Blog No.18. Destination 2050: Tribalization , the Arab Spring and the future of the Middle East

February 19, 2013

By Peter Ellyard. 


All over the world people are watching the ever-changing dynamics of the Arab Spring. While global public opinion overwhelmingly approves of the wave of democratization under way in the Middle East, many are concerned that it does not seem to be tracking towards the democratic destination envisaged by most of them.  There are concerns that there will be a hijacking by Islamists of a democratic movement initiated by democratic secularists. Is the Arab Spring taking us forwards or backwards? And what is the prognosis?

         Some enlightened comments recently came from Shlomo Ben-Ami, Vice-President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace and Security, and a former

Israeli Foreign Minister. The major thrust of his argument was that the Arab Spring is actually a second stage of decolonisation where people, as they become emancipated from collective oppression by autocratic leadership, seek to deconstruct their nation states in the form left to them by European colonialism and to establish new entities based on their culture and religion. Among several examples he gave are the Kurds who are currently split between four nations, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran , and who aspire to live in a single Kurdish state of their own,  and Libya which is an artificial colonial construct of three tribal states who each wish either for more autonomy in a new Libya or full independence. The changes in the Middle East began with the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in Iraq. It is now far from certain that Iraq will survive as a single entity. Most Sunni, Shite and Kurdish Iraqis would really prefer to live in their own ethnic /religious entities provided arrangements to share the revenue of Iraq’s oil could be agreed upon. Ben-Ami therefore sees the current confusion as a natural stage of sorting out of the political and cultural political mess left by European colonialists. I agree with his analysis but I also want to add my own contribution to this narrative and, because I am a futurist, to consider the political future of the Middle East.

         What is happening in the Middle East is a part of a long-term transformation under way all over the world, so to understand what is happening and will happen in the Middle East we must look for more generic global patterns of change.  In my three 3 books Destination 2050, Designing 2050 and Ideas for the New Millennium, written over the last 14 years, I described the reshaping of our world by three major drivers of change.

  • The first driver of change is globalization: it embodies two stages.  Its first stage is the creation of a single global market for ideas, products, services and investment in which everyone can participate, and the construction of processes and institutions, including the establishment of the WTO, and the reorganisation of financial services, to facilitate such universal free global trade.  Its second stage involves the development of supra-communities such as the EU, ASEAN and NAFTA, the undertaking of new duties by already existing entities such as the UN Security Council and the IMF and World Bank, and the establishment of new global institutions, such as the G20, and the International Criminal Court (ICC), in order  to facilitate more effective global governance.
  • The second driver of change is tribalisation . This involves the breakup of old empires and autocracies into smaller mostly democratic entities based on culture and religion. More on this anon.
  • The third driver of change is improving technological interconnectivity together with the digitisation of information and knowledge, and of human creativity generally, to permit its rapid dissemination in real time. This in turn facilitates and energizes both globalization and tribalization. This technological interconnectedness is also creating the globalisation of media with new arrivals such as Al Jazeera and an increasing global penetration by  organizations such as the BBC and CNN


 I will not discuss globalisation per se because most people understand the process, other than to express the belief that it is pretty much unstoppable, and this is even recognized by former anti-globalisation activists who recognize, as King Canute once did, that some things are unstoppable.  These activists more realistically now want to ensure that globalisation delivers justice for all and that here is a universalisation of win/win rather than win/loss outcomes.  

         These three listed drivers of change are creating a global transformation that began about 1970 and in which we are currently at about the mid point, and with an anticipated completion date around 2050. Though it began as an expression of European Enlightened thinking, modernism was exported around world in an exploitative form through colonialism and imperialism, by economic domination by powerful nations and corporations, and by win/lose trade and commerce. Much earlier, between 500 and 1500, globalisation was shaped by the Chinese and the Arabs and was much more collaborative and mutually beneficial. Since 1970 globalisation has been modified in the post-modern era into a much less exploitative model for global trade and investment with an emergence of new more collaborative and interdependent models similar to those practiced before 1500. The post modernisation of enlightened thinking brought into the mainstream values not practiced in previous eras of globalisation, such as democracy and respect for difference.

         In the 21st century this is now giving way to the emergence of a global paradigm I called planetism. Just as tribalism involves first allegiance to tribe, and nationalism first allegiance to nation, planetism involves first allegiance to planet. Planetism embodies nine values held by most educated middle class people, and will grow with the further growth of the educated middle class.  Planetism represents a 21st century version of enlightenment values. The global educated middle class is growing by the population of New York City every three months and will reach 3.2 billion in the Asia Pacific and over 4.5 billion globally by 2030. This new globalisation, unlike European driven globalisation prior to 1970, supports trade and commerce based on mutual benefit or win/win.

