Last week in New York, I took part in a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Billed as an exploration of the business risks and opportunities emerging from the Arab Spring, my fellow panellist – Jared Cohen from Google Ideas – and I had no difficulty in highlighting a plethora of risks. We were harder pressed to identify clear opportunities.
A year after the fall of Mubarak, the democratic promise of last February has been overshadowed by the rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme and the bloodshed in Syria. What seemed to be the long overdue emergence of people power has it seems been replaced by a return to a kind of Cold War rivalry between the great powers over their own strategic interests in the Middle East.
In Egypt, the intoxicating euphoria of 2011 has been replaced by a sober realisation that there will be no easy transition to secular liberal democracy. Many in the West are preoccupied by the rise to prominence of Islamic parties both in Egypt and elsewhere and this nervousness tends to overshadow the immediate concern that at a time of falling inward investment, rising unemployment and inflation there is little experience of competent economic management in most of the countries in political flux. In the past twelve months, Egypt has had four finance ministers.
So much of the punditry is taken up with discussing the battle for political ideas that insufficient time is spent on economic issues. This is a part of the world where many economies are warped by the distorting effect of hydrocarbon wealth and in some countries a third of the population is under fifteen. Success in both economic diversification and creating employment will be the key in checking the growth of extremism.
There is hope. Tunisia is managing the political transition better than others and Libya for all the current anxiety about civil war has demographics and natural wealth on its side in the longer term. But the overall mood of the meeting was – reflecting the subject matter – quite sombre.
Alternatively, it may have been because it was the fifth time I had made the same presentation in two days. Mostly, I think I got my EU sanctions and my UN resolutions the right way round. I was somewhat thrown the day before at a similar roundtable in Washington DC when one of the participants asked me about Senegal. For a moment, I thought it was an Iranian uranium enrichment site before I realised we must be taking a relaxed approach to Middle Eastern geography.
Thankfully the CFR meeting was well moderated by Rana Foroohar, the assistant Managing Editor of Time magazine. Flying back to the UK, I read her article in this week’s edition of Time on how US companies are now shedding their sense of national identity (Companies are the new countries). Returning home, it strikes me that it is not just companies that have become detached from their national origins but cities too. London and to a great extent New York have become global cities with more in common with each other than with their immediate national hinterlands.
If only the same was true of Homs and Damascus. But they remain resolutely Syrian. For now, they will have to wait to see if the USA and the EU can find enough common purpose with the Arab League and Turkey to force an end to the fighting, regardless of Russian and Chinese intransigence.
Even if they can, there is unlikely to be a speedy resolution. What now seems to have been straightforward regime change in Libya last year now seems much more problematic in Syria. With Libya isolated and largely friendless on the North African coast, none of the main powers had much to lose from the end of Gadhafi. But Syria is in a tougher and more complicated neighbourhood and for now that is handing the advantage to President Assad.