Almost four years into the so-called Arab Spring one could be forgiven for thinking that it hasn’t been worth it, judging by the death and destruction that has taken place. Moreover, one can argue quite convincingly that democracy is an alien concept to the region and thus provide a solid foundation for the many authoritarian regimes and absolute monarchies to continue their rule unhindered for decades to come.
Such a gloomy indictment falls into the error of assuming that a mass movement of millions of people, stretching across many countries in one of the most strategically-important parts of the world, should follow a preconceived trajectory. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, even if the final outcome of the revolution is unpredictable, is the degree of opposition that any popular uprising in the region will face.
The Arab Spring was the first real test for political reform in the Middle East and exposed the strengths and weakness of regimes which only recently appeared as immovable tyrants and monarchies whose ambitions didn’t appear to go beyond dazzling displays of wealth and power. At the very least, this aimless historical drift was interrupted by the revolution. Many of the regimes have now shown their political hand as well as the reach of their political influence; as a result, they have also revealed their vulnerability.
On reflection the uprising was not untypical. The socio-economic conditions across the region provided ideal conditions for new social groupings to emerge and demand change. The Arab Spring was a radical repudiation of the status quo in which 355 million people in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region endure one form of political tyranny or another. Add to this the fact that many of the countries affected were also suffering from chronic economic problems, and the revolution should not have been a surprise.
Equally, given the strategic importance of the MENA region, its geographic location as well as its abundant natural resources (making the Middle East linked closely to the stability of the whole world) it was inevitable that an outcome opposed to the interest of the entrenched oligarchy in control of states, oil, money and armed forces was going to be contested bitterly.
Very early into the Arab Spring, the major political alignments became clear. Turkey and Qatar gave the strongest backing to the uprising; Saudi Arabia and the UAE were bitterly opposed. The position taken by the US and UK appeared, at first, to be pragmatic. They supported military action against anti-government forces, funded pro-democracy activists and at times remained on the fence until the very last moment.
Two things were obvious about the new political dynamics. One was the slow deterioration of American influence and the other was the emergence of Gulf countries as powerful independent agents. Together they amounted to a weakening of the restraints on the power and influence of undemocratic regimes which are not only blessed with vast wealth but are also lacking any form of internal scrutiny and accountability.
America’s seemingly contradictory positions exposed President Barack Obama to criticism from both sides. Saudi Arabia threw a diplomatic temper tantrum, threatening a major shift in its relationship as a result of Obama’s failure to support its long-term ally, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Others accused the US of bankrolling anti-democracy (and pro-Mohamed Morsi) activists.
It would be safe to assume that the US was actually guilty of neither; its major strategic interest is to maintain a stable Egypt, one that does not endanger Israel’s security. Changes in personalities at the helm matter little to the Americans as long as the balance of power inside Egypt does not move away from the military.
The primary aim of US aid to Egypt is to uphold its peace treaty with Israel. This explains why, even though Washington initially cut a small proportion of its aid following the coup, it was hair-splitting for its spokespersons not to describe the ouster of Morsi as such; if they’d done so, it would have forced the US to block its annual payment of $1.3 billion out of $1.5 billion aid money that goes directly to the Egyptian military.
The other element to the new political landscape is the muscular foreign policy of countries in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC). On the whole, they have been successful in extinguishing any spark of internal dissent while demonstrating an uncompromising determination to undermine the uprising before it reached their borders as an immovable force.
The GCC members have long been viewed as rich in oil but weak in ability and dependent upon foreign forces to protect them, while fearing revolution. Although once described as reactionary states, it was a description they disliked intensely.
This image was shattered dramatically as the GCC states came to play a leading role in a counter-revolution, supporting pro-regime forces in some countries and anti-regime forces in others. Not since Saddam Hussain have Arab countries incited and intervened violently in the domestic affairs of other states; the sovereignty of their neighbours once represented a moral and material barrier that could not be breached.
In the post-Arab Spring climate these rules have been shattered by a disconcerting display of assertive unilateralism. GCC countries have been involved militarily and economically in overthrowing regimes and influencing protest movements across the MENA region. The current extreme instability and volatility of the Middle East is, to a large extent, a result of their unbridled display of hard and soft power.
Their single-mindedness in blocking the wind of change as opposed to sailing with it has proven to be an effective measure in asserting their power and influence. Political opportunism eased cooperation with regional and global institutions when it suited them, and allowed them to act alone when it didn’t. Alliances with the US, UK, Turkey and NATO have been useful against Syria, Iraq and ISIS, while in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen their new found assertiveness has been shown to be an invaluable projection of strength.
It is also increasingly clear that the intra-cold war within the GCC, within which Qatar has followed its own foreign policy route, pushing it into a diplomatic row with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, is an added component to the political unrest. Vast sums of money have been poured into supporting rival groups and propping up failing regimes, which otherwise would not have had sufficient resources with which to undo the people’s revolution.
Another example of the strong vested interests that have conspired to misdirect the Arab Spring is its transformation into a number of proxy wars. It is one of the prime reasons why it has not bloomed into an Arab Summer of nascent democracies across the Middle East. The popular uprisings have metamorphosed or been co-opted from domestic rebellions into well-funded proxy conflicts. Unfortunately, the melting pot of different interests has given a whole new meaning to the saying “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”; warring parties now include groups of all religious and national backgrounds with no consistent dividing line and serving multiple political ends.
The emergence of the GCC as a political force has taken many by surprise. Small but extremely wealthy countries have shown themselves to be more than capable of punching above their weight in shaping their vision of the region. Mass movements which threaten to undermine the existing legitimacy of Arab rulers or at least force political reform onto the various national agendas, are now public enemy number one. This was highlighted by the UAEs blacklisting of the Muslim Brotherhood and designating 84 other groups as “terrorist organisations”, something that the US has refused to accept; the Emirates is, apparently, undeterred by Washington’s stance.
The Arab states’ fear and loathing of political Islam has become so strong that it outweighs their nominal opposition to Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was unprecedented to see Arab governments acquiescing in the death and destruction visited on the Gaza Strip by Israel during the summer purely because the stated target was Hamas .The silence from Arab capitals was deafening.
Looking back in order to look forward, the Arab Spring has highlighted dramatically the challenges facing anyone who seeks transformative political change in the Middle East. It might seem obvious to say that everyone, including predatory dictators, should have an interest in increasing the prosperity, stability and economic viability of their country. In the MENA region, though, small but powerful agents of the status quo have shown that they are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths in order to undermine calls for more equity in the sharing of power and wealth. This is where, in showing the full extent of their strength and ambition, they may have also exposed their weakness.
This article was originally published in Middle East Monitor.