As Parliament goes into its summer recess it is clear that the problems in the Middle East remain uppermost in many minds. We cannot just hope the problems will simply go away, these deeply entrenched difficulties between nations, races and religious groups must be resolved by political means for the sake of the security and peace here in this country just as much as in the Middle East itself.
In May I was part of a parliamentary delegation to Syria and in October I plan to visit Israel on a similar basis. It is nearly two years since those appalling attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and there has been much conflict in the interim but I am not sure that anyone thinks we have made much progress towards a true peace in the region.
The horror of the suicide bombings, murders and other acts of terrorism in the Middle East that fill the front pages of our newspapers constantly hide many underlying developments in the Arab world which will have major repercussions in the next decades and which need to be given due attention by today’s politicians if the goal of peace is to be attained.
Population growth is one huge factor and it will affect every element of social life within the Israeli and Arab worlds down to the very critical subject of water. All Arab countries are seeing large increases in their populations (Jordan for instance now has four times as many people living in its country as it had 50 years ago) but how is each population sustainable if the countries are always in global conflict?
The largest population increase currently focuses amazingly on Palestine. The demographic characteristics of the Palestinian population are unlike any other society in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world. The simple fact is that for whatever reason, the Palestinian population is exploding, characterised by a low mortality rate and a high fertility rate. Despite the continuing conflict between Palestine and Israel that has so far killed more than 2000 Palestinians, the mortality rate in Palestine remains surprisingly low.
A recent report from the World Bank identifies the West Bank and Gaza Strip as having a startlingly young society, with a median age of only 16.4 years of age and an average marital age around 20-21 years. Moreover, marital fertility rates for both the Palestinian areas average just above 10, with extremely low birth intervals. This means that most Palestinian women marry young and once they do, they can be expected to have 10 children in rapid succession. I saw with my own eyes in Syria, whose population has doubled in just fifteen years, that there is – in contrast to the UK – a population bulge of people in their teens and twenties
On current rates of growth it is estimated that Israel and Palestine will have the same population numbers by 2025 and if the current economies of the two countries remain as polarised as they are today then the prospects for reasonable co-existence would seem very slim.
Since I took up my position as the Member of Parliament in the Cities of London and Westminster the problems of terrorism and other conflicts in the Middle East have had a massive impact on my constituency with heightened security, huge demonstrations, loss of tourism and much more besides. As ever it has been the murderous events that have gripped the headlines but there is much going on across the Middle East which will continue to have a major impact on this country’s sense of and actual security in the years ahead.
I hope that there can be some mature debate in the months ahead about some of the less obvious complexities in the region. I would say that our hopes should lie with the young people growing up but all the signs are that their views are as deeply hostile to their neighbours as those of their parents continue to be .
Quite simply people had better start to get along with each other and work alongside each other otherwise the outlook is very bleak.