Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Oct 10, 2012

The horizon collapses in the Middle East
By Spengler

"In the long run we are all dead," said John Maynard Keynes. To which the pertinent response is: "What do you mean, 'we'?" For most countries, the long run is a point on the horizon that never arrives. In the Middle East, by contrast, the horizon has collapsed in upon the present. It isn't the apocalypse, but in Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt it must be what the apocalypse feels like. "What some hailed as an Arab Spring," I wrote in my September 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too), "is descending into an Arab Nightmare." The descent continues. We are a long way from hitting bottom.

The short-run problems of the Middle East appear intractable because they are irruptions of long-term problems, in a self-aggravating regional disturbance. It's like August 1914, but without the same civilizational implications: at risk are countries that long


since have languished on the sidelines of the world economy and culture, and whose demise would have few repercussions for the rest of the world.

Egypt cannot achieve stability under a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood regime any more than it could under military dictatorship, because 60 years of sham modernization atop a pre-modern substratum have destroyed the country's capacity to function.

Turkey cannot solve its Kurdish problem today because the Kurds know that time is on their side: with a fertility three times that of ethnic Turks, Anatolian Kurds will comprise half the country's military-age population a generation from now.

Syria cannot solve its ethnic and religious civil conflicts because the only mechanism capable of suppressing them - a dictatorship by a religious minority - exhausted its capacity to do so.

Iraq's Shi'ite majority cannot govern in the face of Sunni opposition without leaning on Iran, leaving Iran with the option to destabilize and perhaps, eventually, to dismember the country.

And Iran cannot abandon or even postpone its nuclear ambitions, because the collapse of its currency on the black market during the past two weeks reminds its leaders that a rapidly-aging population and fast-depleting oil reserves will lead to an economic breakdown of a scale that no major country has suffered in the modern era.

When the future irrupts into the present, nations take existential risks. Iran will pursue nuclear ambitions that almost beg for military pre-emption; Egypt will pursue a provocative course of Islamist expansion that cuts off its sources of financial support at a moment of economic desperation; Syria's Alawites, Sunnis, Kurds and Druze will fight to bloody exhaustion; Iraq will veer towards a civil war exacerbated by outside actors; and Turkey will lash out in all directions. And in the West, idealists will be demoralized and realists will be confused, the former by the collapse of interest in deals, the latter by the refusal of all players in those countries to accept reality.

Iran's population is aging faster than any population in the history of the world, its economy is a hydrocarbon monoculture, and its oil is running out.

Figure 1: Iranian Population Ages As Oil Runs Out

Sources: United Nations World Population Prospects: US Department of Energy

About 8% of Iranians are of retirement age now. But Iran's fertility has fallen from seven children per female at the time of the 1979 revolution to around 1.6 at present. When today's bulge generation of young people reaches retirement age, there will be few children to support them, and by mid-century a third of all Iranians will be elderly dependents. Nothing like this sudden shift form pre-modern to post-modern demographics ever has happened. Rich Western countries may not survive the graying of their population. For Iran, with US$4,000 in personal income per capita, low fertility is a national sentence. President Mahmud Ahmadinedjad called it "genocide against the Iranian nation".

Just when Iran most needs hydrocarbon revenues, its oil output will decline sharply. Natural gas exports can offset the decline to some extent, but not entirely. Iran's only chance of survival lies in annexing oil-rich regions on its borders: Bahrain, Iraq's Basra province, parts of Azerbaijan, and ultimately Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite-majority Eastern Province. That is why Iran needs nuclear weapons.

Figure 2: Iran's Population Train Wreck (Click to enlarge)

Iran's fertility collapse is the most extreme example of the trend across the Muslim world. Just behind Iran is Turkey.

Figure 3: Total Fertility Rate in Egypt, Turkey and Iran

Source: UN World Population Prospects

Turkey's overall fertility rate of 2.1 children per female masks a yawning demographic gap between Turkish-speakers, whose fertility rate is just 1.5, and the Kurdish minority, whose fertility is estimated variously at between three and four children per family. Half the military-age men in Anatolian Turkey will have Kurdish as a first language a generation from now.

