The MENA region is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents (along with the Balkans-Caucasus) the only existing land corridor that connects 3 continents. It also holds over half of the world’s proven oil-gas reserves (56% – oil, 48% – gas). Further on, the Gulf OPEC states and Libya have –by far– the lowest costs of oil extraction thanks to the high crude ‘purity’ (measured by overall properties such as a state of aggregation, excavation gravity, viscosity, weight, degree of sulfuric and other contaminants) which is simplifying and cheapening the refinement process. These petrol-exporters also enjoy the close proximity to open warm seas for the low-cost, fast and convenient overseas shipments. (Hence, the costs per barrel of crude for Libya and the Persian Gulf states are under 5USD, for other OPEC members- below 10UDS. This is a sharp contrast to countries such as the US, Russia, Norway, Canada and many others that bear production costs of several tens of USD per barrel, at least according to the International Energy Agency.
Therefore, it is an absolute imperative for external powers to dominate such a pivotal geo-economic and geopolitical theater by simply keeping its center soft (e.g. preventing any ‘emancipation’ that might come via indigenous socio-political modernization). This is the very same imperative that was a dominant rational of inner European and Asian machtpolitik for centuries.
No wonder that competition in the MENA region, which has a lasting history of external domination and interference (as well as borders drawn largely by Anglo-French planners at Versailles), is severe, multiple, and unpredictable. The region is predominantly populated by Sunni (Arab) Muslims. With its high population density, and a demographic growth potential that dwarfs its economic one, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) is dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often angry males. Political radicalization (besides exploitation of the Shia–Sunni and of Muslim–Jewish antagonism) is surely one of the most convenient instruments of tacit control aimed at to preserve governing authorities weak, if not incapacitated.
It is of no surprise that in each and every one of the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Balkans-MENA secular republican countries, where external powers have brokered a political settlement, the government finds itself grappling with perpetual instability and is thus paralyzed. So far, no single monarchy has been (significantly) affected. From Bosnia (nearly 20 years ago), then Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (as well as in the ‘post-Spring’ Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, all the way to ‘ungoverned’ Mali, South Sudan and Algeria’s south, up to the post-assassination revolt-torn Tunis or anti-Avanti Mursi‘ Cairo), there is a seemingly purposely dysfunctional and indecisive central government put in place.
Conclusively, the most observers would agree that, while the so-called Arab Spring was of cross-Arab outreach, it was far from being pan-Arabic; more of a spontaneous social revolt (Al-Jazeera-connecting-dots) series of events, than any directional process. To channel something unexpectedly inflammatory and cross-Arab, but avoiding pan-Arabism as well as any sincere structural socio-economic reform and political emancipation can be achieved only by lighting the torch of Islamism. For one thing, as it now seems, the euphorically tam-tamed ‘Facebook revolutions’ across the MENA region were rather a strategic distraction ‘innocently’ dressed up in diverting banalities of social media networks.
Currently, the announced reductions of the American physical presence in Afghanistan, its limits in (the nearly failed, nuclear, state of) Pakistan, massive overextensions suffered on the southwestern flank of the Euro-Asian continent as well as the recent US pullout from Iraq, is felt within the GCC (in France, Israel and Turkey too) as dangerous exposure to neighboring (increasingly anticipated as assertive) Iran, as well as Russia and China behind it. Right now, Syria pays a (proxy war) price for it: This multi-religious country may end up entirely combusted, creating a dangerous security vacuum in the heart of MENA. Or to use the frustrated words of a senior French diplomat who recently told me in Brussels: “we have to quickly delegitimize the legitimate Syrian government and topple al-Assad in order to convince Israel not to bomb Iran…”
As recently, the ‘Group of Friends of Syria’- induced recognition of the so-called Syrian opposition means also that Turkey is now practically at war with Syria. At this point, let me be both instructive and predictive: the fall of al-Assad would most certainly trigger the dissolution of Syria. It would also lead to a formalized federalization of Iraq in a desperate move to prevent its total decomposition as well as to a serious crisis of Lebanese and Jordanian statehood, probably beyond reparation. The (short-run) winner would then seem to be Israel along with the GCC monarchies. However, in the long run, it would be Kurds and Shias. Consequently, the Erdoğan government (as well as Iraq) would not survive any proclamation of a Kurdish state. Ergo, besides the dispersed, rarified and terrified MENA Christians, the (modernized) Sunnis are definitely the long-term losers.
A Possible Epilogue
However, while the cacophony of European contradictions engenders a self-elimination of the EU from the region, Turkey tries to reinsert itself. The so-called neo-Ottomanism of the current (Anatolian, eastern rural power-base) government steers the country right into the centre of grand bargaining for both Russia and for the US. To this emerging triangular constellation, PM Erdoğan wishes to establish his own rhythm. Looking past the ‘Arab Spring’, neither will Russia effectively be able to sustain its presence in the Middle East on a strict pan-Arabic secular, republican and anti-Islamic idea, nor will the US manage to politically and morally justify its backing of absolutist monarchies energized by backward, dismissive and oppressive Wahhabism. Ankara tries to sublime both effectively: enough of a secular republican modernity and of a traditional, tolerant and emancipating Islam, and to broadcast it as an attractive future model across the Middle East. Simply, Bosporus wakes itself up as an empiric proof that the Islam and modernity goes together. In fact, it is the last European nation that still enjoys both demographic and economic growth. Moreover, Ataturk’s Republic is by a large margin the world’s most successful Muslim state: It was never resting its development on oil or other primary-commodity exports, but on a vibrant socio-economic sector and solid democratic institutions. This is heavily contesting, not only for Russia, but primarily for the insecure regime of the House of Saud (and other GCC autocracies), which rules by the direct royal decree over a country of recent past, oil-export dependent and fizzing present and improbable future. No wonder that on the ideological battlefield, the two belligerent parties will be dominating the Middle East, which is currently in the self-questioning phase having passed yet another round of calamities. The outcome will be significant beyond the Arab world, and it will reverberate all across the Sunni Muslim world. Ankara is attempting to justify that the Saudi-promoted Islam is actually a toxic, separatist/sectarian Wahhabistic ideology that binds Muslims and keeps them on the wrong side of history by hindering their socio-economic and political development. It does so by holding Muslims on a permanent collision course with the rest of the world, while Turkey-promoted Islam is not a weaponized ideology, but a Modus Vivendi, which permits progress and is acceptable for all (including the non-Muslims), with a centuries-long record of success.
This is an excerpt from the key-note address: ‘Future of the EURO-MED and OSCE’ to be presented at the Crans Montana Forum, in March 2013 in Paris, France