30.07.2005
A New Middle East
№3 2005 July/September
Yevgeny Satanovsky

Yevgeny Satanovsky is President of the Institute of the Middle East.

Politicians and international officials continue to make
assurances that the efforts and investments that have been made in
the Middle East over the past 50 years are so enormous that the
region should long have become a center of a thriving elite and
affluent public. Nothing of the sort, however, exists in the
monarchies, autocracies and republics of the region.

Politically correct liberal analysts are prone to criticize
Samuel Huntington for his ill-timed prediction concerning a clash
of civilizations unfolding right before their eyes, while their
conservative opponents are bolstering military operations by bold
proclamations of forthcoming Middle-Eastern democracy. On the face
of it, the crisis in this basically Islamic territory stretching
from the Atlantic to the borders of the Indian subcontinent has
become permanent. The Middle East countries that became independent
during the second half of the 20th century failed to organize their
internal political, humanitarian and economic structures, nor have
they been able to create a stable system of external relations.
Their border problems, derived from the liberties taken by French,
British and Russian cartographers, do not bode well for their
future.

Over the more than three decades that have elapsed since the
monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula invented the “petroleum
weapon,” they have accumulated more than enough money for solving
their regional problems. Time was on their side, as well. During
the same period, the Europeans cleared away the remaining rubble of
World War II and built the European Union, a bloc of 25 nations
which is powerful enough to give the U.S. strong economic
competition. The Middle Eastern countries, however, compare quite
well to their Western counterparts in terms of the amount of
political tools at their disposal, and especially so if their
impressive representation in international organizations, including
the UN, is taken into account. They use those tools expertly, for
example, when it comes to blocking Israel’s integration into the
global system of humanitarian organizations.

The region received, apart from many other things, a lion’s
share of international aid, including that which was allocated to
accommodating refugees. It enjoys discounted supplies and loans
from both East and West for the resolution of its internal
conflicts. Since it is considered “a zone of strategic interests,”
it receives outside military contingents, with a size and cost
second only to what the West keeps for its own defense. Despite all
of these seeming advantages, the prospects for the region’s
development remain as dim as ever.

The engagement of external powers in the Middle East has failed
to resolve any of the conflicts now tearing the region apart; the
problems have been driven into the corner and may flare up again
anytime after external pressures are gone. This is equally true of
minor and major sources of tensions regardless of whether their
roots go back centuries or result from recent contentions. UN
peacekeeping activity in the Middle East is no less a disaster than
in Africa, whereas numerous Islamic or pan-Arabic initiatives meet
with success only following a protracted occupation. This equally
concerns Western initiatives, despite the rhetoric of the
politicians and mass media covering the operations of the French
Foreign Legion or U.S. Marines.

As the 21st century set in, the standoff between Christianity
and Islam has resulted in victory for the latter. The Christian
population of the region is rapidly shrinking, including in those
places where local dictators would have – until recently –
bolstered the wealthy Christian neighborhoods as counterweights to
impoverished Islamic townships. Democratization in the Middle East
means the expulsion or destruction of minorities rather than
respect for their human rights. This concerns Christians in Egypt,
Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan. Iranian and Syrian Christians feel more or
less secure only while the incumbent regimes are standing at the
helm of power. As for the Christians in Israel and Palestine –
where the Palestinians have been building their “national homeland”
for the past 10 years – if the Jewish state defends the rights of
the Christian population and does not leave them at the mercy of
Islamic fundamentalists, then they will survive.

Slavery – the eradication of which international humanitarian
organizations have sensationalized since the 1960s – persists in
the region in covert as much as overt classical forms. Mauritania
and Sudan are just two good examples where the slave trade is
flourishing with total neglect from the global community.

Political fundamentalism as the most effective means of opposing
the authorities – oftentimes in the form of guerilla warfare and
terrorism – has become commonplace. Algeria and Egypt have pushed
the fundamentalist forces into the background by flexing the muscle
of their armed forces and heavily limiting democracy, and yet there
is no guarantee that the results will be long-lasting; moreover,
fundamentalism is gaining momentum in the neighboring countries.
Morocco, a country viewed for decades as a zone of cooperation
between Ulemas and the monarchy, is now witnessing the killing of
foreigners and the destruction of Jewish community buildings, which
sends a disturbing signal. Add to this the powder keg of Western
Sahara where a peace settlement seems as remote now as it did 25
years ago.

Millions of people from Algeria and Morocco are now emigrating
to aging Europe. These countries are the source of the new European
political Islam that is closely linked to international
organizations of all colors – including terrorist organizations.
Their leaders made perfect use of the electorate with their roots
in the Maghreb and utilized the loopholes in the European Union’s
liberal system. This was proven when they tested the durability of
the European political system in a series of railway station
bombings, the most dramatic of which occurred in Madrid on March
11, 2004. In the aftermath of those deadly bombings, the Spanish
government capitulated to the terrorists. Against this background,
the possible termination of the Arab-Berber conflict (a possible
breakthrough arose when the Algerian government made symbolic steps
toward the Berbers after ten years of continuous fighting against
them and Islamic extremists) is poor consolation.

