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Arab World In Turmoil – Analysis


By Rajiv Sikri

Few would have thought that the embers from the self-immolation of a street vendor in a small dusty town in the bowels of Tunisia on 17th December 2010 could spark a conflagration throughout the Arab world. Historians are likely to view it as a defining moment in the history of the Arab world. Humpty-Dumpty has fallen down the wall and cracked. The old order cannot be put back. However, the shape of the new order is not clearly visible. The Arab world has entered a period of flux, and it may take a year or two, perhaps even more, before the pieces of a new Arab kaleidoscope finally fall into place.

Just under a century ago, there had been a similar event that turned out to be momentous for the Arab world. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 not only triggered off a World War. It also gave a deathblow to the tottering Ottoman Empire that had for nearly four centuries ruled over the Arab world; it led to the abolition of the Caliphate, a huge psychological blow to the Muslims; and it paved the way for the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the eventual creation of Israel in 1948. Unfortunately, when the dust and debris of conflict cleared up after the First World War, the Arabs found that they had merely exchanged one set of masters for another: the Western powers, principally Britain and France, had picked up the juicy pieces of the Ottoman Empire. Later, when the Western powers left and gave independence to the Arabs, the Israelis took over the West’s baton to keep the Arabs in check.

Middle East
Middle East

Arab nationalism and popular aspirations remained thwarted throughout the 20th century. Although the rest of the world has seen rapid transformations over the last two decades, the Arab world has remained fossilized, immune to the effects of globalization and the communications revolution that had led to paradigm shifts elsewhere – in the ground situation as well as in thinking. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the remaking of Europe, the completely transformed geopolitical landscape in Eurasia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the breathtaking rise of Asian powers like China and India – all these swirling eddies bypassed the Arab world. The dry tinder lying around the Arab world for decades just kept piling up. Just because it had not caught fire till now, the rulers of the various monarchies, sheikhdoms and republics with Presidents-for-life seeking to establish a hereditary succession of power had been lulled into a false sense of complacency. The Arab world remained in a time warp, thanks to the unspoken pact between the West and the Arab world that the Arab rulers would ensure that the West continued to get cheap and plentiful oil in return for guarantees that the Arab regimes would be protected from internal upheavals. The ‘Arab street’ was ignored, if not derided for its powerlessness. Little wonder that pressure kept building up inside this Arab volcano, which finally erupted in December 2010.

A mix of factors ignited the Arab street. Foremost among these was frustration, anger and despair. Crushed under the jackboot of authoritarianism and denial of human rights, ordinary Arabs resented the misrule and opulent lifestyle of corrupt ruling elites who were viewed as compradors following a Western agenda. Add to this the hopelessness generated by poverty and unemployment among a rapidly growing young population. Capping all this was the feeling of humiliation and helplessness as Israel lopped off large sections of Palestine, bombarded and terrorized helpless Palestinians, and defeated the armies of proud Arab nations. The rhetoric on the ‘war on terror’ generated by public figures and the media in the West after 9/11 has masked the reality that al-Qaeda’s ire has been primarily directed at the Saudi ruling establishment for their unwillingness to effect political reforms and their perceived role as stooges of the West. The second factor was the wars waged and the injustice perpetrated by Israel and the West against the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. It must have been galling for the Arab people, conscious of their ancient heritage of rich civilizations, their stupendous scientific and technological achievements, and their great empires, to be tarred with the brush of terrorism and fundamentalism and having to bear the stigma of being ‘losers.’ Against this background, the uprisings of the Arab street are the expression of a desperate yearning for regaining their dignity and self-assurance that had been snatched from them.

Two factors have been crucial in determining the outcome of the uprisings. One is the attitude of the United States, the principal backer of the Arab regimes. Where it has stood aside and refused to intervene, as in Tunisia and Egypt, dictators have had to give way. This is not to detract from the achievements of the people, but only to point out that any US support for a dictator under siege would have led to messy and unpredictable outcomes. In that respect, the role played by Obama’s United States is similar to that of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union when the Central and East European communist regimes were crumbling under popular pressure in 1989. The second, perhaps more critical, factor has been the role of the army. It is only where armies have desisted from firing at their own people have the people’s revolutions succeeded, as in Egypt and Tunisia. Elsewhere, in places like Libya and Yemen, civil war prevails. Bahrain’s rulers have had to draw upon forces from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries to keep the situation under control.

While some reordering of polities and societies throughout the Arab world is inevitable, the outcome will vary. For, the Arab world is not homogenous. Some of the smaller countries are more fearful of their larger neighbours than outside powers. There is a deep Shia-Sunni divide. Non-Arab neighbours will exert an influence. In the new configuration of power in the West Asia-North Africa-Persian Gulf region, one can expect a jostling for power among at least half-a-dozen countries. Egypt, the most populous country and traditionally the leader of the Arab world, is among the contenders for leadership. Then there is Saudi Arabia whose ageing rulers have used its oil riches and control of Islam’s holiest shrines to claim leadership of the Islamic world. Iraq may be supine today but it is has rich oil reserves, is strategically located and was for centuries the seat of the Caliphate. Also located in the region are three non-Arab countries that are significant players. Turkey, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, has of late begun to increasingly follow an independent, nuanced foreign policy and is determined to play a greater role in the region. Iran is heir to a great civilization, remains in a revolutionary mode, is the leader of the Shias and has a sophisticated understanding of how to wield power. Israel has been the principal game-changer in the region since the mid-20th century. Yet, despite its high technology and military prowess, it remains a psychologically embattled country whose existential dilemma could suddenly deepen if old bargains struck by Israel with critical neighbours like Egypt and Jordan are discarded by new regimes.

