Change Has Not Come to the Middle East

By Michael Singh

Michael Singh is the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and managing director at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council.

At first glance, it would appear that the Middle East President Donald J. Trump now faces is far different than the region which confronted President Barack Obama in 2009. The Arab uprisings of 2011 swept away the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. Civil war has rent apart and depopulated Syria, once the cosmopolitan heart of the Arab world. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has carved out a terrorist quasi-state straddling Iraq and Syria, albeit one that is rapidly shrinking. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is experiencing its most prolonged lull since the 1993 Oslo Accords. And the once rapidly-escalating Iran nuclear crisis has been paused by the negotiation of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) – the only one of these developments for which Obama likely desires credit.

Yet the real story in the Middle East is not how much things have changed, but – when one digs a bit deeper – how little. The economic and political stagnation that birthed the 2011 uprisings has, if anything, worsened. Youth unemployment in the Arab world stood at 29 percent in 2013, more than double the global average of 13 percent and higher than any other region of the world. Even as the rest of the world worries about instability in the Middle East, the people of the region themselves overwhelmingly listed not security but their economic situation as their topmost concern – 88 percent prioritized economic woes compared to one percent who listed security concerns in Egypt, according to the Arab Barometer 2014.

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