The transfer of power which aggravates the stability of the
ruling regimes presents yet another headache for the region. The
paradox is that under a “republican monarchy” the handing down of
power within a ruling family, against the backdrop of democratic
formalities – like in Syria or Azerbaijan – may actually provide
the Middle East with a redeeming alternative to putsches, civil
wars or Islamic revolutions. The elderly leaders of Libya and
Egypt, for example, apparently find the legitimate transfer of
power exclusively important. The question, however, is whether or
not their successors will be able to hold onto power.

Egypt, the key country of the region, is experiencing a
skyrocketing population growth rate. Furthermore, it is home to the
region’s most potent Islamic opposition with a record of fighting
against the government. No one can rule out a situation where the
pressure on the economy and ecology will become so overwhelming –
when the country moves over the threshold of a 100 million people –
that it will be forced to launch an external expansion in a bid to
avoid an Algerian-type civil war. In such a scenario, Sudan will be
the most likely target, especially considering the fact that it may
cease to exist as a single country in the next 10 to 15 years. It
may break up – through a referendum or without it – into the
Islamic North and Christian/animistic South. The Egyptian-Sudanese
union has deep roots and may turn into a dangerous neighbor for
Israel: its leaders may eventually reach the conclusion that a
clash with the Israelis is justified from both ideological and
domestic perspectives.

There is also the possibility that a hypothetical
Egyptian-Sudanese union may unite with Saudi Arabia should the
Islamic radicals from among “the Afghan Arabs” succeed in
overthrowing the ruling Saudi dynasty. The new Caliphate that would
most likely arise from such unification would certainly pose a
serious economic, military, demographic and geopolitical challenge.
As for Israel, it seems that a clash with such a Caliphate would be
almost inevitable. The likelihood increases when we consider that
the deterring factor of Israel’s nuclear weapons is losing force in
view of the Arab world’s assuredness that the West will never allow
the Israelis to use nukes even as a “weapon of last resort.”

Are alternative scenarios possible for the Arabian Peninsula?
One scenario, which has a less likely chance of materializing, is
the rise to power of Islamic radicals and the imposition of a
regime in the style of Iranian ayatollahs. However, a more likely
scenario is the arrival of the Talibs. How things develop
afterwards will depend on whether the West decides to interfere or
avoid the situation. A Sunni Islamic republic, following the
Iranian model, will have a lasting opportunity to exploit
contradictions between the leading Western powers until it evolves
into the New Caliphate, unless a personality akin to Osama bin
Laden takes over the reins of the process from the very start.
Should this occur – or if the Islamic radicals take hostile actions
against the U.S. similar to 9/11, then the probability of a U.S. or
NATO-led military operation resulting in the partitioning of Saudi
Arabia is very high. The zones of partitioning may look as follows:
the province of Hijaz with the Islamic shrines that will be placed
under the control of friendly Arab regimes (like the Jordanian
dynasty), Ash Sharqiyah (Eastern) Province with its oilfields, the
Yemeni Asir, and the Wahhabi-dominated Najd. The Americans will
benefit greatly in such a situation from their experience of
governing Iraq, split de facto into ethnic-religious zones.

The destiny of lesser monarchies of the Persian Gulf will depend
to a huge degree on the strength of U.S. and British positions in
the region. Aside from Oman, those countries are unable to rebuff
radicals on their own. As for Oman, its stability is pegged on
Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s ability to arrange a hand-over of power in
the absence of an heir apparent to the throne.

Yemen is overstocked with weapons and the central government
there remains feeble. Moreover, a crisis tantamount to an
ecological disaster may hit the country within the next 10 years
due to the increasing scarcity of fresh water. These developments
heighten the probability of a clash between Yemen and Saudi Arabia
in the future. The prospects for the solution of Yemeni problems
without such a conflict are unclear, but in the event of war the
consequences will prove no less catastrophic than the Iraqi
occupation of Kuwait in 1990.

Yemen’s neighbors across the Bab el Mandeb Strait – Somalia,
Eritrea and Djibouti – will remain entangled in the mess
accompanying the collapse of the former Ethiopian Empire with
consequent border clashes, religious and tribal carnage, epidemics
and famine. The possible disintegration of Sudan, together with the
first continental ‘mega-war’ that experts on Africa are
apprehensive about, will further aggravate the situation. Such a
war may include the majority of countries of the Sahel (i.e. a
broad corridor from the Sahara toward the West-African savannas)
and the Great African Lakes region.

Afghanistan – located to the east of the Arab world – continues
to be partly controlled by NATO occupational forces. The country is
not really governed by anyone, however, which is witnessed by the
growing output of the narcotics trade. This production has partly
fallen into the hands of the Talibs, whose ostensible defeat was
grossly overblown by Western media. The processes now unfolding in
Afghanistan pose a mortal threat to stability in Pakistan, whose
collapse is not off the cards in the short term largely because of
its entanglement in the Afghan misadventure. The sad reality is
that the central government of Pakistan, a country with its own
nuclear weapons and a powerful pro-radical terrorist-connected
lobby throughout its national elite, is losing control over
developments in the border areas.

