The Middle East in an Emerging World: Observations from the Roundtable

Monday, April 22, 2019
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When experts discuss the Middle East and North Africa, they often begin with the Shi’a–Sunni divide, the Israeli-Palestine conflict, or the prevalence of Islamic terrorism. We’d like to add another dimension. We know these conflicts have and will persist. But as the papers presented in this volume attest—and as the roundtable discussion confirmed—the individual countries in this region are also affected by the broader forces we have been studying throughout this project: demographic change, emerging technologies, and weakening governance. Indeed, the countries we surveyed in this session are case studies of how demographics and technology can intersect to change the fundaments of a country, and the vital role governments play in determining whether that change will be for good or for ill.

We asked the authors, all with deep knowledge of the country they wrote on, to analyze the situation and outlook in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Israel. And we conclude with a look at the state of entrepreneurship and technological innovation in Tunisia and across the region. As discussed below, the five countries surveyed fit roughly into three demographic baskets: the youth of Saudi Arabia and Egypt; the expiring demographic dividend opportunities of Iran and Turkey; and the ever-more diverse Israel. Through these lenses we can see the opportunities each country has to secure a more prosperous and healthy future for itself, and the obstacles to doing so.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

With a young population and a technologically advanced society, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would appear to have a bright future. Through heavy investment in network infrastructure and next-generation technology, it can develop a thriving post-oil economy and enjoy long-term strength and stability. Or so says Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in his Vision 2030 plan. In his paper for this volume and in his roundtable remarks, Hicham Alaoui takes a less Pollyannaish view of the future.

The Crown Prince is correct about the demography and network infrastructure of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is young. A moderate (for the region) official median age of 30 includes a substantial share of migrant guest workers; among Saudi nationals alone, however, roughly 60 percent are under the age of 30, and 40 percent are under 18. These youth, centered in urban areas, tend to lean more liberal than older cohorts. They supported Bin Salman’s decision to allow women to drive, and the majority want more rights for women. And the younger populations tend, as is often the case, to be tech-savvy. However, they have limited economic opportunities and express dissatisfaction with the state of the Kingdom. At least a quarter of them are unemployed, and many find themselves stuck between school and a job, in what Alaoui called “waithood.” Those who do have jobs tend to find them in public-sector or adjacent industries: two-thirds of Saudi nationals work in the public sector. Saudi workforce participation by women is growing and has shifted from once lagging to now exceeding the regional average over the past decade. This will contribute to economic growth. Yet female workforce participation remains low in an absolute sense—just two-fifths that of the U.S. rate, for example. Saudi youth are ambivalent about the future: just 51 percent think they will enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents.

The Saudi population enjoys good broadband access, mobile penetration, and network connectivity. There are 22 mobile phones for every 100 people, and, with over 90 percent of the population using the internet, three quarters of Saudis are active on social media. As we have seen around the world, access to mobile and internet technology has mixed results. Saudi society can escape some of the regime’s traditional censorship by turning to social networks—women in particular can express themselves online in ways they never could offline before—but the regime has asserted its authority over the digital space. It has long regulated the media and television access and enforced speech restrictions, and Mohammed Bin Salman has introduced extensive cyber policing. The regime now monitors internet activity and has imprisoned activists for online speech. More broadly, the regime views internet and mobile access as it does political and civil rights: privileges to be extended, not rights granted to all.

So perhaps Saudi Arabia’s future does not necessarily appear all that bright. In contrast to the optimistic outlook of the Crown Prince and his Vision 2030 plan, Hicham Alaoui warns that political instability is just as likely. Mohammed Bin Salman hopes to move Saudi Arabia beyond its existing rentier system. He recognizes that hydrocarbon revenues will decrease, and the royal elites may not be able to rely much longer on the provision of oil rents in return for political stability. So he looks to dynamism from the country’s favorable ratio of workers per dependent—a product of youth, but also a large migrant labor population—and technology to transition the Kingdom into a newly productive era.

