Economic and Social Contradictions in Middle East
The term “Middle East” is not very precise. It leaves open whether countries like Morocco or Tunisia belong, as these are geographically outside the region, the same applies to Iran or Afghanistan. On the other hand, these countries are often included because one either assumes that they belong to a common – Islamic – cultural group or that the entire region is viewed politically as a unit. Other terms – such as the “Middle East” or the “Islamic Middle East”, etc. – do not solve the problem of indeterminacy. In this book, for pragmatic reasons (and in response to the public debates), a broad term of the region is used, which is based on the Anglo-Saxon term “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA), but expanded to include Afghanistan. even if geographically this must remain somewhat doubtful (Afghanistan can be counted as part of Central Asia or South Asia for good reasons). But this appears politically and culturally justifiable.
Around 330 million people lived in this entire region in 2005, around ten percent more than in the USA. Its gross national product (GNP) is around 690 billion dollars, about one twentieth that of the United States. The GNP per head of the population was slightly more than 2200 US dollars in 2005 (for comparison: around 34,500 dollars in Germany), which, however, gives the wrong impression when considering purchasing power: this is slightly more than one per person in the region Fifth of Germans. A third of the population is under 15 years of age and the average life expectancy is 68 years for men and 71 for women. The illiteracy rate is 28 percent. 13 percent of all children under five are malnourished.
Such data cover more than they illuminate, however, because the differences between the various countries are extremely pronounced. There are populous countries with moderate economic power (such as Egypt), countries or areas with a very low level of economic development (such as Yemen), those in war, civil war or occupation situations (Iraq, Palestine) and, on the other hand, poorly populated countries with huge oil reserves and correspondingly high income (e.g. Kuwait, United Arab Emirates). It is obvious that the respective internal social and living conditions diverge accordingly.
Yemen, with its 21 million inhabitants, for example, only comes to 600 US dollars in gross national product per capita per year (2005), Palestine to 1,120 and Syria to 1,380 dollars, Egypt lies between the two. On the other hand, the GNP per capita in Oman is over 9,000 dollars, in Saudi Arabia around 11,800 and Kuwait over 24,000 dollars per person per year. Israel is even higher at $ 26,200. In Yemen, around 45 percent of the population lived on less than two dollars a day at the end of the 1990s, and 46 percent of children under five were still undernourished after the turn of the century – conditions that are hardly imaginable in the oil states on the Persian Gulf.
Against this background, the region is certainly not a unit in economic and socio-political terms. Politically, the region is also highly heterogeneous, although there are similarities in this respect. According to COUNTRYAAH, republics like Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or Yemen are opposed to monarchies like in Morocco, Jordan or Saudi Arabia. In some countries, elections are held periodically, but they are politically insignificant (Syria, Libya) or manipulated (Egypt, formerly Algeria), but sometimes also have political significance and are relatively or largely fair (Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait, meanwhile Algeria, partly Egypt or Lebanon). In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, elections are still unthinkable (at least on a national level; in Saudi Arabia there were first election experiments at the municipal level) still unthinkable. In some countries there are strong and viable civil societies (Palestine, Lebanon, Morocco), while in others organizations that are independent of the state are persecuted or suppressed (Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia). Some countries have a decidedly pro-Western orientation in their foreign policy, such as Israel, Tunisia, Jordan or Egypt, while others are considered the “axis of evil” or “rogue states” in Washington (Iran, Syria, and until recently Iraq and Libya ), while US, Israeli or international combat troops are stationed in others, which the population – or at least large parts of them – perceive as occupation forces (Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan).
Some countries are ethnically (Tunisia, Yemen) or religious / denominational (Tunisia) relatively homogeneous, while most are ethnically and linguistically (Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan) or religiously extremely heterogeneous (Iraq, Lebanon, again Sudan). Sometimes tribal structures are of great importance for domestic politics and the social distribution of power (Libya, Saudi Arabia), sometimes they are of little or no importance (Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine).
Overall, it is obvious that the region of North Africa and the Near and Middle East is extremely diverse. In addition, this also applies to the internal circumstances of many of the countries there: This applies not only to the ethnic or religious differences mentioned, but also to an often sharply pronounced urban-rural contrast and major economic development differences in different regions.