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The Arab Churning and Implications

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • March 20, 2013

    At the recent security conclave held by IDSA, political strategists, Arab affairs observers, Islamic cerebrals and policy practitioners scrupulously dissected the most compelling factors including the cast of international players contributing to the festering ‘Arab Spring’ and its implications.

    The uprisings were a natural upshot of failings of the regimes. In reality, none including the Israeli intelligence could predict the spurt; blamed mostly for the delusion that the Arab rulers were immune to revolts and the pattern appeared fixed for the foreseeable future. But experts now believe that regime illegitimacy, social inequality and injustices were sustained only by external support and were not tenable.

    Ambiguity persists over the consequences and analysis of this complex but imagery nature of Arab events; to wonder whether the surge was a revolution, reawakening, renaissance, turmoil or simply Arabism. An ‘awakening’ signified a higher Arab political acuity but the centre point in the protesting power implied the end of the ‘fear’ factor, thus a ‘renaissance’. Whether or not such assessments indicated any real Arab renaissance, there was no doubting the optimistic view about the Arab’s positive march towards democracy and its presumed benefits to the people. The hope is that the processes at work remain transformational and hence an ‘Arab churning’ would entail streamlining of Arab societies, after decades of stagnation, into the new global political culture.

    But the region still remains fraught with problems and uncertainty. The Syrian crisis conceals as much as it reveals. The Islamists who captured power in Egypt and Tunisia are turning the spring of hope into a winter of despair, hence ‘Arab Winter’. Their commitment to democracy is suspect – making analysts wonder whether it is aspirational or simply a means to capture power.

    Libya’s radical change without an alternative is pushing it into uncertainty. Post-Assad Syria is going to be anarchic. In Yemen the transition has been smooth, but in Bahrain the uprising was aborted with outside intervention. The oil-rich Gulf monarchs have so far proved adept at controlling power through elementary reforms. Therefore, to judge it from either the democratic or Islamic angles remains a premature viewpoint, especially when misgivings endure about what motivated the protesters who came from a wide civilian spectrum; no commonality of views or ideologies existed.

    The trend is visibly towards changing the status quo, with Islam playing the central role although no case for a ‘caliphate’ exists. But the scenario is built for Islamism and democracy becoming an interdependent force in future. The Muslim Brotherhood is proving, in democratic guise, its political and electoral legitimacy. Soon it will acquire experience of governance. Hope is that the complex process of competing for popular support will have a conditioning effect on the Islamists, thus there is no cause for alarm now. One hopes that the exercise of political power will be negotiated among different stake holders.

    Still, the cynics suspect the movement suffering backlashes and betrayals. But for optimists the tide cannot be blocked though there might be occasional setbacks. The critical part would be the radical Al-Qaeda exploiting the fragility and internal dissonance and should that happens the arc of terrorism would extend all the way from West Asia, South Asia to Southeast Asia.

    The future looks equally bleak for the region beset as it is with multiple fault lines, intertwined with complex local, regional and global issues. In fact, all possible scenarios exist. On the down side, the nasty scars of Saudi-Iran, Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian and other faultiness have come to acquire new strategic dimensions that could engulf the whole region. Sectarian strife could also replace the old Arab-Israel conflict. The fall of Iraq’s Sunni regime has brought the Shias to the centre stage. With Shias constituting 60 per cent of eight Gulf States, this assertion would become more prominent, enabling Iran to gain greater geopolitical influence. Suspicion over Iran’s hand in the Bahrain crisis has led Saudi Arabia to gear up to confront Iran in different theatres. The Saudis are also trying to check Turkey whose popularity is growing among the Arabs. Hostility is likely to grow between the Monarchs and the Brotherhood.

    Worst, the events may have already deflected attention if not played into Iran’s strategy of simply buying time to present a nuclear fait accompli. Iran’s nuclear issue tied to religious doctrine is less to do with deterrence but more about posture – regional hegemony and Shia expansion around the Gulf, Caspian and Central Asia. Besides the risk of brinkmanship of conflict with Israel, others like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Iraq would be motivated to acquire nuclear weapons.

    With the growing Saudi-Iran estrangement, Iran and Egypt seem to be consolidating a fresh strategic partnership. In the balancing game, Turkey’s position seems strengthened, while Israel is moving towards a period of isolation. Israel suspects the US remaining a long term reliable ally. Egypt is poised to reclaim its central role. Qatar’s assertive role this time provides a new case for how small states can influence international politics. Again, in the changed equation, Iraq has turned into a weak state and fallen under Iran’s manipulation. Syria is also on its way out from the balance; its fall will be a death blow to Iran. Similarly, the question also hangs about the future of Saudi Arabia, which is in a state of uncertainty. But so far it has shown resilience in withstanding pressures. Riyadh could renew Islamic activism on the regional and global stage.

    The US shift of focus with the ‘Asia Pivot’ indicates its desire for disentanglement from West Asia. There is though no indication yet of any waning in the US commitment in the region. But a paradigm shift is already underway. The new US thinking seems to be shaped by the threat of terrorism which is unlikely to wane until its unreliable allies continue to use Salafism to stay in power. Therefore, the current trend, if sustained, will serve the US interests in the long term. The political Islamists are expected to be more autonomous and less hostile to the US.

    For Russia, authorizing Gaddafi’s removal was a mistake and to repudiate it Russia is taking a tough stance on Syria. Moscow’s policy is not driven by mercantile interests but by a principle in which the stake is not about achieving democracy but about sustaining a balance of power in a tricky region rife with bitter sectarian and ethnic conflicts. Russia wants a change without internal collapse.

    China does not want changes in the status quo. With the balance of economic relationships already changing, India and China appear poised to shape the future politics in West Asia. China will involve directly in power play in West Asia to uphold its own strategic interest in Asia. India, on the other hand, is showing increasing inclination to align with the US policy.

    But for the Arabs, India’s caution, slow responses and long periods of situation assessments re-affirmed stereotypes about its inability to assume a leadership role in international affairs that could compromise its much sought after bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC. The demand is for India's quick and decisive engagement. However, given the volatility, the most effective way is to “think regionally but act bilaterally”.

    The Author is a former diplomat & Senior Fellow at IDSA

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.