However, Alaoui writes, Mohammed Bin Salman “desires modernization without modernity.” He wants the trappings of a modern, technologically advanced society but is unwilling to surrender control over the direction of the country or to democratize. It is not clear that these goals are compatible, and the direction of Vision 2030 so far would suggest they are not. State-driven investments in technology remain preeminent, most notably in the Crown Prince’s vision of a $500 billion “high-tech” city in the desert. And the economy remains oriented around the largesse of the state and, in particular, royal elites. Alaoui describes the relationship thusly: “the state will give technology on the basis that it decides; and you will consume it how the state says you can.”

It is possible that as today’s young generation ages, it could force greater political openings and economic modernization. But while tech-savvy and socially liberal, today they are not yet particularly politically active, nor do they seem eager for economic liberalization. To the contrary, some two-thirds of Saudi youth support an expansionary monetary policy and seek more government largesse. Given the lack of economic opportunities, it is easy to understand why they might shift towards statist solutions in this way.

Until recently the Saudi monarchy was widely accepted as the legitimate sovereign in Saudi Arabia, but now it rules as a police state. If the youth cohort, now aging, were to trigger political dissension or uprising, what might that look like? Alaoui reminded us that, though the young may spark political uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, they rarely direct the outcomes. The youth were out in the streets of Tehran in 1979, but Ayatollah Khomeini was not the hand-picked choice of the student protesters. Large populations of young people, armed with technology and unhappy with the status quo, breeds uncertainty, and, with that in mind, Alaoui predicts, “a future of instability and volatility is as plausible as the prosperous and secure outcome evoked by the Saudi leadership today.”

A comment on Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy and its role in the region. The Crown Prince has adopted an assertive stance and increased his country’s engagement in regional affairs. It is balancing against Iranian influence around the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, has been fighting in the Yemen Civil War for years now, and has moved from cooperation to confrontation with Qatar. Roundtable participants noted that the Crown Prince Bin Salman views foreign policy through the same lens as domestic policy. He wants Saudi Arabia, and by extension himself, as the primary authority in the region. Saudi efforts to keep Iran in check and support for friends in Yemen and Tunisia reflect that ambition. But Saudi engagement, much like Iranian engagement, has tended to disrupt stability and will continue to do so. Given his relative lack of success, and following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Crown Prince has lowered his profile abroad. Yet he continues to seek legitimacy and authority, expanding ties with Russia and China to improve his own position.

Many of the themes of our project are met in Saudi Arabia. It is navigating a demographic transition, and its leadership has staked the future of the country to emerging technologies. There is great opportunity in the Kingdom, but also great uncertainty and risk of political instability. What may define its future is governance, specifically the policy choices made by the Crown Prince and the House of Saud. Will they recognize that a thriving economy and technological dynamism is incompatible with a state-centric, rent-based economic and biased social system? Will they seek to copy China’s model of entrepreneurial growth but strict state censorship and internet sovereignty? Or perhaps the most likely outcome, as Hicham Alaoui suggests, may be somewhere in the middle: the House of Saud digs into its reserves and attempts to maintain the status quo—and the existing state-society relationship—as long as possible.

Egypt

What was said of Saudi Arabia was echoed during the discussion of Egypt, but in more dire tones. Egypt faces similar economic and demographic conditions as the Kingdom, though they are arguably more severe and leave less room for optimism. But, as in Saudi Arabia, the challenge for Egypt ultimately comes down to the policies and characteristics of the government. It has a large, young, and rapidly growing population, but the regime of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi seems more interested in controlling that population than helping it flourish.

In many respects, Egypt today also resembles Egypt at the time of the Arab Spring. As our Stanford University colleague Lisa Blaydes writes, Egypt has experienced immense political disruption in the intervening years, but there has also been a good deal of continuity. The demographic and economic conditions that predated 2011 uprising remain, and in some senses have gotten worse. There remains a large youth population—here too, almost 60 percent of the society is under the age of 30—but economic opportunities are few. And the political situation has also gotten more dire. Al-Sisi’s government is more oppressive than Mubarak’s was. He has, as Professor Blaydes put it, “institutionalized authoritarianism”: established an autocracy supported by the military, passed laws restricting non-government organizations (NGOs) as well as protests and political demonstrations, and enacted a harsher penal code. To go even further, the regime restricts personal freedoms more than before and engages in mass surveillance and media censorship—it pushed through a law in 2018, for example, which allowed government surveillance of thousands of social media accounts. At the same time, legislature has grown weaker, allowing greater centralization of power in head of state.