          This growing educated middle class is transforming the world, and is also transforming many Middle Eastern counties and is a major driver of the Arab Spring. Democracy is also globalising , for one of the nine values I describe for planetism is democracy . The middle class is now significantly transforming the politics of the Middle East. A secular democracy-seeking educated middle class has twice risen up against the theocratic government of Iran and was both times repressed by the military and the police. This repression will achieve little more than buy time for the oppressors, perhaps another decade at the most. The Arab Spring has generated similar middle class uprisings against autocratic governments, in most Middle Eastern nations, including in Morocco Libya, Bahrain, Egypt and Syria and is now beginning to generate numerous tipping points that will dramatically change the Middle East in the next decade.

         These changes follow a pattern of middle class driven changes against autocracy elsewhere – a global Democratic Spring if you like. This includes democratic revolutions such as 1986 EDSA Revolution in the Philippines, the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia 2003, the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon. The Arab Spring was initiated by Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution .

          By 2005 therefore democracy was already in demand in the Middle East.   We can predict further the values that are driving change because all the nine values of planetism are all globalizing as the educated middle class grows in size. 

         The 2012 revolution in Egypt was initiated by the educated middle class Muslims and by educated minorities including Copt Christians. These now oppose a possible hijacking of their revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafist supporters. This middle class movement in Egypt is sufficiently numerous and financially and politically powerful to contest any attempts to restore an Islamic autocratic regime on Iranian lines. A further increase in the size of the middle class in Middle East will mean that autocratic rule by Islamic groups, or indeed anyone else, will be difficult to maintain, for these middle class people have the support of the educated middle class everywhere.


         Shalom Ben-Ami did not use the word tribalization to describe these massive changes in the Middle East.  He makes the point, that with a couple of exceptions in Egypt and Morocco, most other Middle East nations are colonial constructs which are defined on colonial boundaries and were glued together by repression of different ethnic and religious groups by autocratic governments.

       The tribalization now under way in the Middle East is similar to the tribalization that shaped Eastern Europe in the late 20th century. In 1989 the Soviet Union, which was in essence an autocratic Russian empire, broke up. As it broke up one entity split into fifteen entities. Likewise when Yugoslavia, really a Serbian empire, broke up one entity split into seven entities. Indonesia, a functional Javanese Empire, could face a similar fate. Indonesia has already lost Timor Leste and could lose other entities such as Aceh and West Papua as well. Indonesia is currently promoting the irreconcilable combination of democratic politics and autocratic military repression. This cannot last. The Han dominated state of China will in future face tribalization pressures unless the Han voluntarily give much more autonomy to its many minority cultures and religions, such as the Tibetans and the Uyghurs.  China is progressing slowly towards democracy and it is growing a booming democracy-seeking educated middle class that will be reach 1.2 billion by 2030. It is inconceivable that a billion educated middle class people will tolerate current levels autocracy and repression of difference and dissidence. It will have to develop into a fully-fledged democracy well before then. In the Middle East tribalisation will occur through secession and struggle unless a more mature common sense approach prevails such as occurred with the ‘velvet divorce’ between the Czech and Slovak peoples. Unfortunately this is pretty unlikely

         So tribalisation through secession from centralized autocratic leadership will continue to strengthen. Global interdependence has now reached the stage that global disapproval of autocratic and repressive leadership can be punished through the institution of trade bans, customer boycotts, capital strikes and the freezing of bank accounts. At this writing Iran is suffering from such a global embargo and is only surviving because Russia and China continue to provide short-term support to its theocratic Government. This support is unlikely to continue long term. Continued Iranian belligerence will result in North Korea-like global isolation. Tribalisation is now well under way in the Middle East. In this first stage the shift involves people seeking an end to autocratic dependence and a move to democratic independence. The aspiration to form new independent democratic cultural and religious entities is relentlessly undermining the political arrangements inherited from the autocratic and colonial past.

Globalisation,  part 2

 This tribalisation of the Middle East will take at least a decade. However it will be followed by the transformation I described above as the second stage of globalisation.  This involves a democratic and voluntary re-amalgamation to ensure success in a 21st century globalizing world. This second stage is well under way under way and already nearing completion in Europe. It involves voluntarily moving from their recently achieved and hard won individual independent status into amalgamated interdependent entities, such as the EU and its more slowly evolving equivalents such as ASEAN ,CAFTA, Merocsur and the African Union. This is work-in-progress is almost complete in Europe but will probably take two decades more to be completed globally.

