By Riad Kahwaji
As the world witnesses the swift spread of uprisings across the Middle East producing changes that would likely lead to the rise of a “new Arab world order,” officials, analysts and observers are busy debating to whose advantage these changes would be: Iran or the United States? While this debate persists, the situation in Libya and Bahrain grows more volatile with no clear signs how it will end and what implications each will have on the region. World powers are yet to fully grasp what has been taking place on the Arab street. The old rules no longer seem to apply with new players emerging on the scene, especially empowered Arab youth with sophisticated communication and mobilization capabilities provided by social networks and the new media.
Hard New Realities
Countries, where old regimes were uprooted and have since been witnessing radical reforms – like Egypt and Tunisia – will produce new governments that will be very sensitive to public opinion and national interests. Thus, these countries will be more critical of U.S. and Iranian foreign policies if they do not have public support or undermine national interest. U.S. foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be under strong scrutiny and peace treaties with Israel could be at risk at a later stage if Israel continues its current hardline policies. Iran’s policies in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian arena will also be opposed if they remain unchanged, especially if regional ethno-sectarian tension along Sunni-Shiite and Persian-Arab lines persists. These new realities will apply in other Arab countries witnessing revolts that would lead to certain levels of change.
Arab youth in general is euphoric about the outcome of the movements in the region, and will not be tolerant or forgiving of any attempts by foreign players to prevent change in any of the regional countries. The request for a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) in Libya has very large public support in the region. Arab people in general, and youth in particular, are upset with the ruthless means adopted by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to quell the uprising. For once they have felt proud to see the Arab League come forward with a strong decision to ask the United Nations Security General (UNSC) to implement an NFZ. The failure by the U.S. and other world powers to pass such a resolution at the UNSC will reflect negatively on the concerned parties, mainly because the NFZ is not generally perceived as a foreign intervention, but rather as an international action to protect the Libyan civilians and the rebels. Resisting the NFZ will likely be seen as an attempt by some world powers to protect Gaddafi in return for business privileges in Libyan oilfields. If the fighting in Libya deteriorates and Gaddafi’s troops end up inflicting more harm on the Libyan people without real action by the international community the Arab street and new Arab regimes will possibly blame world powers, especially Washington for this fact.
Dilemma of Failed U.S. Foreign Policy
The regional changes will likely have a bigger impact on Washington than it would on Tehran due to the repeated failures in U.S. Middle East policies, especially in Iraq and Palestine. The image of Arab regimes allied with the United States was repeatedly tarnished by failed U.S. policies, and subsequently undermined these Arab leaders in front of their peoples. Actions of Israeli governments since 2006 have taken a big toll on U.S. policy in the region. Moreover, failures in Iraq and Afghanistan also affected Washington and its regional allies. Iran, in turn, benefited and grew stronger as a result of U.S. failed policies in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. Hence pro-U.S. Arab governments have become more vulnerable for being too close to Washington, which undermined their confidence in American leaders. To make matters worse, Washington sent out mixed signals on events in Tunisia, Egypt and other places in the region. Victims of their own rhetoric with respect to promoting and protecting freedom and democracy, the United States had to eventually come out in support of rebels against their old faithful allied leaders (the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia). This situation is now impacting developments on two fronts: Bahrain and Yemen.
In Bahrain, where predominantly Shiite opposition parties have been holding demonstrations and sit-ins seeking to topple the government and establish a constitutional monarchy with a powerful legislature, neighboring Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE), have grown worried of the impact of situation there on their national interests and regional security. The Sunni Royal family of Bahrain called for national dialogue and offered concessions. However, the United States, which has its fifth fleet based in Manama, has called on the Bahraini government to give more concessions. Saudi Arabia, which has a Shiite population on the borders with Bahrain, has become increasingly worried, especially after Saudi Shiites held demonstrations as well demanding reforms. Iran’s influence amongst the Shiite communities of the Gulf has increased over the past years, amid accusations from Arab Gulf officials and the media of Iranian intelligence cells operating within these communities to undermine the Arab governments.So, the loss of confidence in the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy stopping Iran’s growing threat combined with a lack of trust in Washington’s commitment to its regional allies are seen by many observers as main reasons for the decision by Saudi Arabia and UAE to send in troops to assist Bahrain-at the request of the Bahraini government– in restoring peace and order and protect the regime there. Saudi Arabia, which sent troops without consulting with Washington first, appears adamant to take things in its own hands in order to protect its own national interests without betting on “the absent wisdom and efficiency of U.S. foreign policy.” If the regime in Bahrain is toppled, the new government there would very likely be influenced by Iran, a chance Saudi Arabia and other GCC States do not seem willing to take or wait for U.S. to do something about it.
Yemen, in turn, is headed towards another Libya scenario. With most tribes and parties, even the ruling party, turning against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Washington has stood helpless unable to take clear action to help one of its allies in the war on Al-Qaeda. Daily demonstrations with casualties amongst civilians at the hands of Yemeni security forces and troops are bringing the country closer to the verge of an all-out civil war. Saleh has clearly lost all internal legitimacy is now clinging to power with help of security and military units run by his sons and nephews. If the situation in Yemen deteriorates and the state collapses, the country will become a failed state divided into areas run by warlords – in other words, an another Somalia. This will be a nightmare scenario to GCC States and many world powers which will see the piracy problem escalates with both sides of the Mendeb Strait under failed states. This will also give Al-Qaeda a major advantage and enable its warriors to move freely between Africa and Asia via Somalia and Yemen. Of course, Iran always has the advantage of benefiting strategically from failed states and Yemen would not be an exception. An immediate regional and international action is needed to remove the Saleh regime and ensure a quick transition of power there in a way that would produce a strong state that could effectively confront Al-Qaeda and help combat piracy.
Therefore, whether the international community should or should not interfere in the regional uprisings and developments is a matter of great sensitivity and importance. One case does not apply to all and analysts should avoid generalization. Tunisia and Egypt are not like Libya and Yemen and Bahrain. Each country has its own structure, culture and special security conditions which should dictate the level and area of international intervention and under which conditions. Inaction in some cases, like Libya and Yemen would have great implications on international security. Bahrain should be handled with great care to avoid igniting a sectarian conflict across the entire region, which in turn could ignite a large-scale war that would involve regional and international powers. Clearly, international powers should quickly gain an understanding of the new realities on the ground and base their decisions on them rather than old formulas that no longer apply.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO INEGMA