Turbulence in the Middle East

Restive region

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to empower women and improve his population's welfare. Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters confronting each other in Jerusalem's Old City last Friday.
Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters confronting each other in Jerusalem's Old City last Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to empower women and improve his population's welfare. Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters confronting each other in Jerusalem's Old City last Friday.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to empower women and improve his population's welfare.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

ISIS has lost its grip on the region but expect more bloodshed, and more lethal proxy militias; one ray of hope is the new Saudi crown prince

As the year draws to a close, there is one bit of good news for the Middle East: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group has been flushed out from its holdouts, its murderous grip over the region now over.

But just as ISIS' sudden rise took the region by surprise in 2014, this year saw several shocks of a different nature: several countries led by Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman staged a bold anti-graft purge; and US President Donald Trump declared his country's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The region's problems are not new: bad governance, poor education, huge disparities of wealth, a sense of injustice about Israel and the tragic fate of the Palestinians, plus a population bulge which creates surplus labour, largely unemployable. What is new is that nobody in the Middle East or outside it has either the resources or the inclination to deal with these, or even contain the region's troubles.

The Israeli-Palestinian conundrum was never and is not a core problem, notwithstanding the latest expressions of Islamic solidarity after Mr Trump's controversial decision on Jerusalem. But the Palestinian issue provided the glue around which Arab governments could coalesce, now largely dissipated as they are engaged in their own fight for survival. That in turn is due to technological changes such as cross-border TV, the Internet and social platforms which allow ordinary Arabs not only to know how badly they are doing in comparison with others but also to mobilise and express their grievances, coupled with the decline in the importance of the Middle East for the rest of the world.

The shale revolution has provided many more sources of oil and gas, and electric cars will squeeze the consumption of fossil fuels even further. Although the Middle East remains an important supplier of energy products, it is no longer a crucial one. That means the appetite of outside powers to intervene in order to uphold a measure of stability has dissipated.

It is now fashionable to blame Mr Trump for his cack-handed approach to the region. But it should not be forgotten that it was his predecessor Barack Obama who decided that stopping the Syrian government from gassing its own people or preventing Sunni-Shi'ite bloodshed in Iraq or Yemen was not something which engaged US power. As Mr Obama's former CIA director and defence secretary Leon Panetta ruefully admitted once, the former president's record in the Middle East was one which "avoids battle, complains and misses opportunities".

And the US' place is filled by other players, all of whom guarantee more, rather than less, mayhem. Take Russia, whose spectacular return to the Middle East over the last few years has been one of the biggest strategic surprises. The Russians have very specific objectives, connected largely to their desire to play again the role of a global power and to defend the Syrian regime, but they have no interest in promoting regionwide stability, regardless of the pious speeches from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The same applies to Turkey, another key and rising player. The Turks have a direct stake in Iraq, in what the future of Syria may be, and in the fate of ethnic Kurds throughout the region, since these feed directly into Turkey's own domestic security landscape. Yet notwithstanding Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attempts to portray himself as the new leader of the Islamic world, the reality is he is unable to pacify the Middle East.

And then, there is Iran. The Iranians have created and armed proxy militias for decades; their support for Hizbollah goes back to the early 1980s. Over the past few years Iran has dropped the pretence that it does not interfere in the affairs of other nations: its Shi'ite militias in Iraq are now the backbone of the regime; Hizbollah is openly fighting for the survival of the Syrian government in Damascus at Iran's behest; and the Iranians are supplying weapons - including missiles - to rebels in Yemen to pin down Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have no interest in upholding regional stability, unless it is, of course, one run by them, which it cannot be.

The result is that most of the region's current conflicts are not going to be solved, and probably remain insoluble. Syria, Iraq and Lebanon cannot be put together again as functioning countries; they are condemned to a sad existence as "zombie states" for decades to come, in theory independent entities but in practice playgrounds for the proxy confrontations of others. Yemen looks set to join this miserable club, as does Libya. And the showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the self-appointed leaders of Sunni and Shi'ite communities, is guaranteed to intensify, since both see each other as locked into an existential battle.

Consequently, few predictions are more certain for 2018 than the expectation of more bloodshed, bigger and more lethal proxy militias and more resources being poured into the military, rather than social or educational development.

A complete counsel of despair? Not quite, for there are some rays of hope. One of these is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is determined to reform his country's economy, empower women and improve his population's welfare. It is now fashionable among Western commentators to dismiss MBS - as he is known - as an inexperienced young man born with a silver spoon in his mouth and armed with an unrealisable economic plan.

Perhaps, but the reality still is that it's in everyone's interest for his reform plans to flourish. For even if a tenth of them is realised, the Middle East would be a better place. And the thought of a failed Saudi Arabia is truly the stuff of nightmares. Governments everywhere - and that includes China, which sits on the sidelines like all others, hoping to buy cheap Middle Eastern oil while avoiding expensive entanglements - should be engaged in this rare but essential Saudi experiment of reform.

Furthermore, America's decline as a regional power is neither inevitable, nor irreversible, nor pre-ordained. Washington still has 45,000 troops stationed in and around the Middle East, and they still pack a bigger punch than most of the region's national armies. Nobody should doubt America's ability to pour more troops in the region, should it wish to.

The problem is that the current US President has clearly decided that most of what goes on in the Middle East is not Washington's business; Mr Trump cannot even be persuaded to intervene diplomatically in the current spat between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two of America's closest regional allies.

So, the Middle East will remain mired in its own regional wars. And outsiders will keep being surprised.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2017, with the headline 'Restive region'. Print Edition | Subscribe