          In Europe after their separation the Czechs and Slovaks both joined the EU as did the Poles, Lithuanians and many other former Soviet States in Eastern Europe. These former Soviet States went from dependence on Russia in 1989 through a short period of enjoying their independence in the late 20th century and entering into interdependent union in the EU in the early 21st century.  Natural  communitarian cultures such as the French and the Germans  are strong supporters of this processes and natural individualistic cultures like the English are more sceptical about participation. To this day the English are very ambivalent about being part of Europe. Time will tell whether asserting English Exceptionalism in the 21st century will be a wise way for the English to behave in the long term.

         However those who commit themselves to join such interdependence unions can have their cake and eat it too : they can celebrate their cultural uniqueness as an independent people without repression, and then voluntarily  move on to an interdependent EU based on  collaboration, win/win outcomes and enjoying the benefits from participating in the emerging global infrastructure of interdependent trade and commerce. In Europe further tribalisation is probable.  The Scots, Catalan, Tyrolean and Basque peoples are all likely to seek  independence in the next decade, followed by their subsequent joining the EU as inderdependent entities.

         This is also part of a continuing and unstoppable development of a 21st century global interdependent society that will be completed by 2050. That does not mean that there won’t be many problems on the way, for this has not been done before and there are no roadmaps. The road must be built. And sometimes the world will construct the wrong road to the wrong place. The current ailments of Europeans provide us with plenty of examples of how not to do things.  These ailments are mostly caused by self-indulgent individual nations, such as Greece, and greedy banks such as the HSBC and Barclays, who continue seeking win/loss outcomes at the cost of the community. They are perceived to be self-serving in a world that is becoming much less tolerant to such behaviour. And they are deservingly becoming planetary pariahs. New arrangements to encourage increased global interdependence are still evolving. These will reward collaboration and win/win outcomes while also permitting and rewarding individual endeavour and entrepreneurship.  There will be no command economy models here. We are evolving something that has never happened before, a communitarian interdependent world that is democratic and which supports individual enterprise and freedom. I have described this process in detail elsewhere.

Global change in the 21st century

It will take a while but the Middle East and the rest of the world will follow the patterns I have described in Europe. The first signs that the process are already unfolding not only in the Middle East and Central Asia, but also in Africa such as the Pan African collaboration with NATO nations to support Mali and Somalia in their struggle against Islamic extremism.

         We have no other choice, now we are recognising that all humanity lives in a shared home and has a shared future, and we will make pariahs of those to those who are not team players and who endanger our increasingly interdependent future that simultaneously brings the promise of increased prosperity and opportunity but also increased collective vulnerability.  We know we have no other choice than to collaborate to deal with those who seek to make our shared home unsafe, to abate climate change, to create a fair global trading and investment system, and to ensure that conflict of all kinds does not cause collateral damage to others. The only option in the 21st century is to insist that that all outcomes, except perhaps on the sporting field and in competitive businesses, must be win/win. And even businesses are learning that seeking interdependence and mutual benefit with customers and suppliers is the best way forward, and that win/win can be more profitable than win/lose.

The future of the Middle East.

         The introduction of this European change process into the Middle East might seem unlikely right now.  However in 1985 the collapse of the Soviet Union four years later, and the subsequent remaking of Europe, seemed unlikely. Few foresaw this tipping point. The tension in Iran between the oppressive Islamic leadership and the secular educated middle class still increases and this could trigger a quick and surprising collapse of the theocratic leadership in Iran.  It is currently being undermined by trade bans on its oil and other products, by investment strikes, the freezing of external bank accounts, customer boycotts and by covert operations by western intelligence. A collapse of both Iran and Syria is on the cards and this will produce in the Middle East a change process of the proportions of that which occurred in Eastern Europe post 1989. This is because both of these nations are both major powers in the Middle East and have already become planetary pariahs in the eyes of the global educated middle class and the governments dominated by their thinking and values. The tribalisation portrayed by Ben-Ami, the first stage of change and currently under way in the Middle East will be followed by this second stage; preparing them for really joining the global interdependent society. Within a decade at the latest there will be a Middle Eastern equivalent to the EU and ASEAN and their descendents. It is likely to come in the form of the Arab League becoming a political union.

Islamic influences on the Middle East’s future          

         A critical difference between the situations in Europe and the Middle East is the presence in the Middle East of fundamentalist Islam. This in turn has counter-generated a fundamentalist Judaism within Israel.  Will this drive the Middle East on a different course to Europe? 

