Missing the point of the unrest - Shahid Javed Burki - Saturday, March 12, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=35791&Cat=9

In my article on Feb 24 on the Arab uprising and its implications for the region and the Islamic world, I looked at deprivation as a contributing cause. In this article I will analyse how the surviving leaders of the Middle East are dealing with the disaffected youth of their countries. The young in various countries in the region did not wait long to replicate what occurred on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt. While Libyan leader Muammer Qaddafi and his sons dug in their heels and brought their country to the verge of civil war, several other leaders preferred to adopt a less confrontational approach.

Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that neither he nor his son would run in the 2013 elections. Algeria lifted its 19-year state of emergency, a demand of the opposition that had fallen on deaf ears. King Abdullah of Jordan fired his cabinet and tasked the new one with the job of producing political reform. He indicated that the all-powerful monarchy would be prepared to give up some of its power. Even in the United Arab Emirates, despite the fact that its population was already pampered with all kinds of economic handouts, the rulers offered some timid political concessions. The government only promised to widen the electoral college for choosing representatives to the consultative federal national council. Bahrain, having tried a bloody crackdown for a few days, pulled back the security forces and elected to use politics to appease protesters. The cabinet was reshuffled and political prisoners were released.

The governments that could afford to use resources to buy time chose that route to survival. When the wave of discontent washed up the shores of Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said who had governed for 40 years, promised 50,000 new jobs and $400 a month in economic benefits. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced a package of economic handouts that amounted to a staggering $36 billion for housing loans, unemployment benefits and pay rises. The measures included a 15 per cent salary rise for public employees to offset inflation, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, and financial aid for students and the unemployed. The king also pledged to spend $400 billion by the end of 2014 to improve education, infrastructure and healthcare.

But this package did not satisfy those who were asking for real reforms. According to Hassan al-Mustafa, one of the 40 Saudi rights activists and journalists who signed an open letter requesting an elected parliament, more rights for women and enhanced anti-corruption measures, “we want real change. This will be the only guarantee of the security of the kingdom.”

Economic uncertainty that followed the revolutions on the streets began to take a heavy toll on many countries. In Saudi Arabia, there was a drop of 16 per cent in the valuation of the capital market since the beginning of the year. This represented an outflow of more than $50 billion from the market. The Saudi stock market is worth more than the combined values of the indexes in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, but it was the worst performer in the region after Egypt and Dubai.

According to one analyst, “the marked change in sentiment is especially significant, given that Saudi Arabia’s is a local and retail-dominated index. The plunge probably is being driven by domestic wealth, rather than jittery hot foreign money. The kingdom’s investors may well decide to stash cash under the mattress or send it abroad to safer havens like Abu Dhabi, Switzerland or Singapore.”

Some analysts believe that it is not correct to paint with the same brush all the autocrats who currently rule in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Robert Kaplan, author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, advises the world to distinguish between good and bad autocrats. Sometimes the former kind can deliver better economic and social returns to their societies than democracies. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said may belong to the category of virtuous autocrats. He has “built roads and schools throughout the rural interior, advanced the status of women and protected the environment. He governs with the vision similar to that of many erstwhile Asian dictators such as China’s Deng Xiaoping, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s more problematic Mahathir Mohammad, who lifted their societies out of poverty and made them aspiring middle-class dynamos...But the very success of a benevolent dictator – his abjuration of tyranny – indicates his eventual downfall.”

There was a suggestion of panic in the responses made by the leaders who felt threatened by the wave of unrest that lashed their shores. But the rulers who were struggling to stay in power did not seem to have realised that demography was not in their side. The Middle East and the Muslim world have the world’s youngest populations. In Egypt 52.3 per cent of the population, estimated at 83 million, is under the age of 25; the proportion for Libya is 47.4 per cent. In Tunisia, the ratio is 42.1 percent and for Saudi Arabia the proportion is 59 per cent. The highest proportion is in Yemen, with 63.5 percent.

The region’s youth did not necessarily want bribes or promise of political change but were looking for real programmes to be put in place for political reform. They also wanted the adoption of strategies that would provide the population with a much larger share in the existing economic pie. And they wanted an even a larger share in what was likely to be added to the wealth of these troubled nations.

However, in responding this way, as Roula Khalaf wrote in The Financial Times on March 1, the leaders were “missing the point of the unrest. If there is a single message from the revolts it is that for the first time in decades Arabs are clamouring for political rights and accountable government – not only social benefits.” In other words, they will continue to agitate if their aspirations are not met.

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