Friday June 14, 2024

Middle East cauldron

By Javid Husain
February 14, 2021

The Middle East has been deeply destabilized for decades thanks to its internal contradictions and external interference in its affairs. Since the end of World War II, the region has witnessed more regional conflicts than anywhere else in the world.

Developments over the past few years have once again raised political temperatures to dangerous levels, bringing the Middle East cauldron to the boiling point. The situation carries dangerous implications not only for the regional countries but also for their neighbours and the world at large. Pakistan, being on the periphery of the region, cannot remain unaffected if the events there take a turn for the worse. It must therefore take an active interest in supporting the moves for peace and stability in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf region.

The root cause of many of the problems afflicting the region can be traced to the gross injustice done to the Palestinians by the creation of Israel through intrigue and brute use of force by the Zionists supported by the Western powers. Consequently, a large number of Palestinians were driven out of their homes and forced to seek refuge outside their homeland. Those who remained in Palestine have been persecuted and denied their national rights by Israel, which has consistently rejected all fair proposals for a just settlement of the Palestinian issue like the Arab peace initiative of 2002 offering the normalization of relations by the Arab countries with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab and Palestinian territories, a just settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel’s aggressive policies, supported in varying degrees by the Western powers, especially the US, have denied justice to the Palestinians and caused tensions leading to armed conflicts from time to time in the region. They have also forced non-state actors amongst the Palestinians and other Arabs to resort to the use of indiscriminate violence to seek redress for the injustices committed against them by Israel.

Israeli reprisals and international apathy towards the cause of a just settlement of the Palestinian dispute have merely served to heighten tensions in the region. Recent Israeli/US success in persuading the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to normalize relations with Israel without any progress towards the settlement of the Palestinian and Arab-Israeli disputes has not removed the underlying causes of the tensions between Israel and the Arab main street, which can cause an explosion at any moment.

External interference in the Middle East since the end of World War II has been another major source of the armed conflicts and instability in the region. This interference, which on occasions took the form of direct military intervention and was sometimes wielded through political pressures, diplomatic intrigues and economic sanctions, has been spearheaded primarily by the Western powers led by the US. It has been motivated by the desire of the Western powers to protect their strategic, economic and commercial interests in the region, exploit its enormous oil and gas resources, and build up Israel as a Western outpost in the Middle East.

The overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mosaddegh in 1953, the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in collusion with Israel in 1956, Western support to Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, US invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and the economic sanctions against Iran are some of the relatively well-known examples of Western interference in Middle Eastern affairs in pursuit of their interests. Western interference in Middle Eastern countries was sometimes countered by other major powers like Russia as has been recently seen in Syria. The region has been much the worse because of such external interference, which has mostly served to exacerbate tensions, aggravate instability, intensify armed conflicts, encourage terrorism and derail efforts for economic progress.

It would be wrong, however, to ignore the internal elements in any analysis of the factors responsible for the social and political tensions, armed conflicts, and backwardness of the Middle East region on the whole despite its enormous oil and gas reserves. Most, if not all, of the Middle Eastern countries are governed by authoritarian governments of different sorts with archaic governmental structures lacking popular participation. They are not geared to promote science and technology, accelerate economic progress, and advance the cause of social enlightenment and economic egalitarianism. Consequently, there is a vast and growing pool of discontented people in the region who have little political stake in the prevailing systems of governance and who continue to suffer from ignorance and poverty despite the riches that the affluent sections of the population flaunt.

This is a sure recipe for instability and revolt in the Middle East, as was witnessed during the Arab Spring of 2011. Although those revolts failed to bring about the necessary reforms in the governance systems, the possibility of another tidal wave of Arab awakening leading to the overthrow of the prevailing despotic, unrepresentative and fragile political systems cannot be ruled out. The situation in the Middle East has become even more explosive because of intra-regional rivalries and conflicts such as those visible in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry particularly carries ominous implications for the regional peace and progress.

Pakistan, besides being located in the neighbourhood of the Middle East, is closely linked with the countries in the region through religious, cultural, economic and commercial ties which need to be strengthened further. Its security is also closely intertwined with that of the countries in the Persian Gulf region. As instability and armed conflicts in the region have dangerous implications for Pakistan’s security, it cannot afford to remain an indifferent observer of such developments.

Islamabad, therefore, must play an active role in promoting peace and stability in the region without getting dragged as a party into Iranian-Arab and intra-Arab rivalries and conflicts. We must also remain on the right side of the historical forces for popular participation, economic progress, justice and enlightenment at play in the region while scrupulously adhering to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

The writer is a retired ambassador and president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.