The Arab Spring: ill winds of change or birth of nations ?

Middle East & North Africa - Nov 23 2018

For almost 10 years now, the international scene has been marked by the surfacing of hotbeds of political and social instability, insurgency, and even what some have perceived as civil war, particularly in the Middle Eastern and North African regions. These crises that manifested themselves mainly in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria came to be known collectively as the "Arab Spring". However, the hypothesis that socio-economic mechanisms specific to Arab countries could lead to a general and simultaneous conflagration of these countries has not been well demonstrated. In fact, many Arab countries have not experienced such episodes. Many observers have thus been emboldened to point to climate change as a contributing factor to these crises. It would then be easy to conduct country risk or even sovereign risk analyses based on weather observations and forecasts. Splendid! How did we not think of this before?

The great paradigm shifts of History such as the revolutions and conflicts that marked Western Europe and Russia for over two centuries and, in recent decades Latin America, the Nationalist movements in Iran, Egypt and several African countries, not to mention the Asian continent in all its diversity: were they pre-determined, or influenced by atmospheric contingencies? Regarding Syria, where the situation is the most dire, recent and particularly documented work[1] dismiss this disconcerting but increasingly accepted theory: that a few seasons a drier than normal are enough to lead a country of more than 18 million inhabitants to collective madness and to cause a mass exodus over several thousand kilometers.

In line with the founding works of Emile Durkheim in the 19th century, the school of contemporary anthropology sheds light on the historical evolution of population growth. At the origin of this theoretical framework are some of the most prolific figures in the field: Lawrence Stone[2], Peter Laslett[3], and the acclaimed Emmanuel Todd[4], whose research has been conducted in a vast majority of countries representing various levels of development, socio-political systems, and ideologies. Their analyses point to the achievement of literacy thresholds across male and female populations and the arrival of birth control as the two critical moments in history which translated into destabilization and crises with a great regularity.

In a schematic way, reaching modernity, if defined by the universalization of literacy and the control of fertility at a level close to the threshold of population renewal, has historically caused tensions between different components of a population, whether it is between generations, between social strata, between male and female populations, or between ethnic and religious groups. If we make a geological analogy, these tensions can be compared to the accumulation of forces at the contact zones of the tectonic plates and socio-political crises to their release in the form of earthquakes or even volcanic eruptions.

The power of this analysis framework lies in its explanatory but also predictive power. Relevant demographic indicators show that the Sahelian African countries will be the next, and the last in the history of Humanity, to face the destabilization that comes with the transition to literacy. The risk should be maximum between 2025 and 2030, but warning signs are already noticeable in Senegal, Niger and Mali. The Ivory Coast has already gone through this period of destabilization in the early 2000s. While literacy-related crises are generally marked by revolutionary moments, those linked to the demographic transition through a decline in fertility may be more self-destructive. As part of this Insight, we will constrain ourselves to discussing the two cases whose potential repercussions are global in scope.

First, Saudi Arabia, where the birth rate has fallen very rapidly since the mid-2000s and which has crossed the critical threshold of 3 children per woman[5] in the early 2010s[6] . This country emits the typical signals of the demographic transition crisis: tensions around the issues of succession in the royal family, coup by the reigning Prince Mohammed ben Salmane (MBS) under the guise of reforms, feminist claims fueling the obsession with the place of women in society, the elimination of opponents (Kashoggi case), the multiplication of executions in application of capital punishment, aggressive attitudes vis-à-vis Yemen and Iran. The wave of internal destabilization is also noticeable in the uncertainties relating to the management of oil resources, the main lever of existence of Saudi Arabia on the international scene: the contradictory announcements about the IPO on Saudi Aramco evoke a disoriented ruling class. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is now, and will be for many years, a major source of instability.

Secondly, Syria is going through a similar but less readable phase because of the multi-ethnic and multi-faith nature of the country. National fertility data[7] confirms a rapid decline and crossing of the critical threshold of 3 children per woman, but do not account for the fact that this demographic transition concerns only the Sunni population of Syria, since the other populations, Alawite, Druze, Christian, have already made their transition. The Syrian crisis stems from the destabilization of its Sunni population as a result of its entry into the demographic transition phase, echoing the similar transition underway in Saudi Arabia, but exacerbated by differences between communities. However, the magnitude of the destructive forces that manifest themselves, and the resulting migratory movements, appear much greater than what has been observed in other places and times. It is now well-established that external forces have opportunistically seized upon the transient fragility of Syria in an attempt to alter the equilibrium of Middle East. In this regard, it can be considered that Syria's seemingly unstoppable destabilization results in part from Saudi Arabia's projection of its own internal tensions beyond its borders, through the channels of ideological influence (Salafism) and funding.

Although the current and expected effects of climate change are proven risks to the socio-economic stability and financial solvency of a number of countries and local authorities, claiming to interpret the "Arab Spring" in general and the Syrian crisis, particularly in light of the climatic bulletins, makes no sense and only reflects the absence of method and a lack of multidisciplinary knowledge. It is precisely this need that is being addressed by the innovative integration of ESG themes into the conventional sovereign risk and country risk assessment methodologies.

Olivier Rech, Head of Energy & Climate Research 

References

[1] “Climate change and the Syrian civil war revisited”, Jan Selby, Omar S. Dahib, Christiane Fröhlich, Mike Hulme, Political Geography, Volume 60, September 2017, Pages 232-244. Link

[2] “Literacy and education in England 1640-1900”, Lawrence Stone, Past & Present, n°42, 1969.

[3] “Household and Family in Past Time”, 1972; “Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations”, 1977; “Statistical Studies in Historical Social Structure”, 1979.

[4] “Family, Sexuality and Social Relations in Past Times”, Emmanuel Todd & David Garrioch, Blackwell Pub, 1989.

[5]The critical nature of the threshold of 3 children per woman requires explanations beyond the scope of this Insight.

[6]4 births per woman in 2000, 3,4 in 2005, 3 in 2010 and 2,5 in 2016. Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators, Fertility rate, total (births per woman).

[7]4 births per woman in 2000, 3,5 in 2005, 3,2 in 2010 and 2,9 in 2016. Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators, Fertility rate, total (births per woman).

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