As we pass the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, we still have questions about these historic convulsions. Why did the Arab Street finally rise up, in a region that has seen more than its share of strongmen, rhetoric and big ideas rooted in socialism, religion, pan-Arabism and everything in-between? What was the fuel for the sparks of ignition?
As a business person who has travelled extensively in the Middle East and as a competition lawyer who has seen how competition forces change, I have a different perspective on the intertwined factors leading to the Arab Spring.
Based on my observations, the initial fuel for change was the now infamous competition for economic development that largely began in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, then spread throughout the Persian Gulf as each country competed for leadership in one sphere or another. This intense regional competition also set the stage for progressively escalating social expectations throughout the Arab world. Over the past couple of decades, young Arabs finally had the prospect of a bright future in the United Arab Emirates, a modernizing Arab country.
The fact that Arab youth could dream of emigrating to another Arab country and have rewarding careers was an unprecedented development. Until then, the only escape from the hierarchical and corrupt economies they lived in was to find a way to the West. The impetus to look for opportunities outside the West accelerated post-9/11 as the opportunity to emigrate to the West dwindled for many Arabs. But economic growth in places such as Dubai, with a culture that welcomed and accommodated hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the globe, allowed them to see what an Arab country was capable of economically and socially under the right conditions. These experiences were even more stark when compared to their lives in countries such as Egypt, Libya and Syria.
Like many things in life, it’s the unexpected consequences that are often the most powerful. As the financial crisis of 2008 spread to Dubai, many Arab professionals who lost their jobs were forced to return home – to corrupt and stagnant economies and the prospect of largely dead-end professional lives. But they had seen a vision of how things could be different if only their governments could emulate what the UAE had done. As they pondered their future and lamented the loss of the lives they had in places such as Dubai, they also shared their painful realizations with their friends and families, not to mention the shared pain of the lost remittances their families had often relied on to make ends meet.
And then the spark – not another insincere speech or self-serving vision of a politician or a strongman, but a tragically sincere act of a vegetable vendor in Tunis that captured the pain and desperation of almost everyone across the Arab world. It set off a chain of events that no one could predict or squelch no matter how violent or relentless the tactics. The final chapter has yet to be written, but it will surely be better than the past.
No one, of course, can predict the future of the Arab world with certainty. Much has been written about the potential for these societies to fracture or be taken over by religious extremists. It’s hard to believe that will be the case, but what’s the society these people aspire to forge out of revolution? For a hint on the model that will serve as a strong example, we must look to Turkey. Many Arabs see Turkey as an emerging example of modern democracy in a majority Muslim country and view it with envy as it continues on its journey of economic and political development. Perhaps this will also start a new round of competition for the development of modern democracies in the Arab world.
So, as competition for leadership in economic development started the process of re-establishing economic expectations in the Arab world, another competition for political development has begun to write the next chapter. As companies are pushed to innovate and satisfy their customers by intense competition, the same forces will help push Arab countries to try to satisfy the undeniable yearnings of their citizens now willing to take to the streets. In these times, where security and economic prosperity have never been more intertwined in human history, we can only hope they make the most of their potential for their benefit and ours.
Dany Assaf is a senior partner in competition and international at Torys LLP in Toronto.