A Grim Year for the Middle East

For internal circulation
4 Jan 10
The furore after polls in Iran, the snub delivered to America by Israel and the continuing war in Iraq hint at a new year full of problems from the past

By Patrick Seale

The year 2009, which began with Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, has been one of great torment and much misery in the Middle East. Even the ascent last January of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has not been enough to bring a semblance of peace to a profoundly troubled region.

At first, Obama’s arrival seemed like a gift from paradise. Here was a highly unusual, brilliantly eloquent leader who promised to reinvent America, and heal the ravages of the Bush years. But the immense hopes he aroused — especially in the Arab and Muslim world — have not yet been fully realised. But one must not despair: Obama’s mandate still has three years to run.

In spite of Obama’s efforts so far, the situation remains unsettled and potentially explosive in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and in the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict, bearing witness to the enduring nature of the crises in these countries, but also to the inability of an enfeebled US to impose its will.

For 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet empire that followed, the US seemed to be the world’s unchallenged superpower, able to dictate terms to friends and enemies alike. One of the striking lessons of 2009 is how fast this supremacy has been eroded.

Several factors have contributed to it. The following must be counted among them: the enraged response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks; the lamentable influence of pro-Israeli neo-cons on America’s Middle East policy; the catastrophic Iraq war; the ill-judged “Global War on Terror”, widely seen as a war on Islam; the grave international financial crisis triggered by Wall Street’s unbridled greed; and, not least, the rise of China — a shift in the global balance of power, which the splendour of the Beijing Olympic Games brought home by television to every living-room across the world.

Nothing illustrates the decline of American power better than the defiant rejection of American wishes by both Israel and Iran, as well as the evident reluctance of European allies to contribute more than token forces to the war in Afghanistan.

It would seem that Obama’s unenviable task will be to manage the US decline as best he can.

In Iraq, Obama has pledged to end America’s military involvement, bringing Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure to a close. But this has not brought peace to that shattered country. Terrorist explosions, each with its terrible toll of dead and wounded, continue to rock Baghdad and other cities.

The region will have to suffer the consequences of Iraq’s destruction for many years to come. Among these consequences are the unfortunate sharpening of Sunni-Shiite tensions and the overturning of the balance of power in the Gulf to Iran’s advantage. History will no doubt judge the invasion and occupation of Iraq as one of the great crimes of our time.

One of the most spectacular developments this year has been the explosion of protest in the Islamic Republic of Iran which followed last June’s rigged elections. President Ahmadinejad — and indeed Supreme Leader Khamenei as well — are being challenged not only by repeated mass demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere, but also by a split in the ruling elite. Severe repression has failed to deter this growing opposition. The result has been to reveal to the world a picture of another Iran — brave, youthful, educated, aspiring for real democracy, while remaining true to Islamic values. It remains to be seen whether this movement will be crushed, or whether it will eventually shape Iran’s future.

Meanwhile, Iran has forged ahead with uranium enrichment, a programme driven as much by prickly nationalism as by the need to acquire a deterrent against military attack.

Neither negotiations nor sanctions have persuaded Iran to give up uranium enrichment, nor even the threat of a military strike by Israel and/or the US. The world may, after all, have to live with an Iranian bomb. The consequence may not be as bad as some fear. It may even contribute to peace by establishing a regional balance of power.

The war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly President Obama’s biggest challenge. He has bowed (possibly against his will) to the request of his military commanders to send more troops. But very few observers believe this will ensure victory. A negotiation with the Taliban — and especially with the powerful Pashtun tribes that live astride the Afghan-Pakistan border — will eventually be necessary if the nine-year war is ever to be brought to an end.

Crises and myopia

What of the long-stalemated Arab-Israeli conflict? Determined to resolve it, Obama sprang into action in the very first hours of his presidency, naming the veteran negotiator George Mitchell as his special envoy. But after much frustration the one success so far has been to wring out of Israel’s reluctant Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a partial, 10-month colony freeze, which excludes Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel continues to colonise.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, continue their interminable feud, as if indifferent to the damage this does to their cause.

Tolerably good news has come this year from those squabbling twins, Syria and Lebanon. With help from France, Qatar, Turkey and other well-wishers, Syria has emerged from the isolation in which the Bush administration had attempted to confine it. The young President Bashar Al Assad is attempting with some success to build a modern state, but his efforts — and his country’s image — have been marred by human rights abuses and a crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, having elected its former army chief, General Michel Sulaiman, as president in 2008, has now, after endless months of sterile bargaining, a new government under the majority leader Sa’ad Hariri.

He was able to reach a compromise with Hezbollah — the most robust element of the opposition — under which the Shiite movement will retain its weapons to defend the country against any future Israeli assault.

In spite of the domestic and regional turmoil, Lebanese banks have continued to prosper, while the irrepressible Lebanese — or at least the affluent middle classes among them — have continued to enjoy themselves, as only the Lebanese know how to.

To complete the picture, mention should perhaps be made of Yemen, afflicted by serious disturbances both in the north and the south of the country; of Egypt, obsessed by the unresolved question of the succession to the long-serving President Mubarak.

I have two choices for the winners in 2009: they are Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

These two powerful states have emerged as the stable and sensible “big brothers” of the region. Turkey — led by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Davudoglu — has won the admiration of the world by its active diplomacy, aimed at spreading peace, prosperity and good neighbourliness across the region.

Turkey may not yet have joined the European Union — as it deserves to do — but it has rapidly forged friendly political and economic ties with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other countries, including its old adversary Armenia.

It has even taken cautious steps towards settling its quarrel with its Kurdish population, although these efforts received a setback in December when riots broke out following the dissolution by the constitutional court of the main Kurdish political party.

Saudi Arabia has this year consolidated its position as the Arab world’s leading country, distinguished by its great wealth, by the size and varied talents of its ruling elite (both royal and non-royal), and by the consensus-seeking style of government and reformist policies of King Abdullah. The Allegiance Council (Al haya’ Al baya’) the king created in 2006 is well-placed to ensure the continuity of good governance in the future.

Among King Abdullah’s many achievements in 2009 were the benign influence he has exerted within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the curbing of radical and often obscurantist clerics at home, and the launch of KAUST, which is the long-awaited King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a graduate centre of scientific excellence.

Pointers to the king’s reformist vision are the fact that the campus of this new university is co-educational — the first in the kingdom — as well as the appointment, for the first time, of a woman, Noora Al Fayez, to the post of deputy minister for women’s education.

These are highly positive developments, but they cannot obscure the sad truth that the Middle East, plagued by many unresolved conflicts, remains at the centre of the world crisis.  

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
Gulf News, Dubai  –  1 Jan 10

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