RETHINKING THE ARAB
STABILITY AND SECURITY IN
EGYPT, LIBYA, TUNISIA, AND THE
REST OF THE MENA REGION
By Anthony Cordesman
November 8, 2011
Anthony H. Cordesman
Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 2
No one can ignore the short-term problems the political upheavals in Egypt, Libya, and
Tunisia create for each country. New leaders must be chosen and security systems must
be changed. The problems involved can kill political, economic and demographic reforms
before they even begin. There is a serious danger, however, in focusing on short term
needs and failing to focus on the depth of the problems that Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and
virtually every other Middle Eastern and North African state now faces.
Experts can debate just how much the structural problems in each state led to the current
round of political unrest and upheavals, but there is no debate over the fact that only a
few oil-rich states with tiny native populations are free from massive problems in dealing
with population growth, youth unemployment, failed or weak governance, and security
structures that do as much to repress as to protect. These are problems both the Arab
world and outside analysts have tended to downplay and neglect, but they are so serious
that no advances in democracy and human rights can offer most MENA countries either
security or stability. Even the best election, and major reforms of national security
structures, will be a prelude to a new round of political upheaval unless these forces are
given fare more consideration that they have been given to date.
The Impact of Demographics and Low Economic Growth
Both Muslim and Western states have ceased to focus on population growth for differing
religious and political reasons. As the detailed numbers for population growth in Figure
One show, however, population growth has been truly explosive in virtually every
It is true that population growth rates have been dropping, but they are dropping far more
slowly than many predicted in the past, and populations that have grow 4 to 6 times since
1950 will generally double again by 2050. They will do so in nations that have far more
restrictions in terms of water and arable land than most states in the world, and where the
policies of past regimes have often kept economic growth and diversification far below
the rates of progress in Asia and Latin America.
Governments have failed both to create the social and political conditions that will reduce
population growth and deal with the growth that has already occurred. As Figure Two
shows, the end result is a massive “youth bulge” that is pouring more and more young
men and women into economies that cannot offer them productive jobs, or meaningful
per capita incomes. This is as true of many oil-exporting states as it is of oil poor states.
Even if one ignores the corruption, cronyism, and nepotism that has sharply increased the
gap between rich and poor in most MENA states, and that has lowered the status and
security of much of the middle class, Figure Three shows just how low the CIA World
Factbook ranks the average per capita income of far too many MENA states. It is striking
to see just how poor Algeria, Iraq, and Iran now are – largely because of history of
internal conflict, terrible economic policies, and gross over dependence on the petroleum
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 3
Many other states, however, have per capita incomes ranking below 100 – a rough
indication of serious overall poverty in today’s global economy. This is often disguised
by the growth of modern urban areas, but it is all too real in practice. While there is no
direct correlation between poverty and political unrest, it is all too clear even from these
numbers why so many Arabs and Iranians could regard their governments as having
These data, however, only hint at how much sharper the disparities between the richest
and poorest MENA states have become. (A sparsely populated Libya with major oil
wealth still had a poverty rate of some 30% of its population before the current political
upheavals began. Models that focus on GNP growth or on per capita income without
addressing income distribution are little more than political and economic rubbish.)
These basic economic pressures interact with hyperurbanization throughout the region
which has forced radical shifts in tribal, ethnic, sectarian and social structures in every
state (Saudi Arabia has gone from 8% urbanization in 1950 to over 80% today).
Traditional elements have sometimes adapted, but traditional societies of the kind that
existed before 1950s have virtually vanished.
No Arab or Persian cleric, leader, regime, or political party that keeps ignoring these
realities can serve a given nation’s people or create the groundwork for political stability.
Political change in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia – as is the case with states that so far have
been more stable – will fail, or will make the future even worse if it does not face the
need for major improvements in the economy, infrastructure, education, and governance
that can deal with these pressures. No amount of progress in democracy or human rights
can succeed unless these issues are addressed as well.
The Issues MENA Governments Must Now Address
It is dangerous to generalize too much in addressing the challenges MENA government
must now address. They do differ sharply by country, and polling data in the Arab
Development Report for 2009, as well as in polls that have never had public distribution,
show very different priorities and perceptions in given countries, and within given ethnic,
sectarian, tribal, and income groups in the same country. Once again, there is no
consistent correlation between public perceptions and potential political unrest, and any
given factor or metric.
There are, however, a list of factors that every country must consider, and that do emerge
as proven or potential causes of unrest – many driven by the combination of demographic
and economic pressures summarized earlier. These factors – along with measures to
address population growth and a youth bulge that must continue for at least another
decade, have become a virtual check list of the measures that MENA governments must
address to avoid future unrest, failed states and governments:
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 4
Middle Class status, income distribution, poverty line, perceptions of social
equity: Demonstration after demonstration has made it clear that perceptions
of economic status and future opportunity are as critical as baseline metrics.
