"The riches, power, and honour of a monarch arise only from the riches, strength, and reputation of his subjects. For no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor or contemptible."
THOMAS HOBBES, "LEVIATHAN"
It's hard to think of a more peaceful place in the Middle East than the calm and orderly port town of Sohar in Oman, where hibiscus bushes bloom year-round and residents relax over water pipes and tea. All of this was true until Sunday, Feb. 27, when 2,000 men staged a protest at a large roundabout. The police shot and killed at least one protester. He and his fellow protesters had demanded higher wages and complained about rampant corruption in the government of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, 70.
Until Thursday, Feb. 24, Qatif, an oasis city in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, was distinguished mainly by palm trees, sand and -- ever since the world's largest oil field was discovered there 60 years ago -- oil. But then a group of Shiites took to the streets to demand the release of three of their fellow Shiites. King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, 86, had never experienced anything quite like it in his realm.
Benghazi in Cyrenaica, the verdant, remote eastern region of Libya, is about a 1,000-kilometer drive along the coastal road from the capital Tripoli. Colonel Moammar Gadhafi ruled the region for 41 years. Until two weeks ago, that is, when men drove through the city, dressed, like in a Carnival parade, as Gadhafi. "Libya is free," they chanted. "God is great."
It seems today that the reign of this Middle Eastern dictator, at least, will end in 2011. Former US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called Gadhafi a "dead man walking," and the Kremlin spoke of a "walking political corpse."
Their predictions may still prove premature, however. If the events of the last few weeks, from Tunis to Cairo, from Bahrain to Benghazi, have proved one thing, it is that political events are entirely unpredictable. No one anticipated that the self-immolation of unemployed fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi in a small Tunisian city would lead to the overthrow of the most powerful ruler in the Middle East in Cairo only a few weeks later.
But what comes next, after the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak? And what will come after Gadhafi's possible downfall? Will Libya turn into a "giant Somalia," as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned? Will major oil producer Saudi Arabia descend into chaos? Where will the new freedoms take the Arab world?
The Middle East has dominated global politics for decades, to a degree disproportionate to its geographic size and population. Reports of war, violence and terror between North Africa and the Persian Gulf have become background noise in the lives of an entire generation.
The region has experienced well over a dozen international wars, numerous civil wars and military coups, and thousands of terrorist attacks and political assassinations since 1945 alone. If these conflicts had unfolded in another corner of the world, the West would probably have done little more than quietly express its regrets.
But the conflicts of the Middle East occur in a region that sits on top of close to 60 percent of the world's oil and more than 40 percent of its natural gas reserves. Israel's security is an important factor in the foreign policy of countries like the United States and Germany, and almost all countries in the international community are united in their concern over a possible war over Iran's nuclear program. When the Middle East burns, the West simply cannot afford to express its regrets and look the other way.
Back to Year Zero
Eight weeks after the beginning of the most recent wave of unrest in North Africa, the calendars have been set back to year zero in this region, which is of such central importance for world peace and the global economy. Europe's neighboring region is on the verge of a new beginning. Until now, the West had reached agreements with most Arab leaders that were designed primarily to ensure stability and to protect the oil market. Are these agreements now invalid?
No one can look into the future. But perhaps a look at the past, at the 100-year record of the modern Middle East, can enable us to draw conclusions as to what this part of the world, and the West, could now face. This examination begins in the first area where today's rebels liberated themselves from Gadhafi's control, namely Cyrenaica.
A hundred years ago, in the fall of 1911, a major in the Ottoman army arrived at the gates of Benghazi. As he wrote to a friend, he had come from Istanbul to recapture the "warm and friendly borderlands of the fatherland."
For more than 400 years, the Ottomans had controlled North Africa, Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia all the way to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea to Aden, and the Nile to the Sudanese border. But the French captured Algeria and Tunisia, and in 1882 Egypt fell to the British. Now the Italians had landed in Libya. Like the British and the French, they too sought to establish colonies in Africa. In those days, what easier target could there have been than a province of the ailing Ottoman Empire, the sick man on the Bosporus?
