Rich energy reserves and a strategic location make the Middle East a vitally important region. But the region continues to grapple with manifold challenges - among them, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and sectarian conflicts.
Will the Middle East be able to overcome these challenges and integrate into the global order? Financial globalisation and demand for hydrocarbons are key reasons for the rest of the world to engage the region. But the Middle East remains “troubled”, as non-state actors become more prominent in the region and moderates gradually retreat.
There's no denying that the Arab world is desperately seeking change. This is evident from the plea voiced at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in May this year: “We want to see a Middle East that is of strategic importance, not for its conflicts ...”
The message was loud and clear. The young in the region recognise that the world is changing. To keep pace, it is essential for the region to accelerate social, economic and political reform. Otherwise, a stable Middle East will remain an elusive dream.
Can the region reform? External interventions and divergent interests between the countries of the region make reform difficult. A key variable is the presence of the United States in the region. Should Washington continue to remain involved? Whatever the next US president decides, the reality is that the US will continue to be a major force in the region.
Despite its advance into Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction turning out to be a futile exercise - and its mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq since - US leadership remains unchallenged. No other country can provide a viable alternative - including Russia and China, the two other leading players in the region.
The US leads the most powerful grouping in the Middle East. It has Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as its security clients. Israel, the regional superpower, is America's “continental sword”. Turkey is a NATO ally. Iraq is under US occupation. Haifa, Bahrain, Qatar and several others harbour American bases. Only Syria and Iran are outside the US dragnet.
Syria is isolated as of now but considers itself the “gatekeeper” between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. It is keen on returning to the Western fold. In the meantime, Iran has decided to go ahead with its nuclear enrichment program despite international pressure. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany have been compelled to seek fresh sanctions against Iran.
Washington had aspired to forge a “new” Middle East after September 11. However, its policies and actions in the region have been a “watershed event in the global democratic revolution” for entirely the wrong reasons. Despite the Bush administration's assertion that its intervention in Iraq will be the main driver in transforming the region, the region has not experienced a meaningful democratic transformation. On the contrary, destabilising forces in Iran, Israel, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon continue to endanger the region's security and economic progress.
What lies in store for Iran? The world's fourth largest oil producer has had to deal with a tough strategic environment since the US entry into Iraq. A Shi'ite-dominated Iran with nukes is not what the Arab world - or the rest of the world, for that matter - looks forward to.
Early this month, it announced the testing of a new weapon capable of sinking ships nearly 320km away from its shores. It has also threatened to close a strategic waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf if attacked by either the US or Israel. The ramifications of such an action on already high global oil prices would be devastating.
In the meantime, Israel is preparing its strike capabilities for crippling Teheran's nuclear enrichment program. Its conflict with Palestine remains fluid and is far from being resolved. The implementation of the two-state solution is in serious doubt. A 2008 Carnegie report says the solution is “dying”, since neither Palestinians nor Israelis believe that the two-state model is viable. Each is suspicious of the other's commitment to the formula; and the US is showing hardly any enthusiasm for pushing the solution.
Syria, which occupies a strategic location in terms of regional security and prospective energy transit routes, covets a central role in Lebanon notwithstanding the forced withdrawal of its troops from Lebanese soil. Lebanon continues to be a deeply divided state despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops and lacks strong state security institutions.
Following the Iraq debacle and the erosion of regional balance, the Middle East is volatile. With Iran calling the shots and Syria poised to assert itself by claiming to hold the key to peace on Israel's northern border, peace in the region appears unlikely.
The region's resources - human as well as material - will remain largely unexploited if it remains unstable. Though Middle East peace is a global aspiration, the world will have to live with turmoil in this region for the foreseeable future.