         It is important to remember that we shouldn’t compare the current situation in the Middle East to Europe as it is now but to Europe as it was prior to 1989. Islam was not nearly as influential in the Middle East 30 years ago as it is today. For the most part Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Government of Iran when it overthrew the Shah, were initially social-justice driven. All were supported by the most disadvantaged sectors in their respective societies. They were militant because they were opposed to the autocratic governments that repressed them.

         However we can still learn from Europe as we consider the future of the Middle East, despite the present of militant Islam there.  Iran today sees itself as an exporter of revolution in the same vein as the Soviet Union in the 1970 and 1980s.  Prior to 1989 many who these current Islamists would have been Marxists. Marxists after all were autocratic pursuers of social justice. Prior to 1989 even some Middle East autocratic leaders were Marxists as well. Gamel Abdel Nasser in Egypt for example was an autocratic modernist and socialist who overthrew a monarchy to gain power. He was very much in the Russian revolutionary mould and had broad based support unlike his successors who showed little aspiration uplift the poor and promote his socialist modernist ideals. They faced increased opposition because of they largely abandoned social justice except for keeping a few policies in place such as subsidising food. The Ba’arthist Party under the leadership of  both Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Assad Family in Syria was also founded on autocratic socialist and modernist ideals.

         With the collapse of Marxism in 1989 those who promoted a continuance of a revolutionary modernist ideology needed a new home. Both Marxism and Islamic groups sought social justice and equity in what they perceive to be very unfair and repressive world.  These would-be Middle Eastern revolutionaries chose the mosque as their new home, for in many of these countries the mosque was the only place that permitted a degree of free speech.

With the move into the mosques, religious leaders increasingly doubled as political leaders and Fridays, after prayers, became their day for revolution: secular revolutionaries became religious revolutionaries. Like Marxists these Islamists they blamed the liberal western capitalism and democracy, because they had not sufficiently uplifted the poor and they tolerated high levels of corruption. Even in northern Malaysia former Marxist revolutionaries became Islamists.          However the designation of Islam as the engine of revolutionary change has produced its own problems.  The Arab Spring launched as a vehicle of bringing greater Enlightenment to the Arab world is being endangered by counter-enlightenment forces of fundamentalist Islam such as the Salafism and Wahhabism, attacking as they do more enlightened branches of Islam such as Sufism. Moreover more the old autocratic order fights resists change, the higher the opportunity for these counter-enlightenment forces to increase their influence, for this is forcing short -term collaborations of convenience to overthrow autocracy between the forces of Secular enlightenment and Islamic counter–enlightenment.

         The biggest force to ensure the success of the Arab Spring will be the effectiveness of the educated middle classes. The bigger this proportion is of the total population the more likely will be the long –term success of the Arab Spring. A sizeable and politically effective middle class is needed if these nation are to fully participate in the global system of trade and commerce. Over time some middle class members of he old ruling class will join this movement as is already happening with defections of much of the military, academic and business leadership in Syria.  The other critical element is the middle class expatriate populations who are already also involved. These of course are playing a major role in gaining world-wide support for the democratic transformation of Arab nations.

         Islam is already cohabiting successfully with democracy in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and India. People worried by the thought that Islam might hijack democracy should examine these models. This should reassure fearful secularists that there are ways to build common purpose and shared power with enlightened Islam. The future government of Iran is likely to be very much like the current government of Turkey.

         Extreme Islamists, such as Wahabists in Saudi Arabia, and Salafists more generally, are still unabashed autocratic industrial modernists. They are only dominate because either they have formed collaborations of convenience with the ruling autocrats such as in Saudi Arabia, or because the middle class is not sufficient large to generate a tipping point into a stable democracy. With the growing size and spread of the educated middle classes forms of counter-enlightenment Islam will recede and yield to more Turkish-style democracies that respect difference including in places such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their time is going and they will only survive for a short term where that are able to close schools and oppress women and difference. However they can’t maintain this long term for the undermining this now out-of-date order is similar to that which occurred in the Soviet Union. World interconnectivity is undermining their control over the world if ideas and even of power. The head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi once described the Internet as a  ‘Trojan horse carrying enemy soldiers in its belly’.  Despite its theocratic government Iran is changing rapidly. It is currently producing world-class films largely produced and directed by women. These are much appreciated by the global middle class . Sixty five percent of university entrants are women. Recent clumsy attempts by the government to limit access of women to professions will almost certainly fail .The days of theocratic Iran are numbered.        

         Islamic autocratic leaders promote a one-size-fits-all opposition to the celebration of difference of class, race and religion just as Marxists leaders  did before them . This is not all that different to a Saddam or a Nasser, or to China today. Extreme Islam combines industrial modernity with often archaic patriarchal social structures, and promotes views of the role of both education and women in society that are totally unacceptable to 21st century educated middle class people everywhere.