End of an Empire
Major Mustafa Kemal, with his 150 Turkish officers and 8,000 Arab soldiers, managed to fend off his enemies for months and keep an invading army of 15,000 Italians from penetrating past the Libyan coast. But soon he realized that it was a battle he could not win. The empire's border regions were slowly crumbling away, not just in Africa, but also in the Balkans, along the Danube and in the Caucasus. Tripolitania was a lost cause. It had been "pointless" to even attempt to fight the Italians, he wrote before returning to Istanbul.
Major Kemal sensed that the loss of Istanbul's last African province not only marked the beginning of the end of an empire, but also the end of an era. He sensed that something new was on the horizon, something in which he would play a key role. But he still didn't know what this new thing was.
We know what it was today, namely a century in which the entire Middle East would turn into a battlefield among political, ideological and religious forces, a hothouse of global politics. In those 100 years, countries would be established that didn't work. Arbitrary borders would be drawn, and rulers would be installed who hated their people as much as the people hated them. Wars and civil wars would break out and dictators would be murdered. Only two countries in the region would find their way to democracy, namely Israel, which was founded in 1948, and the country that Major Kemal, who later came to be known as Atatürk, would build: Turkey.
And while other countries and regions entered the modern age in the midst of equally catastrophic circumstances, like Europe, for example, which overcame its animosities in the ensuing decades, South America, which achieved a modicum of stability, and China, which eventually surpassed Western nations in productivity, most countries of the Middle East and North Africa remained frozen in despotism, stagnation and hopelessness. Not even the discovery of oil reserves that would soon prove to be the world's largest could change the status quo. On the contrary, the uneven distribution of oil wealth only made the contradictions more pronounced, and in many cases the blessings of oil proved to be a curse.
Demons of the Middle East
Near the end of the 100 years that began with Major Kemal's trip to Libya, the demons of the Middle East suddenly surfaced around the world. Al-Qaida came onto the global stage, a terrorist organization that came from the heart of the Arab world and yet was capable of operating with unprecedented global reach. On Sept. 11, 2001, it finally became clear that the Middle East had given birth to a monster.
But the terrorism of al-Qaida isn't the last word in the Middle East, nor is 9/11 the end of history. Ten years after the attacks on New York and Washington, an uprising has gripped the Arab world that no one saw coming. It began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan. As if liberated from an icy prison of fear, people are now rising up against their rulers, people the West had perceived as members of either fanatical religious groups or masses lethargically resigned to their fate.
Now these people are taking to the streets, with not a trace of lethargy or religious fanaticism, from Morocco to the seemingly peaceful Sultanate of Oman, from wealthy Saudi Arabia to Iraq, which the United States supposedly liberated eight years ago, to demand what they are entitled to: justice, a share of power, prosperity and freedom.
The Arab world, which seemed to have barricaded itself into the panic room of world history as it successively suffered all the afflictions of modernity, has finally regained its voice.
And the West, instead of celebrating what it has demanded for years, is standing on the sidelines with its mouth agape, fascinated, and yet speechless and fearful.
Can it be blamed? Can the Arabs do more than overthrow governments? Are they also capable of democracy? Doesn't what is now happening in Libya vindicate those who have been issuing warnings since the revolution began?
Hundreds, probably thousands have died in the last two weeks between Benghazi and Tripoli. The possible collapse of the Gadhafi regime illustrates the failings of Arab autocrats and the injuries they have inflicted on their people. Their legacy is one of failure.
Badly Educated and Unproductive
Few other regions that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) examines in its regular Human Development Reports have done so poorly in so many ways as the Arab world. The education system is miserable and the illiteracy rate extremely high in most countries in the Arab League. Almost half of the adult population cannot read or write in Mauritania, Morocco and Yemen, while illiteracy rates are at 28, 30 and 38 percent, respectively, in Egypt, Algeria and Sudan. Until a few years ago, even sub-Saharan Africa had more Internet connections than the Arab world.
