East by West Asia

India is probably more dependent on the West Asia/North Africa region than any other part of the world, especially that big chunk of WANA that is around the Persian Gulf. And it is one of the regions which the Indian strategic community struggles to get its head around.

The Arab Spring was greeted with skepticism in India, which, like many other oil importing countries, was much more moved by the desire for stability than by the prospect of the spread of democracy. In any case, there was no shortage of doubts about where the popular revolts would lead. Many in New Delhi believe they have been proven right: the Arabs, once given the right to vote, plunged into civil war or elected Islamicist parties to power.

Having just attended the Observer Research Foundation’s conference on change in West Asia, I would argue for a more nuanced approach. The Arab Spring, like the curate’s egg, is good in parts. The area which gives the greatest hope for a successful transition to Western-style democracy is the Maghrib. This cluster of countries includes Tunisia, which is proving to be the political success that Egypt aspired to be; Algeria and Morocco, which both survived the Arab Spring without much fuss; and Libya, which looks an almighty mess, but a member of its ruling general council who spoke at the conference was more reassuring.

Tripoli was winning the peace by diverting a huge amount of its budget to pay an estimated 270,000 militia members. Now it is contemplating a highly decentralized federal structure. And its population has moved from fighting to simply rent seeking. As he noted, “Libya had fewer murders last year than Chicago.” It’s a roller coaster, but the troughs and crests are easing with each cycle.

The worst place is the Fertile Crescent, the arc of countries from Lebanon to Iraq. The former dictatorships of Syria and Iraq, much praised by Indian commentators for their secular credentials, were derided by a Palestinian scholar as examples of false stability. In each regime, a religious minority used repression to keep everyone else under their thumb. It couldn’t last, and it hasn’t.

Of course, what has since occurred is the rise of a virtual jihadi land and a two-nation civil war of unparalleled brutality. I was surprised by the equanimity of many of the Arabs I talked to about what was happening in Syria. They seemed to see it as inevitable that the path of Levantine democracy would be bloody and tortured. The Arab Spring would go back and forth, but it was a genie that would never go back in the bottle.

Then there is the Persian Gulf. Here it is less about societal change than about bare-faced political jostling. The original Saudi constellation is falling apart, with two Gulf Cooperation Council members in open revolt and Iran on the rise. If the geopolitics unravels, then even the monarchies here would have to watch their turbans.

But if change here were to come, it it would probably be extraordinarily violent, given the Gulf’s potent mix of sectarianism, fundamentalism, and weak institutions. So best let this sleeping dog lie until the rest of the Arab world gets its act together, especially given India’s dependence on energy and remittances from the Gulf.

India is, of course, largely an observer, but it may need to inspect even the marginal West Asian nations to recognize where the right models and ideas will come from — or the opposite. The days of the region’s powers each laying claim to Muslim leadership — Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and so on — seem to be over. The real story is about the attempts of a new set of popular regimes to put their home in order — something their secular tinpot types never bothered to do.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times.

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