Diplomats scramble to leave Yemen as the country plunges into civil war and failed State status. The battle in Libya is settling into stalemate. In Syria President Basher al-Assad remains defiant as the atrocities carried out in his name mount up. Elsewhere sporadic unrest continues: in Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco. Egypt has yet to settle to a steady course and the prospects of further deterioration in the Palestine-Israel crisis are increasing daily.
While Western leaders have outwardly welcomed the people power movements that have toppled authoritarian government in Tunisia and Egypt, behind the scenes there is much more caution. Canberra-based Arabist Philip Eliason says that the well-established relations with many of the long-lasting regimes in the area are now in a state of flux.
“Governments, including Australia’s, are running on new and changing address books, introducing themselves to new activists, new Ministers,” he says. “For instance, there have been two Foreign Ministers in Egypt since the revolution. Kevin Rudd went there, met one, then the man lost his job and Rudd had to go back and meet the new one – all on a three-week overseas trip.”
The previous Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak, anxious to keep in well with the United States, ensured the Rafah border crossing into Palestine stayed tightly closed, but an administration more in tune with popular opinion has allowed it to reopen, admittedly with some restrictions. At the same time rapprochement between the moderate Fatah and the radical Hamas movements presents the likelihood of a united and activist Palestinian front that will provide further headaches for Israel and the United States.
The West’s response to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ruthless attempts to suppress opposition to his regime appears to be bogging down with neither side now able to deliver the knockout blow. The probable outcome here will be regime change but with every day the conflict is extended, the chances of the winner extracting bloody revenge for its losses increases.
And then there is Syria, which is presenting a difficult conundrum for the West. At what point do President Assad’s savagery against his own people equal that of Gaddafi’s and when it does (many say it already has) where is its moral standing if the West does not intervene in the same way it has in Libya?
At the same time Western countries, and especially the United States, are losing friends elsewhere in the Arab world, largely because of the consequences of 9/11. Eliason said he had spoken to prominent businessmen in Qatar, many with strong connections to the ruling family, who have vowed never to visit the U.S. again. “They have experienced the indignity of pat-downs and body searchers at US airports which they perceive as happening only because of their ethnic background,” he said.
What he calls ‘Arab Indiginality’ is a growing factor that could see formerly Western-orientated states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates turning eastwards to the rapidly expanding markets of India and China. “So the West will have to invest money in understanding who the new players are, broadening the base of their dealings, which means upping diplomatic resources, improving their skill levels in understanding what is going on and perhaps taking a more careful measure of local interests,” he said. “That means Washington, London, Canberra…all needing to be a bit more flexible.”
A flexibility that may leave Israel even more isolated in the region, despite President Barak Obama’s protestations that the US relationship with the Jewish State is “ironclad”. “The new Arab dynamics and domestic environments are going to drive greater demands on America and others to do something about Israel,” he said.
However, it is in Yemen that he sees real and immediate dangers for the West, with the prospect of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is already firmly established there, tightening its hold as traditional authority melts away and the country descends into chaos. “All the pointers are there,” he said. “Business has more or less ground to a halt, exports have pretty much stopped, production has declined and there is a run on the currency. “The contacts I have been speaking to say that there is an exodus from the capital, Sanaa, with people going back to their home villages, and they are being replaced by armed tribesmen, some for President al Abdullah Saleh and others against.”
His words have proved ominously correct as the presidential compound was shelled and Saleh himself seriously injured, requiring him to flee for treatment in Saudi Arabia. Whether he will return is problematical, but while the Government remains in the hands of his faction, further strife seems inevitable. “Any momentum for democracy has been lost, there has been a retreat into tribalism and it looks like all out war between the various tribes is going to replace any hope of a political settlement,” Eliason said.
All of which could be to Al Qaeda’s advantage, with reports that its fighters have taken control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan Province, and declared an ‘Islamic Emirate’. The possibility of it gaining an established base in one of the most volatile areas of the world commanding the approach to the Red Sea would be unthinkable to strategic planners in Washington and European capitals.
The prospects of a wave of democracy in the Arab world, so bright a few months ago, are quickly fading. There will be no Orange Revolution equivalent in the Middle East. Instead the possibility of increased turmoil presenting alternatives of either the establishment of authoritarian Islamic States on the Iranian model or the total breakdown of authority as seen in Somalia, presents a grim picture for the West.