Few regions are as unproductive. All the Arab states together, with their combined population of 350 million, produce less in economic terms than Italy's 60 million people. Only 3 percent of the Libyan population works in the oil sector, which, until recently, accounted for more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product. What exactly did the rest of the population do? Official youth unemployment is at 26 percent in a rich oil-producing country like Saudi Arabia, while the unofficial rate in the countries of North Africa's Maghreb region lies at 70 percent. One-third of the people of Mauritania and Yemen, and one-fifth of Egyptians, live on less than $2 a day.
The Arab world isn't poor. But no region of the world has treated its resources -- and half of its labor force, namely women -- as negligently. Only about 5 percent of members of parliaments in the region stretching from Morocco to Bahrain are female. And while more than 16,000 international patent applications were filed in South Korea alone between 1980 and 1999, only 77 were filed in Egypt in the same period.
In no Arab country, with the exception of Lebanon with its proportional democracy, are there significant signs of an emerging civil society. Nowhere is there a democratic tradition which could provide a basis for those who plan to govern in the wake of the revolutions of recent weeks, not to mention those revolutions that could still be to come.
"Fasten your seatbelts," New York Times columnist and former Middle East correspondent Thomas Friedman recently warned. The journey on which the Arab world is currently embarking is "not going to be a joy ride," Friedman wrote, but "a long and rocky road."
The body politic of the Middle East is ailing in many ways and has never functioned under democratic conditions. Is it even capable of doing so? And if so, what can the world, and the West, do to promote the process?
To use a clinical metaphor: The medical file of the Middle East includes four serious infections. Three of them were brought in from the outside, and one is undoubtedly endogenous. The first goes by a name that has become shopworn in the West but remains very much alive in the Arab world today: imperialism.
Shaking Off the Ottoman Yoke
In early 1915, when it was becoming clear that the Ottoman Empire would not survive World War I, politicians in London and Paris hit upon the idea of dividing up what was left of the empire. The British and French plan targeted the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The plan fit in well with the desire of influential tribal leaders and notables to shake off the Ottoman yoke.
In July 1915, the British high commissioner in Egypt began a correspondence with Hussein Bin Ali, the sharif of the holy city of Mecca. On Oct. 24, he agreed that Great Britain was prepared "to recognize the independence of the Arabs in the regions within the borders the sharif has proposed."
In June 1916, the great Arab revolts against the Ottomans were set to begin. The revolts were militarily inspired and immortalized in poetic form by the British archeologist and secret agent T.E. Lawrence, famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, in his book "Seven Pillars of Wisdom."
The revolt, Lawrence wrote in an intelligence memo in January 1916, would be "beneficial to us, because it matches with our immediate aims, the break up of the Islamic bloc and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire, and because the states (Sharif Hussein) would set up to succeed the Turks would be … harmless to ourselves … The Arabs are even less stable than the Turks. If properly handled they would remain in a state of political mosaic, a tissue of small jealous principalities incapable of political cohesion."
At the same time, however, and without informing the Arabs who were being encouraged to revolt, the British were negotiating the future of the Ottoman-Arab provinces on two other fronts. Under a secret agreement that the British diplomat Mark Sykes negotiated with his French counterpart François Georges-Picot, London and Paris divided up the expected spoils in such a way that the regions surrounding Beirut, Damascus and Mosul were to go to France, while the British would control the Arab Gulf coast, Palestine and the provinces of Baghdad and Basra. In another document, which was signed by then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, the British government guaranteed the Zionist Federation "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."
The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, signed in 1916 and 1917 respectively, are the two founding documents of the modern Middle East. They served as the basis for five states -- Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel -- and the eternal non-state of Palestine. The existence of those has remained a source of division and unrest to this day. The Arabs, who would not discover the exact wording of the documents until after World War I, still consider them to be documents of betrayal even today. In the eyes of many Arabs, the borders they created, and the dynasties the British and French installed within these borders, have always lacked legitimacy.
Most of all, however, the West's meddling in the creation of the modern Middle East established a pattern of perception that became an obsession, even more so than in other regions with an imperialistic past: the trauma of the conspiracy.
