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Sunday, February 27, 2005

OPI WEEKLY: A LINE DRAWN IN THE DESERT SANDS: EGYPT, SAUDI ARABIA, SYRIA AND IRAN

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a dramatic speech from his hometown on Saturday, asked Egypt’s parliament to amend the constitution to allow for direct multi-party elections in Egypt. While it is not clear how soon or how authentically the changes might take place, the request is a watershed in a country ruled by a one party dictatorship for 50 years.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Saudis will go to the polls next week in the oil-rich Eastern Province and southwestern regions in the second round of unprecedented three-stage elections. At stake are half the seats in 178 municipal councils across the Kingdom.

And in Iraq, of course, the January elections came off without the serious disruptions that many had predicted. While the final government there has yet to be determined, the process continues to gain widespread credibility and support.

No region is more important to world energy security than the Persian Gulf, and among Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Iraq at least are two of the most important. So what is going on in this vitally important area of the world?

While there are certainly immediate political causes for the democratic developments in a region not known for its democratic tendencies, the deeper cause in all three cases has more to do with the intense security concerns gripping the region than an ethereal desire for political equality. A larger view of the security dynamics in the Middle East reveals a line being drawn in the desert sands pitting Iran and Syria on one side and Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other.

EGYPT: THE FLIP-SIDE OF ECONOMIC REFORM

Several recent developments likely led Egypt’s Mubarak to make his historic request. First, Mubarak, who has long been rumored to be in ill-health, is preparing to pass leadership of the country on to the next generation. Mubarak’s son Gamal is expected to vie for his father’s spot, although –somewhat surprisingly—the elder Mubarak does not seem to be engineering a fait accompli for his reform minded son.

Second, there have been sustained pro-democratic protests and demonstrations in the past several weeks. The jailing of Ayman Nour, the leader of the newly legalized pro-reform Ghad Party, led several thousand students at Cairo University to take to the streets and led U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to postpone her trip to Egypt in show of protest. In addition, U.S. President George Bush in his most recent State of the Union address singled out Egypt to show leadership in the push for democracy in the region.

However, these democratic reforms are also the political flipside to the free market economic reforms that Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced late last year. The package, which combines privatization with incentives for businesses, aims to attract foreign investors by making it cheaper and easier to set up and maintain operations in Egypt.

Furthermore, a new Cabinet portfolio, the Ministry of Investment, is held by Mahmoud Mohieddin, a close friend and political ally of Gamal Mubarak. Mohieddin has said he will triple foreign direct investment in Egypt within two years by expanding investment opportunities within the country and by making it easier for existing investors to do business.

SAUDI ARABIA: A WINDOW OF STABILITY

On the one hand Saudi Arabia’s current municipal elections are only a small step toward democracy. Women have not been allowed to vote, and only a small fraction of eligible voters took part in the first round of voting. But the decision to have elections at all was a difficult and even dangerous one for a country that for nearly a century has been ruled autocratically by a single family. More of the population are anti-western than are pro-democratic, and women in the country are among the worst treated in the world.

So why now? External pressure for democratic reform began in earnest after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. when questions were raised about the level of Saudi participation in the attacks and financing of al Qaeda. But it was al Qaeda attacks in Riyadh in May 2003 that put the current push for change in motion. A series of coordinated car bombings on May 12 targeted U.S.-Saudi business as well as three compounds housing American and other expatriate workers. In the months following the attacks the security situation in Saudi Arabia deteriorated and the struggle with Islamic militants at times seemed to threaten the foundations of the Saudi state.

Now that the security situation there has stabilized, there is finally the peace and political will to make at least cosmetic pro-democratic changes necessary to satisfy both internal and external critics. While limited in suffrage and scope –half of the seats in the local councils will still be appointed by the royal family—they are enough to satisfy most critics for the time being. As loathe as the royal family may be to release even a semblance of its grip on power, it has determined that such moves will help gain the support of a population deeply rattled by the events of the past two years.

DEEPER CAUSES: A STRATEGIC LINE IN THE DESERT SANDS

While both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have these immediate causes to undertake pro-democratic reforms at this juncture, the deeper cause lies in the increasingly acute security situation faced by each country. The U.S. presence and instability in Iraq has polarized the regional security dynamic. Saudi Arabia and Egypt find themselves on one side of the a line drawn in the sand, facing Iran and Syria on the other.

Iran’s greatest fear is a U.S. dominated Iraq. They have battled ceaselessly by proxy to gain an advantage and perhaps to dominate the newly forming Iraqi state. However, they have been less than successful. The recent elections giving credibility to a secular Iraq government are a blow to Iranian strategic interests.

Hence Iran’s recent détente with Syria, which aids and abets the Sunni resistance in Iraq. While Iran has no great love for Sunnis, they are Iran’s best hope for destabilizing a political and security situation which is developing against its interests.

While Syria’s primary strategic interests are in Lebanon, it also has much to fear from the U.S. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lives in constant fear that he is next in line after Saddam the U.S. military tour through the Middle East. From Damascus’ point of view, a strong and aggressive Iran keeps the U.S. focus off of much weaker and more vulnerable Syria.

Syria and Iran thus share a vital strategic interest. They need each other to counter what they perceive to be the U.S. threat in the region.