The general picture of Egypt is of a predatory, military autocracy that wants to exert control over the country’s path. It views the country’s youth as a national security threat and wishes to keep it under control. But despite Al-Sisi’s intentions, Professor Blaydes argues, forces outside his control—demographic changes, economic opportunity, public health, and climate change—will drive the future.

Egypt is in the same situation as a number of countries surveyed over the course of this project—especially its neighbors in North Africa: it has a young and rapidly growing population but offers minimal economic opportunities. The median age is just 25, and Egypt’s population is set to explode by over 50 percent by midcentury. Fertility had declined in the lead up to the Arab Spring but increased in the wake of it, in part because the Muslim Brotherhood deemphasized  existing family planning policies and in part because Al-Sisi’s anti-NGO initiatives restricted access to and the supply of birth control.

However, even as they grow in number, Egyptian youth do not enjoy good economic prospects. Lisa Blaydes cites the fascinating results of the “Survey of Young People in Egypt,” conducted by Cairo’s Population Council, in her paper. The survey reported low rates of employment among those aged 13–35. Of those not in school, only 40 percent had reported working recently. And of those employed, 70 percent said their jobs require no real skills, while only 10 percent reported that their jobs required a computer. The survey results paint a general picture of dissatisfaction with the labor market, low productivity for those who are employed, and minimal confidence in the country’s direction. Where Saudi youths were torn on the country’s outlook, Egyptians are convinced theirs is negative: only 30 percent of them think the country will be better off for them than it was for their parents.

So we see in Egypt a large, growing, and tech-savvy population of young people, but a weak labor market and real anxiety about the future. And there is little evidence the Al-Sisi government has the intention or, at present, the capacity to improve the situation. Blaydes reports in her paper, a general concern that the Al-Sisi government lacks both the resources and the will to keep the nation’s infrastructure up-to-date for such a large and rapidly growing population. In some ways, Al-Sisi’s government seems more inclined to remove itself from society than to respond to society’s needs—as seen in its decision to move the administrative capital 30 miles into the desert, away from the population center of Cairo.

The governance challenges for the Al-Sisi regime go beyond demographic and economic conditions. Egyptian society is dealing with an ongoing public health crisis and the deleterious effects of a changing climate. Egypt has among the highest rates of obesity and Hepatitis C in the world: 35 percent of adults—some 19 million people—are obese, which means Egyptians also exhibit high rates of obesity-related diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, and heart conditions, and 10 percent of the population is infected with Hepatitis C. Fortunately, this is one area in which the government has shown initiative and progress. For example, it has implemented successful programs to screen for and treat Hepatitis C, but the crisis consumes one third of the national health budget, restricting resources available for other needs.

Finally there is the cross-cutting challenge of climate change. Egypt, almost entirely dependent on the Nile for water, could reach water scarcity as soon as 2030. On top of that, Ethiopia’s plans for a dam on the Nile river further threatens the country’s water supply. Even a short-term shortage could have significant effects on the country’s stability. As Lisa Blaydes explained, the country has historically been highly sensitive to disruptions to its agricultural industry, and political or social unrest has followed food shortages or price spikes. Adapting to a changing climate will act like a new tax on everyday Egyptians, and any coordinated response will only further strain the country’s public budget.

Al-Sisi may hope to direct the country’s future, but to do so effectively he will have to address his country’s demographic and economic challenges. Given the scale of population growth and existing economic problems, discussants at the roundtable were concerned that the country simply could not generate sufficient economic growth to alleviate these pressures. And they worried what that might mean for the country’s neighbors, especially those across the Mediterranean. Already, many young people now emigrate, primarily to Europe. As immigration pressures grow, it is a good bet that those numbers will increase. Europe, already feeling the effects of Egypt’s difficulties, will have to prepare accordingly.

