wo thousand eleven is 1432 in the Hijri calendar that measures the life of Islamic civilization. However one numbers it, this year will be long remembered. It has begun with uprisings in Tunis and Cairo, a popular revolt and civil war in Libya, and the disturbance of domestic tranquility by demands for reform in many other parts of the Arab world. After long acquiescence in a regional order fixed by European colonialism and sustained by American dominance, the Arabs are standing up for themselves. The governed in this region have discovered that they can, if necessary, take back their consent to be governed and thereby compel regime change. A reawakening of the Arabs, by the Arabs, is occurring in country after country across the wide expanse of West Asia and North Africa. The age of foreign protectorates in the region has passed. With its demise come major uncertainties about the future.
The short-term effects of these uncertainties will include higher and more volatile oil and gas prices, slower recovery from the Great Recession in America and to a lesser extent in Europe and Japan, and an accelerated shift of global wealth to rising powers in East and South Asia as well as to energy producers in West Asia. Citibank has just projected that, in 2050, Saudi Arabia will have the sixth highest GDP per capita in the world. Recent events make that outcome more rather than less probable. That aside, the long-term effects of current events are less easy to forecast. They seem likely to include:
- Liberalized and more assertively nationalistic politics in Arab countries, coupled with greater self-reliance and autonomy in their management of regional affairs;
- A major reduction in the ability of outsiders—notably, the United States—to shape trends and events in West Asia and North Africa;
- The further isolation of Israel;
- The revival of Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus as leading actors in the affairs of the Arab East—rejoining Riyadh in that role;
- A concomitant setback for recent Iranian gains in prestige and influence in a revivified Arab world;
- Opportunities for Turkey to strengthen its newly prominent regional leadership;
- Accelerated development of Arab ties to East and South Asia (and possibly to Russia) to offset and balance past dependence on the United States, Britain, and France;
- The displacement of the jihadi threat to Arab societies as milder forms of Islamism assume a larger role in governance; and,
- If new models of consultative governance arise in the Arab world, the spread of these models to non-Arab parts of the Muslim world.
In short, the peoples of this region—long in a state of foreign-supported political torpor—must now expect interesting times. So, then, must the rest of the world. The Middle East is, after all, where Africa, Asia, and Europe intersect, where Judaism and Christianity began, where Islam is centered, and where the world’s energy resources are concentrated. It is also where an abiding absence of peaceful remedies for injustice inspires local unrest and stimulates terrorists with global reach to attack the West. A single tremor in such a place can trigger a political-economic tsunami.
While much of this applies to the former colonies of Europe in West Asia and North Africa, it does not apply to Saudi Arabia. It matters greatly in this context that Saudi Arabia is the only society on the planet never to have experienced coercive intrusion by Western militaries, missionaries, or merchants. The kingdom has never compromised its independence. When the West finally came here, it came not as a conqueror, spiritual tutor, or mercantile exploiter, but as hired help. Saudis therefore display none of the angst, almost none of the self-doubt, and—apart from a few people who went to college in Beirut and Cairo—very little of the chip on the shoulder that other Arabs have about their largely humiliating encounter with the West. Saudis seem in many ways to see the world as composed of two classes of people: themselves and potential employees. They do not lack confidence in their values, faith in their political traditions, or respect for their ruler and his family.
It matters, in short, that Saudi Arabia is a society in which modernity and the institutions that support it have been imported by Saudis themselves, not imposed by outsiders. This is a country with a system of government derived from purely native models, with a compact of governance that mirrors that of its constituent tribes, and with borders that it, not colonial bureaucrats in London or Paris, established for itself. In this uniquely Arabian polity, the task of the ruler has been to discover, shape, and proclaim a consensus that is consistent with the dictates of faith, not to impose foreign-inspired policies upon an unconsulted people.
