Middle Eastern Mess

Early in 2010, I ran a research assignment via internet sources to figure out the most prominent countries featured in news headlines over the past 10 years (2000-2010). Given that the decade was most remembered for Sept 11 and its aftermath, and the steady economic growth of China, it was of no surprise that the results yielded U.S and China in the top 2 spots.

Among the top 5 however, were also Israel/Palestine and of course Iraq and Afghanistan among others (Full results here). At the time, there seemed to be a sense that something big was around the corner for the Middle East and the people in that region hoped for something positive.

Cut to 2013, the Middle East is still in the news with changes expected thanks to the Arab Spring. Yet in spite of expecting things to be better, sectarian violence continues in Iraq and Syria, Administrative issues continues to plague Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and a gloom of uncertainty hangs over Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia among other countries. It begs the question- What went wrong?

The reasons in my opinion are many and solutions unfortunately too few. That said let me try to tackle a few. Gaddafi, Saddam, Ben Ali and Mubarak are no longer in power yet the regimes that took over from these nepotistic leaders seem to be no better. Leaders like Assad and his Bahraini counterpart Khalifa are walking on a tightrope held together by the delicate thread of sectarian peace. Assad and his forces are already in the midst of war and will soon reach the breaking point. I predict Bahrain will be the next in line.

If you analyze the structure of countries in the Middle East, there are two main factors that make up stability – Good (or fair) leadership and Sectarian tolerance.  Take away one or more of these, and you end up with an explosive situation. Good leadership translates to happy citizens and sectarian tolerance translates to enlightened citizens.

Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, Oman, Iran, Israel and Morocco have minimal sectarian divisions and thus good leadership is the only Achilles heel that they should be concentrating on. To some extent Yemen falls in this category too. Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have a new threat in the horizon i.e. the Salafi movement which is steadily taking control and is feeding into the politics of these countries thus fuelling a leadership war. As long as the competition is healthy and with their old leaders gone, at least there is HOPE of a more organized and efficient government.

My assessment is that the worst countries in Middle East currently would be the ones that have both the leadership issue and the sectarian issue namely Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Bahrain. Among these, Bahrain is so far relatively calm but my gut feeling is that the largely Shia dominated population governed by a corrupt Sunni leadership is a catastrophe waiting to take place.

Most unique among the countries in the Middle East is the tiny nation of Lebanon. After years of sectarian conflict, for a very brief period till the Syrian crisis began, they seemed to have found a ‘eureka ‘moment where-in sectarian violence was at an all-time low and the government seemed to be stable and efficient. It’s not a perfect solution, but it was a solution where for the first time in so many years, a troubled Middle Eastern country was in the news for right reasons. Tourism was at an all-time high, trade was booming and the people where ecstatic.  Other Arab countries especially the ones with the dual problem of leadership and sectarianism should take a leaf out of Lebanon’s note book to analyze how they did it. Who knows it could lead through to a breakthrough in peace for the Middle East.

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