In this way, the broader themes of the emerging new world appear again. Similar to Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s current situation cries out for good governance. Continued improvements to the country’s public health policies, reversals of Al-Sisi’s restrictive and predatory policies, and a dedication to reducing corruption could all improve prospects for economic growth, while alleviating some of the severe social pressures at play. And Egypt’s struggles radiate outwards; whether we like it or not, they will be felt in Europe and in other advanced democracies.

Turkey

While Saudi Arabia and Egypt have large cohorts of young people—and the attendant opportunities and challenges—Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran are at the other end of the spectrum. Both populations are aging rapidly, and both countries seem bound to let the opportunity of a demographic dividend pass by unseized.

Let us look first at Turkey. With a median age of 32, Turkey is young relative to its neighbors in Europe, but relatively old for the Middle East. It is currently at the peak of its demographic window, as expressed by the share of its population that is working-age, and those favorable demographics will diminish through the 2020s as that share declines. In his paper for this volume, Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament, writes that Turkey suffers from a governance deficit, which stems from its hyper-centralized political system. And he explores what the country’s demographic transition, coupled with the technological advances of the 21st century, might mean for the country’s future, both internally and as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

According to Erdemir, the roots of Turkey’s hyper-centralized politics lie in the post-Ottoman Empire transition. Following the collapse of the empire, Turkey centralized authority in the state, fearful of delegating power outside the capital or of accommodating ethnic minorities. The state took on a heavy-handed and corrupt role in markets, which impedes economic development. Under President Recep Erdoğan, the state’s centrality has only increased, and the stabilizing institutions have grown weaker. There are few checks and balances on presidential authority; one of the few, the military, once a primary check on the power of Ankara, has been gutted and two-thirds of the officer corps purged. With the military weakened, Islamists have accrued more authority, pushing the government more towards a revolutionary theology.

However, Erdemir noted in the roundtable discussion, the coercive capacity of the state should not be misunderstood as a sign of strength. By contrast, he described Turkey has “a strong society with a weak state.” Erdoğan has increased the state’s brutality but also its governance deficit.

At the same time, the state is undergoing two transformations: demographic and technological. To the former: as described above, Turkey is gradually transitioning from a young to an aged society, with an absolute decline in the number of children, and with that moving from a “sending” country (that sends out guestworkers) to a receiving one (which receives refugees). As we have seen with its regional neighbors, Turkey has not given its youth the tools to succeed. Education prioritizes religious-national training over the skills necessary for success in the 21st century, and 33 percent of young adults are neither employed nor in education or training. Moreover, with falling fertility and limited opportunities among native Turks but growing numbers of refugees and Kurds, the country has seen a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Kurd sentiment.

On the technology front, Turkey is a relatively connected and advanced society, but the government works hard to control media and internet platforms. The population widely uses social media, but Erdoğan controls roughly 90 percent of print and visual media and uses social media to manufacture dissent. The government collects individuals’ data and imposes one of the world’s strictest digital environments (no Wikipedia or PayPal, for example). Dr. Erdemir described Erdoğan’s approach as reflexive control of the internet.

However, the government’s ambitions outpace its capacity. Erdoğan may seek reflexive control, but digital technologies have nonetheless given the population more avenues for political activism and mobilization. That could be seen in the 2019 elections, when, despite the president’s best efforts, the opposition party won large, including defeating Erdoğan’s hand-picked mayor of Istanbul.

Turkey has a history of top-down redesigns of the political order, and it is going through a similar process today. The government is dismantling democratic institutions, regulatory agencies, the rule of law, education, and financial regulations. But it has not stamped out democracy—again, the last round of elections show that opposition is alive and well. The question for Turkey is whether the demographic and technological changes underway will deepen the problem or put Turkey back on track to better governance. During the roundtable, discussants with intimate knowledge of the political dynamics in-country gave reason for optimism. They reported that, although Erdoğan has worked to undermine existing institutions and bulwarks of opposition, reformers, especially secularists, have kept the memory and principles of those institutions alive. They have been able to organize online and resist some of the kleptocratic behavior in Ankara.

