Over the last several decades, and particularly after upheavals in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, much of the urban center of gravity of the Middle East has shifted to the Gulf. To understand this trend and its consequences, MERIP editorial committee member Jillian Schwedler interviewed Yasser Elsheshtawy in Philadelphia on June 4, 2018.
What had started as protests over a taxation draft law and an increase in gas prices quickly led to a popular uprising against the neoliberal path on which the state has embarked.
Activism in the modern Arab world saw its peak in the Spring of 2011, but Jordanians have returned to the streets in a new round of protests triggered by recent economic policies and long standing grievances. How should we understand these protests?
As of mid-May 2015, crude oil prices had fallen to the lowest level in recent years, under $60 a barrel for US domestic benchmark West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and about $66 a barrel for the international Brent benchmark. These market prices are compared to several types of “break-even” prices and affect decision-making by oil producers at several levels: whether price covers just production costs or incorporates a satisfactory level of profit, whether budgets balance and whether long-term capital investment is attractive.
For 20 years leading up to the uprisings of 2010-2011, Egypt and Tunisia suffered the ill effects of neoliberal economic reform, even as the international financial institutions and most economists hailed them as beacons of progress in the Arab world. For ten years preceding the revolts, workers and civil society organizations led a burgeoning protest movement against the liberalizing and privatizing trajectories of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. Then came the uprisings, which brokered the possibility of not only new political beginnings but also alternative economic programs that would put the needs of the struggling middle, working and poorer classes first and at least constrain, if not abolish, the privileges of a deposed ruling class.
On February 17, Syrian Minister of Oil Muhammad al-Lahham warned Parliament that the price of fuel would have to increase. This announcement came just one month after the government raised the official price of diesel by more than 50 percent to 125 Syrian pounds (70 cents) per liter, the largest single hike since the uprising of 2011 and an eightfold increase since May of that year.
In October 2013, Kuwait’s Prime Minister Jabir al-Mubarak introduced his government’s agenda with a bombshell — that “the current welfare state to which Kuwaitis are accustomed is not viable.”  Government projections estimate that expenditures will exceed oil revenues in only a few years if spending continues at the current rate. Analysis by the International Monetary Fund confirms that this event could happen as early as 2017.  The following month, the government declared it would review $16 billion in annual subsidies on goods and services, a spending program that accounts for 22 percent of the budget.
‘Abd al-Qadir is tall, handsome and unassumingly stylish. With his well-cropped beard, Bob Marley T-shirt and Nike kicks, the young man would not look out of place on the gentrified streets of Brooklyn, the art scene of Belleville or the bustling beaches of his dream destination, Rio de Janeiro. Instead, he lingers in Amman, confronting dark news from home with a disarming smile.
In Nador, a regional capital located on the Mediterranean Sea at the eastern end of the Rif Mountains in Morocco, coffee shop talk often turns to the relationship with the capital city, Rabat, a five-hour car ride or a nine-hour train or bus ride to the west. Nadoris are sensitive about their status as residents of an underserved province that they believe the government disdains. But recent, locally driven economic development is also a source of pride for the region.
At the spring 2013 meetings, World Bank President Jim Young Kim set 2030 as the target date for eradicating extreme poverty, defined as subsistence on less than $1.25 per day, across the globe. In line with this goal, the United Nations created a New Global Partnership to lift the 1.2 billion poorest people out of penury in the same time frame. The New Global Partnership or Post-2015 Development Agenda replaces the eight Millennium Development Goals declared in 2000 and calls for a “data revolution” that demands development goals be based on internationally compatible measures.
“We should make it up to the peasants,” Muhsin al-Batran, erstwhile head of the economic affairs unit in Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture, told the official daily al-Ahram two months after the toppling of Husni Mubarak in 2011. “Make it up” — why? And what is it that needs to be made up?
Raise the subject of Arab military-industrial production and the country that springs to mind is Egypt. A historian might recall Iraq’s early arms industry; a Gulf analyst might think of the weapons development projects being financed by the United Arab Emirates. Few would think of Jordan. But according to promotional literature, Jordan’s armed forces have entered joint venture partnerships with at least 26 foreign defense companies,  to produce everything from pre-packaged field rations and boots to backpack-portable drones and armored vehicles.
On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian itinerant seller named Mohamed Bouazizi had a minor run-in with the cops. It was just another of many, but at this last indignity, the now world-famous produce vendor snapped. Later that day, in protest against his interminable humiliation at the hands of the police, he set himself on fire in front of the local police station. The rest is history.
Ray Bush and Habib Ayeb, eds. Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt (London: Zed Books, 2012).
Marginality and Exclusion in Egypt is an insightful volume addressing the various forms of inequality that plague Egyptian society, with particular focus on the poor and working classes. With few exceptions, the chapters have a strong structuralist undertone; many use a political economy approach to describe class conflict. The volume’s title notwithstanding, most chapters treat the concepts of marginality and exclusion as afterthoughts, and only a few grapple with marginality as a theory.
Interpreting a revolutionary event is a contentious undertaking. Why it began, how it unfolded, to whom its legacy belongs — these are questions of enduring debate. The mass protests in Egypt that deposed Husni Mubarak and continued for months in 2011-2012 still generate divergent narratives and competing claims. In the struggle over meaning, reality and possibility are continuously measured against one another. Questions abound as to how much the country should change, and how much it actually has. A tension between continuity and change occupies a central place in political discourse and is manifest in the simple use of language.
The November 13 withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies has sparked vigorous demonstrations in Jordan, prompting renewed speculation about whether the wave of Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 has finally arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, amidst the rush of scholarly attempts to explain why uprisings did or did not occur in various Arab countries in 2011, Jordan is proving a stubborn case. Jordan fits nearly all the criteria for an uprising, but sustained protest has yet to take root.
During one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo — so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner.
Adam Hanieh, Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).