For many Arabs, the fact that most Arab countries, as T.E. Lawrence predicted, have remained "small, jealous principalities," is not a result of their own incompetence but of the arbitrariness of the British and French. They blame the West for having created artificial states, countries like Lebanon and Iraq that are ethnically and religiously divided and which remain virtually ungovernable to this day, and for the fact that the Hashemite dynasty installed by the British failed in Syria and then Iraq, and only survives today in Jordan.
Lack of Involvement
The upshot of this era, from today's perspective, is that the imperialist birth defects of the Middle East seem to have been overcome. So far, none of the rebels and protesters has thought of blaming the rebellion of 2011 on the West, as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has done, or on al-Qaida, as Gadhafi has done. These revolutions belong to the Arab peoples, and the West does well to respect that fact, irrespective of whether its lack of involvement is voluntary or simply because it wasn't prepared for this historic opportunity. The Arabs have recaptured a piece of the self-confidence they had lost as a result of oppression.
Does this mean that the United States and Europe should do nothing and simply wait to see what opportunity history will dole out next? Hardly. They should, for example, rethink their relationship with Turkey, a country that found its way to democracy by itself and became a model for many populations in the region. It could be useful for Europe to establish stronger ties with this country, despite the difficulties involved.
But most of all, Washington, London, Paris and Berlin have a political option, even an obligation, which is so obvious that apparently almost no one notices it any more.
There has never been a more favorable time to make peace in Palestine. Israel, taken by surprise by the revolution in Egypt and justifiably concerned about its security, has no choice but to recognize the two-state solution if it hopes to remain both a Jewish and a democratic nation.
And what of the Palestinian leadership, just as antiquated and removed from the people as its now-toppled patron Mubarak? What task does it have now, if not to found a country that everyone has known for decades would emerge as the conclusion of a successful peace process?
And whoever takes the reins of power from the regimes in Israel's Arab neighbors that have been or have yet to be toppled, will be grateful, in the best case, for a resolution of the Palestinian question or, in the worst case, will no longer have an opportunity to use the burdensome legacy of the Middle East conflict to shape policy.
For the West, this step is the one score from its imperialist past that hasn't been settled between it and the Arab world: the creation of an Arab country in the region of the former Ottoman Palestine, within the borders of 1967, which the world recognized under UN Resolution 242.
The Age of Tyrants
For the past three weeks, the Arab-language version of the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia has included two entries under the term "Egyptian revolution": the revolution of July 23, 1952 and that of January 25, 2011. The first date still marks the Egyptian national holiday, but it's only a matter of time before January 25 replaces it.
At that point, the July revolution of 1952 will be history -- but it is a piece of history without which the "Day of Rage," when it all began in Egypt five weeks ago, is impossible to understand. With the coup d'état staged by the "Free Officers' Movement" around Gamal Abdel Nasser in July 1952, the police and military state established itself in the Arab world, marking the beginning of those brutal regimes from which the peoples of the region are now liberating themselves. It is the second severe infection to afflict this part of the world in 60 years.
The clique surrounding King Farouk I, an overweight, alcoholic gambler who the Egyptian officers drove into exile in Italy, was as corrupt and incapable as the other monarchs and presidents that had remained in place following the colonial era and the quasi-colonial periods under the British and French mandates -- from Baghdad to Tripoli to Damascus.
Disgusted by the weakness of these regimes vis-a-vis the former colonial powers and an increasingly strong Israel, the charismatic Nasser made an example of Egypt. He built a nationalist, pan-Arab country, which he ruled with an increasingly iron fist. He nationalized businesses, beginning with large companies followed by ever smaller ones, and in doing so drove out the Armenian and Greek minorities that had become entrenched in the business community. Even though it was officially part of the Non-Aligned Movement, Egypt came under the influence of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
Reverance for Nasser
Nasser brutally persecuted political foes and the members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. He had his intelligence agents infiltrate neighboring countries that did not favor his social model, countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, both with strong tribal influences. He supported other countries that fought against his enemies, like Syria and the Yemen Arab Republic, with military operations that were generally catastrophic failures.
But ambitious officers in other Arab countries were impressed by Nasser's example. Many future autocrats and tyrants in the Middle East, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gadhafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen, though not always in agreement with each other, consistently revered the Egyptian leader. The coup by the Free Officers' Movement in Cairo was followed by palace revolts in Baghdad (1958), Sana'a (1962) and Tripoli (1969).