The West, especially Turkey’s NATO allies, will have an important role to play in supporting the future of democracy and prosperity in Turkey. Russia has sought to use Turkey to foment discord within NATO—making it, in the words of one roundtable participant, “their man in NATO.” NATO, and especially the United States, would be wise to resist that effort. Democratic restoration may be a fundamentally domestic process, but European and Western powers can help build the conditions to allow that process to flourish. In the near term, we could wield the carrot and the stick of NATO: offer alternatives to Russian military systems, namely the S-400, while making sure Erdoğan understands the costs of breaking alliance practice. In the long term, Erdemir reminds us of the role the United States played in establishing the Turkish democracy in 1946. U.S. guidance and support helped build the foundations of democracy there. Could it help reestablish them today?

The Islamic Republic of Iran

If the House of Saud wants to know what can happen when an authoritarian regime lets a demographic dividend opportunity pass by, it can look to its long-time rival, Iran. Abbas Milani, our Hoover Institution colleague and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project here, and his coauthor Roya Pakzad, a researcher in Stanford University’s Global Digital Policy Incubator, outline the sad state of affairs in the Islamic Republic: an aged, autocratic regime faces serious economic, political, and legitimacy crises.

Iran experienced one of the most dramatic reductions in fertility rates in recorded history. According to one Iranian census estimate, in the 10-year period from 1986 to 1996, its total fertility rate plummeted from 6.2 to 2.5 births per woman. It is now around 2.0. In the early 1980s, Iran’s population grew at an annual rate of nearly four percent; it is now down to 1.2 percent—the deceleration of the population is an echo of the rapid fertility decline. Despite the regime’s best efforts, fertility remains stubbornly low. From 1995 to 2010, Iran’s working-age population grew by 14 million people. It continues to grow, but growth is slowing. Moreover, the working-age population grows older: men and women age 40–64 are expected to outnumber those age 15–39 by 2028—and that aging process will accelerate come 2040. From then until 2050, the ranks of those 65 and older will increase in number while those of working-age population will decline.

One might expect Iran to be enjoying favorable economic conditions given these rosy demographics, but instead it has seen high rates of unemployment and low rates of workforce participation. Iranian official data show that only 40.3 percent of working-age Iranians—or 26.6 million people—are actually in the labor force. Meanwhile, over a quarter of the young workforce—age 15–29—is unemployed. There is a significant gender disparity as well, with a dismal female participation rate of only 16 percent compared to 64.5 percent for men.

The regime encouraged the expansion of secondary education to offset unemployment of young adults, but it has wasted much of that dividend. Half of university students are now women, but female university graduates have a 60 percent unemployment rate. And one-third of university students are in engineering, with an even larger number of STEM students. But Iran experiences brain drain, due in large part to the repressive regime and limited opportunities.

All told, Iran has experienced forty years of double-digit unemployment and inflation. It is dealing with a water crisis, which has triggered food insecurity. Poor infrastructure contributed to significant flooding in recent years, the effects of which were compounded by limited and ineffectual government responses. Low oil prices, coupled with sanctions and mismanagement, have limited the value of Iran’s endowed hydrocarbons. And the financial system appears to be collapsing. Financial institutions charge 25-30 percent interest on loans, but the loans go to clerics and military officials, making them unrecoverable. Savings and loans institutions are wracked with debt, and government has assumed much of it.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo—unpaid wages, rising inflation, natural disasters, and limited employment opportunities—triggered mass labor strikes and protests in 2018 and again in 2019. Protesters took to the streets in the latter half of 2019 and were met with violent government crackdowns. A reckoning might appear imminent. But our authors warned that Iran is not on the verge of collapse, nor is the regime as pressed as might appear.

