The desperate act of an unemployed university graduate living in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid sparked a wave of popular unrest that in January 2011 overthrew the authoritarian regime of the president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi has been echoed in other parts of the Arab world. In Algeria, riots and demonstrations in protest against steep rises in basic foodstuffs (the price of sugar and cooking oil, for example, went up by 30% on 1 January 2011) forced the authorities to rescind the increases; the protests continue in Egypt and elsewhere, even in the face of deaths and injuries, and have broadened into demands for greater freedom.
The explosive combination of mass unemployment and rising food prices threatens social explosion in other parts of the Arab world. Jordan too witnessed violence on 3 January in a jobs-related dispute between two rival tribes in the southern city of Maan, which led to three deaths, dozens of wounded, and over ninety arrests. A few days later, an inter-tribe clash took place in Karak. The government took urgent measures (such as cancelling taxes) in order to reduce market prices, while the United States government sent an emergency grant of $100 million to help the Jordanian authorities stabilise the markets and ease social tensions.
Egypt, where the government heavily subsidises imported food products and spends some 7% of gross domestic product on food and energy subsidies, is also at risk. Even Saudi Arabia is taking precautions; the kingdom aims to double its wheat reserves to 1.4 million tons, enough to satisfy demand for a year.
A wave of self-immolation hit Arab countries from Algeria to Egypt, and from Mauritania to Saudi Arabia reveal how desperate the situation has become in the entire region. In Saudi Arabia, unemployment exceeded 10% in 2009: more evidence that rich oil deposits are not enough insurance against social malaise.
The food-energy-water nexus
The urgent measures taken by these Arab governments are necessary. But they remain short-term, while the problem is structural - and will only get worse. A World Bank report published in 2009 stresses that Arab countries import more than half their food, and that they are the greatest importers of cereal in the world. In other words, Arab countries depend on other countries for their food security - as sensitive to floods in Australia and big freezes in Canada as on the yield in Algeria or Egypt itself.
In 2009, Arab countries’ food imports cost $30 billion. The rising prices on global markets from mid-2008 already caused waves of rioting in dozens of countries around the globe, and also left the unemployed and impoverished millions in Arab countries even more exposed.
The demographics of the Arab world add to the problem. The population increased fivefold during the 20th century, and the growth continues at an annual average of 2.3%. Egypt had 20 million people a century ago; by 2007 it had 75 million; by 2050 (according to United Nations projections) it will have 121 million. The populations of Algeria will grow from 33 million in 2007 to 49 million in 2050, that of Yemen from 22 million to 58 million. This means that more jobs need to be created - and more food imported, or the domestic capacity to produce more increased. The Arab Human Development Report (2009) estimates that even by 2020, Arab countries will need to create 51 million new jobs for its young people.
This demographic revolution of the past century was paralleled by a “green revolution” in agriculture, whereby technological innovations and the industrialisation of agriculture increased food production. The availability of oil was crucial to the green revolution’s success. A number of factors now suggest that this progress has reached its limits. Rising oil prices were a major cause of the global food-price spike in 2008. An International Energy Agency (IEA) report published in November 2010 says that “peak oil” could already have been reached.
Yet while global supply seems to be approaching its ceiling, global demand is still on the rise. The IEA foresees global energy demand continuing to grow by a margin of 0.7%-1.4% per year until 2035 (according to different scenarios). In the same period, hydrocarbon energy (oil, gas, coal) will remain the dominant source of energy; demand for electricity will increase by 2.2% a year in the same period. It is projected that in the coming decade oil and gas production will be unable expand further, and there will be an increasing gap between available production and increasing demand.
The dilemma of Arab economies is that they depend on oil prices (whether as oil producers or as countries dependent on petrodollar investments) while increased energy prices make their food more expensive.
With regard to land and water resources, the two basic components of agriculture next to energy, the situation is little better. The result of industrialised agriculture, massive use of pesticides, and the loss of topsoil has been the degradation of land quality and lower yields. Global water resources are also heavily invested: most major rivers are already dammed for irrigation and hydropower, their number currently being 45,000 and with only limited further capacity for harnessing major rivers.
Many Arab countries, such as Jordan in light of the fall of Dead Sea levels, are now in water-deficit; they are now using non-renewable water - as well as non-renewable energy - for their current agricultural production.
Climate change is an additional source of uncertainty. It will have major negative impacts on agriculture in the Arab world. The International Panel on Climate Change forecasts that during this century, shifts in rain patterns could lead to decrease of up to 20% in rainfall in the middle east and north Africa. Moreover, a rise in temperature of 2-4 degrees means more evaporation and even less water available. Some climate models predict that several rivers might simply disappear with such changes.
The combined impact of these trends will be increases in demand for energy, food and water, at the same time as hydrocarbon-based industry and agriculture will have difficulties in expanding (see Paul Rogers, "Tunisia and the world: roots of turmoil", 24 January 2011).
Environment and security
What does all this mean for the stability of political systems in the Arab world? The problem is a lack of hard understanding. Research on the linkages between environment degradation, resource depletion and political systems is new. For example, it is not clear whether there is a relation between Arab demographic growth, new urban environments, the emergence of marginalised but educated youth, and the rise of specific types of Islamic militancy. But some examples from the past may be a guide.
The rise of food and energy prices sparked popular demonstrations in Algeria in 1988 and Jordan in 1989. When the authorities could not suppress the demonstrations by pure repression, and could not reduce the prices for lack of means, they chose to open up a closed political system: single-party rule was ended in Algeria in 1989, and in Jordan restrictions on the media and the work of political parties were lifted. In neither case did this political opening lead to sustainable institutions and democratisation: Algeria eventually degenerated into a fratricidal war, Jordan recalled the old habits once the wave of contestation died down.
A more recent example, beyond the Arab region, is the riots in Kyrgyzstan. There, an increase in electricity and mobile-telephone tariffs led to demonstrations in the capital Bishkek in April 2010. The regime ordered special forces to open fire, killing eighty-eight and wounding more than 1,000. This did not stop the demonstrators, who on the same day overthrew the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Since then, the country is in a contradictory process of political liberalisation and inter-ethnic tensions.
The signals are mixed. But at the level of the individual, and of many individuals acting together, there is greater clarity. In Tunisia, Mohamad Bouazizi did not rebel because he did not find a job reflecting his ambitions and education. He did not burn himself when a police officer confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling at a street-corner on the pretext he had no permit. But when he went to file a complaint to seek justice, his demand was rejected. It was this feeling of injustice that led Mohamed Bouazizi to his desperate act.
Get our weekly email