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Middle East 2011
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The revolutions in the Arab World:
The need for long-term
thinking and humility

Farhang Jahanpour, TFF Associate


March 4, 2011

The events that we have been witnessing in the Middle East during the past few weeks have been truly historic and they will affect not only the future of that region, but will have a major impact on international politics and the economy.

We in the West, who have been calling for the spread of democracy in the Middle East, cannot but be happy and excited for what has been happening in the Arab world. These developments testify to the arrival of new generations, new voices, and new demands onto the region’s social and political stage.

With these brave uprisings, Arab people have shown that they too, like people all over the world, wish to have freedom, dignity and democracy. As the result of mainly peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt two old Arab dictators fell and in less than one month 100 million people achieved their freedom and took a giant step towards democracy.

One main lesson of these events is that the change that could not be achieved as the result of two costly invasions and the death of hundreds of thousands of people at huge financial cost has been achieved with less than 100 deaths and little material cost.

It is important to realize that these uprisings have not ended yet, and we may just be at the beginning of major convulsions. Even in places such as Tunisia and Egypt where Ben Ali and Mubarak were deposed demonstrations are still continuing.

Over 100,000 demonstrators came out onto the streets of Tunis on Friday (which was declared as the Day of Rage throughout the Arab world) to demand the resignation of caretaker Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, and he was forced to resign on Sunday. This is very significant and its shows that the demonstrators are not merely content with the fall of a figurehead, but are pushing for total change of regime. This will have major lessons for Egypt and other countries.

Tens of thousands of protesters came out again to Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on Friday, and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, an appointee of deposed president Hosni Mubarak.  Some 200,000 protestors marched through Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Some of them called for the abolition of the monarchy while others called for Bahrain’s monarchy to become a constitutional monarchy, with guaranteed civil liberties. 180,000 protesters in Yemen demanded that strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down.
Thousands also protested in Jordan.

In Libya tens of thousands are trying to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. The Eastern part of the country is already liberated and the noose is tightening round Tripoli. The dictator’s security forces have abandoned Tajoura and Zawiyya near Tripoli. Some 10,000 forces that have defected to the rebels in Benghazi have vowed to march to Tripoli to topple Qaddafi.

Demonstrations have spread even to Iraq that was supposedly liberated and had a fairly free election last year. At least 23 people have been killed and dozens injured in anti-government protests as thousands took to the streets in cities across the country on Friday 25 January. Protests have been held from Basra in the South to Baghdad, to the northern city of Mosul, to the oil-rich area of Kirkuk and right to the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. An early morning gun and bomb attack on Saturday 26 February shut down Iraq's biggest oil refinery, Baiji, with at least two employees killed. This too will have an effect on oil prices.

According to the FT two days ago, there was a 7 per cent fall in the Saudi Arabia stock market on Tuesday 1 March, caused by fears that unrest may spread to the desert Kingdom. The price of oil has risen higher as a result of rumors that Riyadh has sent tanks to support the King of Bahrain, but the Brent contract at about $112.50 a barrel is $7 below the level reached during frantic trading on Thursday, while gold reached $1,420. The Saudi king is clearly worried. This is why on his return after two months of medical treatment in the United States, King Abdullah offered its citizens $36 billion dollars in benefits.

Differences between these uprisings

Although pundits tend to lump all these uprisings together, they are not the same. Some of them may prove to be manageable, while others may cause great uncertainty and even turmoil.

Tunisia’s importance was the fact that it set a pattern and provided an impetus for revolution, and also encouraged uprisings in Algeria and Libya and to some extent in Morocco.

Egypt’s significance is in view of its important cultural and intellectual influence in the Arab world, and its moderate role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Suez Canal is also of great international strategic importance. Last year, 7.5 percent of all the world’s trade (and a much higher perception of seaborne trade) and over 4% of the world petroleum trade passed through the Suez Canal.

Yemen’s importance is due to the fact that it is already very unstable, has become a base for al-Qaida sympathizers, and as it neighbors Saudi Arabia, with shared loyalties across the border its instability may spread to Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s importance is strategic, as it provides the base for the US Fifth Fleet and a base against Iran. It is also affected by sectarian conflict as a small Sunni minority rules over a large Shi’i majority. Jordan’s importance is due to its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and also if King Abdullah falls it may set a pattern for other monarchies in the Persian Gulf and if that happens it would be really serious, especially in the case of Saudi Arabia. Also demonstrations in Jordan where more than half of the population is made up of Palestinian refugees may result in a new intifada in Palestine and Israel.

