The Arab world will never be the same again. It has transformed, for better or for worse, in more than one ways and is still in flux. What was thought of as a silver lining and a catalyst of the Arab Spring, the deep yearning for change has now turned into despair. The strong men and the countries they ruled seem to be falling apart. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia have had their worst days in history.
The puzzle, which was initially built around a few players in the region, has now virtually become a black hole in terms of what it is and how it engulfs new entrants. Marked by shifting loyalties, frantic measures, and raging recriminations, the Gulf region is getting dangerously fragile with each passing day. This is not a cynical view but a factual account of what is happening in a world rich in oil and poor in governance.
First, let us try to figure out the main players and their core interests. Saudi Arabia and Iran apparently occupy centre-stage in the conflict. Both countries try to change the geo-political landscape to their advantage. Driven by nostalgia, future ambition, and partly by sectarian divisions, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are using proxies to increase their influence. Iran wants to form a block similar to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) with blessing from Russia. In a sense, the Gulf region is poised to experience a mini cold war with hot spots in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.
Big powers – such as Russia, the US, and some countries in Europe – constitute another vital group with high stakes. The Gulf region offers a huge market for arms and consumer goods not to mention the region being the hub of energy. The US continues to pull and push the region in a way that serves its economic and strategic interests. It orchestrates manageable turmoil and conflicts by manipulating sectarian differences, disturbing the power balance between rival countries, and supporting Israel as a bulwark. Others play their games with cards handed to them by history and present circumstances.
Monarchs and dictators were propped up for obvious reasons; individuals are prone to fear and can be easily prodded into action, they are driven more by selfishness than by a spirit of public service, and more importantly, they can be easily replaced if they prove worthless or show some signs of stubbornness. Now, the new normal suggests that things have changed thanks mainly to information and communication technology. Cultures, economies, and politics are changing as ideas, information, and money cross borders instantly. The traditional sources of control are fast becoming obsolete. In this new world, it is hard for monarchies and dictatorships to survive because of their inability to adapt to changing conditions.
The disconnect between what people see and hear about things out there in the global arena and what they experience at home lies at the heart of the situation in the Middle East. For them it is hard to digest economic deprivation in the midst of abundance, to remain faceless and voiceless in a world where participation and representation are the norm not exception, and to be told what is good or bad in a way that stifles creativity and takes away the freedom to choose. So, it is income disparity, social inequality, and crisis of identity that give meaning to different movements in the Muslim world in general and the Gulf region in particular.
Muslim leaders are clueless and so are others from the Western world about how to deal with the emerging phenomenon of global extremism and terrorism. The typical response of Muslim leaders is to disown and denounce extremist/terrorist groups. They do not accept responsibility to reform education, improve governance, and create opportunities for their people. The response from the Western world is no better either. They focus more on symptoms than on the real causes of deep-rooted problems in the Muslim world. The US foreign policy in the Middle East, for example, is a case in point. It is hegemonic in character and discriminatory in approach.
The so-called Arab Spring is now a bygone story. For many, it was ill-conceived and misdirected. Its promise was a new French revolution but that has ended in despair, chaos, and destruction. Let us hope the region does not plunge into such a state that the third world war becomes a real possibility.
The writer teaches at the Sarhad University. Email: zebkhan.basuit.edu.pk