SAUDIA ARABIA: BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

However, Iran’s greatest desire is also Saudi Arabia’s greatest fear: the Kingdom has long been terrified at the prospect of an Iraq dominated by the radical Shiite Iran. Hence Saudi Arabia’s support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war form 1980-1988. Saudi Arabia’s once again fears that Iran will dominate Iraq through a non-secular Shiite government there. Much as the idea may seem abhorrent to them, the Saudis have no choice but to support the U.S. in its consolidation of a secular, even if Shia, Iraqi government.

However, there is a serious problem for Saudi Arabia with that as well. The last time the Saudi’s backed the U.S. against a third party it didn’t turn out so well for either party. In the late 1980’s, when the CIA backed mujahideen resistance finally was successful in driving the beleaguered Soviets out of Afghanistan, a torrent of radical Wahabbi religious fighters, which later formed the al Qaeda terrorist movement, were loosed upon Saudi Arabia and the world.

The Saudi strategy for securing their own safety from al Qaeda was basically blackmail. The Saudis financially supported al Qaeda so long as al Qaeda didn’t threaten targets inside the Kingdom. It was only a matter of time, however, before that plan backfired in the form of 9/11 and a potent Saudi radical Wahabbi movement.

Should the U.S. consolidate its position in Iraq, a similar torrent of battle tested fighters will be loosed upon the region, and Saudi Arabia will be their most likely target. The most recent audio recording of Osama bin Laden, released Dec. 16 via a jihadist website, praises the group of militants who stormed the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on December 6, 2004 and accused the Saudi regime of ‘violating God's rules.’ Not only is Saudi Arabia the spiritual homeland for Islam –the land of the two holy sites at Mecca and Medina—it is also the only area in which al Qaeda can hope to gain real power. No other country has such a large Wahhabi population or such a strong radical Wahhabi movement.

And of course much of that power resides in Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth. Saudi Arabia sits atop 25% of the world’s proved oil reserves and is responsible for approximately 15% of world production, and an even higher percentage of world export capacity. More importantly, the U.S. and world economy is vitally dependent upon Persian Gulf exports, of which Saudi Arabia’s share is by far the largest. Most of the United States’ major trading partners are critically dependent on Middle Eastern oil exports. For example, in 2002, the Middle East and North Africa supplied 42% European oil imports, 79% of Japanese oil imports, 39% and growing of China’s oil imports, and 76% of oil imports by other Asian and Pacific states.

Saudi Arabia is also facing economic and demographic realities which make the radical Islamic threat all the more foreboding. Years of economic mismanagement have left the Saudi economy in shambles. Unemployment is chronically high and there is increasing resentment of the gap between the wealthy royal family and the rest of Saudi society.

But the demographics are the most foreboding of all. The percentage of the population in the 15 to 19 year old age group grew by 35% from 1990 to 2000 and is projected to grow by an astounding 84% from 2000 to 2030. The combination of high unemployment, the unequal distribution of national income, and a radical Islamism that speaks most powerfully to young men is lethal. Unless these problems are addressed through political and economic reform, an already fertile Saudi Arabia will become a breeding ground for radicalism.

Stuck between a radical rock and reformist hard place, the Saudis seem to have chosing the path of reform. They learned from their experiences with al Qaeda after the Afghan liberation that trying to play the middle between the two is a recipe for disaster. The only way for the Saudis to insure their own security is to consolidate a solid cultural consensus against the vibrant radical Wahabbi movement within the country. The current municipal elections are a first step down that road.

EGYPT: A NEW BRAND OF EXTREMISM

But what about Egypt? While much further from the maelstrom than Saudi Arabia, Egypt is similarly vulnerable to radicalism. Radical Islamism has its modern roots in Egypt in the emergence of the Gamaah al-Islamiyah and Tandheem al Jihad in the 1970’s. Egypt's defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's crackdown on the moderate Muslim Brotherhood pushed many already radical Muslims toward violent jihad. These events were then followed by the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the mujahideen victories against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

During the 1990’s the government faced several waves of extremist violence, including several political assassinations. Mubarak also tried to work the middle ground, cracking down on some extremists while co-opting other into mainstream politics.

However, the resurgence of radical Islam since September 11, 2001 has made this middle ground as untenable for Egypt as it was for Saudi Arabia. It is no coincidence that al Qaeda’s last successful terrorist attack took place on Egyptian soil. The bombings of three Red Sea tourist resorts in the Sinai Peninsula on Oct. 8 were likely meant to show the Islamic world that despite four years of persecution by the West, al Qaeda is still a potent force in the region.

The attacks sent a different signal to the Egyptian leadership. Not only is Islamist militancy was alive and well in Egypt, but also the old strategy of political accommodation will not work with this new brand of terrorist.

In essence, the Egyptian leadership faced the same set of difficult choices faced by the Saudis. While the Saudi choice was made more acute by its proximity to the war in Iraq and its rapidly changing demographics, the Egyptian choice has been made acute by the looming political transition. There is a sense in Egypt that the there is a window now for safe, prudent reform. Unless the process is set in motion before the uncertainty of life after Mubarak, Egypt will become much more vulnerable to extremism from without and within.

TWO ROADS DIVERGE

While it is not unusual for a war to polarize a region, the split in the Middle East is particularly acute. Syria and Iran have been resoundingly condemned for the recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and now there is mounting evidence that Syria is behind the February 25 suicide bombing outside Tel Aviv night club. In the meantime steps toward democracy in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt for the first time are driven by real security concerns. The line in the sands, it seems, have been drawn truly deep.

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