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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.2 (2004) 6-16
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The Changing Paradigm of the Middle East:
Its Elements and Challenges
The future of the Middle East, like that of any region, will be determined by a multitude of factors—international, regional, and domestic. In this era of globalization, with interconnected information networks and markets, regions are affected by more "foreign" factors than ever before. Nevertheless, for many generations to come the most fundamental factor in determining the course of the future will be an internal one. In the Middle East especially, with its unique history as the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions, the future will be determined most of all by what is on the minds of the region's people, their reactions to different circumstances, and what they believe to be the grace of God.
The Imperative of Change in the Middle East
If, hypothetically, all factors except population growth were somehow to remain unchanged, the Middle East would still see monumental change over the next two decades. According to the United Nations Development Program, the region's population has doubled over the past five decades, currently reaching 280 million. The projection for the next twenty years is a further increase of 50 percent to approximately 410 million, according to the most conservative estimates.1
The challenges posed by the demands of the rapidly increasing population [End Page 6] are daunting for policy makers. It is noteworthy that the highest rate of growth in the region is in the age group between fifteen and thirty-nine years. In most industrialized countries, the rate of growth for this age group is leveling off or declining. The demographic transformation in the Middle East will be a catalyst for major change.
Expanding populations can rapidly push the region toward a prosperous future of growth, especially young dynamic populations. Southeast Asia is a case in point. However, they can also pull the region in the opposite direction, toward a bleak state of resource scarcity and economic crisis. Each year, the Middle East will have to achieve an average growth rate of between 6 and 7 percent to ensure that population growth does not outstrip economic resources.
A host of other factors also will influence the region's dynamics in the future. What are seen to be problems of the present can, in fact, constitute opportunities for the future, given the proper context. Herein lies the fundamental challenge: creating the proper environment today in order to secure a more prosperous future for tomorrow, a challenge that is as complex as it is demanding.
Middle East Peace and Regional Transformation
Arab and non-Arab Middle Easterners have many political, economic, and societal challenges to face as they navigate the future. No single issue will determine the face of the future. However, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the most prominent issue on the minds of the region's population. A 2003 study by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland found that 71 percent of Egyptians surveyed felt that the Palestinian issue was the most important domestic issue for them.2 This is extremely significant, since Egypt has been at peace with Israel for over twenty-five years, and the respondents highlighted the Palestinian issue even though the question was about domestic rather than regional issues.
The comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, bringing peace [End Page 7] to Arabs and Israelis alike, will relieve the Middle East of the tremendous burden of failed history. In peace, Arabs will shed their frustration and humiliation at having had the Palestinians live under occupation for decades. In peace, the Israelis will find relief from their continuous sense of insecurity as the conflict subsides and they become accepted, more and more, as a member of the Middle East region. The importance of resolving this issue cannot be overemphasized as an instrumental step in truly creating an auspicious environment for constructive change in the Middle East.
There are some who would have the region embark on grand schemes of regional integration before seeing through the finalization of...