In Saudi Arabia, moreover, those who make decisions have never been able to avoid close interaction with those whom their decisions affect. Rulers and ruled meet in frequent open sessions—majlises—at which both personal and policy matters can be and are discussed. Within this context, Saudis have sought to ensure that economic progress reinforces rather than erodes the values imparted by religious faith and tradition. The Saudi compact of governance dictates that a primary duty of government is to ensure that the less fortunate benefit from the prosperity of society as a whole. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has invested its public funds mainly in infrastructure and the construction of a welfare state for its people, not in foreign capital markets. There are numerous policy differences among the inhabitants of this kingdom but there is no crisis of legitimacy.
Saudi Arabia is not, of course, immune to popular discontent. Rightly or wrongly, for example, there is widespread resentment of the employment of foreigners rather than Saudis in key jobs throughout the economy. Despite much progress in recent years, the kingdom’s Shiite minority remains politically and economically disadvantaged. But the history of Saudi Arabia is one of top-down reform. The people look to the king to guide and regulate change. Some Saudis criticize King Abdullah for promoting too little change, too slowly. Others accuse him of trying to change too much, too fast. But everyone acknowledges the king as a reformer who is skillfully engaged in opening up the kingdom to the outside world while balancing competing political pressures at home.
The king is popular among his people, if not with those abroad who disparage Islam and the Arabs out of ignorance or for their own purposes. At home, the authority of the Saudi monarchy is accepted by almost all but a dwindling band of discredited extremists. Al-Qaeda’s charge that the kingdom tolerates and cooperates with the non-Muslim world rather than treating it with hostility has little resonance here and even less appeal abroad.
Saudis are very conscious that, as His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal recently put it, their country is “the heart of the Muslim World, and the cradle of Arab identity.” Given its pivotal position, it is fortunate that the kingdom’s distinctive character makes it relatively immune to contagion from the instability now sweeping the rest of the Arab world. The uprisings there have sought to replace despots perceived to be under foreign protection with regimes that more authentically reflect the aspirations and opinions of their peoples. Disputes about public policy issues in Saudi Arabia are sometimes serious, but their context does not resemble that in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or other parts of the Arab world.
Saudi youth, like Arab youth elsewhere, are now networked into a transnational Arab community that knows no borders. But the spreading anarchy in other countries has little if any appeal in this nation of strong families, strong tribal affiliations, and strong individual commitments to the peaceful practice of Islam. That’s just as well for the world, given the dependence of the global economy on the kingdom’s energy and petrochemical exports. To Saudi Arabia’s south, Yemen is now in turmoil. To Saudi Arabia’s north, Jordan, Iraq, and now Syria are all under varying degrees of stress. Saudi Arabia itself is quiet.
The one plausible source of contagion for Saudi Arabia is the civil strife in its much smaller sister kingdom of Bahrain, just 25 kilometers off its coast. There, discontent with longstanding discriminatory treatment has once again erupted into confrontation between disparate elements of the disadvantaged Shiite majority and the privileged Sunni minority. The Saudi Arabian government is understandably concerned that escalating protests in Bahrain could spread across the causeway to its own largely Shiite and oil-rich Eastern Province.
The close association of religious tendencies with class differences in Bahrain is distinctive. It is hard to find analogies to it elsewhere in the Arab world, now that the Shiite majority rules in Iraq. Despite Bahrain’s uniqueness, however, the ouster of its royal family, as some protesters have demanded, could incite instability in the other small city-states that, with Saudi Arabia, make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Beyond this concern, GCC members fear that majority, Shiite rule in Bahrain would draw the island into the Iranian orbit, handing Iran a strategic base of influence in their midst. None of these risks is acceptable to them. Under Saudi leadership, they have now intervened to restore order on the island.
The GCC is aware that, by using force to suppress Shiite unrest in Bahrain, they may have given Iran an opening for subversion there. At various moments in ancient times, Bahrain was controlled by Persia. The temptation is strong for Iran to support its fellow Shiites in a struggle against their Sunni rulers. The U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters is ashore in Bahrain, and it would be a tempting target in such a campaign. Then, too, the GCC intervention gives Iraq, newly dominated by Shiites with close ties to Iran, an excuse to make common cause with Iran in supporting Shiite insurrection in Bahrain. Outright alliance between Baghdad and Tehran to this end would have far-reaching adverse implications for Gulf security. The strategic stakes in Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate.
