A new year’s reflections on the past and coming 12 months is a useful exercise if it avoids predominantly egotistical ventures like single-handedly anointing the best books, articles, tweets, documentaries, or photos of the past year. More useful is to identify trends or developments to watch that may be genuinely new and perhaps also of continuing significance for the Middle East and the world.
The longevity and lasting impact of current changes and turbulence across the region are hard to define today. This is because some developments are dramatic and very consequential in the short run—like Islamists winning free elections or Salafist-takfiris controlling areas in Syria—but may not have lasting impact in a year or two. Others—like Arab Gulf countries experiencing budget squeezes amidst changing global oil import patterns—are less dramatic now, but could be game-changers in the years ahead.
Let me first mention what I do not think are lasting developments, but only short-term issues that are exaggerated, often through the lens of interpretation by local tyrants or global media. We are not heading into a Sunni-Shiite regional war, because most ordinary Sunni and Shiite Muslims get along perfectly well if they are not whipped into a frenzy by some of their hysterical leaders. Salafist-takfiris will not control more land or play a long-term role in the region, because they enjoy no significant popular support or viable political anchorage. The armed forces will not retain power in Egypt for years to come, because military rule has been the single most destructive force for Arab national development and dignity in the past six decades, and ordinary citizens will not tolerate it except for short transitional moments.
I look forward to learning in the years ahead if my analysis is correct or wildly off-base. In either case, I offer it with deep humility, along with these four recent developments that strike me as most significant for our region.
The activism of Saudi Arabia is striking and novel, and deserves watching. In the past few years the Saudi government has sent its troops, money, military supplies and increasingly vituperative rhetoric flying around the region and the world, especially in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, the Arab League, Western op-ed pages and the U.N. Security Council. This is unprecedented behavior for a country that always conducted foreign policy like 17th Century English earls conducted romance—quietly, discreetly, hesitantly, and indirectly through middlemen and messengers. Saudi Arabia is behaving in an unusual way, because it is behaving like a real country, and not the fantasyland of old when it talked openly only of Islam, Arabism, peace, love and respect, but behind the scenes fuelled wars, tension, and wreckage. Its sentiments and foreign policy tools now are deployed out in the open. Regardless of one’s views of Saudi aims, its open conduct strikes me as a good thing, because countries that are honest and forthright in their policies can engage others more productively when it comes time to negotiate a new regional security order and act responsibly.
The assertion of the power of ordinary Arab citizens to change the history, configuration and policies of their countries in the past three years has been impressive, but inconclusive to date. The years ahead will determine how the dust settles from the current uprisings, transformations and chaos. I remain positively inclined to expect that the will of free citizens, expressed through democratic and accountable mechanisms of governance, will always bring about better policies and conditions than the last half century’s prevailing Arab situation of countries run according to the arbitrary decisions of old soldiers with guns or extended families with militias.
The third meaningful development is the simultaneous shift in public sentiment and foreign policy by Iran and the United States, focused initially on resolving the dispute over Iran’s nuclear industry and the American-Israeli-led sanctions on Iran. If the current negotiations succeed in resolving these two linked issues, Iran will experience a burst of domestic economic, social and political changes that will have enormous positive consequences for Iranians and for the entire region. If the talks fail, brace for catastrophic confrontations across the region.
The fourth important change taking place is in the balance of political strength between, on the one hand, wildly pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington, D.C. that have long deeply influenced and often shaped America’s Mideast policies, and, on the other hand, the power of the American presidency and public opinion to pursue foreign policies that are seen to be first in the national interest of the United States, while also offering Israel Washington’s long-standing and ironclad support and also responding to the rights of Arabs, Turks and Iranians. This changing dynamic is in the midst of its most significant test of wills and power since the 1950s, and its resolution will impact important issues across the entire region.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global