A few years ago, an email began to circulate around the Gulf states and then the wider world. Attached to it was a document containing two photographs. The first showed Sheikh Zayed road in Dubai in the mid-1990s. The second was the same scene 10 years later. The contrast is stunning. One view shows a dual carriageway cutting through a landscape of brown scrub and desert, three concrete apartment blocks the only major features in sight. The other is a photo of a modern metropolitan highway lined by skyscrapers, the distinctive organ-pipe silhouettes of the Emirates Towers in the distance. The same apartment blocks can just be made out by the side of the sixlane road, dwarfed by the buildings around them.

There are few more eloquent illustrations of how far Dubai and its neighbours have come in a generation. But the reason the email has travelled so far and so quickly is because it seems to express more than the ambitions of one little emirate. Like those 1930s photographs of construction workers sitting on a girder of the half-built Empire State Building, the streets of New York seemingly miles below them, the Sheikh Zayed road pictures testify to the potential of human society.

So what can other archive photographs tell us about the recent history of the Middle East? Take a street scene from Cairo in the mid- 1950s, when MEED was founded. Several features are immediately apparent to modern eyes. For a start, the Corniche looks like a nice place to take a stroll, rather than the crowded, traffic-bound thoroughfare it is today. But the most surprising period details are the fashion. How many more Egyptian men were wearing European dress than today; how many more women can be seen walking about in skirts and shirtsleeves, hair uncovered. Even among the traditional galabayas on show, there are stripy costumes and coloured cloth: few of the plain grey or white dishdashas that are the default uniform of Cairo or Alexandria today.

These two sets of pictures tell very different stories about the development of the modern Middle East. So when painting a picture of the region in five decades’ time, it is worth remembering that the future envisaged by the secular Arab nationalists of 1957 was very wide of the mark. How many people foresaw the Iranian revolution? Who could have predicted the sudden rise of Islamic banking? There are many middle class professionals in today’s Middle East who harbour ideals of liberty, equality and technological progress. But they also share a region with hundreds of thousands of people who believe the outlines of an ideal society were drawn in Medina in the 7th century. The big question of the next 50 years will be whether the two can co-exist. Many would argue there is no contradiction at all.

Fifty years ago, the Middle East was on the brink of a new era. This is not a throw-away remark. It was the opinion of one of the most powerful men on the planet. “The Middle East has abruptly reached a new and critical stage in its long and important history,” US President Eisenhower told Congress on 5 January 1957. It was the tail end of the Suez crisis. Washington had exerted its influence for the first time in the region, forcing Britain and France to back down from a confrontation with Egypt. Eisenhower would even force Israel to withdraw after threatening it with the full weight of UN sanctions.

Independent Arab states were being allowed to stand on their own feet for the first time. So impressed was King Saud ibn Abdelaziz of Saudi Arabia that he travelled to Washington and officially adopted the anti-Communist doctrine of “my friend” Eisenhower. In return for US protection, Riyadh would help keep the oil flowing to its allies in the west.

The legacy of those decisions – and the historical ironies – will be apparent to anyone living in the region in 2007. The US is locked down in Iraq and at loggerheads with a revolutionary Islamic republic in Iran, a victim of its own interventionist policies. Saudi Arabia is dutifully keeping the pipelines open and oil prices low. But the US star has clearly begun to wane.

Washington will remain an important actor in regional affairs, at least until it can extricate itself from its military engagements. But a new dynamic has emerged since the Cold War that will dominate the political scene in the next 50 years. China, India and a revived Russia are rapidly becoming important economic and political allies, and not just to major oil producers – Beijing will be Cairo’s biggest trading partner by 2015. As countries such as Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia begin to take advantage of their large populations, and standards of education and training improve, they will increasingly be seen as jumping-off points to established markets such as Europe, and to emerging markets such as sub- Saharan Africa. In time, they could become manufacturing and service industry hubs in their own right.

Energy trading will remain integral to the economies of the Middle East. In 20 years, oil and gas will still be a staple for most Gulf states. But the gas industry is already under pressure from local industry and power demand. And the priorities of key customers such as China and the US are shifting. The big energy consumers are intent on diversifying their types and suppliers of energy, and although many alternative technologies are still in their infancy, regional states will need to keep pace if they are to retain their priveleged position in the global market.

The political map of 50 years’ time is harder to imagine. One or two countries may no longer exist as the nation states of today. Indeed, the map of the Levant and the Mashreq states might look very different, but integration and devolution are more likely agents of change than the coup and counter-coup of 50 years ago. The economic integration of the GCC, if successful, will prove an example for other parts of the region. Some of the Maghreb might want to repeat past attempts at a union, although their growing status as the industrial fringe of the EU could well obviate the need.