Consider digital technologies. Iran has a robust digital infrastructure, with high rates of internet penetration and mobile access, as well as social media use. Men and women alike make use of social media platforms and the internet. At the same time, the regime maintains effective “cyber sovereignty.” It exercises control, surveillance, and censorship of online content. In general, it continues to invest in digital infrastructure and strengthen the internet, communications, and technology sector but also aims to expand its control over that sector. Roya Pakzad sources this goal to policies formed in the mid-2000s under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Following the Green Movement, which arose in 2009, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) expanded its control over domestic networks and its own cyber and information warfare capabilities. It has since engaged in such operations against targets in the United States, western countries, and in the region, as well as against domestic opposition.

Iranians have always resisted surveillance and police state action. As many as 60 percent now use VPNs and similar techniques to evade firewalls and censorship, and to communicate with the diaspora, but the regime maintains its position. Their commitment to resisting, or at least evading, the revolutionary regime’s surveillance raises questions about how long the IRGC and Ayatollah can maintain the cyber sovereignty model. Despite their investments and best efforts, they still have relatively unsophisticated cyber capabilities compared to, for example, those of the Chinese Communist Party.

In Iran, as in Saudi Arabia, the regime wishes modernization without modernity. It seeks extensive cyber and information warfare capabilities, and it wishes to develop a powerful domestic technology sector. But it is unwilling to allow that sector to develop organically. Its commitment to its nuclear weapons program has invited sanctions and severely limited the country’s potential, and it continues to funnel resources to military and domestic security services and foreign policy goals—such as its support of Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria—at the cost of domestic well-being. Yet its challenges may just be beginning. The population is aging, and the working-age population will decline. These are real problems for Iran, but the Iranian leadership does not seem ready or willing to deal with them. How far can a revolutionary, autocratic regime go when it faces these kinds of headwinds?

Israel

We have so far discussed autocratic regimes with significant governance deficits, so let us turn our attention to an exception in the region. Israel is, in many ways, a model country. It has a thriving high-technology sector and a strong economy. It is a healthy democracy, with free and fair elections. But these are, in the words of our Hoover colleague, Arye Carmon, the “hardware” of a democracy. What Israel needs more of is the “software” that sustains a democratic society and enables it to effectively govern over diversity.

The hardware achievements are substantial and notable—particularly in light of its unforgiving neighborhood. It has built the material foundations of government agencies, ensures open elections, and maintains a strong military. One tenth of the workforce is in the high-tech industry, and technology exports account for 35 percent of the total. Israel has over 100 companies on NASDAQ, and technology companies from around the world come to Israel to set up research and development centers—and to take advantage of Israel’s exceptional human talent, where, for example, the female labor force participation rate is three times the regional average. And its surprisingly fertility rate, the highest in the OECD, lays out a balanced path of gradual population and workforce growth to continue to fill those jobs. Underlining Israel’s advances in technology are a healthy business environment and a culture of innovation. Israel’s tech sector grew organically out of the industry built around military and intelligence development post 1973. Israel’s advanced water industry allows it to live in an arid environment, and the country has advanced space, AI, and 3D printing companies.

However, Arye Carmon worries that the country’s exceptional hardware may not suffice in the absence of more substantial software. Israel is, in his words, like a ship of state that left the shipyard early. It is young, populated by a people that spent centuries in exile without political sovereignty. Its population has grown ten-fold, to 8.5 million, since its founding and is expected to increase by half again by 2050. It is a kaleidoscope of unharmonious identities. Three quarters of Israeli citizens are Jews and 20 percent Arabs. But religious orientation is really the key identifier: 55 percent of Israeli Jews are secular, 26 percent traditional, 10 percent orthodox, and 9 percent ultra-orthodox. Israeli society is a diverse mosaic of heterogenous minorities, but that mosaic is showing fractures. Since the founding of the state, the concept of “Jewish and democratic” has been a defining part of Israeli identity. Sadly, a religious counter-revolution has complicated the former element, and, as in many democracies, populist nationalism challenges the state’s democratic values. Rapid population growth in the Israeli-occupied territories, which are predominantly Arab, poses further potential long-term challenges to Israel’s democracy.

