The shock of this year’s unprecedented events in the Middle East are still at the forefront of the minds of regional leaders, some 10 months after the first stirrings of an uprising in Tunisia that caused reverberations throughout the region.
The slow progress towards new leadership in Egypt, massive spending plans in Saudi Arabia, and faltering attempts at expanding democracy in UAE show that established regimes are unsure how to respond to the demands of young protesters.
Continued violence in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Bahrain also show that the old forms of repression are proving incapable of putting down demands for a more representative form of government and an end to cronyism and corruption.
While the poor living conditions of much of the region’s population is undoubtedly at the heart of the regional unrest, government largesse is not the answer. All this will achieve is a reversal of the tentative steps made towards diversify economies away from their dependence on state jobs and kill off the private sector.
Furthermore, it is unsustainable in the long term and risks creating further problems when these policies have to be halted, or even reversed. Government spending may work in the short term to get people off the streets, but it does not address the real issue of governance.
By largely ignoring elections in Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the local population has shown that it can see through a chimera of democratic reform. Unless the region comes up with a real response to the Arab uprisings, the pressures it faces risk building up and dramatically spilling over onto the streets again.
Policy makers need to act now to start plotting a course towards better governance, rooting out corruption, and improving education standards and job prospects. That will allow the leaders of today to leave a better legacy for the future, both economically and politically.