Events in Bahrain have also sharpened the differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States. While Washington has in no way obstructed the Saudi intervention there, it publicly counseled the king of Bahrain to answer the protesters’ demands with offers of reform. But in the view of Saudi Arabia and other GCC members, offering concessions to an unruly mob is more likely to feed its frenzy than to pacify it. Riots in the streets that challenge government control of them are not conducive to considered judgments about reform. From the GCC perspective, the restoration of peace in Bahrain is the prerequisite for peaceful change there.
The core demand of Bahrain’s demonstrators is an end to the discrimination that has kept the Shiite standard of living significantly below that of Sunnis on the island. The GCC has just offered substantial economic assistance to help Bahrain close this economic gap. This addresses some symptoms of the problem in Bahrain but will not, in itself, resolve it.
Bahrain is a regional financial center and entrepôt. Confidence in its banks and businesses depends on the maintenance of social harmony and stability on its streets. The religious divide in Bahrain is now a matter of vivid record in the Arab blogosphere and stimulates furious dissension between Sunnis and Shiites across the region. Without reforms to cure the underlying causes of unrest, further outbreaks of instability will remain an ever-present danger.
Julius Nyerere once remarked that “small countries are like indecently dressed women; they tempt the evil-minded.” This is all the more the case when they expose their soft spots to those who might have designs on them. Once order has been restored, therefore, the earliest possible civil dialogue and implementation of reform are very much in the interest of the GCC as a whole, not to mention the world. In their own self-interest, the various classes of Bahrainis must now compose their differences. GCC leaders know that the status quo in that small but strategically important kingdom is no longer sustainable. Once their intervention to restore order has succeeded, they may be expected to work with Bahrain’s government and people to contrive a new basis for socio-economic integration and political harmony there.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, the most surprising element of the spreading revolutions to many has been the extent to which they have avoided religious, class, or foreign policy agendas. To Iran’s and al-Qaeda’s dismay, there has been no significant Islamist or jihadi element to these rebellions. Pan-Arabism too has been notably absent. Many protesters have criticized the leaders they are seeking to overthrow as satraps of America or collaborators with Israel’s anti-Arab pogroms. But, with a few exceptions, they have not directed their fury at the United States or Israel as such.
These revolutions have been made by people seeking greater liberty in their own societies under governments that reflect their will rather than that of despots or foreign powers. Those who have rebelled have not done so to install foreign models or mores. They hope for new constitutional dispensations that will give them a voice in determining public policy and that assure them security in their persons and their homes.
The aspirations of those who made these revolutions are rooted in their domestic experiences. It is clearer what they are against than what they are for. It is still too early to say whether their expressed desire for some form of democracy will be fully respected by the military authorities who are now in charge. Nor is it yet clear what future balance will be struck between secular and Islamist politics. The Islamic concept of shura—government by consultation—accords with democracy but is distinct from it. Countries determined on constitutional reform that is consistent with Islam have a wide range of democratic models between which to choose—with Turkey at one extreme and Hamas-ruled Palestine at the other.
Whether they adopt democracy or not, Arab governments—even those that escape or survive the current turmoil—will now be much more deferential to the will of their peoples. Islamism, in one or more of its many forms, will surely advance as a result. For many Muslims, the legitimacy of rulers is measured by the extent to which they exemplify moral standards as they lead the umma—or community of the faithful. In the new circumstances, this perspective will have a larger voice than before.
