The World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda, which begins today in the capital, has always been about more than merely economics: its subjects range across politics, society and more. The two main sources of instability in the world show this clearly: the euro-zone crisis is changing European countries in profound ways, creating social instability and political realignment.
The same is true for the Arab Spring, the continuing unfolding of which is top of the agenda at the Forum. In its outlook for 2014, the Forum argued that instability and social tensions would be the defining trend for next year. If you count the population of the five Arab Spring countries, there are currently 150 million Arabs affected by the uprisings. Add in countries like Iraq, that is still unstable, and those such as Jordan and Lebanon that have been hugely affected by the Syrian conflict and 200 million Arabs live under difficult constraints, more than half the total population of the region.
What, then, might the future hold for the Arab Spring nations? There are three important points to start with. The first is that many of the issues that underpinned the uprisings – stagnant economies, a lack of employment prospects and weak rule of law – remain in those five countries. The second is that they cannot be tackled in sequence: they must, in fiendishly complex acts of political juggling, be tackled together.
The third is that while each country was part of a common context of protests, the future challenges for each are very particular.
At one end of the spectrum is Libya, with a small population and vast energy resources, and Tunisia, a small country with a sizeable middle-class and strong ties to Europe. At the other, Yemen, a populous nation with significant poverty, and Egypt, a vast country with a bloated bureaucracy. Each of the four is struggling with security and the rebuilding of institutions – in Tunisia, the institutions are strong, in Libya non-existent.
All have opportunities – Tunisia has an educated population, Egypt a viable manufacturing sector, Yemen a strategic location, Libya energy resources – but all require a rebuilding of political authority and social harmony before they can be exploited.
Compounding the question is what, even if those could be fixed, the political trajectory would be. In countries like Tunisia and Libya (as in Iraq 10 years ago), the old political ideas and foundations were obliterated, leaving the nations to rebuild even as they rethink their political direction.
None of this is easy to do. It requires skilled politicians, navigating complex societies and delicate geopolitical balance. In Egypt, for example, rebuilding the economy comes against the background of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the American influence that emanates from this.
Thus the future economic outlook for the Arab Spring countries varies enormously. They may have commonalities, born from the cauldron of revolution, but they are likely to have very different trajectories for their recovery and development.