Although the Middle East’s role as the cradle of Judeo-Christian-Islamic civilization figures prominently in the West’s sense of historical time and its perceptions of the impending millennial transition, most people in the region, being Muslims and Jews, attach no significance to the current year. The Middle East nonetheless confronts several profound and far-reaching transitions–succession crises, economic realignments, demographic shifts, resource scarcity, ecological threats, new technologies and a changing geostrategic balance.
With the rise of political Islam and the fall of the Soviet Union in the final years of this century, the borders of the Middle East known since the post-World War II era are subtly shifting, a process that is likely to continue into the next millennium as the region is increasingly drawn into European and even Central Asian political and economic orbits. This issue of Middle East Report uses the opportunity afforded by the millennial moment to survey emerging trends throughout the region and beyond.
The overall state of the region at century’s end is bleak. Middle Eastern states are among the worst violators of human rights and the least likely to welcome processes of democratization. Economically, the region is increasingly marginalized and dependent upon imports and external aid, which usually comes with troublesome political conditions attached. Despite serious socioeconomic problems in many countries, state spending on armaments continues to skyrocket. More alarming still, many states now face severe water shortages, which can only heighten interstate tensions and conflicts while hindering governments’ lackluster efforts in the field of social and economic development.
Although the region’s population recently passed 370 million, growth rates are now leveling off rather than increasing. Demographically, though not yet politically, young people dominate the Middle East. Children and youths who have yet to make their political, cultural and economic mark on the world now comprise between one third and one half of various states’ populations. The rising generation faces a stolid and stultifying political order dominated by aging men accustomed to wielding total control over the body politic and paying more heed to powerful Western allies and interests than to their own people, men who are increasingly challenged by global communications technology, cultural and economic globalization and their own mortality. The region’s future will hinge upon the younger generation’s ability to break the spell of political authoritarianism, cultural repression and economic stagnancy cast by their elders and abetted by the West. For too much of this century, people in the Middle East have been objects–of colonialism, imperialism, venture capitalism, occupation, military interventionism and adventurism from outside the region and of corruption, exploitation and repression from within. Despite the many sobering challenges facing the Middle East broadly defined, the region’s demographic dynamics suggest that the rising generation may yet become subjects of their own cultural, political and economic narrative.
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