A storm of massive proportions is brewing in the MidEast
The region is splitting apart and ready to explode out of its largely artificial boundaries along two major fault lines, ethnic and religious, writes a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post
Nothing to see here, right? Wrong...
Europe’s political and media classes are missing the point. Lazy, ignorant or both, they persist in reading from a clapped-out, 30-year-old script – if it was accurate even then – when they declaim on Middle East affairs. As if the "occupation", the "settlements", the "tunnel", the "wall" and other “crisis issues” are the cause of the all world’s ills; as if the birth of Palestine holds the key to tranquillity and peace, perhaps even utopia.
Solve the Palestinian problem and you solve the problems of the world. Or at least the region. Wrong then, wrong now, according to a senior Arab political source. “Make no mistake,” he told me earnestly over dinner last week, “We are on the brink of a catastrophe. And it has nothing whatever to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
“The Palestinians have never been among the top-10 priorities of any Arab government. Arab leaders don’t give a damn about the Palestinians. They have simply used the Palestinian issue to divert attention from their own failures – to cover up their ineptitude, inadequacies and corruption. Their oppressive security measures were never meant to combat ‘Zionist aggression’ but to suppress the anger of their own people. It’s been an exercise in cynicism, pure and simple. And even Western governments swallowed it.”
Now, he says, the Arab world – and the wider Islamic world – is facing reality. It is a reality that has nothing to do with the Arab Spring, democracy, freedom and liberty. Nor does it have anything to do with rage-fuelled violence supposedly incited by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, conspiracy theories about Western imperialism, Jewish influence-peddling, crusader aggression, insulting cartoons or YouTube videos (though such pretexts are often used to justify pre-ordained spasms of violence).
“It’s true that there are sanctions against insulting the Prophet,” notes Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle East studies at Princeton University, “but this is really about political or symbolic opportunists who use religious symbols to advance their own power or prestige against other groups.”
The reality is not a contest over symbols and power. The Arab world, which has been in decline relative to the West for 300 years, is at bursting point (the 57 Islamic states account for some 20 per cent of the world’s population but account for less than 7 per cent of its output).
Today, the Middle East is standing on the edge of an internecine eruption that is likely to sweep away the existing order and radically alter the regional order, with far-reaching strategic implications for the West.
The region is splitting apart and ready to explode out of its largely artificial boundaries along two major fault lines, ethnic and religious. These emerged most prominently after the toppling of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. The ethnic divide is between Sunni and Shia Muslims; the religious divide is between the Islamic extremist Wahhabi and the even-more-extremist Salafi movements. The differences are not merely ideological, they are existential.
The conflicts are likely to involve the major regional players: Sunni Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey; Shia Iran, and, richest of all, pro-Salafi Qatar, where annual GDP is running at more than $100,000 per person. Jihadist movements like al-Qaeda will no doubt muscle in on the anarchy in an attempt to gain new adherents.
Just as world trade has become globalised, so too has Islamic violence. Such conflicts are unlikely to be contained within the Middle East and will quickly spread to other Islamic states in Asia (principally Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia) and Africa (primarily the Maghreb states of Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Libya, but also sub-Saharan states with significant Muslim populations, like Nigeria).
Nor are they likely to involve large-scale, set-piece battles between states with armies or tanks (though these will, as in Syria, be deployed against the “rebels”). Rather, they will involve the sort of insurgency that devastated Iraq, complete with human, car and truck bombs, inter-communal, inter-ethnic and inter-tribal clashes, all resulting in significant population movements to meet the ever-insistent demands of the ethnic cleansers.
Under these strains, allegiances will fray and law-enforcement agencies – the army, police and intelligence services – will fragment. Ultimately, bureaucracies and political leaderships will disintegrate. We’ve seen the movie before. But what we have seen is a work in progress. So far, no one has witnessed the final scenes.
Nobody is predicting the outcome; the only certainty is that the end-game is totally uncertain. The conflict will be protracted, uncontrollable and unresponsive to Western diplomacy, however tough or nuanced. There will be no men in white hats and black hats. Only bad guys and worse guys.
That, according to my source, is the bleak outlook for his region. But political instability in the Middle East also plays into the domestic political agenda of Europe and the West in general. For the West – indeed, for the industrialised world – the nightmare is only just beginning. Two sources of grief are likely to be high on the agenda of any insurgency.
The first is the closing of what are known in the shipping business as "chokepoints" through which energy and trade must navigate. In the Middle East, these are primarily the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal.
The second is an attack on Saudi Arabia’s riches by secessionist Shia, who form the dominant group in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, which is home to the oilfields (the Saudi Shia can expect assistance from Shia across the border in Iraq’s matching oil-rich region).
The net result of these events will be a sharp and prolonged spike in the price of oil, with knock-on consequences for the price of almost all other goods. There might also be a severe shortage of oil until the Gulf chokepoint can be unblocked.
In addition, the closure of the Suez Canal - a waterway that is less than 700 feet wide and connects the Mediterranean and Red Seas - will compel shipping to make the far longer journey between Europe and Asia around the Cape, compounding the effect on the prices of imports and exports.
There will be other consequences for the West, particularly countries like Britain, France and Germany, which are home to large Muslim populations, who will not be immune to the eruptions of violence. This will lead to further security measures and further erosions of democratic traditions, such as free expression, free speech and a free media.
The Arab Spring, which was hailed – wrongly – in the West as signalling the birth of democracy in the Middle East, is more likely to be the prelude to a regional and global convulsion. If so, it is time to prepare for epochal change.
Douglas Davis is a former senior editor of the Jerusalem Post
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