Traditional metrics like national per capita income, GDP growth, and poverty
lines set near the subsistence level do not measure potential or real unrest.
Employment and job quality: The issue is not simply employment, it is
whether the job is real, has status, provides the ability to marry and have a
family, and is seen as offered on the basis of merit for those outside a
privileged elite. Job creation alone will not address the causes of unrest.
Education: Governments differ radically in investment in education,
educational quality, and the relevance of education. Some countries provide
limited access. Others create low-quality higher education that is little more
than a series of diploma mills. Where employment rates are low, education
often does not create meaningful or reliable skills.
Role of women: Women now make up a majority of secondary school and
university graduates in countries like Saudi Arabia but lag badly in both
employment rates and real jobs with serious productivity gain. This wastes a
critical part of the labor force, raises population growth, and puts a heavier
burden on young men and their families to finance marriage and careers. The
human right issue is only part of the story, and discrimination penalizes men
as well as women.
Services and utilities: Countries differ sharply in providing services –
sometimes grossly distorting demand and their economies through mixes of
subsidies and free services. Electricity, water, fuel prices, medical services,
and housing all present serious mixes of problems in many MENA countries.
The scale of these problems is often disguised by ignoring how well and how
fairly government funded efforts are distributed and the quality of distribution
of services. Gross measures of total national effort – e.g. total power
generation or “access” to medical services – are worse than useless: they are
Foreign labor: Many Gulf countries, and Libya have far too much
dependence on foreign labor, often as a result of government policies that
favor low cost foreign labor and distort the domestic labor market. These
problems continue to grow in most such states, in spite of policies that claim
to favor local labor, and are a source of serious corruption in terms of the
ruling elite’s manipulation of foreign labor permits for its own advantage in at
least one Gulf state.
Hyperurbanization: Showpiece buildings can disguise a lack of proper
housing, urban services, and commuting capability. The quality of urban life
is a serious problem.
State sectors and employment: The failure to create effective private sectors
and market systems, gross over-employment in the state sector, reliance on
inefficient state industries, and lack of effective and implemented economic
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 5
planning often make governments a de facto burden or threat to their own
economy as well as job creation and economic equity.
Agriculture: Sharp rises in population pressure, and sometimes limits to water,
increase land density or drive people out of agricultural areas. A lack of
capital and modern farming techniques adds to the problem. Most countries
lack effective government planning and services for the agricultural sector,
and government actions and incentives often distort agriculture in ways that
lower productivity and income.
Military spending: Governments often spend far too much on their military
forces, and particularly new military equipment of uncertain mission value
and sustainability, when funds are badly needed in the civil sector.
Security services, national security courts, and emergency laws: The
legitimate struggle with terrorism and extremism affects some countries, but
far too many have steadily increase the internal security role of their military
forces, and increased the size of their security and paramilitary/police forces
to secure the regime. Special national security courts and legal procedures are
abused, along with open-ended national emergency laws (some of which are
de facto rather that formal legal actions). Access to lawyers, abuses of
detention, closed trial procedures, and inability to locate prisoners and learn
their status are all problems in the more repressive MENA states.
Rule of law: Quite aside from the internal security issues, there are serious
abuses of property, criminal, business, and other civil law. Corruption in the
courts and legal system is a key problem, along with delays in procedures,
cost, and access to police and legal systems than function without corruption
or special charges. These affect economic as well as personal security.
Corruption: A rough measure of corruption is shown in Figure Four.
Corruption, however, is seen in terms of special privilege, unfair income
distribution, nepotism, and a lack of social equity and not simply corruption in
the narrow sense of the term. It is often coupled to poor governance, grossly
over-staffed government offices, small fees and bribes, and delays or failures
by bureaucracies to perform their jobs. It has become a top to bottom source
of unrest or anger.
Failed censorship and impact of alternative media and communications:
Many countries still attempt to control or limit media, use of the Internet,
access to satellite TV, etc. The end result is increasingly to drive populations
to rely on illegal or alternative media and social networking systems. This
reinforces patterns of unrest and distrust of governments.
None of these issues mean reforms like creating effective representative governments,
rule of law, and human rights are less important. These reforms, however, are only part of
the reforms necessary to bring stability and security. MENA states must act as quickly as
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 6
possible to address all of the previous issues as well. Elections alone will serve little
purpose, particularly if inexperience and self-serving new political parties end up
endlessly feuding, the quality of governance remains low, corruption and inequity
continue to affect daily life, and economic progress only benefits the limited portion of
the population favored by the state.
This presents serious problems for both new governments that must build on a legacy of
decades of failure and incompetence, that lack experience political parties that know how
to work with their opposition, that have leaders who have never really governed, and that
must work with bureaucracies, militaries, and internal security services that lack
competence and often integrity and basic capacity. The better and more stable
governments will have far fewer problems in basic institution building, but still face
daunting challenges out of sheer population pressure.
