Ahsan Hamid Durrani
AN energy rich part of the world engulfed in perpetual turbulence, political instability, violent extremism, economic debilitation, sectarian divide characterized by ruthless proxy wars, berserk revolutions, ethnic hostilities, and a fertile ground for realpolitik; Middle East, in the aftermath of ‘Arab Spring’, has become a quagmire and the solution to its perplexed problems, an elusive dream. The region has always attracted great powers to enhance their influence and fill their coffers by exploitation of the innumerable fault lines.
The Sykes-picot agreement during the World War One followed by the surge of Arab nationalism led to formation of cluster of nation-states and subsequently to strong monarchies that are ruling till date. These nation-states have had immense friction among them deriving mostly from the avarice of energy resources, historical claims, ideological animosity, and the quest for hegemony in the region. Lying at the juncture of Eurasia and Africa and of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, Middle East is the birth place of three prominent religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Just as its problems are complex, so is its geo-politics.
The Middle East has been a cradle of great power rivalries coupled with pursuit of regional powers for gaining hegemony. Middle Eastern Order, hitherto, was led by Saudi Arabia which funds, supports, manoeuvres all the players on the political chessboard of this region. But the rise of Iran coupled with the global oil crisis has hugely disturbed the balance of power in the region and Saudi Arabia no more reins the political discourse of this region singlehandedly.
The recent diplomatic spat involving the isolation of Qatar by its brethren Arab countries for allegedly funding terrorist organizations, and the open arm diplomacy of Iran involving support for the state of Qatar amidst crisis combined with Ankara’s decision to deploy troops in Qatar, is but a paradigm shift in the geo-politics of the region. Now, it may be too early to say that, but the pace of developments compels one to infer that the region is divided into two blocs: Saudi, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Egypt, Yemen, US, vs Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Turkey, Syria, and up to some extent, Russia. Turkey and Iran can naturally align with each other on the question of Kurds National Movement. USA has been sending mixed signals but Trump remains adamant on siding with the house of Saud in worst-case scenario. As of this writing, Russia has not openly sided with any bloc but its alliance with Iran and ambition to influence Middle East may compel it to side with Iranian bloc, thus setting the rostrum for a new great game in the region. Countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and India may remain neutral but if pushed to its limits, Pakistan can join the Saudi led bloc owing to its economic and Sunni dominated spiritual dependence on the kingdom.
One country that will benefit from this turmoil is Israel. As the Muslim nations are further divided into Sunni-Sunni factions, Tel Aviv will find an opportunity in the crisis to gain leverage on Palestinian issue and will further push the issue-which once dominated the Middle Eastern political debate-to the back shelves. Resultantly, agitation will further escalate in the Palestinian youth and might lead to another Intifada, but this time backed by regional powers. One possible scenario might arise, if the situation aggravates and Saudi Arabia under its de facto young ruler Muhammad bin Salman decides to take the rough road against Qatar, Iran can bloc the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation which will disrupt the global oil supply (almost 35% world oil supply moves through this narrow strait). Such a step with having major ramifications is the most credible deterrent of Iran that it can use against Saudis. Looking at the bigger picture, now I have this theory which I believe is at play in the backdrop of all this. As the USA is pivoting to Asia Pacific to contain China and as Russia under Putin has resurged more vehemently than imagined by the US strategic thinkers thus challenging western democratic system and making a mockery of their values, USA wishes to repeat history by engaging Russia deliberately in the Middle East- as it did in Afghanistan according to Brzezinski- but this time with the Islamic NATO armed by US. This way, US will not be in direct engagement with Russia and its weapon industry will thrive, feeding its dwindling economy.
Many other factors, equally uncertain, will be in the mix. Among them is future of Bashar’s regime in Syria. Civil wars have a bad habit of protraction. With Middle East coming under the clouds of a new crisis, fixing the Syrian mess will become a trivial matter and Bashar’s regime would survive for more years to come. Another important question which pertains to the future of this region is the existence of GCC. The diplomatic jujitsu in the Gulf States insinuates the demise of Arab nationalism with a question whether GCC was holding on a false premise. Has the mask fallen? These are tough question and only time and pace of events will answer them. For now, today’s ME turmoil may well be, according to Henry Kissinger, “scene one of act one in a five act play.”
— The writer is a political commentator, public speaker and part of a governmental body in Pakistan.