Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is there hope for the Middle East?

The jury is still out on how fast and intensely U.S. global influence will wane, but the near unanimous consensus is that it is has already started. The question for Arab leaders is the following: will they seize the transient opportunity that will come with U.S. decline to build a more inclusive long-term regional formula? The answer to this question is important not only for the region, but for the rest of us as well.

The sandstorms of the Middle East will not settle - disorienting the rest of the world with them - as long as Arab leaders keep ignoring the collective benefits of cooperation. No serious long-term strategic framework has seriously been pursued by the region's power brokers since Nasser's push for pan-Arab unity in the 1950's and 60's. No one is advocating the return of pan-Arabism. The concept (at least for the moment) is a chimera. Nonetheless, it IS possible to think outside the box of narrow interests, and inside the box of collective benefits - which would invariably raise the national interests of individual Arab countries in the long-run. One must travel across the region to realize how interconnected it really is. Culturally, linguistically, religiously, historically, economically and most importantly...politically. Every passing year that the region's festering problems are ignored, new and more elusive ones are created, and the effects are felt by all. This has been the unfortunate story of the Middle East for as long as we can remember.

At the heart of the problem is the psychology that permeates the highest offices of the Arab world. Fear is the dominant sub-conscious element in the Arab leader's psyche. Fear of his regional counterparts, fear of his own entourage, fear of rebellion, fear of foreign powers, etc... Robert Fisk once asked Saddam Hussein how he knew if he truly had the support of his people? Saddam looked around, stared in Fisk's eyes and exclaimed "why don't you go ask around and see what they say? they all love me!", only to burst into laughter along with his sycophants. The implication of Saddam's response are clear, no Iraqi would dare say how he truly felt about his president if asked. The moral is almost Newtonian in its logic - every action has an equal an opposite reaction. Saddam's fear of his own people would only be subdued by installing equal and opposite fear into them. Is this a sustainable framework for building healthy societies that can compete in today's globalized world? Machiavellians might think so, unfortunately, 21st century Arabia is not 15th century Italy - at least it shouldn't be.

If Arab leaders begin to think in terms of shared interests, as opposed to zero-sum gains, they may be able to manage a relatively peaceful transition to a post-American era. They could become more independent to implement the policies to improve the lives of their peoples in the process. Employment creation, inter-regional trade, education for a globalized era, civic participation in politics and a unified voice and stance for peace in the region. This would not only be in the interests of their people, but in the interests of their crowns. The rapidly changing demographics of the region should be extremely worrying for anyone who cares to look. The average age of the populations is decreasing. The birthrate is still high. It is getting harder and harder to create enough jobs every year to keep young people of the streets and away from the brainwashing of extremists.

The question is how to overcome the numerous obstacles standing in the way of regional cooperation? There are several: the American influence may be waning but is far from gone; Arab governments face a legitimacy crisis vis-a-vis their own people; the Russians are trying to reassert their role in the region; Iran continues (ironically helped by the U.S.'s elimination of Saddam) to spread its tentacles; Syria and Saudi-Arabia are at loggerheads over Lebanon; Palestinians are divided; and, extremists continue to sow more hatred and confusion along the way.

What exactly are Arab leaders hoping to achieve for their countries and the region? Do they wish to be seen as more legitimate and responsible in the eyes of their people and the world? Are they looking to solve the conflict with Israel and the Palestinians? Are they trying to improve the region's 'brand' for global business by plugging their countries into the switchboard of global finance, trade and ideas? Do they wish to keep extremists and militant Islam under control? All and any of these policies will require a new regional political and economic framework.

Until then, all we can do is ask ourselves, is there hope for the Middle East?

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