Libya’s importance is in oil and domestic and regional stability and terrorism. The main problem is that these uprisings may close Libya’s oil production or before losing power Qadhafi may destroy the oil installations in the same way that Saddam Hussein bombed the oil wells in Kuwait as a scorched earth policy.

We have had major demonstrations in Oman, another monarchy, which had been stable till recently, and which again has implications for other Persian Gulf monarchies.

Therefore, it is not enough to cheer the revolutions while they are happening. This is only the first phase. What comes next is the really difficult part and needs careful consideration. The transition process from authoritarianism to democracy is the crucial phase; and this is when those countries, especially as they have had a long period of autocratic rule, need most help.

What is happening in the Middle East is unprecedented, and therefore we have no benchmark to go by and predict the future. This makes any firm prediction about the future course of events risky, but it is possible to chart a number of different directions that events can take, that I will come to later. This is why it is important to monitor these developments carefully and see which way they might go.

It is safe, however, to predict that, one way or the other, the Middle East is not going to be the same again. A couple of years ago, we were worried about financial and debt contagion, now we are talking about political turmoil and revolutionary contagion, with all its economic and geopolitical consequences. The political significance of these events is rather like the economic shock of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and we do not know where they are going to end.

The next point to make here is the total inability of our intelligence organizations or governments to predict any of these developments. Western intelligence organizations were caught by surprise when the Islamic revolution toppled the Shah’s government in Iran in 1979, and they were also not prepared for the way that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91 like a pack of cards, or for the events of 9/11.

This shows that perhaps most intelligence analysts, pundits and politicians are too caught up with short term issues and the dictates of the 24/7 news coverage that they do not have the luxury or the expertise to stand back and make a profound and dispassionate assessment of these historic events. This is why I think it is important to take just a few minutes to explore the roots of these events before considering what they might mean for the future of oil and Western interests in the Middle East.

To understand the present, we must consider the past. So, what are the roots of these revolutions? Since the beginning of the last century there have been a number of important developments in the world, which have especially affected the Middle East.

1) The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was followed by Western domination over most countries in the Middle East, including drawing up the borders of some modern states. That legacy is still very much with us.

2) The emergence of communism in Russia became an important geopolitical factor for some 70 years, which also affected the countries in the Middle East.

3) The third development was the Second World War, which exhausted former European powers and put an end to European colonialism. Most Arab countries, as well as India and many countries in Africa, gained their independence.

4) The fourth important development was the rise of the Soviet Union, China and above all the United States that replaced the earlier European powers. The rivalry between the East and the West produced the Cold War, with the possibility of the annihilation of the entire human race in case of an all-out war between them.

5) The fifth development was the establishment of the state of Israel, which has given rise to various Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and again in 2006, the attack on Gaza in December 2008, and the continuing hostility between the Israelis and the Arabs.

6) The sixth development was competition over oil by various Western and Eastern countries. Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq’s nationalization of Iranian oil in 1951 led to a CIA-MI6 coup against him that reinstated the Shah in August 1953.

After the Second World War a tacit agreement was reached between the US, a democratic republic, and Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist dictatorship. On the basis of a landmark meeting between King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt onboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal, the Saudis agreed to supply oil at reasonable prices in accordance with US needs and to reinvest the resulting revenue in US assets and arms. In return, the US promised to provide protection to the Royal family regardless of its internal repression and extremist ideology. That agreement has continued to the present time.

7) The seventh development was the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1978-9, which replaced a strong pro-Western government of the Shah with a vehemently anti-Western theocracy. It was the first time in the modern period that a revolution had succeeded in the name of Islam, and was not affiliated to or supported by either the West or the Soviet bloc. It also encouraged other Islamic nations to make use of Islam as a political tool in order to achieve their political aims.

8) The eighth development was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which threatened Western access to the Persian Gulf oil and the expansion of the Soviet Union at the expense of the West. The West organized and supported the Mojahedin, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Soviet failure in Afghanistan was one of the main factors that revealed the military and social weakness of the Soviet Union, which led to its collapse a few years later. But sadly it also produced the Mojahedin who played a devastating role later on.

