The social unrest in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East has a reciprocal effect, each nation’s strife further unbalancing the others. The common problem that spans the region is linked to the lack of political development in the majority of the MENA nations. In addition, there have been serious imbalances in the economic and social development across the region that remain significant despite various reforms following the Arab Uprisings.
Many North African countries maintained traditional systems of governance even after independence. In such systems, the tribe has always played an important social and political role, and the political systems retain a mixture of traditional and cultural mechanisms. The recent shake-ups across the region reflect the urgent need to effect drastic socio-political changes, which are part of the historical process of the region’s social and political development.
While the MENA region’s many socio-political challenges vary depending on each nation’s cultural and economic development, the prevalent theme of the region seems to be the belief that the process of transformation and reform can only be achieved by overthrowing the regime that holds the reins of power.
However, two nations have taken a different tack. Tunisia and Egypt are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that regime change may not be the answer to achieving economic prosperity or immediately improving people’s lives. Rather, they are increasingly embracing political and social reform, along with carefully chosen models of economic development as the most important factors for achieving their desired outcomes. In fact, even after Mubarak stepped down, the protests in Egypt went on unabated, and protesters’ demands became more specific. They aimed at accelerating the pace of political and economic reform in hopes of achieving a better life.
The process of political and social development in North Africa has reached a crossroads. Now, regional development must be achieved at the hands of our future leaders of the region. Yet, no clear reconstruction model has, thus far, emerged in any of the North African nations. The strong and reliable leadership necessary to overcoming current social unrest is sorely lacking. For the moment, the region will need a fair dose of patience, tolerance and creativity as its people begin to imagine what wise policy and true leadership might look like. Only then will overcoming persistent issues related to borders, religion and traditions, and improved economic outlooks begin to become a reality.
The Reasons Behind the Weakness of the Maghreb Nations’ Economies
The Maghreb states are marked by very weak economies. For example, unemployment rates in Morocco stand at 9.2 percent and a shocking 31 percent in Mauritania. In terms of external debt, the picture is equally bleak: Morocco leads the group with a debt load of some $39.2 billion. Likewise, the Maghreb nations – with the exception of the two oil producing states, Algeria and Libya – uniformly face chronic trade deficits. Beyond these dire signs, the decline in the Maghreb nations’ rankings on the global human development index is particularly telling. According to the World Bank classification, all of them are classified as developing countries, with the exception of Mauritania, which is classified among the world’s least developed nations.
These economic realities are not the result of the Arab Uprisings, but rather, were caused by protracted problems, notably the weakness of productivity, the imbalance in human resources, the spread of corruption and the failure of the Maghreb Union.
The GDP of any country reflects the strength or weakness of its economy, not only in terms of value, but in terms of the nature of its outputs. Typically, the more productive and higher the added value is, the stronger the economy will be. The more the economy relies on rentier activities (i.e., it derives all or a substantial portion of its national revenues from the rent of indigenous resources to external players) and the production of raw materials, the weaker the economy.
The combined GDP of the Maghreb nations’ economies was estimated at $439 billion in 2013. Algeria, an oil producing country, accounted for some 48 percent of output. Mauritania, on the other hand, ranked last with about $4.1 billion in production. Raw materials and extractive industries represent the backbone of the Maghreb countries’ economies.
In terms of the output components across the Maghreb, they are limited to raw materials and extractive industries. In Libya, Algeria, and Mauritania, extractive industries constitute the largest share of each nation’s output, while manufacturing industries acquire the lion’s share in Tunisia and Morocco. However, the manufacturing industries in Tunisia and Morocco are not oriented toward technological output, but rather, toward traditional industries. This is reflected in the low returns to GDP in both countries in terms of employment rates, which are currently 9.2 and 13.2 percent, respectively.
An Imbalance in Human Resources
The total population of the several Maghreb nations is nearly 90 million. However, this human wealth has not been well leveraged in moving the region’s economies forward. The population growth rates across the Maghreb are uniformly higher than GDP growth. This indicator is one of the most important signs of the inefficient use of human resources.
In Mauritania and Libya, the population growth rate is 3.2 percent. In Algeria, the rate is less than 2 percent, while in Tunisia and Morocco, the rate is around 1 percent.
The region’s high illiteracy rates also attest to the weakness of human resources. With high rates around 10.8 percent in Libya and 43.9 percent in Morocco, labor productivity is impaired.
Taken all together, it is clear that the politicians and diplomatic decision-makers across the Maghreb must seek to transcend the differences between the region’s states in order to implement a unified mechanism for accelerating the Maghreb’s socio-economic development. With a clear, unified vision, the nations of the Maghreb will become a major economic force capable of imposing their presence on the geo-political scene and competing with other powerful players in the future.