What predictions do you have for the near future?

Syria, Iraq and region

Florence Gaub

To person

Dr. phil., born 1977; Research assistant at the Institute of the European Union for Security Studies (EUISS), 100 Avenue de Suffren, 75015 Paris / France. [email protected]

The future of the Middle East is currently perceived as rather bleak; Predictions predict a thirty years' war, a third world war or even the end of the world, if you believe the Islamic State (IS). However, the vast majority of these forecasts are primarily based on the current situation and thus virtually inflate everyday events to a decade. Fundamental changes, be it on an individual or social level, tend to take place slowly and therefore escape the daily observer. [1] Anyone who wants to understand the possible future of the region must therefore take a step away from daily events and turn to medium and long-term processes. That is what futurology does.

First of all, the prejudice must be overcome that future forecasts are exclusively speculative and, moreover, are usually flawed. Every surprising development in international politics - be it the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Arab Spring - is used as an opportunity to castigate the entire discipline as useless. In contrast to fortune telling, future research does not serve to accurately predict the future. Rather, your task is to creatively deal with current processes in order to identify both positive and negative development opportunities. On the basis of these results, decision-makers can set the course necessary to avert or initiate these developments. Where futurology is taken particularly seriously, its predictions do not come true: Examples are the ozone hole or the death of trees in the 1980s. In both cases, alarming predictions led to measures being taken that could halt or even reverse the trend. [2] Where warnings are not heard, futurology fare like the Greek mythological figure Kassandra: She may be right, but she has failed her actual task, the successful early warning. [3]

There was and still is a whole series of predictions for the Middle East, some of which have come true and some of which have not. At best, the predictions triggered behavior change - for example, demographic predictions for the region in the 1970s and 1980s were so disastrous that it led politicians to take steps to reduce the birth rate. The prognoses from these decades therefore did not come true. In the less good case, people behave differently than assumed because they have a wealth of options for action available at any time, but scenarios can only play through a limited number of them. An example is the behavior of the Egyptian military in 2011 and 2013: Both times the officers acted differently than most observers had predicted because they had other options. [4] The sheer infinity of development opportunities is what makes forecasting so complex.

A popular method in futurology is scenario development. [5] Here not only precise situations in the future are designed, but also the developments that have led to them. However, scenarios always have to choose from various factors in order to reduce the complexity of the options - and in doing so they can indeed overlook important things. The scenarios presented below are likely in nature; they are limited to key security and political factors. They depict three development opportunities for the Middle East in 2025. [6]

Megatrends: The whole stage design

In contrast to possible or desirable scenarios, probable scenarios do not move in a vacuum: They are based on so-called megatrends. In futurology, these are long-term trends that are difficult to reverse. They are more or less the set in front of which the action (in this case terrorism and civil war) takes place - but in contrast to the static set it not only develops, it can itself have positive and negative influences on the situation.

There are five such trends in the Middle East, four of which can potentially fuel even more conflicts, the fifth can be rated both positively and negatively: population development, urbanization, climate change, dependence on food imports and increasing internet penetration. All five, in descending order of intensity, will help determine the future of the region. Demographics will be the most important factor in this. Although the increase in population has slowed significantly, the region (with the exception of Lebanon) is still growing: from 324 million inhabitants in 2015 to 370 million in 2025. [7] In these ten years, the baby boom cohorts from 1990 to 2010 will enter the labor market. The total population of the region remains young: Depending on the country, between 40 and 60 percent are under 30 years old. The International Labor Organization predicts an increase in youth unemployment in the Middle East from 27 percent in 2015 to over 31 percent in 2025. [8] This is a political and not just a social problem because there is a significant correlation between high unemployment (over 30 percent) in this age group and increased political unrest, violence and terrorism. [9]

In the past few decades, some states have tried to cushion the growing gap between the population and their own food production through subsidies; however, since the region (with the exception of Israel) imports more than 50 percent of its food, this means that it remains at the mercy of the traditionally strongly fluctuating prices of the world market. At the end of 2010 this meant that the population had to cope with food price increases averaging 25 to 30 percent overnight - a factor that played into the unrest of 2011.

But it is not just demographics that put pressure on the infrastructures of the states; Climate change will also hit the Middle East harder than other regions of the world because it exacerbates existing problems with water and heat. As early as 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that the region would have to record temperature increases averaging two degrees Celsius by 2025. This has far-reaching consequences: According to the World Bank, almost a third of the population would be exposed to water scarcity, and agriculture would produce even less than before. The projected rise in sea levels (between ten and 30 centimeters by 2050) will threaten several million people in coastal cities such as Alexandria in Egypt from floods and flooding.

This development goes hand in hand with urbanization: if 56 percent of the citizens of the Middle East lived in cities in 2015, this figure will rise to over 60 percent, also as a result of climate change and unemployment. This does not have to be, but it can become a social mega-problem if the already overwhelmed urban infrastructure cannot cope with the masses of people. This is already the case in metropolises that have grown massively over the past two decades, such as Cairo. Last but not least, the Internet will continue to catch up and not only influence political communication, but also drive the increasing individualization of society. While around 49 percent of the population in the Middle East was online in 2015, it will be up to 80 percent in 2025; over 85 percent of them are already using it from their mobile phone - a trend that will only intensify.