedy gave them a strong stimulant as the Middle East came under attack and the environment became one of resurgent nationalism in the face of all out confrontation on the part of the West.
This state of affairs coincided with other regions of the world reaching their optimum oil production, with depleting reserves a reality except for the Middle East which became the only area with excess oil capacity, and one where new reserves were being found
The emergence of the two Asian giants, China and India ― and their need for more and more energy supplies to sustain and further fuel their economies, added greatly to the newly gained status of the Middle East and confirmed its position as the oil provider.
The windfalls from high oil prices, showering the Middle East region with over a trillion U.S. dollars in a span of four years, 2003-2007, have come at a time where the states are scrutinized in unprecedented way by their citizens who now much more educated, sophisticated than their peers were ever before and much more patriotic nationalists than their fathers .The immediate result has been a constant pressure to use the gained incomes wisely and in an accountable way.
A related phenomenon that has been in force for the past four years is the fact that in contrast with the past, more and more investments are now being made within the region. Investments by the Persian Gulf states in North Africa have funded high economic growth in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.
The wealth pouring in and being used in tackling and removing the inadequacies of the overall system has coincided with another emerging positive factor: the growing power of youth. The Middle East has the youngest population of any region.
Elsewhere, aging is becoming a matter of serious concern but in the Middle East the age distribution is one which provides the region with another source of power. And these young people are much better educated ― some eighty percent of them have higher education ― and better informed of their surroundings than their parents.
The 9/11 incident has had its positive effect on the young too, that being in making them more patriotic and nationalistic, and, with the environment having become less hospitable in the West due to the spillovers of 9/11, more eager to stay at home. More and more top-educated Middle Easterners having studied abroad are coming back home to give a lending hand to their fellow citizens. In addition to that more top western universities are setting up campuses in the Middle East, relieving the students of the need to travel and face the difficulties of studying abroad.
Parallel to all, this is another new development: the growing power of empowered women. The fifty percent of the population that had previously been barred from participation in society are now in the forefront of reforms in the region.
The participation of women in Middle Eastern societies started with them being employed in unskilled jobs requiring little or no education, but as time went by and women began receiving better education and gradually attaining higher status in their employment.
Empowerment must not be translated as women being ``liberated" from their societies and adopting a western orientation. In actual fact, the empowerment of women in the Middle East has come hand in hand with the surge nationalism and patriotic sentiments now ever more abundant among the population in the region. We also witness more female participation in religion-related matters that are becoming less distinguishable from the patriotism now in full swing across the Middle East.
Finally, there is a clear and visible drive for political reforms as a result of the new awakening that is sweeping the region. Democratic undertakings are now being attempted by all governments in the Middle East, but in varied ways. Just as other regions that are now fully fledged democracies like Korea realized in the past, continued economic prosperity depends on opening up politically, the Middle East states are, in varying degrees, in the process of opening up their political spheres so as to accommodate the demands of their increasingly sophisticated populations.
The combination of the empowerment factors outlined above sketch a very promising future that will make the Middle East no longer a place of ``business as usual.'' Whether by accident or their own doing, the region is becoming one to be reckoned with and this needs to be realized by those who are still observing the scene through out of date lenses. What will actually happen, only the future can tell.
Behzad Shahandeh is a professor of International relations and comparative politics in the Faculty of Law and Political Science at Tehran University, and now a visiting scholar in the Graduate School of International Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. Korea. His email address is: Shahandeh2001@yahoo.com