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The Borderless World Of Islamic Instability

Politics / Middle East Aug 19, 2013 - 01:56 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


“The End of History and the Last Man”, the 1992 bestseller of Francis Fukuyama hailed the triumph of globalization and the arrival of a One World State of borderless prosperity – which didn't arrive. History continued, then accelerated.

Fukuyama's book spawned a crop of lookalike works trying to catch the market opportunity, in which authors pondered a spiraling pot pourri of themes like wither and whence Western civilization was going, the future of democracy, the end of the business cycle, world music and The Death of the Nation State. Rather like global warming, this elite theme or meme burnt itself out through over-hype and by boring the public to death with endless and pompous repetition. Well before 2000, and certainly by Sept 2001 the robust survival of History was assured.

In the Arab and Muslim world, however, history was dead – or gave a good imitation of it – until 2011 when it reawoke with a vengeance. The monster had awoken from its slumbers. To be sure, the business spinoff themes from Fukuyama's story – like whether the Dow Jones Industrial Average would reach 12 000 and then why not 24 000? - continued as if all was well, with sparkling essays frothily speculating that if Microsoft merged with Google (or perhaps Apple) this would change the world as we knew it and even supercede the need for governments in any country, anywhere.

At least as dated in fact, works on the linked theme of “global hegemony” are now veritable historical curiosities. For a few years, Western intellectuals or “pundits” were in a state of ferment about the rise of a global American empire in which the United States, exploiting its unequaled military power, would make the world safe for Microsoft, Google and perhaps Apple, that is safe for “American ideals”. In the Middle East, a cornerstone of this now long-departed Pax Americana we had the Israel-Egypt pair, not exactly an equal pair with Israel having about a third of the population of New York City, and Egypt an awful lot more. They however created, thanks to massive and constant military spending and endless punditry, an interesting mirage of no-change, called “stability”. A little further east, trusty Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States kept on pumping oil. All was well or so it seemed.

The collapse of communism, worldwide economic liberalization and the advancement of information technology and IT-based communication have all affected global politics and social systems. But that was about the long and the short of it. All kinds of “epochal” business mega-mergers were made and then “unwound”. The business cycle kept on popping up then popping down, with frenetic gusto in 2008 and since. The nation state stubbornly kept on existing, in fact reinforced by post-1990s terrorism and the rampant economic instability caused by ideology-driven market liberalization with no thought to regulating human greed or malevolence. Reality bytes are the bite of reality, the world is complex.

Change was itself “too much” for a generation of deciders who had acted as if History was dead or didn't matter throughout the 1945-1990 period. The cozy duopoly of the Cold War, the United States versus the Soviet Union, was broken up and replaced by the image-only of a US monopoly — the virtual American empire. Outside of and underneath this intellectual mirage all the elements and drivers that had turned globalization into a reality ran riot. At one and the same time the nation-state was stronger, and didn't exist anymore. Its economy had been totally internationalized, while the domestic political and social demands on the nation-state expanded ever larger as Western sovereign debt exploded out of control.

For the Arab states, coming late to the change party, this had – and has – very somber sequels.

What we know today is that US military supremacy cannot transform America into a real world empire which for the Arab states would imply some form or type of a new “high tech” Ottoman Empire. The US is already overstretched – post Iraq in Afghanistan, and through running its not-too-successful drone war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other not-exactly world class countries. At least as important, what possible economic interest – other than oil and gas – exists for the US or any other potential, possible or imaginary Great Power in the Middle East?

This is the reality and a highly uncomfortable one for all Arabs, whether potentates or the “Arab street”. Other than oil and gas, their region is a backwater, a hard market to operate in that is hostile to foreigners with vast income inequalities, and beset by a killer mix of too much regulation and rampant corruption.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1917 only the very brave or very foolish would try to put Humpty back together again. Plenty of historical evidence and theory can be marshaled to suggest that when Britain tried, it ruined itself faster and accelerated its already rapid Loss of Empire through meddling and dithering in the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s. That was the experience of Britain during the 20th century as it tried unsuccessfully to secure the foundations of its post-1918 empire. In the Middle East always driven by oil and naval strategic transport interests, it put the Hashemites in power in Jordan and Iraq, set up the Saudis after epic horsetrading with the US, opposed and supported the French setting up their Alawite regime which gave Syria the el-Assads, maintained its influence in Egypt by repression and then lost it with Faroukh and the 1956 Suez debacle, and incompetently tried to end the cycle of violence between Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land.

We know how the movie ended for Pax Britannica, formally in 1971. The real costs of the British Empire in the Middle East, like elsewhere, were vastly higher than the hoped-for benefits. Everything played towards that “surprising” end result, including constant rivalry and conflict with its Allies of 1914-18, the French and Americans. One key factor of change was that from 1917 to 1971 rather a lot also happened at home – for example democracy and votes for women, underscoring the huge gap between the imperial goal of ordered stability, and the idealist pro-democracy sentiment. Just like “classic warfare', we can say that the classic imperial power concept no longer holds. Monopolizing power in the Middle East, and anywhere else in the world, is no longer possible.

