Events in the Middle East have moved more quickly in the last month than many anticipated, and although I am always reluctant to re-visit previous Blog themes, at least too quickly, I have spent much of the last two weeks responding to questions on my own take as to what is happening there.
I claim no special knowledge, no particular expertise, no guruhood. The fact that I have been associated with the region for more than 40 years seems to give people confidence that I know "what is going on". What follows, therefore, are my own amateur "musings". Others will, I know, with better knowledge and information have their own points of view, so take these as my contribution to a general debate, listen to others, and in the end sift through what you have heard to draw your own conclusions.
The easy bit for me to start with is to point out what is not happening. This is not a wave of anti-Western, anti-Christian or anti-external anything else - at present. It is a series of internal protests, perhaps in some cases long overdue, against corrupt, dictatorial non-democratic Presidents or family dynasties, by a modernising Arabia that is changing faster than its leaders. An Arabia that will no longer tolerate the injustices they perceive as being carried out in their own backyards. An Arabia that is taking the next steps onwards from the sentiments expressed so vividly in his book "Farewell to Arabia", written in 1966 by the late David Holden who, coincidentally (?), was murdered in Cairo in 1977.
It seems clear, to me at least, that the events in Egypt were precipitated by a successful uprising in Tunisia, and those in Libya by the success enjoyed by the Egyptians. It suggests a bubbling fermentation of discontent just under the surface in those two countries, waiting for the catalyst that would unite the opposition into a coherent force against the incumbent regimes. Tunisia provided the spark, with technology providing the mobilisation tool through the internet and mobile phones.
Elsewhere, North and South Yemen have been snapping at each other for a long time despite their apparent unification in 1990, and similarly the Sunni minority and Shia majority in Bahrain have been in disputes of one kind or another for as long as I can remember. The excuse to act, fuelled again by events elsewhere, was not far below the surface.
But I suspect we are not done yet. Other regimes across the top of Africa are looking variously vulnerable, although perhaps not as seriously as that of Colonel Gaddafi. In the case of Libya, I had become increasingly hopeful that they harboured a genuine desire to show some remorse and display some common sense by re-joining the global community. Despite some odd misjudgements being made by the West, for example, over the Al Meghrahi case. Gaddafi's son, Saif, appeared to be at the forefront of reform but the chances of any of the problems in Libya having a happy ending look very remote today. I don't think Gaddafi will be with us much longer and then, as with Egypt, we will have to see what we get as a replacement.
Recent actions taken by their HIghnesses Kings Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been very telling. Hand outs, restructuring of parliament in the case of Jordan, and other measures designed to hold back any thoughts of insurrection in those countries by the local population have obviously been the advice given to otherwise nervous monarchies.
As an aside in the case of Saudi Arabia, a country where I have lived and worked for a number of years, I have been fascinated by the progress made in very recent years as a result of the work of the elderly and now ailing King Abdullah. In a Kingdom that has isolated itself from the modern world, it has nevertheless made changes internally that would have not been thought achievable a few years ago, and it is Saudi that I am watching most carefully at present.
I could go on ... and on, with more in-depth thoughts about these countries, and ideas I have on places like Kuwait and Oman, but unless I was writing a book I would run the danger of trying to condense too many thoughts into 1000 words or less.
The summary I have been leaving with the people who have asked me is, in macro terms, relatively simple.
For me, this is internally focused by country - not externally focused by religion or other considerations. The political ramifications are yet to become evident, and we need to watch carefully who emerges from the shadows to lead the new regimes. Hopefully they will be strong leaders capable of understanding the needs of their modernising populations, and recognising there is a world out there that would benefit from unity rather than division (but don't hold your breath on that one!). I am not as bothered by the political risks at present as I am by the economic risks.
The economic fall-out could be dramatic. While we remain globally dependent on oil, until such time as there are serious alternatives, large scale reductions in exports over an extended period of time will have a major impact on a world economy that is only now beginning to show signs of recovery. And this time it is not just the West that will suffer - it will be the East as well.
I am not a purveyor of doom and gloom. There are plenty of people out there who already fill that role. And when you get to my age you begin to realise that your time has become shorter - so you should aim to enjoy each day as best you can. But
- while 2012 is just a number that the numerologists can have fun with,
- and while I do not subscribe to Nostrodamus' end of the world theory for 2012 (and if it ends I won't be here to defend myself anyway),
I do think we must keep a close eye on the Middle Eastern region of our globe and listen very carefully to the pleas of those who seek our help and support.