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Who Is the Master of the Middle East? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The combination of numerous political and security explosions in the Arab and Muslim worlds and the massive American and British military, political and media invasion in these regions, has led to the publication of diverse studies and periodicals by western research centers.

Undoubtedly, these studies vary in objectivity or ideological character, but their number and frequency indicate that the West has the capability of motion, dynamism and self-criticism and avoids rigidity of “methods”. This suggests that these studies are not conducted simply in pursuit of truth, but with a motive of gaining the truth for the benefit of the western states.

In the November/December issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs, Richard N. Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote about the future of US policy in the Middle East. He suggested that the era of US dominance in the region has ended and a new stage has begun. Haass believes that the formulation of the new era will depend on various new elements to influence the Middle East, which means that the US has to depend on diplomacy rather than the military to maintain its interests.

Haass proceeds to review the political history of the region and its relationship with the West. He considers the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the French and English colonial stages through to the end of World War II and the coinciding rise of nationalism and the national political stage in the Arab region with all its dreams and vigor. He also reflects on the Cold War, the 1967 War and its aftermath, as well as realization in the West of the significance of the Middle East from the perspective of economic security in view of the importance of oil in contemporary life.

According to Haass, with the end of the Cold War, US influence reached its peak. Such influence was evident in the liberation of Kuwait and the steady US endeavors towards the peace process between Israel and the Arabs. He suggests that all of these are stages of the “Old Middle East.”

This “Old Middle East”, however, has begun to change. One of the key features of transformation is the decision by President George W Bush to invade Iraq. This led to the removal of the “Sunnis” from government in Iraq and the empowerment of the “Shia”, an act which has caused tension and sectarian strife between the Sunni and Shia factions both inside and outside Iraq.

According to Haass, the fall of the “Old Middle East” was the result of the ruling Arab regimes failing to withstand political Islamist parties. They were continually struggling with these Islamist parties that placed the political program at the “core” of their project.

Ironically, it is globalization that has facilitated the movement and communication between these Islamic groups, and in turn has led to the rise of political Islam. Moreover, the media proliferation and the loosened grip of the state over the media furthered the state of “politicization” among the people of the region, along with a media boom which delivered pictures of the wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

Haass concludes his article with his vision of the new shape of the region. He predicts that in spite of everything, the US will remain the biggest actor in the region. However he does believe that other world powers such as Russia, China and the European Union will enter the region and compete with the US. He also argues that Iran will be one of the most influential powers, especially through its protection of the politicized Shia Islam in the Arab region, an example of which is Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He believes that the situation in Iraq will continue to deteriorate to a level that impacts its neighbors; and that oil prices will further rise to reach US$ 100 per barrel due to increased demand from India and China. This will lead to a huge increase in the revenues of oil-producing countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Along with regional tension, this will lead to an arms race and higher military expenditure by regional countries.

Finally, Richard N. Haass envisions that terrorism will heighten in the region, especially in a partitioned Iraq. With regards to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they may also be faced with “jihadist” groups that want to strike and replace the state. Haass believes that the mounting and continued pressure practiced by these groups, whether through terrorism or mounting social and political pressure, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will cause these states to continue in their efforts to counter this pressure. States such as Saudi Arabia would seek change and reform, whilst opposition to such reform will be spearheaded by religious trends rather than leftist and liberal ones.

This is a summary of the main ideas of Haass’s article. We may remember that notions such as Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations or Francis Fukuyama’s End of History emerged from articles like this appearing in publications such as Foreign Affairs.

Maybe these notions and concepts will lead the new US era, with the rise of the Democratic Party and the diminished influence of the neo-Conservatives. However it is necessary to remember that due to the mistakes made by the US administration in capitalizing on the victory, it is the war in Iraq that leads this controversy in the environment surrounding researchers and thinkers in the United States. Also, competing in defining and diagnosing the role of the US in Iraq has turned into ammunition for political controversy between the two parties. American researcher Bernard Haykal argued that the Democrats regard the situation in Iraq as the responsibility of the Republicans; therefore they do not want to bear its costs with the US voters. But can they do that? Is there a correct, sound, non-destructive strategy for leaving Iraq? Is this option even available to the US?

The other question, relevant both within and away from Iraq, is about the state of relations between Arab states and political Islamic trends. It is true that there is a drift from political Islamic parties towards Iran; however disregard the case of Hezbollah since this is understandable and self-evident and the same can be said of the Sunni Brotherhood affiliate Hamas, in Palestine. There is a clash between these parties on the one hand and the states and secular political elite on the other hand. As Iran fuels these burning pockets, other regional countries that resist and compete with Iran are also fueling the opposition.

Despite its present harm, however, this drift towards Iran will be even more dangerous and Iran will try its best to strengthen and consolidate Hezbollah, Hamas and all the powers that concur with it in antagonizing the Arab moderation camp, consisting of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. So far support has been limited to funding, media and the mobilization of the Arab street, but who knows how much further it will go? Support may well surpass these boundaries, especially following the unanimous anti-Iran UN Security Council resolution, which may lead to greater and more dangerous support for these powers. It is even possible that Iran will actually engage in terrorism, bombings, and kidnappings; take the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 as a recent example.

I believe that we have to master reading the moment and avoid pursuing the illusion of the US withdrawal from our region. In spite of the internal heated debate, the US will not abandon the region, which from an American perspective, is home to oil and Israel, and is the likely birthplace of 9/11-style terrorism.

To further master reading the moment, the Arab states, especially the moderate ones, have to strike a balance between two themes. The first theme is reform and change, as these are legitimate and fair and allow a real guarantee for the survival of states and maintaining popular support. The second theme is that such openness should take place slowly and deliberately. Arab States should not disregard reform in fear of losing their identity, nor should they open the door wide, thus destabilizing the society and state.

Finally, it is we, the people of this region, who should endeavor to maintain our stability and survive the turmoil of civil wars, or else we will submit ourselves to adventurous ideas and projects. This time, however, they will not be concealed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s djelleba or Saddam Hussein’s cloak but rather by the “Sayyed’s” turban or the “Sheikh’s” jubbah. At that point, regret will be of no use.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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