Social cohesion in the Middle East has always been viewed as essential for the world due to its mineral wealth and strategic location. Many a western leader and analyst justify their aid and support for the autocratic rulers and monarchs in the region due to the fact they maintain stability, despite using torture and brute force. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi and the ensuing instability in Libya is cited as a case in point. With the population in the Middle East set to grow the traditional tools used by the dictator rulers to maintain the status quo will be ineffective.
When the artificial borders were created in the Sykes-Picot agreement 100 years ago, new nationalities, or nationalism was hoped would give the region new identities to move forward with. Any deviation from this – the autocratic rulers would bring the people back in line. The torture cells of Syria, Libya, Egypt and much of the region are well renowned and became key sites for US extraordinary rendition. The Gulf states and monarchies, whilst different to the dictator rulers attempted to maintain their grip and hide their corruption by using their wealth by providing subsidies. This ensured the cost of food, fuel, electricity and many other necessities remained low, in the hope the region’s citizens would remain loyal. Total energy subsidies cost in excess of $300 billion in the region accounting for 22% of government revenues. As these subsidies and regimes rely almost entirely on oil revenue flows, the low oil prices has crippled this system that maintains loyalty. Saudi Arabia is currently in turmoil due to never constructing an economy that would sustain its growing population but plundered this wealth into pointless projects and upon its ever growing family.
The uprising in Syria has shown that the use of fear, torture and sheer brute force has now been overcome by the region and as a tool is ineffective to maintain social cohesion. With Tunisia and Egypt having brought down their ruler’s, Bashar al-Assad was hell bent in ensuring Syria was not the next Arab spring country. The regime security services arrested 13-year-old, Hamza al-Khateeb for writing in graffiti, “The people want the fall of the government”, in the city of Daraa in early March 2011, he was eventually tortured and killed. The protest against this regime murder, saw the security forces retaliate by opening fire on the protesters – The Arab spring had arrived in Syria. This led to the people of Syria carrying out individual acts of rebellion, which then galvanised nationwide protest. The regime’s use of disproportionate force, led some to defect from the army and this was were the first organised armed rebellion began. Across the length and breadth of the country the Syrian people ransacked their areas security offices and dungeons which were for long the eyes and the ears of the regime. The initial rapid success of the rebel groups was due to this fact and as the al-Assad regime was facing a nationwide uprising it was overstretched in dealing with the rebellion. The fear the regime used for so long to maintain social cohesion had been smashed to pieces.
The authoritarian rulers grip on information has now run its course as many in the Middle East now have alternative sources and platforms for information and the rulers therefore can no longer hide their crimes
The 21st century has been a time of astonishing advances in communications and information technology, including digitisation, mass-accessible video platforms, smart phones and social media. Billions of people gained internet access. These revolutionary changes have had a profound impact on the empowerment of individuals through exponentially greater access to information, tremendous ease of communication and data-sharing and formidable tools for networking. Social media is considered to have played a central role in the Arab spring. Many of the autocrats in the Middle East controlled information through a firm grip on the media, telecommunications, newspapers and magazines. In the monarchies of the region Princes and Princesses operate the main newspapers and magazines. But the Arab spring changed and challenged this old structure. Whilst the regimes controlled traditional forms of media, such as television, Newspapers and magazines, the same cannot be said with the internet. The Internet and social media is challenging the monopoly of information previously enjoyed by authoritarian governments.
The authoritarian rulers grip on information has now run its course as many in the Middle East now have alternative sources and platforms for information and the rulers therefore can no longer hide their crimes. The Middle East does have some of the lowest access rates when it comes to telecommunications, but with mobile subscriptions access rate per 100, the world’s highest at 109%. This means on average most of the public owns more than one mobile phone each. The rapid growth of smartphone penetration has layered a new dimension onto this rapidly evolving new public sphere. What could once be dismissed as limited to a narrow slice of a largely English-speaking elite is now distributed across wide swaths of the region. In some sectors of society, particularly educated urban youth, Internet access and usage is already for all practical purposes universal. Almost all statistics show that 88% of the regions online population uses social media on a daily basis. In fact there are 58 million Facebook accounts in the Middle East and 6.5 million twitter accounts, more than the estimated total number of newspaper readers in the region. The rulers in the region who for long controlled information have seen new technology – embraced on mass by the people, erode their grip on power.
Going forward repression and authoritarianism are no longer tools that the autocrats in the region can rely upon as these have now in terminal decline, as was seen with the Arab spring. People in the Middle East are now exposed to banned news and a variety of opinions, despite attempts by their governments to limit the free flow of information. They can discuss taboo subjects, criticise their leaders, and protest against injustices. Add to this a growing and youthful population the future will be different to the past in the Middle East.