Iran, which is close to implementing a nuclear program for its
energy needs, which may also entail a military nuclear program,
remains the central element of the “axis of evil” construed by the
U.S. The revolutionary Islamic republic is experiencing an
evolution which the Soviet Union witnessed a few decades before it.
Iran promotes regional stability by remaining on the sidelines of
most conflicts or by playing a constructive role in them. And yet
its own conflict with the West, primarily with the U.S. and Israel,
may produce a disastrous destabilization in the Middle East, the
Caspian littoral area and the Gulf. The Americans will try to avoid
a direct standoff with Teheran, but they will do strive to provoke
a confrontation between the Iranians and Israelis by instigating an
Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This possibility has
not been ruled out in the wake of a recent surge of anti-Israeli
terrorist activity on the part of Lebanese Shiites. Moreover,
Israeli leaders may need “a little victorious war” to defuse the
unprecedented tensions now existing amongst Jewish society over the
pullout of Israeli settlements from the West Bank and Gaza
Strip.

Iraq will remain a zone of civil war, with radical Islamists
from across the world flocking to the country since they view Iraq
as a testing ground for Jihad. The recent parliamentary elections
failed to satisfy both the Sunnis and the Christians. The Sunnis
who made up the core of Saddam’s administration, police and armed
forces, actually did not participate in the election, while the
Christians are emigrating en masse. Iraq’s disintegration looks
quite possible and should it materialize, not only the first ever
Shiite Arab state, but also the first independent Kurdish state may
emerge. With regard to a possible Kurdish state, this would confirm
a promise the League of Nations issued to the Kurds between the two
world wars. It will also mean, however, the danger of Turkey’s
breakup since its rapidly increasing Kurdish population is seasoned
with traditions of armed separatism.

This risk has cooled relations between Turkey and the U.S., as
the Turkish government rejected the request of its chief partner to
use the country’s territory for an attack on Saddam. As a result,
Turkey lost several billion U.S. dollars and a significant part of
its relationship with the Americans. Meanwhile, Ankara’s move to
join the European Union under the condition of resolving the
Northern Cyprus problem, may become a convenient alternative to
preventing the EU’s transformation into another Maghreb and/or to
an upsurge of Islamic trends inside Kemalist Turkey if it drifts
away from the U.S.

The crisis in Lebanon after the assassination of its former
Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, will most likely speed up the
withdrawal of Syrian troops and catalyze a new round of civil war
in that country, given the fact that foreign military contingents
were the only instrument of scaling down the conflicts between
ethnic/religious militias which destroyed Lebanese society.
Simultaneously, Syrian President Bashar Assad may lose power in his
country despite his great efforts. Following the loss of control
over Lebanon, his downfall may be arranged by the national
establishment that he controls – and incidentally, controls to a
much lesser degree than his father did. The U.S. may also fuel
Assad’s ouster in a bid to round off the Iraqi adventure with the
capitulation of Syria. As a result, Syria may be spiraling for a
series of pre-Assad putsches and Latin-American-style juntas that
will be unable, however, to play any significant role in the
region.

The knot of Israeli-Palestinian challenges loosened somewhat
after the death of the Palestinian Ra’is (the Arabic for “head”)
Yasser Arafat. It is not clear yet to what measure his successor,
Mahmoud Abbas, will be able to control paramilitary organizations
and maintain power. There continues to be a standoff with radicals
at the municipal level, especially in the Gaza Strip, where radical
elements have a grip on local rule. In the short time, a civil war
cannot be ruled out in Palestine. In such an event, the territory
will break up into enclaves reporting to local leaders, each
building relations with Jordan, Egypt and Israel of his own
accord.

The Jewish settlers’ removal from parts of the West Bank and
Gaza has split Israeli society. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a
politician who considers his international image no less than his
family’s safety after his retirement, has practically driven the
country to the verge of another “orange revolution.” His actions
show that Israel’s former pride in its democratic institutions
actually veiled traditions of clan authoritarianism that are quite
a match for the neighboring Arab states, which the Israelis hold in
disrepute as “dictatorships.” Considering the vacuum of power,
together with the public’s conviction that the left-wing and
right-wing establishment has fused into a group of corrupt leaders
may drive Israeli society to a standoff or cause irreversible
changes to its internal political body. Experts surmise that Israel
may soon turn into a presidential republic. Furthermore, there may
be a greater political role for the Israeli Armed Forces while, at
the same time, its Arab population [those who recognized the State
of Israel and were its loyal citizens – Ed.] may get pushed out of
the political national consensus, as their refashioning into
Palestinians became an accomplished fact in the 1990s.

In general, the short-term projections for the Middle East
suggest the flare up of old hotspots, together with the emergence
of new ones outside its sphere, such as the ongoing power struggle
between the U.S. and the EU, not to mention China, and the collapse
of a coherent system of state borders.

With the increase of instability in the region and beyond, the
prospects for the Middle East indeed seem gloomy.