That is why Kurdish separatists are confident that their guerilla campaign against Turkish security forces ultimately will triumph. There is a demographic time-bomb in the Middle East, but it isn't on the West Bank of the Jordan River, where the Palestinian Arab fertility rate long since converged with the Jewish rate. The map of Anatolia eventually will be redrawn, and probably the adjacent maps of Syria, Iraq and Iran along with it.

Syria's Kurds have become the vanguard of Kurdish hopes for autonomy, raising the Kurdish national flag in Syrian border towns in sight of the Turkish army. Turkey's threat to intervene in Syria's civil war is a bluff. The country's 2 million Kurds are divided among 17 political parties; a minority is cooperating with the Iraq-based Kurdish Workers Party, the main guerilla organization harassing Turkish security forces. Turkish analysts perceive no immediate threat that Syria's Kurds will ally with the independence movement and attempt to establish an independent Kurdistan in the foreseeable future, as Mesut Cevikalp wrote in August. If Turkish troops entered Syria, the Kurds would unite against Turkey.

Turkey's raids on Kurdish guerillas across the Iraqi border, meanwhile, prompted Iraq to threaten an alliance with Iran. That is the last thing that Ankara wants: the Turkish economy is living on credit from the Gulf states, which are paying for Turkey to contain Iran. If Turkey's internal problems push Iraq into the Iranian camp, making itself more of a nuisance than a help to the Sunni Gulf States, this arrangement will be in jeopardy.

Figure 4: Turkey's Rising Dependence on Short-Term Foreign Debt

Source: Central Bank of Turkey

Turkey's current account deficit is running at 8% to 10% of gross domestic product, about the same level as Greece before its financial collapse. Short-term debt doubled since 2010 to cover the deficit, most of it borrowed by Turkish banks from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. That looks more like a political subsidy than a financial investment. For all of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's grandiosity, Riyadh has Turkey on a short leash.

"The Syrian civil war is now evidence of how much Turkey overestimated itself in its dreams of great power status," wrote the German daily Die Welt on October 6. "A year and a half ago, Foreign Minister [Ahmet] Davutoglu said that no-one could undertake anything in the entirety of the Middle East without first asking Turkey. But in the intervening year and a half, the supposed great power hasn't been able to get things in order at its own front door."

There is no Turkish solution for Syria. There is no Saudi or Jordanian solution, because the two conservative monarchies fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate the Sunni opposition. Saudi Arabia fears the Muslim Brotherhood, the only credible organized opposition to the corrupt and feckless monarchy. The Jordanian monarchy already is under siege from the Muslim Brotherhood, which organized "reform" demonstrations last week demanding limits on the monarchy's power.

And there is no American solution for Syria. Robert Worth reported in the New York Times October 7 that Sunni Arab countries won't provide Syrian rebels with shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank weapons out of fear that terrorists might obtain them. After Washington's embarrassment in Benghazi, compounded by the appearance that the Obama administration suppressed intelligence reports of al-Qaeda activities in Libya and Syria, American caution is understandable.

No-one in the region wants Syria's Sunnis to win, but no-one wants them to lose, either. The Syrian standoff is likely to continue into the indefinite future, lowering the cost of Arab life in the market of world opinion.

Egypt lacks all of the elements for successful economic development. Its population is 45% illiterate; its university graduates are almost without exception incompetent; it has insufficient water from the Nile to expand agriculture; its existing agriculture is inefficient and leaves the country dependent on imports for half its food; its population is for the most part pre-modern, with a 30% rate of consanguineous marriage and a 90% rate of female genital mutilation.

The bad news is that none of the major countries in the region can be kept from falling, and once fallen, they cannot be put back together again. The good news is that the bad news is not so bad. As long as the calamity is restricted to the region, and prospective malefactors are prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, the impact on the rest of the world will be surprisingly small.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You, also appeared last fall, from Van Praag Press.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Palestinians ditched; Egypt next? (Sep 29, '12)

All-out Middle East war as good as it gets (Sep 18, '12)

Hyperinflation stalks Iran while Israel wavers

2. Obama's terrorist-list blunder

3. Turkey sends mixed signals over Syria

4. Transatlantic dream or joke in Asia

5. Back to $chool

6. Why Qatar wants to invade Syria

7. The $5 trillion question

8. CNOOC's Nexen deal brings out China bashers

9. Korean culture blitzes London

10. Moscow beckons Pakistan's Kiani

(Oct 5-8, 2012)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110