The Future of the Middle East
How has the Middle East changed over the last decade — and what does the future hold for the region?
- The peoples, histories, religions, political systems and economies of the Middle East differ widely among countries — even within them. It is the world's only bloc spread across two continents.
- In 1995, Sheikh Hamad invited Israel to open a commercial office in Doha and the United States to headquarter Central Command in Qatar.
- In a region rife with vulnerable minorities and shifting demographics, opening up politics endangers deepening the problems it is meant to solve.
- "Change is a future notion. The trick is putting it in the present."
- The so-called "Arab spring" of 2005, which offered greater promise than at any time since most countries gained independence, did not endure.
Seven Pictures at an Exhibition:
I first landed in the Middle East on October 6, 1973, arriving in Beirut during the chaotic outbreak of the fourth modern Middle East war. The Arabs had just launched a surprise attack on Israel.
“Egyptian troops have crossed the Suez Canal,” an American tourist leaned over and whispered to me.
Oil was then only $3.12 per barrel — yes, barrel, not gallon — and the sheikhdoms of the Arabian Peninsula were considered poor developing countries. In Saudi Arabia, schools for girls had only been around for nine years and a single-channel television service for seven.
Both had been introduced over serious objections by conservative clergy. The strict Saudi version of Islam did not tolerate the human image in art or literature, much less on the small screen.
Iran was then one of two pillars of United States policy in the region. Some 40,000 Americans — military trainers and government advisers, businessmen, Peace Corps volunteers and tourists — passed through each year. It was spy heaven for the Central Intelligence Agency, which trained and worked closely with its Iranian counterpart.
In Tehran in 1973, I stayed at the high-rise Hilton, which had just hosted a pageant of exotic and scantily clad beauties competing for the Miss Iran title.
Lebanon was the region’s playground, a cosmopolitan tourist haven of Mediterranean beaches and scenic ski slopes with decadent nighttime pleasures, casinos and nightclubs. And Washington still had diplomatic relations with Baghdad, which was ruled by the Baath Party of an up-and-coming politician named Saddam Hussein.
On a 1981 trip to Libya, I covered Yasser Arafat’s quest for financial aid. In a bizarre scene, Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi escorted a fatigues-clad Arafat through the opening of a new People’s Store in Tripoli, showing off French fashions, German toys, Italian appliances and Japanese electronics.
At a rooftop ceremony afterwards, the two men prayed, shared dates and goat’s milk, then exchanged gifts. Arafat gave Qaddafi an exquisite antique camel saddle. Qaddafi presented the Palestinian leader — who was still in exile — with a set of Samsonite luggage.
“That’s all he’s likely to get from Qaddafi,” complained one of Arafat’s aides as we watched from the sidelines. “Qaddafi has promised us millions but never delivered a single cent.”
More than two decades later, several Arab governments that had pledged billions to help rebuild Iraq had failed to pay up several years after making their commitments — even though Iraq’s instability was affecting them all.
“Is it something real? Is this finally an Arab spring?” asked my old friend Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the leading human rights activist in Cairo, who was jailed three times and left crippled by prison abuse. “Our desert region is famous for its mirages. But these are real visions of change.”
“The despots in the Arab world are on their last gasp,” he reflected. “Just like any last-ditch battles, they will do a lot of stupid things and leave a lot of destruction. But these will be the last battles. People have already broken the fear barrier. They are as ready for change and democracy as Eastern Europe was in the 1980s and as Latin America was in the 1970s. History is moving. The moment is ours.”
That’s the good news.
The so-called “Arab spring” of 2005, which offered greater promise than at any time since most countries gained independence, did not endure. It did not set off the toppling dominoes of regional change, as the fall of the Berlin Wall did in Eastern Europe. For much of the Middle East, the challenge of change is today tougher than anywhere else in the world.
Democracy is about differences — and they are bound to flourish once disparate sides of society are really free for the first time to speak and make their own specific demands. Unity in opposition to tyranny almost never translates into unity once in power.
In a region rife with vulnerable minorities and shifting demographics, opening up politics endangers deepening the problems it is meant to solve.
As Iraq has illustrated too vividly, democracy unleashes existential dilemmas.
The period of change will often witness an uneven contest pitting inexperienced democratic activists with limited resources against both well-heeled autocrats who have no intention of ceding control and Islamists who believe they have a mission from God and a flock of the faithful to tap into.
It will be an unfair battle from the start. Nothing will happen quickly, either. Even regimes that acknowledge the need to open up politically talk about gradual steps, in phases, over years or decades or generations.
“Change is a future notion,” reflected Marwan Muasher, the former Jordanian foreign minister. “The trick is putting it in the present.”
In 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani of Qatar — the little emirate jutting off Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf — became the first of a younger generation of Gulf princes to assume power. He did it by overthrowing his father, the region’s most autocratic leader in what was then the Middle East’s most closed society.
To the consternation of neighboring sheikhdoms, Sheikh Hamad then invited Israel to open a commercial office in Doha, the United States to headquarter Central Command in Qatar — and American and European universities, including Cornell and Georgetown, to open up Qatari branches. He also launched al Jazeera, the first all-news Arab satellite channel. All were bold, controversial moves. Yet Qatar’s emir is still pacing the spread of political participation.
“We have no intention of waving some magic wand and changing our entire culture and society overnight,” Sheikh Hamad told me. To hurry change would only invite the social instability we seek to avoid, so we have chosen a middle course for change. Compared to radical changes in other nations since the end of the Cold War, our changes might appear small, but they are well-planned.
“We must be careful to change at a pace that meets the needs and desires of our people, as well as our traditional culture steeped in thousands of years of Arab and Islamic history.”
The Middle East is not really one place, so change will have many faces.
The region today is arguably more stereotyped than any other part of the world. But the peoples, histories, religions, political systems and economies actually differ widely among countries — even within them. It is the world’s only bloc spread across two continents.
The Middle East includes the tribal societies of the Arabian Peninsula, from where Islam and the Arabs originated. It includes the cosmopolitan cities of new Beirut and old Damascus. It includes Palestinians who have lived more than a half century in squalid refugee camps as well as Gulf princes who own multiple palaces because of oil found under the desert sands.
It includes the desert-dwelling Berbers and Bedouin nomads who roam with their camel-hair tents across the Sahara, the Sinai and the vast expanses of Arabia. And it includes Kurds, who are the world’s largest minority without a state. Although they are not Arabs, they have significant numbers in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt is from Robin Wright’s book, “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East” (Penguin Press HC, 2008). Reprinted with the permission of the author.