         Islamic leaders who do not support tribalist secession or even respect for cultural difference . They are so out of synch with all the key long-term global trends that this will increasingly become a vulnerability.  The post-modern celebration of, and respect for, cultural difference in a integrated global society is a corner-stone ethic of 21st century globalisation. A good example of this is the evolution of World Music as a genre: this simultaneously celebrates and treasures cultural diversity and human unity. Recently Islamic extremists were banning music in Mali where music is at the very centre of their culture. It is hard to believe that such stupidity was a serious attempt to win Malian hearts and minds. They are repeating the mistakes of Early Christian missionaries who did this all over the world but who now know how stupid and self-defeating this approach is.  Autocrats, both Marxist and Islamic, oppose any form of pluralism. Pluralism requires democracy. Their hegemony will eventually be undermined because globalisation can only work long term if it promotes intercultural and interreligious tolerance and harmony.  

         Soviet repression was undermined by post-modern tribalist aspirations for the expression of , and respect for, cultural difference . Chinese Marxist modernism that supports autocracy and the repression of difference cannot hope to prosper long-term in a globalising world while it is generating a booming middle class within its borders.  Likewise militant Islam will not survive while it continues to repress those who favour democracy and who believe that those who are different to them should be respected.

         In recent times Turkey has become a hero of the West because of its assistance to the Sunni rebellion against Assad and his Alawite/Shite rule. However the Turks are at the same time trying to contain a Kurdish

Spring. As this is being written, there are rumors that secret talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdish leadership are underway that will deliver more autonomy to Kurdish people in Turkey. The Kurds will, if needed, use their military, the Kurdish Peshmerga Army, which is armed by the US to advance their aspirations for a Kurdish homeland. The Turks are also armed by the US so it is unlikely that open conflict between the two would be blessed by the US, and its supporters. It will not be possible for Turkey to repress the Kurds in Turkey while at the same time it is supporting Kurdish self determination against autocracy in Syria.  The Kurds, like the Czechs and Slovaks, need to abolish the old before they can create the new.

              Divorce Czech –Slovak style is the future model for voluntary democratic tribalisation. In 20 years all tribalisation will occur this way, for the world will not tolerate blood being spilled to allow entities to secede from one another. In a generation all tribalisation will be democratic, for any repression of minorities will bring planetary pariahood on the repressors accompanied by trade bans, investment strikes, consumer boycotts and the freezing of bank accounts. The world is now so interdependent that this form of ganging up on planetary pariahs up by the rest of the world is beginning to work and it will become even more powerful in future as global interdependence increases. In the interim however much blood is likely to be spilled, and it is more likely to be like the tribalization that occurred in the Balkans with the splitting of Yugoslavia.

              With the projected collapse of Iran and Syria, the Middle East will be remade. Hezbollah and Hamas will have to adapt or disappear and Israel will be able to liberate itself from the siege mentality that has dominated its thinking and actions for decades. If Israel is smart it will begin to shift its consciousness now, and those who a placing priority on military strikes against Iran and extending Israel further into the West Bank should be contained, for they will undermine progress of any kind  while uniting the Arab world and indeed the rest of the world against them. The isolation of Israel would follow. In the January 2013 election Israel became even more polarized with extremist Jewish political parties seeking agendas to press on with covering the West Bank with Jewish settlements and implementing military attacks on Iran. Many Israelis and their supporters of Israel might not appreciate being compared with the unloved hermit state that is North Korea, but some Israelis with influence are sabre-rattling like the leadership of North Korea and are as unwilling to listen to those who wish to counsel them to change their behavior. The way to a peaceful pluralistic Middle East requires that world keeps its nerve and pressure on the corrupt Government of Iran and the already collapsing of Syrian administration and await a 1989-style political collapse. It will come. Iran is trying to divert Iranians eyes to look at conflicts beyond its border in order to take their eyes off the slowly souring situation at home. Anybody who wishes for Middle East peace should not be acting in ways that encourages Iranians to look at potential threats from outside their borders and take their eyes and minds off real threats that come from within their borders.      

        The Middle East is close to a tipping point similar to 1989 in Europe, Soon the remaking of the Middle East can begin and it will affect everyone including remaining autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and the already middle class dominated countries in the Gulf. They will not be able to avoid change even if they don’t want it. Egypt ‘s new administration likewise will have to respect all difference or it will become a planetary pariah, which will send it backwards. We can look forward to 2030 when there will be very few autocracies that repress difference remaining on our planet, including in the Middle East. If they persist they will be treated as planetary pariahs as North Korea is today.




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