The rest of the world is unlikely to stand by idly as events unfold unpredictably in the region. Oil, of course, gives the Arab world a global strategic importance. The price of oil has already shot up significantly, and is likely to stabilize at a higher level. Europeans and South Asians, as immediate neighbours, have additional stakes in the region’s peace and security. The Arab world’s old colonial masters have been the first to jump into the fray. Armed with the fig leaf of Arab League support, the Europeans led by France and Britain pushed through UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya. Germany abstained, as did India, China, Russia and Brazil. The charge was led by France where President Sarkozy, facing growing unpopularity at home and concerned about Germany’s growing economic clout and increasingly independent foreign policy path, wanted to convey the continued centrality of France in Europe’s political-military structures. With Gaddafi’s loyalist troops closing in on Benghazi, France also stood to lose face as it had recognized the independence of the eastern province of Libya. Amid conflicting voices at home, a reluctant US President joined the fray, possibly more out of solidarity and as a kind of payback to the Europeans whom the US has dragged into wars initiated by the US in the past (Iraq, Afghanistan). After a period of masterly inactivity, at least overt though not clandestine (intelligence agents were sent to Libya), and after making sure that citizens of Western countries had been safely evacuated from Libya, the Europeans and the Americans have embarked on a confused mission. Political goals are unclear, resources inadequate, and there is no stomach to put boots on the ground and engage in a long-term war of attrition. There is no easy exit strategy. Regime change is not an explicit goal, but that is only a charade. The West knows it would be impossible to declare an end to the war and withdraw with honour and dignity if Gaddafi remains in power. The West also worries that prolonged instability and uncertainty could also potentially lead to desperate Arab migrants fleeing to Europe to escape civil war conditions.

Another danger lurks. The removal of entrenched dictators is hardly likely to bring to power Western-style democrats. The examples of the post-Soviet newly independent countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus should serve as a depressing warning. Tribal and clan loyalties remain strong in the Arab world. Many of the states are heterogeneous and with poor national identities. The fate of post-Saddam Iraq should be a sobering lesson about the centrifugal forces that can be unleashed when ensconced strongmen are suddenly deposed. Long-term stability requires a truly democratic framework, but personalized rule has meant that political institutions are weak and fragile. In practice the ruling clique has tended to exercise political and economic dominance. In a changed scenario, the strongest alternative forces are those linked to religion; in some cases, there are fears that al-Qaeda and radical Islamic groups could seize power.

Right now, the Arab countries are grappling with their internal tumult and transition to a new order. How much the new arrangements will be different from the old remains to be seen. Regardless, soon the Arab countries will begin to seek a new security paradigm since the old one has proved to be clearly inefficacious. The limits of US power, even more so the unwillingness of the US to exercise it to save its erstwhile friends and allies, are all too visible. Exhausted by its Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures, the US reluctantly dipped its toe in the Libyan cauldron, but has hastily withdrawn. The Libyan hot potato has been passed on to NATO. Both out of conviction, and with an eye to his re-election campaign, President Obama can be expected to act with caution. Already, the Middle East has diverted too much attention and too many resources from other pressing US domestic and foreign policy priorities. The visit of the Foreign Minister of Bahrain to Turkey, Pakistan and India portends the expectation of the Gulf countries that as “serious stakeholders in the stability of the Gulf” these large countries will play a more active role in the Gulf’s political-security arrangements of the future.

For India and other South Asian countries, the immediate and most important short term issue is of expat migrants from South Asia and elsewhere working in the Arab world wanting to return to their respective homelands either because of dwindling jobs or out of fear for their safety. This has happened already in Libya, but the numbers are relatively small. The real danger lies in the countries of the Persian Gulf. Any large-scale repatriation of Gulf migrants would create tremendous social and economic disruption, and cause significant political reverberations in the South Asian countries. It is, however, not a one-way dependence. There exists a symbiosis between the Arab world and South Asia. The smooth functioning of the economies of many Arab countries in the Persian Gulf depends on expat labour – in all countries it is a significant proportion, in some as much as three-fourths, of the total labour force.

The welfare of the nearly six million strong Indian communities in the Gulf region is a legitimate Indian concern. That is why India will have to tread a careful path. Errors of judgment could prove costly. So far, India has never coordinated its policy on expats in the Gulf with other similarly placed South Asian countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh who would be even more worried than India since their economies are much more dependent on their workforces in the Persian Gulf. This may be the time to initiate quiet discussions with these countries to see if there are areas of convergence where a coordinated approach would pay dividends. It would also be a welcome example of India demonstrating the advantages that India’s neighbours could get from India’s leadership on some issues.

India should urgently study the long-term policy implications of the upheavals in the Arab world, a region where India has enormous stakes. As the largest power located in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, India should take the initiative to work towards a new regional architecture that would ensure the region’s security and stability. India is well placed to do so since it has good relations with all the principal players in this region – the Arabs, Iran, Israel and the US. With the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forming the core, all the countries of this region as well as other stakeholders should be brought together to discuss and find collective solutions to a broad range of issues. This would include peace and security, inclusive economic and social development and reformed political structures. A core issue that must find a place on the agenda is the Palestinian question. This could be the time to get out of the rut of old approaches that have repeatedly turned out to be futile. Some give is essential on the part of all parties.

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) that concluded with the 1975 Helsinki Declaration and helped to reduce Cold War tensions presents a useful precedent. A less ambitious precedent is the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that brings together all the key players interested in the stability of Southeast Asia. An indicative list of participants in such a conference could be all the countries of the region (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon) plus selected other countries with significant stakes in the region. These would be the P-5 countries (United States, Russia, China, France, Britain), Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Japan. Given the current volatility and uncertainty in the region, the time is opportune for such an initiative, even though it may take some time before all countries can be brought on board.

(Rajiv Sikri is a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached [email protected])

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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