9) The ninth development was the fall of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991 and the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a large number of former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe joining the European Union and even NATO, and becoming part of the democratic West.

10) The First Gulf War: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 led to a war waged by a coalition of Western and Arab forces, led by the United States and Britain, which ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in February 1991. Many believe that Operation Desert Storm was the event that signaled the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a unipolar world dominated by the United States.

11) The terrorist attacks on 9/11 marked the first time that the US mainland had been attacked since the wars of independence. That event showed that despite her huge military power, the United States was vulnerable to terrorist attacks. That event started a new era in modern history.

12) The 12th development was the so-called “War on Terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The aim was to shake up the existing political order and create a new Middle East. It gave rise to the doctrine of preemption and unilateralism.

13) The 13th development was the Economic Recession: The cost of those wars and problems in financial markets give rise to the worst economic Recession since the Great Depression. It has led to a big rise in unemployment, to widespread discontent, to a loss of faith in capitalism among some, and even doubts about the inherent superiority of Western democracy. All of these have created a crisis and a loss of confidence in world capitalism.

14) The backlash: What we are seeing now is perhaps more than anything else the backlash to a long period of Arab weakness and subjugation and Western domination of the region. We are witnessing the movement of huge tectonic plates that will affect the future of the Middle East and the rest of the world.

In the minds of many people in the Middle East there have been long and close ties between the West and “stable” autocracies in the Arab world. Therefore, behind Western welcome for change there is the unspoken though sometimes half-revealed concern that democracy would be messy and discomforting, and therefore they speak about the need for “managed democracy”.

There are different forces pulling the people in the Middle East in different directions. The Iranian clerics see these movements as manifestations of Islamic awakening of the people, and they hope for the establishment of Islamic states. This view is supported by some people such as the Muslim Brotherhood among the Arabs. Others hope that Arab countries will take their lead from Western democracies and will form secular, liberal governments. Others see the establishment of military rule and the so-called “managed democracy” to be the answer. Others predict chaos and failed states.

In one sense, the long-awaited Arab democratic revolution comes into being at an unfortunate time for the West when it is just emerging out of a deep recession, and when it seemed that after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq we could go through a period of consolidation and stability. 
Everybody was thinking that 2011 would be the year of economic consolidation. Instead, these developments will put everything in jeopardy, and worse. In the US for example some estimates tell that a $10.00 increase in the price of oil affects about half a percentage point in the US GDP. It will affect not only the motorists at petrol pumps, but it will also have an impact on small businesses, many of which may go bankrupt, on transportation and on the macro-economy as a whole.

Food shortages and steep rises in the price of some staple diets were partly responsible for these uprisings. Now, the rise in the price of oil will also affect food prices and will exacerbate the situation. The foolish use of biofuel has also added greatly to food shortage and higher prices.

What remains to be seen is whether these changes herald a positive triumph of reform of the old systems; the return of military regimes in a new guise; the emergence of Islamist regimes, rather like that of Iran; destructive counter-revolution and anarchy leading to failed states; or a lasting triumph of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

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While we may be witnessing a 1989 moment for the Arab world, we should bear in mind that it is a double-edged sword.

Although 1989 led to the liberation of East European countries, yet those events put an end to the former Soviet Empire. Therefore, some have argued that, in the same way, the liberation of the countries whose discredited rulers were very close or even dependent on the United States could result in the decline of US influence in the Middle East.

Of course, the Arab nations are the ones that will decide their future; but the way that the West responds to these developments can to some extent also help decide the options that people take. We should approach the issue with humility.

The peaceful demonstrations by millions of very brave young Arabs facing tanks and bullets to demand freedom and democracy is awe-inspiring and provides the hope for a much better future for the region. Western leaders should show some humility towards these momentous events and should refrain from interfering too much. They should certainly not contemplate any military action and should allow Arab nations to determine their own fate.

The Arab world with some 350 million people, with vast territories, possessing nearly two-thirds of oil deposits and 40 per cent of gas deposits in the world, can form a major bloc if united. The establishment of a common market between the Arab countries, Iran and Turkey could provide a union that can rival the European Union, and could result in enduring peace and stability in that sensitive part of the world. Such an outcome would be in the long-term interest of the West and of the global community.


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