One key suggestion is that the wealthier Arab states work with the poorer states to create
the equivalent of an Arab Marshall Plan. As has been shown earlier, however, the wealth
of the oil states is relative and even nations like Saudi Arabia need to focus on the needs
of their own people. The wealth of the smaller and wealthier oil states is also limited
relative to the needs of the larger of more highly populated MENA states.
Moreover, it is the quality of governance that will be the key issue. Aid is pointless if it
exceeds the capacity to use it effectively, and destructive and corrupting if it is misused.
In practice, this means each Arab state needs to reexamine its own structure, the forces
affecting its future, and develop plans and improved institutions to both use its own
resources and outside aid more effectively.
In practice, it may well take a decade or more to make the necessary changes and
implement them in ways that meeting popular expectations. Certainly, as has been clear
in Iraq, elections alone do not produce either effective representative government or
address the key issues shaping the future of the MENA region.
This also requires:
The creation of effective governance and a civil service with adequate capacity,
efficiency, and integrity.
Adequate urban, local, and regional governance that meets sectarian, ethnic, and
tribal needs; rather than the current degree of over-centralization.
Political partiers capable of addressing key issues with honesty and transparency,
willing to work with their opposition, and experience in actually governing.
Acceptance of checks and balances to limit the role of the state and preserve
An effective and honest rule of law based on social justice, and one that can check
leaders that seek to abuse their power.
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 7
Security services that respect human rights as well as provide security.
Militaries sized to meet real nation security needs, not pointless regional rivalries
and competing in glitter-factor military purchases.
Effective economic planning that frees market forces while protecting the people
and creating real jobs and economic diversification.
Restructuring of government services to reflect popular needs and priorities, and
effective planning and expansion of education, health, and key government
Educational reform to create job-oriented skills and competitive teaching and
educational standards on a global basis.
Major anti-corruption efforts coupled to dealing with nepotism and special
privileges. Use of the tax structure to limit gross problems in income distribution.
Effective efforts to address population growth.
Policies that give women equity and a productive role in the labor force.
Actions by the government and media to provide full transparency, and look
beyond elections to use polling, focus groups, public meetings, and other
mechanism to find out the priorities of their population, their perceptions of
governance, and deal with sectarian, ethnic, tribal and regional tensions and
Above all, it requires the kind of leadership and honesty that can explain that most of the
expectations that have led to the most violent upheavals in the “Arab Spring” will take a
decade or so to fully address, that even an Arab Marshal Plan will have serious limits in
terms of outside aid and spending, and that no one can (or should) help a MENA state
that cannot help itself.
No MENA nation is going to be able to address even its most serious problems quickly
and easily, any more than the US can. Managing expectations is going to be a critical
challenge for years to come – particularly given the fact there is a nearly two-decade long
bow wave of new workers that are already born and still have to enter the labor force. It
will be al too easy for new (and old) governments to fail, and be replaced by a new set of
authoritarians, demagogues, failed governments, or extremists. The promise of the “Arab
spring” is going to be anything but easy to keep.
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 9
Figure One: The Population Explosion in the Middle East (Part Two)
The Gulf (In Millions)
Source: U.S. Census Bureau: International Database,
http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/informationGateway.php, accessed 21/4/2011
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020 2030 2040 2050
Bahrain 0.115 0.157 0.22 0.348 0.506 0.655 1.18 1.505 1.639 1.758 1.847
Kuwait 0.145 0.292 0.748 1.37 2.131 1.972 2.543 2.994 3.331 3.623 3.863
Iran 16.367 21.6 28.994 39.709 58.1 68.632 76.923 86.543 93.458 97.685 100.045
Iraq 5.163 6.822 9.414 13.233 18.14 22.679 29.672 36.889 43.831 50.459 56.316
Oman 0.489 0.601 0.783 1.185 1.794 2.432 2.968 3.635 4.305 4.879 5.402
Qatar 0.025 0.046 0.115 0.237 0.446 0.627 0.841 0.905 0.971 1.04 1.116
Saudi Arabia 3.86 4.718 6.109 10.022 16.061 21.312 25.732 29.819 33.825 37.25 40.251
UAE 0.715 0.103 0.249 1 1.826 3.219 4.976 6.495 7.484 7.948 8.019
Yemen 4.777 5.872 7.098 9.133 12.416 17.407 23.495 29.727 35.473 40.901 45.781
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 10
Figure Two: The Impact of the Youth Bulge in the MENA Region
Percent of total Population of 0 to 14 Years
CIA World Factbook, 2011
