24 March 2019

Beware the Mideast’s Falling Pillars

By Thomas L. Friedman

AMMAN, Jordan — For the last half-century the politics of the Middle East has been shaped by five key pillars, but all five are now crumbling. A new Middle East is aborning — but not necessarily the flourishing one that people imagined in the 1990s.

This one is being shaped more by Twitter memes than by U.S. diplomats, more by unemployment than by terrorism, more by upheavals on the streets than by leaders in palaces, more by womenthan by men. Can’t say where it will all settle out, but for now, beware falling pillars.

How so? For starters, there was always a deep U.S. involvement in shaping the future of this region. But just look around today: The U.S. doesn’t even have ambassadors in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a former Trump bankruptcy lawyer, is so enthralled with the right-wing Jewish settler movement that he is more a propagandist than a diplomat. Bye-bye American pie.

Second, there has always been some kind of Israeli-Palestinian peace process pushing for the best two-state solution. Again, bye-bye. Today, in truth, the U.S. and Israel seem to be engaged in a search for the best one-state solution, meaning permanent Israeli security control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, along with some form of deep Palestinian autonomy.

Third, Arab governments could always guarantee jobs for their populations in their bureaucracies or security services — jobs where you could come late, leave early and work another job on the side. Also, bye-bye. With falling oil prices and rising populations, virtually every Arab state today is trying to figure out how to shed government workers and outsource services.

Jordan’s King Abdullah recently told a group of U.S. military visitors that what keeps him up at night is just one thing — and it’s not ISIS or Al Qaeda. It’s the fact that 300,000 Jordanians are unemployed and 87 percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 39, prime working years.

For weeks there have been sit-ins by jobless students outside Abdullah’s palace and protest marches across Jordan by the unemployed, hungry and hopeless. At the same time, the unemployed in Gaza last week began a “revolt of the hungry” against Hamas’s economic mismanagement, and similar street protests erupted in Algeria and Sudan, aimed at their failing, long-entrenched autocrats. Arab Spring 2.0 anyone?

The fourth crumbling pillar: The days when information flowed only from the top down, and Arab governments could control the voices in their countries, are long gone. With Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp widely diffused in the Arab world, information now moves horizontally and people — using their real names — now tweet the most insulting things at their leaders.

(It is increasingly obvious that social networks and cyber tools are making efficient autocrats, like China, even more efficient. But they seem to be making soft authoritarians, like Jordan, more fragile, and they are making Western democracies increasingly ungovernable.)

Finally, men could dominate women through formal and informal religious, cultural and legal norms. But the recent high-profile cases of young women fleeing male control in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. spoke for many Arab women who are no longer so willing to submit to male guardianship. This is especially true because women in many countries, Jordan, for instance, are now out-graduating men in both high school and universities.

However, without a change in the laws of marriage, inheritance, divorce and child custody — all of which favor men — all the women doing well in school will never be able to realize their full potential in the work force, where they are still badly underrepresented. Something has to give.

Meanwhile, it’s hard for men to marry without a job. Having lots of men who have never held power, held a job or held a girl’s hand is a prescription for social unrest — especially when they’re all on Twitter.

Welcome to the new Middle East!

Where does this go? Leaders across the region are learning that they “can’t rely on 20th-century tools to keep the populations quiet any longer,” remarked Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan, who now oversees research on the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 “broke the fear taboo in many Arab countries, and the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has broken the money bargain.” Citizens now declare: If you can’t guarantee me a government job, I get to say whatever I want.

Does that mean Jordan, for example, should change overnight to democracy? I asked Muasher. “No,” he said, “but there has to be a process of greater power-sharing between the governments and the people and civil society institutions. You can’t keep asking people to sacrifice, to give up government jobs and subsidies, to accept higher taxes, but still not have a real voice in their own governance.”

So, is all the new news bad news? Actually not — at least in Jordan.

King Abdullah has been slow to share power, but he remains a decent leader, trying to develop a decent country of 10 million that now hosts 1.3 million Syrian refugees. His most important initiative may be his push seven years ago to launch a tech/start-up hub in Jordan that is also a new factor in the region. For the first time here you have hundreds of private-sector start-ups — independent of the government — working on social problems as business opportunities.

So I met Bashar Arafeh, managing director in the Middle East and Africa for IrisGuard, whose technology includes a cellphone with lenses that can immediately identify you — through your iris — with near 100 percent accuracy. Connected to a United Nations refugee database using blockchain, it’s being used, among other ways, to check if someone is indeed a Syrian refugee, who is supposed to receive aid, or someone else, who wants a ration card to sell on the black market. Refugees call the phone the “fingerprint of the eye” machine.

I met Zaid Farekh, who did well enough writing business software to start a local accelerator of his own, called Propeller Incorporated. “I want to stay in Amman,” he told me, “because I believe we can build $100 million companies here. It’s just a matter of time.”

I met Dina Shawar, C.E.O. of Adam Tech Ventures, which provides seed money to tech start-ups trying to reshape their industries. She also built a discussion forum for Arab women tech entrepreneurs that recently brought over a team from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to teach women starter-uppers how to project themselves at a board meeting or make a financial pitch.

I met Aysar Batayneh, who recently helped create the Jordan Trail, a 400-mile (650-kilometer) hiking path. It has spawned tourist hospitality businesses all along the way. I also met his wife, Mary Nazzal-Batayneh, a founding partner of 17 Asset Management, which is taking the 17 U.N. S.D.G.s (sustainable development goals, like gender equality, clean water, sanitation and cheap, clean energy) and looking for ways to leverage private and government capital to create business opportunities to achieve them.

And I met Hussam Hammo, founder of Tamatem Games, which publishes mobile games culturally relevant for the Arab market — the fastest-growing games market in the world. He credited Oasis500 with giving him a second chance after his first company went bankrupt and the local business culture “would not support anyone who failed in a start-up.’‘

So, no, the new Middle East isn’t doomed to upheaval. In Jordan, at least, it’s the story of a race between a lot of bad trends (like too many young people who say: I work to get a government job so I have a job where I don’t have to work) and a new growth mind-set trying to scale. Jordan will be getting almost 20 percent of its energy from solar by 2020; the Ministry of Labor is trying all sorts of radical ideas to get more young people hired in the private sector.

The problem is that the hour is late. Political reform has been postponed too long and old cultural norms are still deeply rooted outside of Amman. As one Jordanian minister put it to me: “We have to do everything. We have to do it all right. And we have to do it fast.”

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