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The 4 Ds shaping our future, or our collapse

Jan 25,2018 - Last updated at Jan 25,2018

The start of another calendar year brings with it the opportunity to look back and look ahead to try to understand the trends that define our Arab region. I have spent the last year steadily researching what I call in shorthand the 4 Ds that define the underlying trends that have slowly brought our region to its fractured and often traumatised state today: state dysfunction, socio-economic disparity, citizen political disempowerment, and individual and collective human despair.

This gruesome quartet of forces has continuously gnawed away at the former “stability” of Arab countries and societies for the past four decades, generating insurmountable obstacles to state integrity that has resulted in six war-ravaged countries and others where internal stresses seem to portend permanent draconian, security-first, responses by political elites that refuse to share power inclusively.

The rot gained wide traction since the 1970s, but the past decade indicates that we should not expect any quick improvements in the region. This decade has included continuing mass desperation, spontaneous uprisings, a few civil wars, much government counter-repression and foreign military interventions everywhere you look. In fact, Arab and other Middle Eastern countries now join the trend of foreign militarism, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran leading the way in making war or establishing military bases in nearby countries.

I initially sought to understand the underlying reasons for our Arab region’s continuing slide into incoherent statehood and ravaged citizenship by exploring what drove otherwise ordinary young men and some women to support, like, or join the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) — perhaps as many as 50 or 60 million Arabs, according to some pollsters and analysts.

My initial research led me to the frightening conclusion about our Arab region suffering the grotesque realities of the 4 Ds mentioned above. I explored this in more depth by in two ways: The obvious signs that are visible to anyone like myself who travels around the region and interacts with both ordinary citizens and members of the power elites, and the findings of credible empirical research by Arab and international scholars who explore broad trends across the entire region.

Too often for comfort, the findings from my feet and my footnotes point out half a dozen trends that should cause grave concern across our region:

a) Conditions for many or most people have deteriorated in almost every important sector of life (water, education, employment, nutrition, poverty, environment, freedom of expression, political participation and accountability, socio-economic disparities, and a dozen others.)

b) All these dimensions of life link with one another to create an almost insurmountable cycle of obstacles to an individual achieving a better life, because deterioration in one dimension of life automatically triggers similar declines in other sectors; this reverses what happened to ordinary families across the Arab world in 1920-1970, when every generation saw its wellbeing improve.

c) Conditions in all these sectors have continued to deteriorate for the most part in the past decade since the 2010-11 uprisings’ explosion of mass popular despair sent the strongest signal of the past century of the unsustainable nature of current Arab statehood. The massive red flag of the uprisings has been ignored, so underlying conditions continue to worsen, generating new pressures that build up with unpredictable consequences.

d) The accumulated stresses in many sectors have reached a point where it is more and more difficult to stop or slow down the deteriorations and try to improve conditions. Many countries with their mediocre governance systems continue the same damaging policies just to stay in place — like over-pumping groundwater, passing on failing students to the next class, misdirecting subsidies in sectors that inhibit real and sustained economic growth or employment, ignoring the spontaneous explosion in unplanned urbanism, criminalising free expression on social media, and refusing to allow ordinary citizens to participate in the challenges and thrills of designing state policies that actually respond to people’s needs, rather than the elite’s further enrichment.

e) This cycle of regression has led to severe splintering of Arab states’ populations, on the basis of ethnicity, sectarianism, wealth and power. As the Arab region’s people fracture into smaller units, many of them also militarise, and seek foreign patrons and protectors. This causes massive new problems for the reconstitution of integrated and healthy states — a challenge that is exacerbated by the underlying socio-economic stresses and disparities mentioned above that continue to deteriorate.

f) All of this, serious and threatening as it is, madly seems to be ignored by both our governing power elites and the leading international powers that support them, whether regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey, or global powers like the US, Russia, the UK, France and others.

The cumulative consequences of these internal trends within many Arab countries strike me as the most serious threat that we confront (alongside the continued dual challenges of Zionist-Israeli colonialism and non-stop international military interventions). So for the coming months or more, I will ignore Donald Trump, Mohammad Bin Salman, northern Syria, Aden, Benghazi, Egyptian jails, and other issues that preoccupy most Middle East watchers. Instead, in these weekly columns I will report on and analyse studies on the issues that I believe form the basis for the Arab region’s continuing deterioration, militarisation, pauperisation, polarisation, and fragmentation. These will include trends in poverty, education, employment, pollution, water equity, housing, corruption, democratisation, the rule of law, and disparities in many life dimensions.


Most of these developments are widely ignored by the Arab and international media. Their impact, however, determines the wellbeing of most of the 400 million citizens in Arab countries, who know that they deserve more than the current dysfunction, disparity, disempowerment and despair that many of them experience in their everyday lives. These issues also ultimately will determine if the violence, cruelty, suffering and collapse of the past decade are the high-water mark that finally pushes us to repair our dysfunctions — or are just a hint of the much greater disruption, mass suffering and state collapse that we can expect ahead.

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