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The Guardian view on Arab democracies: the least worst option | Editorial

Benevolent dictatorship is not the answer to the region’s real problems

This week has shown that Arab regimes are tough on dissent, but much less interested in its causes. This will create problems for years to come as these states struggle to recover from the pandemic. Tunisia’s presidential power grab is a test for Joe Biden’s democracy and human rights agenda. War has impoverished ancient centres of Arab civilisation. The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia this week pointed out that poverty now affects 88% of the population in Syria and 83% in Yemen. Even nations once considered wealthy have been brought low by an unhappy meeting of leadership failures and Covid-19. Lebanon’s leaders are begging for foreign assistance after the local currency plummeted in value and the population ran short of food, fuel and medicine.

The Arab world is a varied place. The latest UN survey shows it diverging into wealthy Gulf absolute monarchies; a set of middle-income countries with more people than their oil reserves can comfortably afford; war zones in some of the largest nations such as Iraq; and very poor states. The oil-rich sheikhdoms are pulling ahead and using their financial and military clout to extend their influence, often with disastrous results. The Arab region, says the UN, hosts more than six million refugees and more than 11 million internally displaced persons. There is little coordinated action to deal with the numerous social challenges, including growing poverty, increased unemployment and persistent gender inequalities. Food insecurity has spread. One can be too downcast: the UN hopes for a silver lining in the prospect of peace in Libya.

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