The lack of national democratic “software” makes it harder to hold the ship of state together against those tensions. The shared Hebrew language helps establish a national consciousness, but Israel has little to bind it beyond that. It lacks both a constitution and a bill of rights. Its territorial identity remains in flux—without an Eastern border, there is a transience to the state. It does not have all the conceptual fabric that can hold a country together and stabilize governance over such a diverse society.

The structure of the government does not help matters either. Israel’s is a parliamentary system, but it is unicameral and comprised of just one district. With time, Israel’s two major parties have declined, and the discord around recent Israeli elections reflects the breakdown of politics into a host of small, vocal parties. In the absence of a defining parties, Israeli politics, again resembling many other democracies, has become personalized. As Arye Carmon wrote in the pages of the New York Times, “Israelis no longer vote for party platforms; they vote for personas.”1 In the Knesset—Israel’s parliament—the governing coalition has lost the ability to get bills through. From 2002 to 2012, few proposed laws passed, and those that did tended to be put forward by individuals, not parties or governments. Social media have no doubt contributed to this process, as in other states, but the underlying social fabric and weaknesses of Israel’s polity have contributed as well.

The challenge for Israel will be one we have identified throughout this project: how to govern over diversity. Israel’s national identity is in flux, with democratic values weakening and the role of religion in society being pushed to the extremes. But it is still a young state with an ancient people, as Carmon often says. That truism can be both cause for concern and a reason for optimism. Israeli society grows more diverse, but it has a strong foundation upon which to build a stronger social fabric and the democratic software.

Conclusion

The Middle East and North Africa have long been at the center of geopolitics, and the direction of the region has often followed its three most populous states: Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. So the situations in those states, described above and in this volume, are concerning. But there are positive forces at work in the region, and we will conclude on an optimistic note.

This volume includes a paper from Tunisian entrepreneur Houssem Aoudi on the state of innovation and entrepreneurialism in the region. His home state of Tunisia has led North Africa in developing the civil society and democratic foundations that allow for real innovation to take hold. It has adopted some legal protections for private sector entrepreneurs and now supports public-private partnerships. In Israel, the survival instinct takes on a more national character, but its desire to remain strong and independent in response to existential threats has helped make it the world leader it is today. In Egypt, the government made it easier to start new businesses and supports entrepreneurship; there are now incubators and angel investors funding startups there. Outside of Israel, the regional leader in innovation is the United Arab Emirates, in particular Dubai. Dubai has a comparably excellent business environment and strong capital flows, enabling the kind of large-scale innovation that does not occur in Tunisia or other weaker states.

Of course while “hard” high-tech innovation is rare in many countries, the entrepreneurial spirit nonetheless exists, and it often takes the form of “survival innovation”—something we described in our project’s earlier investigations of Central America. In Tunisia, for example, the informal economy dominates, so people seek ways to ease financial transactions through payment apps, among other lines of effort. Such innovation may not grab headlines or be transformative, but it is a sign of the potential of technology. When given minimal improvements to the rule of law, protection of property rights, and civil society, entrepreneurs are leaping into action.

Most importantly for the region, there is an ocean of largely untapped human potential: women. Throughout the roundtable, presenters and participants noted the large numbers of young women in the region, who are slowly gaining access to education and to economic freedoms. Supporting them and giving them the opportunities to contribute to their own societies is likely the most indelible change that could happen across the Middle East and North Africa.

The challenges facing many countries in the region are problems of their own making. They are the products of bad policies and poor governance, prioritizing authoritarian control over practices that could foster economic growth and democracy. The countries surveyed above have the potential to grow stronger and healthier. By reducing predatory government practices, ensuring the rule of law, and broadening women’s participation in society, governments could improve their country’s outlooks and strengthen regional stability. Better governance will not salve all ailments—the Shi’a-Sunni conflict will not be solved through better domestic policies alone—nor will it come easily. But it is, as one of us often says, a “work-at” problem. Incremental improvements to government policies add up, and together they can do wonders for a society and a region.


1 Arye Carmon, “Israeli’s Democracy is Broken,” New York Times (December 12, 2019).