Panel addresses demographics, technology and challenges in the Middle East

April 23, 2019, 12:03 a.m.

Former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz convened the ninth installment of his panel series “Governance in an Emerging World” on Monday by underscoring the importance of the Middle East in what he called “a globe on a hinge of history.” The afternoon’s discussion centered around changing demographics throughout the region, the roles of technology within government and society and challenges for the Middle East to overcome in the future.

Moderated by Hoover research fellow and Stanford Director of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani, the panelists’ expertise spanned Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey and Iran. They included Harvard scholar Hicham Alaoui; Tunisian entrepreneur Houssem Aoudi; political science professor Lisa Blaydes, an expert on Egypt and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI); Distinguished visiting Hoover Fellow Arye Carmon, the founding president of the Israel Democracy Institute; senior Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow Aykan Erdemir; and FSI Research Associate and Project Leader in Technology and Human Rights Roya Pakzad.

Alaoui, also a member of the Moroccan royal family, spoke at length about the nuanced place of technology in Saudi Arabia, particularly in the context of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (colloquially known as MBS) and his Vision 2030 program of diversifying his nation’s economy away from a rentier economy and oil-dependency. He noted that “as the world is transitioning away from hydrocarbons for a variety of reasons,” it has become imperative for Saudi Arabia to revise its formula for growth.

Alaoui identified “the winning formula for MBS” as “youth and technology,” a theme that proved ubiquitous across all panelists’ mini-orations. He expressed doubt as to whether or not this formula would actually be successful due to Saudi Arabia’s position as a trapped “rentier state,” in which the government buys citizens’ passivity and their acceptance of authoritarian rule with funds from sales of natural resources.

According to Alaoui, Saudi Arabia “wants the advantages [of a modern economy] without paying the costs.” MBS’ Vision 2030, a state-driven endeavor, might not succeed in achieving an economy defined by “modernization without modernity,” he said, as it perpetuates Saudi Arabia’s rentier state model. Government investment in technology and youth in Saudi Arabia could build a bubble that bursts when hydrocarbon rents dwindle, Alaoui cautioned.

The panelists relied on economic analyses driven by changes in demographics and technology. Aoudi compared the state of the economy in Tunisia, Egypt and the UAE.

“The UAE has the vision and the money, Egypt has the market and Tunisia has no choice,” he said.

Highlighting the role technology plays in Middle Eastern entrepreneurship, Aoudi also mentioned that free learning platforms like YouTube have provided many in the region with advanced coding knowledge without the expense of otherwise inaccessible university educations. He described his home country of Tunisia as one that is still in the “early phases of entrepreneurship” with a “democracy in the making” after 50 years of dictatorship. High unemployment due to a mismatch between education and the job market continues to be a problem for the North African nation, he said.

Blaydes described a similar economic situation in Egypt, in which combinations of large numbers of educated youth with few job opportunities stymie efforts to develop the nation’s economy. Many youths in Egypt do not believe that obtaining a higher education helps them, with “70 percent of Egyptians who are working say that their jobs require no skills at all.”

Egypt’s economic growth rates of between 3-5 percent per year, she said, are strained by high rates of hepatitis C, which afflicts around 150,000 people per year and consumes one-third of the Egyptian national health budget.

Blaydes was critical of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his ability to manage a nationwide with a large population of young people.

“There are rumors in Egypt that President Sisi is very fearful of millennials,” she said. “He does not really understand this population and does not know how to deal very well with the youth population.”

Whereas Blaydes described many youths leaving Egypt to find job opportunities in Europe, Erdemir portrayed a series of opposite challenges in his native country of Turkey, which now harbors 3.6 million Syrians fleeing from civil war. Making analogies to the political discourse in the United States, Erdemir spoke about debates on “social media and migration” that permeate government in Turkey. Turkish youth, Erdemir said, increasingly use modern technology platforms to coordinate interests and subvert disinformation campaigns via fact-checking websites. He characterized technology in Turkey as a factor that “both exacerbates Turkey’s governance deficit while at the same time helping to mitigate those deficits.”

He concluded the radical changes in technology and demographics in Turkey could either improve or worsen conditions in the country, and that investments in “soft infrastructure” including “greater governance capacity, rule of law, human rights and education” could benefit Turkey much more than “hard infrastructure,” or governmental vanity projects.

Modern changes in Israel and Iran were discussed by Carmon and both Milani and Pakzad. The two nations, often juxtaposed in terms of their conflicts, both sustained a highly educated and innovative technological base within problematic governments.

At the end of the event, panelists responded to questions from the audience with statements on their hope for the future of the Middle East. Applause erupted from the audience when Carmon asserted his hope that Israel and Palestine would come together for a two-state solution and when Erdemir stated that he “would replace the ethos of blaming outside forces [in the Middle East] with the ethos of taking responsibility for our own mistakes.”

Alaoui concurred and qualified this idea by asserting that the West “has to be responsible” by applying the same “universal values” of liberalism to the region.

A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Aykan Erdemir. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Matthew Dardet at mattdar ‘at’

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