The regimes that came into power in these countries resembled Nasser's. They were pan-Arab, nationalist police states where the opposition was quickly brought into line. The Arab individual was broken in the torture prisons of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya. The consequences of the damage done to Arab human dignity in these places would only emerge decades later. "America's tragedy on September 11 was born in the prisons of Egypt," US author Lawrence Wright wrote in his book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."
Nasser created the prototype of the repressive police state, against which the youth of the Arab world is revolting today. Even the rulers on the Persian Gulf, once his worst enemies, structured their police forces on the basis of his model.
Corrupt Gangster Countries
Nasser's political legacy also has implications for the potential outcome of the Arab revolutions. The West would be wrong to follow the example set by former US President George W. Bush in Iraq and treat the pitiful remnants of these regimes like it did the totalitarian systems in European history, supporting the dissolution of their government and party apparatuses, as Bush did in Iraq in 2003. Figures like Mubarak, former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Gadhafi should not be compared with men like Hitler and Stalin, as Libyan author Hisham Matar said this week, but with criminals like Al Capone.
They are leaving behind corrupt gangster countries and poorly organized societies that require the reeducation of millions. Their political parties lost their ideological core decades ago, if they even had one to begin with. Membership in the various government parties was never more than a vehicle to obtain at least the small benefits these organizations offered in a bleak system. It would be a mistake to punish every former party member.
Especially problematic for the post-revolutionary Middle East is the legacy of the personality cult Nasser implanted into the Arab world: the orientation of the entire system toward individual figures whose likenesses are depicted in a depressing spectacle from Mauritania to Muscat, in the form of thousands upon thousands of billboards, posters and ostentatious statues.
This even applies to countries with bloated bureaucracies, like Egypt and Tunisia, but especially to nations like Libya and Yemen, where there is virtually no governmental or administrative system beyond the leader's circle. These countries probably stand the worst chance of stabilizing in the foreseeable future, because men like Gadhafi and Yemeni President Saleh will not even leave behind the basic framework of a power structure that someone else would be capable of filling. These countries could benefit the most from direct intervention by the West to prevent a Somalia-like governmental collapse, be it humanitarian aid from the international community, assistance with the establishment of a civil society or even military intervention.
Embracing the Military
Only one of Nasser's legacies could prove to be of value in the current upheavals in the Arab world: the militarization of many Arab societies and the tradition of the strong army. As poorly prepared for war as Egypt and Tunisia presumably were, during the revolution the military leadership in both countries behaved prudently and intelligently, not allowing themselves to be misused to suppress the revolt.
This gives hope to some countries that could still face radical change. Like Egypt and Tunisia, Syria, Morocco and Algeria also have compulsory military service, and their generals will think long and hard before ordering their soldiers to shoot at protesters. The situation is different in countries like Libya, whose dictator has apparently also used foreign mercenaries to crush popular resistance, and in Gulf states like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, whose rulers maintain tribal militias or private armies, which are also partly made up of foreigners.
It is not yet clear whether the levelheadedness of the Egyptian and Tunisian military leadership will also survive a severe supply crisis, one that could erupt at any moment. It also remains to be seen whether the generals in Cairo follow the Turkish example by returning to their barracks and transferring power to a civilian leadership.
The United States will presumably tolerate the armies of the Middle East, but Europe too may be forced to accept the idea that a military order is sometimes better than no order at all -- and that even Nasser's totalitarian state may have left behind a tool that could help Egypt survive a difficult transition period.
Goodbye Communists, Hello Militant Islamists
The West was on significantly better terms with Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat. This was partly a result of his polished manners, but also of the visionary strength with which, in the early 1970s, he embarked on a path to signing a peace treaty with Israel that left the Arabs their dignity. Most of all, however, it was a result of the Cold War.
Sadat threw out the Soviet military advisors Nasser had brought in. He reconciled Egypt with the Western nations from which Nasser had distanced himself. Finally, he released the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from prison, at least the ones Nasser had not had executed yet.
