The #10YearChallenge has blown up on social media, with people either gloatingly posting photos that show how they haven’t aged (or better yet, how much better they look now!) or (a select few) lamenting the age process. A parody that has since popped up is the #10YearChallenge Middle East version, that show’s pictures of Arab countries in 2009 and two years later. The comparison is stark: there is sunny and peaceful Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen….and there are the piles of grey, charred rubble. These countries have suffered war and strife over the past 10 years-Iraq was already nearly 8 years into war at the hands of the US- and a picture speaks a thousand words.
The Middle East has changed drastically in the past 10 years. Sure, American troops remain in Afghanistan; poverty continues to plague many countries; and some leaders are still clinging to power. Some countries have not changed too drastically (on a superficial level, anyway): the governments of Morocco, Algeria, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait bear little difference. Palestine remains divided, poor and buried by Israel. Iran saw its sanctions lifted, only to have them quickly reinstated. But some countries have witnessed major upheaval and change, for better or worse. Let’s take a look at who had a #GlowUp and who experienced an #EpicFail.
Egypt: #EpicFail. For one brief, shining moment, Egypt opened its arms to democracy, only to have it snatched away. 10 years ago, Egypt seemed destined to be ruled by former President Hosni Mubarak for all eternity, until the Revolution of 2011 brought him crashing down. In its wake came chaos, a flicker of democratic elections, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reinstatement of the military at the head of Egypt and the crashing of the economy. While tourism may be on the upswing, and a new Capital City is in the works, one could make the argument that Egypt really is in no better place than where it was 10 years ago.
Syria: #EpicFail. Oh, poor Syria. 10 years ago the world barely knew or cared about the backwater Levantine country ruled by a dynastic President. Flash forward, and the country has been nearly wiped out by a devastating Civil War following civilian protests that began during the Arab Spring. What is the future of a country where international pariah President Bashar Al-Assad clings to power over cities that have been smashed to bits, and the brutal stain of the Islamic State haunts the landscape?
Yemen: #EpicFail. Oh, poor Yemen. 10 years ago Yemen was the most impoverished country on the Arabian Peninsula, another backwater nation that had been lead by a dictator/president (Ali Abdullah Saleh) since 1978. Spurred on by Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis joined the Arab Spring wave in 2011 and ousted Saleh, only to descend into a chaos even worse than that beleaguring Syria. Overcome by Iran-supported Houthi militias, bombed to smithereens by Saudi Arabia and the Arab Coalition, and suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, Yemen needs close to a miracle to right itself.
Iraq: #EpicFail. Well, mostly. 10 Years ago, Iraq was suffocating under America and it’s pointless Iraq War. While the war might have “ended” in 2011, Iraq had barely a chance to recover before the beyond-fundamentalist terrorist group Islamic State sprang up, inciting macabre violence, destroying historic monuments and causing a near-genocide of the Yezidi people and other minorities in the country. Although the Islamic State is now backed into a tiny little corner, will Iraq actually get a chance to rebuild-or will it fall to the hands of another power at play?
Qatar: #EpicFail. Again, mostly. 10 years ago Qatar was flush with petrodollar cash and rapidly expanding, both domestically and internationally. Since 2009, Qatar has gobbled up splashy assets around the world, from some of London’s most iconic landmarks (the Shard, Harrods, Canary Wharf) to the the Paris Saint Germain football team. But Qatar has also been accused of financing terrorism, to the point that it has been excommunicated by its GCC neighbors, kicked out of OPEC and tarnished by circumstances surrounding its successful FIFA World Cup bid. While the country is still trucking along, the optimism shrouding this super-wealthy nation has certainly diminished.
With all of these negative #10YearChallenges, did any Arab countries change for the better? Take a look:
Tunisia: #GlowUp. 10 years ago Tunisia, like many of its neighbors, was sitting stagnant under the grip of a longtime president/dictator (Zine El Abidine Ben Ali). That stagnancy would end with the peaceful protests that ignited the Arab Spring across the region and have since paved the way for a new, fresh Tunisia. With one of the few (only?) democracies in the Middle East, as well as breathtaking advances for human and women’s rights, Tunisia has been hailed as a poster child for success. It’s far from perfect: the Revolution didn’t exactly bring about the desired economic forum (unemployment, which arguably spurred the whole Arab Spring, is higher than pre-Revolution levels) but at least the country is in one piece.
UAE: #GlowUp. It’s been nothing but up for the Emirates. Every day seems to bring another Guinness World Record, another technological advancement (flying taxis!), another shiny new plume for continued modernization of a thoroughly 21st-century country. The Emirati economy has diversified beyond oil, planting the country firmly on the map as an international tourism destination that aims to rival the world’s top destinations. Like it or not, Dubai is now the center of the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia: #GlowUp. Say what you will, but the country looks drastically different than it did in 2009. Then, the list of things women weren’t allowed to do far outstripped the list of what they could do. The economy was stubbornly fixated on oil. The mentality of the country was locally-minded, focused on religion, the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice– and little else, as it had been for over 100 years. Now, women can drive, cinemas can operate, international celebrities are visiting the country, and entertainment has become a prime focus. These things may be just fun distractions from the more serious stuff, but Saudi is definitely no longer the black hole it used to be. Glow up, indeed.