Unfortunately, we can bet that a large range of political and military deciders reject that argument.

Latecomers to the imperial party may be dazzled by the trappings of this antique gala event. Creating an Internet-enabled new Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and North Africa could seem enticing – and possibly even feasible – to a very small number of powerbrokers.  Americans would be thinking in terms of an oligopoly covering the Middle East and its Islamic Crescent of Instability — which in its jumbo version stretches from the Balkans to the borders of China — and the new imperial club would include the European Union, Russia, China, India and several mid-sized powers like Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia, but curiously not Turkey or Saudi Arabia!

Such a diplomatic-military cooperative system has in fact been mooted, by NATO planners among others, since the 1990s but faces so many real-world challenges they can hardly be listed. Among these, we only have to mention complexity and its adjoint “multipolarity”. This is certainly Internet-enabled and can produce what we have today in the ever-widening Islamic arc of instability.

For a variety of reasons among which we can include, if not feature globalization the post-2000 world is certainly more unstable. Containing terrorism and dealing with instability in the Middle East and its periphery – which as already noted has a jumbo version – would in theory need full and permanent cooperation by China and India – as well as Turkey and other regional-focus countries.

Nothing like this cooperation exists. Rivalry yes, cooperation no.

One flagrant example thrown up by the Egypt crisis is Turkey. With Qatar, it is ranged on the pro-Morsi side of the power equation. Turkey's Erdogan from July 18 refused to meet “nice guy” Mohamed ElBaradei, the interim vice president installed by the coup leaders, saying he was 'not elected' but 'appointed by the orchestrators of a coup'. Erdogan has fulminated against what he calls Western hypocrisy and duplicity in Egypt and calls the killings of Morsi supporters and imprisonment of Morsi  criminal acts. Like Qatar's Egyptian channel of Al Jazeera, Turkey has repeatedly called for Egypt’s military leaders to be put on trial for operating a series of “massacres”.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, most recently on August 16 has said his kingdom “supports Egypt in its fight against terrorism”, and that resistance to the military coup which overthrew an elected president – even if unpopular – was the work of “haters”. His statement notably said: “This attempt to unsettle Egypt’s unity and stability - carried out by the ignorant, the inadvertent, or the mindful of the enemy's design - will, God willing, be fruitless”. With other Gulf States, excluding Qatar, Saudi Arabia has to date given $12 billion to the perpetrators of the coup.

To this backdrop, what “ensemble of great powers” could restore or impose “stability” in the Middle East today? The supposed  “realpolitik tradition” of forcing a complex world into a mold of stability, or a straitjacket of No Change, is more fantasist than ever. Whatever the Indiana Jones imperial fantasies that are being nurtured and cobbled in the think thanks of the self-declared free world, reality on the ground is stubbornly difficult, multipolar and changing fast.

As already noted, the Middle East and Arab World were subjected to decades of “freeze frame” before the film started again, with a jump. Oil and gas certainly had a lot to do with that, but as proven by Libya, Tunisia and Yemen already, and Egypt very soon, there is no way Humpty can be put back together again. Like any other state-owned or -controlled enterprise, the oil and gas sector is a natural focus for strikes, protection rackets, theft and ransom attempts and a natural focus for post-revolutionary power bargaining between rival groups and factions.

When the West and Asians understand this, their responses will likely at first be chaotic and uncoordinated, totally unlike the Think Tank fantasy of an “ensemble of great powers” working calmly or “seamlessly” towards restoring stability, favouring democracy and making the region safe for Google and Microsoft. Rather certainly in the think tank world, the intellectual fad of the moment called Free Market Empire or perhaps the McDonald World of french fries and ersatz prosperity has adepts and partisans, but absolutely no traction on the emerging  and breaking Middle East crisis.

We can quite easily, with an increasing number of authors and analysts ask if the total triumph of globalism carried the seeds of its own decline. It was possibly a “best by” short lived revolution in ways of doing business and operating the economy that is now fading. For national and regional political and social change, also, globalism fades when the nation is wracked by change. Egypt is an excellent example of this — with foreign correspondents and film crews already harassed or attacked by both sides in the national conflict for alleged reporting bias. Both sides say “foreigners cannot understand our struggle”. In Syria as we know, the iron curtain rang down long ago.

This merely underlines that those who once celebrated globalism and the advent of ersatz prosperity are continually overtaken by events, and their one-liners are rejected by the actors of change on the ground. To be sure this means instability. Its potential is high for brushfire spreading across firstly the restricted-definition Middle East and North African Muslim world, and then later the jumbo version. Due to this being post-global with all its meanings, we cannot be surprised about either the speed or multipolarity of change, real change this time.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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