It was a broad trend in the 1970s and early 1980s, expressly supported by the West, to strengthen Islamist forces in the region to weaken communist parties or countries and organizations, like the PLO, that were aligned with Moscow. In retrospect, it is clear that the consequences of this strategy were catastrophic. It triggered the third and sickness to afflict the Middle East and, ultimately, the West: militant Islamism.
Be it Sadat in Egypt, former President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan, former Prime Minister Turgut Özal in Turkey or Saudi Arabia's Wahhabite establishment, or even Israel in the Palestinian territories and the United States in Afghanistan -- in the Cold War everyone pursued the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Everyone was welcome, as long as he was against the communists.
The intended consequences of this policy included the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and the demise of the Soviet empire. Its unintended consequences, however, include the terrorist attacks on and after Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the broad Islamization of Arab societies, which has prompted many to greet the revolutions of 2011 with so much trepidation.
Is this fear justified? Will Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the countries that could follow in their footsteps take the same path Iran took in 1979?
The events of recent weeks have shown, at least initially, that not one of the countries affected to date has seen even the slightest evidence of a figure emerging who could be compared with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the man who expedited, and ultimately hijacked, the Iranian revolution of 1978 and 1979.
On the contrary. Even in Egypt, the cradle of political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood only joined the uprising after prolonged hesitation. So far, none of its representatives has called for a ban on alcohol, a requirement that women wear veils or an uprising in the entire Islamic world.
In Bahrain where, as was the case in Iran in 1979, it is primarily Shiites who are demonstrating against the regime, their leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has made it clear that he does not believe in Khomeini's principle of "Velayat-e faqih," or "rule of the Islamic jurists." Instead, he insists that he and his fellow Shiites, who feel discriminated against by the Sunni regime, only want reforms and a share of power. Nevertheless, last Tuesday the stream of protesters in Manama became divided for the first time. Men and women marched separately.
A Distorted Focus on the Islamist Threat
Most notably absent from the revolutions of 2011 has been the voice of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Not a word has been heard from the prince of darkness, a man who has shown little reluctance to speak up in recent years. Although bin Laden's deputy, Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri, has commented on the Arab uprisings, his harangue was drowned out by the cheers of the rebels. It appears that al-Qaida was as caught off-guard by the Arab popular uprisings as the Arab autocrats themselves.
This doesn't mean that international Jihadism, not to mention political Islam as a whole, is finished. Extremely poor and structurally weak countries are in grave danger, especially those like Yemen, where radical Islamist movements are deeply rooted. In Yemen this week, the prominent cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, the "Red Sheikh" and a mentor of Osama bin Laden, joined the uprising and demanded the creation of an "Islamic state." Even countries like Tunisia and Egypt are not immune to an Islamist landslide.
But equally absurd and reckless is the opposite claim, namely that the revolutions of 2011 are bound to end in a clean sweep for the Islamists. The West's fixation on the Islamist threat since the 9/11 attacks distorts its view of the fourth and probably most acute sickness that has afflicted the Middle East, the conditions that triggered the current wave of uprisings in the first place: poverty and social injustice, and the inability of Middle Eastern regimes to find a response to the economic consequences of globalization.
A Marshall Plan for the Arab World?
"Nasserism is dead, Baathism has failed and militant Islam is approaching its bloody end. Long live Arab capitalism!" Egyptian author Youssef Ibrahim proclaimed six years ago. He was sitting in his apartment in Dubai, gazing out at the construction sites in a city that, like no other, symbolized the entrepreneurial spirit that had taken hold in the Arab world at the time.
The boom, triggered in part by rising oil prices following the Iraq war, had attracted hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Moroccans, Palestinians and Lebanese to the Gulf. Many were young men like IT specialist Wael Ghonim who, as a Google employee, was to play a key role in the Egyptian revolution.
When they returned home, they brought two things with them: their hard-earned income as engineers, bookkeepers and hotel administrators, and a new worldview devoid of the narrow-mindedness and limitations of their native countries. "For years, all that guest workers brought home from Saudi Arabia were religious robes and fanatical ideologies," said Youssef Ibrahim. "But from Dubai they bring home blue jeans for their wives, tank tops, mobile phones and the knowledge of how to make money."