Conflict will continue to plague the region, but the generations traumatised by today’s wars will be the elder statesmen of 2057. Israel and Palestine will be independent states discussing union, both fighting a common threat from Zionist and Arab separatists. Iraq will be emerging from yet another exhausting conflict. The biggest question for the frail federation will be how to reabsorb the estimated 6 million members of the Iraqi diaspora.

Provided its current prosperity lasts, the Gulf will see the evolution of a form of government that can comfortably call itself Islamic without alienating or excluding secularists. As suffrage increases, attitudes towards women, minorities, foreigners and crime and punishment will relax. What is undoubted is that the Gulf states will enjoy greater cosmopolitanism in general – and of a more integrated nature than the Raj-like social strata of today. In the 2050s, the first children will be born in the Gulf of non-Arab or non-Persian background who can proudly boast Middle East nationality.

A growing worry in 2007 is the prospect of religious conflict between Shia and Sunni. There are terrible precedents in other cultures, although the optimists can gain small comfort from the fact that there are few examples within the history of the region. And the same holds true of other faultlines in the region. Plenty of stupid mistakes have been made in the past 50 years, indeed many of them have been repeated. But none of them were inevitable.

The most pressing problem preoccupying the governments of 2007 is demographics. However, unlike foreign military intervention or new ideologies, it is a problem that can be planned for. The population of the Middle East will probably double to about 800 million by 2035 before it stabilises. Cities and physical infrastructure will bear the brunt – as will regional healthcare systems. Diseases of affluence will become more common. One of the key roles of government will be supporting the greying population of 50 years’ time.

But governments will also need to start seeing their growing populations as an asset rather than a liability. An educated, competitive, adaptable workforce could see off competition from China, India and other emerging markets in Asia. With African economies opening up from 2010 onwards, the Middle East is well placed to become the outsourcing centre for the developing world. Despite the appeal of the IT-based technology parks being established in the Gulf states, there are also considerable opportunities in light manufacturing and lo-tech solutions such as water desalination and agricultural technology, genetic medicines, cheap robotics and alternative energies.

All this is perfectly possible. But only one thing will make the Middle East different from the oil-dependent, conflict-spoiled region of 1957, and that is a few sensible decisions made today. Hopefully, when in 50 years’ time a resident of Doha or Beirut looks at a photograph of 2007, they will not be looking back to a golden age. They will be living in one.

The Middle East in 1957 vs 2007

 

  The Middle East in 1957 The Middle East in 2007
Population of region 162.2 million 376.8 million
Regional oil production 173 million tonnes 1,410 million tonnes
GDP per capita, regional average $191 $6,565
Life expectancy (Egypt, f) 44 years 68 years
Infant mortality rate (North African average, including Egypt and Sudan) 176 per 1,000 39 per 1,000

Sources: UN, WHO, MEED

The Middle East in 1957 vx 2007 – by sector

Sector 1957 2007
Banking and Finance Cairo announces plans to nationalise all nine French and British banks operating in the country Egypt’s third largest bank, Bank of Alexandria, is sold to foreign bidders under a revived financial sector reform programme
Companies Aramco makes $280m in payments to Saudi Arabia, equivalent to 80 per cent of the income of the Saudi treasury State-owned Saudi Aramco generates estimated $163bn revenues
Energy Saudi Aramco begins exploratory drilling of its second offshore oil discovery, the Manifa field Bids are submitted for the main packages on the Manifa oil field development programme, Aramco’s largest ever offshore project
Economy $6,674 per capita regional GDP (at 1990 prices) $6,565 per capita regional GDP (at 1990 prices)
Industry Cairo launches an industrial investment drive with the aim of cutting its import bills and becoming self-sufficient in raw materials including fertilisers, steel and cement Cairo imposes new tariffs on exported cement and steel in an attempt to calm rising domestic prices and counter claims that foreigners are benefiting from local subsidies
Infrastructure Egypt’s Nuclear Energy Commission announces its Russian-built nuclear research reactor will be completed by March the following year Cairo announces plans to restart its civil nuclear energy programme, 20 years after it was suspended
Media and Communications Saudi Arabia has a 5 per cent literacy rate Saudi Arabia has an 80 per cent literacy rate
Real Estate Al-Malaz – ‘New Riyadh’ – under construction outside Riyadh city centre is to be 5 square kilometres and home to 30,000 people Modern Riyadh, home to 5 million people, is 1,554 square kilometres
Technology IBM abandons vacuum tubes and builds its first computer, which uses 2,000 transistors – equivalent to 250 bytes Saudi Aramco changes its entire seismic processing system to Linux clusters with more than 600 terabytes (600 trillion bytes) of storage
Urban Developemt Cairo Tower is 187 metres tall Burj Dubai is 800 metres tall