Young People Entering the Labor Force Each Year and Impact on total Labor Force
CIA World Factbook, 2011
Women Entering Labor Force Annually 5,162 8,117 16,232 24,419 30,264 35,121 57,070 69,420 87,346244,712244,763277,612298,366322,010330,098677,372748,647
Men Entering Labor Force Annually 6,429 8,988 17,653 27,439 31,959 36,856 59,547 73,574 90,436256,698261,105287,141300,327332,194342,895715,111783,405
New Women as a % of the Total Existing Labor Force 0.41% 1.33% 0.75% 0.62% 3.12% 1.42% 3.30% 4.04% 2.28% 4.43% 3.34% 4.06% 2.57% 3.79% 3.34% 2.64% 2.87%
New Men as a % of the Total Existing Labor Force 0.51% 1.47% 0.82% 0.70% 3.30% 1.49% 3.44% 4.28% 2.36% 4.64% 3.56% 4.20% 2.58% 3.91% 3.47% 2.78% 3.00%
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 11
Figure Two: The Impact of the Youth Bulge in the MENA Region (Part Two)
Unemployment Rate Among Arab Youth
Youth Unemployment as Percent of Total Unemployment
MENA Youth Unemployment vs. Other Regions
Levels of Unemployment Ignore Disguised Unemployment and Government and Private Sector Jobs With No Productive or Useful Output, and predate Arab unrest (2008-2009)
Source: Arab Development Report, 2009, p. 109, and IMF, World Economic and Financial Surveys, Regional Economic Outlook, Middle East and Central Asia, October 2010, p. 38
REGIONAL ECONOMIC OUTLOOK: MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA
and participation rates in tertiary
exceed 25 percent in Egypt, Jorda
and Tunisia. Yet, entrepreneurs re
lack of suitable skills as an impor
to hiring (Figure 3), and unemplo
are highest among the most educ
together, this suggests that educa
the region fail to produce gradua
Labor market rigidities. According to
Global Competitiveness Report, hi
regulations in most MENA6 count
restrictive than those in the average
developing country. Moreover, data
surveys indicate that, worldwide, the
identifying labor regulation as a majo
their business operations is, on avera
MENA6 (Figure 4). Such rigidities li
creation by discouraging ﬁrms from
employment in response to favorabl
to outpace most other regions. The number
of labor force entrants remains daunting—
4 6 8 10
Total unemployment rate (Percent)
Total and Youth UnemploymentRates by Region1,2
Sources: National authorities; IMF, World Economic Outlook; staff
estimates; and International Labor Organization.
Unemployment rate for Morocco reflects data from Urban Labor Force Survey .
Youth unemployment estimate for MENA6 excludes Jordan.
Or most recent year for which data are available.
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 12
Figure Three: Global Rankling in Per Capita Income
World Ranking Limits to Oil Wealth
($ Per Capita in 2010)
Algeria 127 $1,540
Libya 52 $6,837
Iran 104 $1,085
Iraq 159 $1,686
Kuwait 10 $21,416
Qatar 1 $38,281
Saudi Arabia 55 $7,685
UAE 9 $13,508
Source: CIA World Factbook, 2011 for per capita income ranking, DOE/EIA,
http://www.eia.gov/countries/regions-topics.cfm?fips=OPEC for per capita oil export
Cordesman: Stability, security, and the New MENA Spring 11/8/11 13
Figure Four: The Burden of Corruption
Note: 1.0 = most corrupt; 10 = least corrupt Source: Transparency International, Corruptions Perceptions Index
Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. This
definition encompasses corrupt practices in both the public and private sectors. The Corruption Perceptions
Index (CPI) ranks countries according to perception of corruption in the public sector. The CPI is an aggregate
indicator that combines different sources of information about corruption, making it possible to compare
The 2010 CPI draws on different assessments and business opinion surveys carried out by independent and
reputable institutions. It captures information about the administrative and political aspects of corruption.
Broadly speaking, the surveys and assessments used to compile the index include questions relating to bribery
of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds, and questions that probe the
strength and effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts.
For a country or territory to be included in the index a minimum of three of the sources that TI uses must assess
that country. Thus inclusion in the index depends solely on the availability of information. Perceptions are used
because corruption – whether frequency or amount – is to a great extent a hidden activity that is difficult to
measure. Over time, perceptions have proved to be a reliable estimate
Perceptions are used because corruption – whether frequency or amount– is to a great extent a hidden activity
that is difficult to measure. Over time, perceptions have proved to be a reliable estimate of corruption.
Measuring scandals, investigations or prosecutions, while offering ‘non-perception’ data, reflect less on the
prevalence of corruption in a country and more on other factors, such as freedom of the press or the efficiency of
the judicial system. TI considers it of critical importance to measure both corruption and integrity, and to do so
in the public and private sectors at global, national and local levels.2 The CPI is therefore one of many TI
measurement tools that serve the fight against corruption
Source: : Transparency International, Corruptions Perceptions Index 2010