It took the sluggish regimes in the Western part of the Arab world a while to adjust to the changes. But then it all happened it very quickly. Especially the ruling elites who, as in Egypt and Tunisia, had divided up their countries' key industries amongst themselves, wanted to cash in on the economic upturn. Within a few years, the stock markets in cities like Cairo, Amman and Tunis were booming. Lots of money was being made in the upper echelons of society, but none of it trickled down to the lower classes. Neoliberalism had reached the Middle East. It was Reaganomics under palm trees.
A Nice View
Men like steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a close friend of Mubarak's son Gamal, who has since been arrested, built skyscrapers on the banks of the Nile that could compete with the towers of Dubai and Doha. All the workers in the socialist-run government businesses had was a nice view.
"How is it that everyone who has protection at the top can get a great job without any effort," young doctor Rana Khalifa asked at the time, "while I have to slave away in the emergency room for a base salary of €30, and should be happy to have found work in the first place?" A feeling of fundamental social injustice began to spread. It would prove to be precisely the same feeling that drove young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi to set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. It was a deep rage that had been building for years that triggered the Arab revolutions.
Indeed, the most urgent question of the hour is not whether the Islamists or secular parties come to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and later perhaps Syria and Jordan. The most urgent question is: Who will solve the enormous economic problems of these countries, and who will close the gaping prosperity divide? More than half of the population in the Maghreb countries is younger than 30. Who will create the 700,000 jobs that are needed in Egypt alone to provide wages and food for the students graduating from school in a single year?
It is obvious that the countries of the Middle East cannot perform this task alone, no matter who is in charge. In addition to the rich oil-producing countries, the West, and particularly neighboring Europe, should step up to the plate.
When the United States looked to the devastated old continent after World War II, it recognized the historic challenge that lay ahead. It wasn't enough that the fascist regimes had been defeated. The Europeans needed help to prevent new wars, civil wars and refugee crises from developing. To tackle the challenge, Washington created the Marshall Plan, the biggest civil aid program of all time. In 1948, the US Congress approved a four-year budget of $13 billion for the program. It was the foundation on which a peaceful and secure continent would be built. Clever Americans are thinking in terms of similarly large, even massive terms today. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, proposes using the radical changes in the Middle East as an opportunity to finally free the West and the Arab world from the curse of oil.
Thoroughly European Perspective
It sounds like a paradoxical idea. How is the Arab world to survive if it loses almost its only resource? Taken a step further, however, what Friedman proposes reveals a completely different and thoroughly European perspective.
Two years ago, at the instigation of the Club of Rome, a consortium of German, French, Italian and British companies founded a giant infrastructure project called Desertec. The goal of what is probably today's most ambitious energy project is the construction of solar thermal power plants in the Middle East and North Africa that would produce electricity for the region and, in the long term, meet Europe's energy needs, as well.
Precise cost estimates have been made for the project. The German Aerospace Center anticipates a total investment of €400 billion by 2050 -- Europe's Marshall Plan for North Africa.
Prince Hassan Bin Talal, the uncle of Jordan's King Abdullah II, calls for a project of similar dimensions, a regional fund to which the super-rich sheikhs of the Gulf, among others, would contribute. Alms, says the prince, are part of the cultural bedrock of Islam. The fund would promote uniform development of the entire region, which is precisely what the Marshall Plan achieved in Western Europe after World War II.
Politics and Billions
The prince also hopes to borrow another concept from Europe. Just as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet founded the European Coal and Steel Community, the nucleus of European unity which ultimately grew into today's European Union, a multinational institution needs to be established in the region that would address its water and energy supply.
But these are all future projects. More pressing is the concern over who will provide immediate assistance and who can help the new leaders survive their first few weeks in power.
When German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle traveled to Tunisia a few days after the revolution, he promised the country €3.2 million to prepare its first elections. It was a moving gesture, given the challenges Tunisia's new leadership faces.
And it was also a misunderstanding. It is no longer a matter of gestures and millions in the Middle East. Instead, it is a matter of politics -- and billions.