On Watching the Arab World from Europe

Tarek Osman (@TarekmOsman) ‏
Senior Political Counsellor for the Arab World, European Bank for Reconstruction & Development;
Author of ‘Islamism: A History of Political Islam from the Fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Rise of ISIS’

This is a think-piece for the ESPAS 2017 Annual Conference. Have a look at the other think-pieces too.


European observers of the Arab world are concerned about the waves of immigration coming from the sea’s southern shores. The worry is merited. In the past four decades, the Arab world’s population has increased from circa 180 to over 350 million. A majority of the young tens of millions are products of failed educational systems, and with few skills that correspond to the future of work, globally and in the region.

Militant Islamism is another worry. It has proven its durability and ability to evolve into different organisational shapes. And it will remain with us for years to come.

Three more concerns merit attention. The first is that a big percentage of those young Arabs are emerging into acutely distorted political economy landscapes — in most cases, plagued by a blur between power and wealth, institutional decay, and weak rule of law. This exacerbates the job creation challenge.

The second problem is that, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, the state order that has existed in the last half century is now crumbling. And, despite all of the multi-faceted confrontations that have been taking place in the region, no new order has established its foundations yet. That process will prove long and will unleash new waves of violence.

The third problem is that in most parts of the Islamic, and especially Arab world, societies have not yet solved the quandary of what is the role of religion (primarily Islam, but also Christianity) in public life. The confrontation, in the past six years, between, on one side, political Islam, and on the other, royal families, military establishments, and secular forces, have exacerbated that quandary.

There are rays of light. The Arab world is witnessing an unprecedented wave of commercial and social entrepreneurship by a generation that is disillusioned by its past and present.

But there are rays of light. The Arab world is witnessing an unprecedented wave of commercial and social entrepreneurship by a generation that is disillusioned by its past and present. Also, there are significant changes in young Arabs’ interactions with their heritage, culture, and even public space. Plus, new innovations in how many young Arab Muslims and Christians see the tenets of their religions, have the potential of easing the tension that has existed in many Arab societies for many decades between the role of religion and secular modernity. For the sake of its own security, Europe needs to intelligently engage with these innovators and entrepreneurs.