The Middle East and North African (MENA) countries extend from Morocco to Iran, have been a source of enduring conflict, and along with America, Europe, and China, will be one of the key drivers of international relations for the foreseeable future. Trying to characterize such an expansive and diverse region however presents a significant analytic challenge. Identifying the countries, the wars, and the leaders is a start, but more is required to improve data, planning, and analysis. Moving beyond the nations and leaders to include their populations and international connections is a way forward.
Another way forward analytically is to focus on a representative case that highlights many of the key MENA forces and themes, like Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom ruled by King Abdullah II is a welcome island of stability in an otherwise turbulent region with Israel and Syria as next-door neighbors and a key to US diplomatic efforts. Jordan participated in the NATO-led military operations in Afghanistan, which gave MENA face to the coalition that provided legitimacy far beyond whatever material and personnel they provided.
Jordan’s stability however, like many MENA nations, is threatened by demographic factors outside its borders. There are Palestinian refugee camps that been in Jordan generations, so at some point one must ask when do such people stop being Palestinians who will return home someday and become newly arrived Jordanians? So too, many Syrians are moving south to escape war, and Jordan is struggling to accept them. The numbers are significant as Jordan has a population of 8 million with 1 million refugees.
Such large numbers of refugees bring with it a myriad of challenges. The first concerns physically how to sustain so many people? These populations are initially placed in refugee camps, which can number in the 10s of thousands and extend for miles. The camps create a need for international aid from the European Union (EU), the US, and other MENA countries because numbers of refugees is so large that they would overwhelm a country as small as Jordan. Beyond simply sustaining the refugees, their futures are also a matter of concern. Will they return to where they came from? For both the Palestinians and Syrians, that plan is problematic as the conditions under which return would be possible is presently hard to envision. Some refugees have left the camps and have created lives in Jordan, but the number who are able to do so is limited because they compete with native Jordanians for limited amounts of housing, schooling, and employment. It is also possible that they could travel to other countries, but once again, such opportunities are limited compared to the number of Syrian refugees that number in the millions. Even if permanent homes could be found for the refugees, the MENA region is creating people faster than homes, schools, and employment opportunities can be created for them. The difficulty of these population pressures is borne out by the silence associated with the issue.
The changing demographics of Jordan present challenges for its monarchy to maintain legitimacy. Like all ruling elites, there are resource flows, which is to say cash and jobs, that must be distributed to maintain political support. Critics of the monarchy characterize these resource flows as corruption, though they are a major part of MENA political life. Critics prefer that resources go to more needy portions of the population, and such disagreements become more intense as the amount of available resources is shrinking even as the need is growing.
Refugee populations also threaten the stability of the monarchy. The Arab spring that rocked Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain was primarily directed at authoritarian governments, and even though Jordan is well run, it is still a monarchy that remains worried about its populations. Of course the countries that tried to depose their authoritarian leaders have not done well. True democracy is hard to establish in MENA countries and appears to undermine rather than engender security. Some arguing that the Arab spring has turned into an Arab winter, but such facile descriptions do not address the underlying trends and complexities that drive and underly country instability and state fragility. Put simply, if you’re going to overthrow a government like Libya’s or even Iraq’s, then there had better be a transition plan in place or you’ll end up with—Libya or Iraq.
MENA demographics also drive the regions security dynamics. Until the late 20th century, people’s conception of war was one of people in uniforms fighting other people in uniforms as a form of great power competition. World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the first Gulf War all took this form of people in uniforms fighting others in uniforms. However the Vietnam War, the Iranian Hostage crisis, Afghanistan, and the Second Gulf War all revealed a very different, transformed, and harder to conceptualize type of war—asymmetric war—that features a stronger group in uniform versus a weaker group not in uniform. Even though this type of war is harder to understand, it is much older and much more frequent, and US Army Special Forces (SF), also known as Green Berets, have been created to fight it. Army SF or Green Berets are often called “trainers” because they train foreign forces to defend their own countries, and recently three SF soldiers were killed in Jordan. They were there to train forces to fight in Syria, and it’s not clear who killed them. Was it somebody with a grudge against America or the Jordanian government? Was it an accident or an act by ISIS? Answers to questions such as these are increasingly hard to find in MENA countries.
This analysis has viewed the issues confronting the MENA region though the perspective of Jordan. The factors of demographics, economic distribution, and security had been examined as a way to address the roots of MENA politics and instability. Although identifying, specifying, and quantifying the drivers of instability is difficult, formulating policies to address these drivers is even more difficult. As the next US administration prepares to take office, the question of with what policies to engage MENA needs to be addressed. Although not engaging may seem to be an attractive option, and one which was explored by President Obama, America’s economic connections and history argue against disengagement. Moreover, the regions volatility will likely demand US engagement in the years to come.