There are already many efforts underway to achieve a reformation of public morality in the Islamic world and to restore Arab civilization to a position of global leadership. Some of the most noteworthy initiatives in this regard are taking place in Saudi Arabia. They aim to restore Islam to the exemplary state of tolerance, open-mindedness, and scientific leadership it enjoyed in its earliest centuries. King Abdullah’s initiatives to promote intra-Muslim and interfaith dialogue are part of this effort. The newly established King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is another. This graduate-level university is not just an attempt to lay the basis for a knowledge-based economy in Saudi Arabia. It is conceived as a new Bait al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, like the one in Baghdad during the Golden Age of Islam. That ancient House of Wisdom was where many of the extraordinary contributions of Islamic culture to the world’s science, mathematics, and technology were made. Of special interest in this time of ongoing financial crisis, the Islamic world also invented much of the basis for the world’s banking practices and institutions. Islamic bankers in this region are once again creating innovative ways of financing trade and investment.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, new Muslim democratic parties are in prospect, paralleling the Christian democratic parties that arose in Europe twelve decades ago. The emergence of such parties should be welcomed. It will further marginalize al-Qaeda, which has been a pathetically isolated onlooker as the Arab revolutions have unfolded. Terrorism against Arab governments is likely to subside. Unfortunately, however, politically motivated violence against Israeli and American targets may well increase. Israel’s occupation and colonization efforts in the West Bank as well as its brutal siege of Gaza have left Palestinians with no peaceful path to self-determination and Arabs as a whole with no incentive to accept a Jewish state in their midst.
Arab youth remain loyal citizens of particular countries but they have also become netizens of a virtualized Arab commonwealth. They are very much aware of the state of political and economic affairs as well as public morality in countries other than their own. Arab leaders can no longer safely ignore the imperative of reform or the examples set by others in the community of Arab states who pursue it. A year or two from now, no country in the region is likely to have the same domestic and foreign policies as it does now.
Egypt, in particular, has been jolted from the senile repose in which it slumbered for almost two decades. Egypt has reawakened. If Egyptians go on to choose effective leaders, they will resume a central role in the affairs of this region. They could develop an ideology with broad appeal throughout the Arab world and beyond. Egyptian diplomacy is almost certain to be reinvigorated. It will now reflect Egyptian opinion and values rather than what a single leader regards as expedient. As a result, neither the United States nor Israel will be able to count on Egyptian cooperation or support of policies that are anathema to the Arab street.
A reanimated Egypt will also balance and thereby diminish the regional influence of Iran. Without the burden of close association with American foreign policy, Cairo is likely to be more effective at this than in the last decade or more, when American blundering, Egypt’s listlessness, and the sidelining of Arab powers other than Saudi Arabia helped Iran make major inroads in influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Egypt now seems certain to reemerge as a formidable competitor for leadership of the Arab world and the broader realm of Islam. Realignments in intra-Arab relations and politics are sure to follow.
These changes are occurring as the United States withdraws from Iraq, leaving behind a ruined country under heavy Iranian influence. Iraq is incapable, at least for now, of resuming its historic role as part of an Arab coalition to check Persian aspirations for hegemony in West Asia. If one accepts the need to counter Iran as a given, this makes a continuing American military presence in the Persian Gulf essential to guarantee regional balance. But recent events have cost the United States the little credibility in the Arab world it had retained, following its introduction of a bloody anarchy to Iraq, its transformation of a punitive raid against al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts into an attempt at foreign pacification of Afghanistan, its close association with hateful Israeli policies toward Israel’s neighbors, and its recent abandonment of its decades-long attempt to halt the Jewish holy war for Palestinian Arab land.
Washington’s tardy, ambivalent, and ineffectual official approval of regime change in Tunisia and Egypt has done little to persuade those on the Arab street of American sincerity in supporting their demands for democracy. They will not easily forget decades of U.S. embrace of dictatorial regimes. Meanwhile, belated American demands that longstanding protégés of the United States take leave of power has convinced the region’s rulers that Washington is undependable—neither faithful to those it befriends nor reliable as their protector. As a result, Arabs, Turks, and even Israelis are no longer convinced—if they ever were—of the wisdom, trustworthiness, and reliability of the United States and its policies. Even the belated American acceptance of GCC and Arab League demands for a “no-fly zone” in Libya has perversely backfired. The air attacks on Libya have done more to reinforce the U.S. reputation for heartless brutality to Muslim civilians than to convince Arabs that America is on their side.
