East by West Asia

India is probably more dependent on the West Asia and 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 scepticism in New Delhi which like many other oil importing countries was much more moved by the desire for stability than it was at the prospect of the spread of democracy. There was in any case no shortage of doubts about where the popular revolts would go. Many in New Delhi believe that events have proven them right: given the right to vote, the Arabs have 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 survived the Arab spring without much fuss. Libya looks an almighty mess, but a member of its ruling general council who spoke 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 it’s population has moved from fighting to simply rent seeking. As he noted, “Libya had less murders last year than the city of 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.

Though much praised by Indian commentators for their secular credentials, a Palestinian scholar was derisive of the former dictatorships of Syria and Iraq as examples of false stability. Each regime used repression to allow a religious minority 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 then 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 wa tch their turbans.

But if change here if it were to come would probably be extraordinary 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 it’s 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 recognise 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.

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