Imagining 2030: The Middle East

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Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time.

Hayat Alvi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College and a PS21 Global Fellow.



It’s 2030, and I’m reflecting on compelling predictions that the U.S. National Security Strategy made in early 2015:

“A struggle for power is underway among and within many states of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  This is a generational struggle in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war and 2011 Arab uprisings, which will redefine the region as well as relationships among communities and between citizens and their governments.  This process will continue to be combustible, especially in societies where religious extremists take root, or rulers reject democratic reforms, exploit their economies, and crush civil society” – U.S. National Security Strategy, February 2015 (page 5).

“Combustible” was the key word. Since those predictions were made in 2015 we have, and are continuing to witness simultaneous shifts in the fault-lines in regional politics, economics, ideologies, territorial fights, and resource-demographics dynamics that are exacerbating the humanitarian crises in the region.  The increasingly violent Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalry is worsening; reflecting a “Thirty-Years War” cloaked in geopolitics. The MENA region, as predicted fifteen years ago, has experienced vicious cycles of conflict, poverty, resource scarcity, regime repression, terrorism, and demographic and cartographical transformations.

Climate change has not being kind to the MENA region. Just today the headline in the news is that Yemen has run out of water. Yemen’s environmental situation, exacerbated by a continuing war, is unleashing a humanitarian catastrophe worse than ever before. Regional demographic trends are compounding the crises. The youth bulge, increasing urbanization and population density, and high unemployment (things that triggered the first uprisings in 2011) are continuing to put an unbearable stress on energy resources. Not to mention that over the last decade and a half we have seen several more “Arab Spring”-like uprisings that have challenged autocratic regimes and monarchies alike.

Countries that were once dependent on tourism and oil have seen their economies continue to deteriorate since oil prices started fluctuating violently in 2015 and unrelenting terrorist attacks, carried out primarily by Al Qaeda and its affiliates and the Islamic State (IS) and their mutations, failed to slow down.  Meanwhile, the Sunni-Shiite sectarian rivalry has intensified, manifesting itself in many conflicts, terrorist attacks and regional agendas.

We are witnessing Islam’s “Thirty-Years War,” and no one can say how long it will last.  One of the entities that has benefited greatly from this increasing Sunni-Shiite rift is IS.  Despite losing territory over the years, IS has taken advantage of humanitarian crises that were triggered and perpetuated by the Saudi-Iran proxy wars, the youth bulge, and water and food insecurity in the region. For the last 15 years IS has systematically sowed the seeds for a terrorist army and has ensured its ideology for future generations by indoctrinating and training young boys in jihadism and its own warped interpretation of Islam.  The IS demon has plagued the MENA region for the last 15 years and there is no sign it’s stopping.

The fighting continues in Syria, now a failed state.  The Lebanese Hezbollah is overstretched in both Syria and Iraq, where, in the latter, some stability exists, but only in a few regions.  Iraq, like a roller coaster, isn’t much better. When one area is stabilizing, another one is being challenged by remnants of IS and other Sunni and Shiite extremist groups.

Despite Erdogan’s campaign, Turkey is still struggling with PKK terrorism and IS attacks inside its borders. Meanwhile, Libya’s attempts at stabilization have failed miserably. The influx of foreign fighters into Syria and Libya after the “Arab Spring” was unprecedented and exacerbated the conflict within each country. The youth bulge and high unemployment, things that helped trigger protests around the region back in 2011 are still bringing people to the streets today. Regimes, unable to soothe their populations, are locking their countries in vicious cycles of harsh crackdowns, repression, and restrictions on civil rights and liberties, which result in provoking more uprisings and protests. Economic stagnation is compounding the situation across the region.  Intellectuals, leaving in droves, are triggering a brain drain similar to Afghanistan and Iraq a few decades earlier. The migrant crisis is affecting Europe, Canada, the U.S., and Australia in ways far worse than fifteen years ago.

Adding fire to the flame, the region has experienced a perpetual arms race, which Western powers and Russia and China, have fueled due to its profitability and their false assumptions that throwing more weapons at problems will help resolve them.  The specter of WMD threats are haunting governments in the region, as well as in the West, as Iran reconsiders a nuclear deterrence agenda to counter the existential threat from IS and other Sunni extremists.  We’re back to square one.

Today in 2030, not much has changed in the MENA region. All the issues the U.S. National Security Strategy touched upon and predicted back in 2015, are still here. We are locked in a vicious endless circle.

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Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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