Past confidence in American guarantees of West Asia’s peace, well-being, energy exports, and strategic transport routes has taken some hard knocks over the years. But there is no apparent alternative to the United States as the guarantor of these public goods. The world cannot afford instability in this region. But if either popular antipathy to America in the Gulf Arab states or the fiscal crisis in the United States were to result in a significant reduction in the U.S. presence and perceived level of commitment in the Gulf, this would be enormously destabilizing. Unless Iraq stepped forward once again to balance Iran, an American drawdown would face the Gulf Arabs with a choice between accommodating Tehran or building some sort of innovative coalition to balance and contain it. No one can now count on Iraq not to side with, rather than against, Iran. There is also little prospect of an end to the millennial rivalry between Persians and Arabs.
There is no distant great power other than the United States able to project forces into the Persian Gulf region. It is unlikely that there will be another power with such capabilities for decades, if ever. Despite the glib salesmanship of its multiple defense ministers, Europe lacks the coherence or conviction to substitute for America. Russia’s ability to respond to Arab requests for support is limited by its unresolved relationship with Europe and its fixation on its own problems. India is developing the capability to play an important politico-military role in this region, but it is both far from ready to do so and greatly distracted by its strategic rivalries with China and Pakistan. In the long run, countries like China and others to the east of India may have to share the burden of protecting their own as well as global interests in West Asia. But there is little possibility that they will soon muster either the will or the capabilities to do so.
So, in the absence of the United States, any coalition to secure this region would have willy-nilly to draw on the strength of mid-level powers nearer by. This suggests a combination of Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan with that of the GCC. But such a coalition would be expensive, difficult, and time-consuming to concoct. It would have too many moving parts to substitute reliably for the United States. Pakistan could be particularly useful in providing an extended nuclear deterrent against Iran as well as Israel, if either task becomes necessary. But Pakistan will always have its eye more on India, Kashmir, and Afghanistan than on the Gulf. Depending on the course of events in occupied Palestine, Egypt’s current cold peace with Israel may well give way to something more like a cold war, riveting the attention of Egyptians on their own immediate defense needs. And Turkey, at least for now, seems more inclined to accommodate Iran than to join others in countering it.
In practice, therefore, much as they may doubt the reliability of the United States, West Asians have no realistic possibility of separating themselves from a measure of dependence on America. In this context, it is ironic that the dreadful fiscal condition of the United States will probably not permit it to sustain military capabilities in this region at anything like recent levels. The American imperative of budgetary retrenchment and the Gulf Arab effort to reduce dependence on the United States to the greatest extent possible will thus reinforce each other. In the decade to come, the states of this region will seek reassurance in new security partnerships. East and South Asian countries with an interest in the region’s energy resources must expect to have to begin sharing the burden of supporting their interests much sooner than they now realize.
All in all, it seems very likely that Arab countries will achieve—indeed, they will be unable to avoid—the greater self-reliance and autonomy in managing their affairs to which the current revolutions aspire. This region plays a central role in the global economy. Having decided to seize control of their own destiny, Arabs must now determine it themselves. They will. What they decide and what they do will make a difference to all the world.
Revolutionary change has already come to some Arab countries. Evolutionary change is underway in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Change of any kind entails unpredictability, which is another word for an unexpected series of problems for the unprepared and opportunities for the alert. As they meet the challenges of change, the Arabs will not abandon their ties to the United States or Europe. They will, however, seek to supplement and offset them with expanded relationships with East and South Asia. This is no less true in the corporate arena than in foreign policy.
Viewed from afar, the Arab world may appear at present to be a zone of strife. Viewed from up close, even in these turbulent times, Saudi Arabia and the region can be seen to present many more opportunities for transnational cooperation than they do for conflict.
This commentary is adapted from a speech delivered to the Asia Business Council in Riyadh.