Construction of a stadium in the desert of Qatar, Middle East. Photo: Philipus, Adobe Stock

Between COVID-19, COP 27 and the World Cup: Crisis Management in the Arab World

The Arab world is firmly in the spotlight with the COP 27 in Egypt and the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Most governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have a poor track record when it comes to protecting citizens’ rights, as shown by ongoing protests on the streets of Iran. This weakens citizen’s trust, leaving nations ill-equipped to handle complex crises like climate change or COVID-19.

Complex crises are understood as “systemic risks”, i. e. threats to societies’ essential systems that in a transboundary setting follow largely unpredictable trajectories, heading towards a catastrophic tipping point with devastating consequences. COVID-19 has been a picture book example: its consequences have threatened various vital systems, such as public health, economic activities, education and even personal encounters. Climate change, meanwhile, threatens to inflict devastating effects on systems ranging from biodiversity to agriculture, from medical care to city planning, among others, posing a risk to societies’ existence and human survival. According to a recent Carnegie Endowment study, the MENA region is among the most prone to climate change.

Countering such systemic risks mainly depends on two variables: a) functional leadership, i. e. the level of competence and capability in governance performance, and b) socioeconomic potency, i. e. the resources that a society can invest in crisis prevention and crisis management.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI), with its two complementary sub-categories “Status Index” and “Governance Index”, measures these two comprehensive variables in all its different variations. The Governance Index describes what governments have been doing and depicts the functionality of their leadership; the Status Index describes how elaborated a country’s political and economic capacity is – ideally a social market economy embedded in a democratic, inclusive polity.

Waning public trust in leaders

In both measures, most Arab countries score rather poorly. With the notable exception of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and, albeit less so, Morocco, all remaining 16 governments of the MENA region show major deficiencies in their “steering capability”, i. e. the BTI’s criterion that measures the governments’ ability to prioritize and implement its policy decisions and eventually learn from prior mistakes or external consulting. Assertive action as a type of “output legitimacy” is a core element for governments to gain trust from their citizens, especially when democratic (“input”) legitimacy is lacking, but even Turkey ranks below the BTI’s global average in the most recent BTI 2022 edition in this crucial criterion.

Such is the picture when it comes to other measures of trustworthy governance. The average of all MENA countries in fundamental BTI criterions such as “resource efficiency” or “international cooperation” stands far below the global average.

Under these deplorable conditions, how should ordinary citizens trust their government when exceptional – and often cost-intensive – action is required to counter systemic risks such as climate change or COVID-19?

Poor MENA nations leave citizens at the mercy of crises

The resource-rich oil and gas exporting nations can to some extent make up these gaps with major spending on public health and heat/drought resistance, but the less affluent or conflictive countries can hardly foot such a steep bill. Their farmers are left alone on arid fields, their patients are deprived of vital medication in malfunctioning hospitals, their poor are left helpless in the face of runaway inflation.

Yet, if governments and societies do not cooperate in major crises, the prospects for surmounting such challenges get even grimmer. COVID-19, climate change or other natural or manmade disasters are challenges that most governments and societies in MENA were insufficiently prepared for – the collapsing Lebanon, once the flamboyant exception to the otherwise rather somber rule of MENA incrustation, has become just another example of the blatant regional deficiencies.

After all, MENA citizens – like all citizens – have the right to at least three basic policy achievements:

  1. economic growth must be sustainable and inclusive where the money really goes into the societies’ essential systems and not into the pockets of already wealthy ones;
  2. governmental actions must include the thorough consideration of scientific advice and also seriously involve regime critics; political ideological struggles should be informed by empirical facts and impartial expertise;
  3. political decisions must be made transparent so that citizens can better understand and accept them.

These three output legitimacies are unrelated to the democratic one-million-dollar question about free and fair elections. But if they were seriously factored into societies, blatant human rights breaches against work migrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, oppositionists and activists across MENA would be out of question. Qatar’s four weeks of gripping games, glorious goals and shining stadiums cannot sugarcoat the systemic risks MENA citizens are confronted with every day.

A version of this article was first published by Qantara.de

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