Changing lines in the sands of Arabia

Sep 19, 2015, 07:46 IST | Kanchan Gupta

The Middle East’s map and politics are changing — the change is so fast and furious that instant analysis and commentary is virtually impossible

Tel Aviv: The Middle East’s map and politics are changing — the change is so fast and furious that instant analysis and commentary is virtually impossible. The ‘Arab versus Jew’ matrix of the past, central to which was the ‘Israel versus Palestine’ theme, partly true, largely manufactured, is today more irrelevant than ever before. Using that matrix and its worn theme for a meaningful debate or discussion on the Middle East today would be utterly meaningless.

This is not to suggest that the ‘Palestinian Question’ no longer begs an answer or the conflict that has eluded resolution for more than six decades is closer to a solution. It is merely to point out that the issues that now haunt regimes across the Middle East and drive the rapidly changing affairs of this region have eclipsed the cause that once fuelled war and caused grief.

Listening to a senior professor of Middle East studies at Tel Aviv University one realises how tectonic the shift has been, how profound the change sweeping through the region. Everybody, barring a few who were derided and dismissed as cynics, had misread the writing in the sands of Arabia as the naive cheered the Arab Spring.

But even the cynics were wrong in their assessment of the Arab Winter they had predicted. This is not freeze we are witnessing, but a total meltdown of conventional ideas and belaboured scholarship. What has added an entirely unexpected, and till now inexplicable, dimension to the unfolding multiple crises, of which the barbarism of the Islamic State is only one, is the amazing, or perhaps more accurately astounding, retreat of the US.

In a region where America led from the front, it is “now leading from the back”, as the professor scathingly described Washington’s turnabout and near abandonment of both friend and foe. This has led to a quick reassessment of what is driving the upheaval and if the causative factors are different from what conventional wisdom would have us believe.

The briefing at Tel Aviv University served to confirm that the view which is now emerging in the shadow of a potential American disengagement of sorts conforms to the thesis expounded by Efraim Karsh, the venerable scholar of Middle-Eastern politics whose writing is shorn of the self-flagellating sophistry of Western academia, in his new book ‘The Tail Wags The Dog: International Politics and the Middle East'.

He seeks to demolish the long-held thesis that external interference, namely by the US and before that by Britain and France, is to blame for the Middle East’s overflowing cup of woes. History is predicated on the eternal question: What if? And Karsh poses this question forthrightly.

What if the Ottoman Empire had refrained from taking sides in the First World War? What if, having decided to wade into the conflict, it had gone with the winning side? And what if the British had decided to deal with the Turks directly without, to use a modern day parlance, outsourcing it to a self-seeking Hashemite potentate?

The Ottoman Empire, on whose ruins the Middle Eastern states rose, writes Karsh, “was not the hapless victim of secret diplomacy bent on carving up its territories but a casualty of its own catastrophic decision to join the war on the losing side”. That was not a decision forced upon Turkey; on the contrary, efforts were made to dissuade it. (Much, though not many years, later the Grand Mufti of Palestine foolishly declared support to Hitler and offered Palestinians as fodder.)

The British believed Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali, the Meccan potentate, who promised to dismember and demolish the Ottoman Empire by engineering an Arab revolt against their Turkish masters. They left the task of dealing with the Ottoman Turks to him.

History tells us the Ottoman Empire collapsed for reasons other than an Arab uprising. History also tells us that Hashemite Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali extracted a price that was not prompted by either Britain or France though it was accepted by all, and which perhaps made the Middle East we know (or knew till the Islamic State happened) — fractious, untenable and doomed to go the way it has.

The emirate of Trans-Jordan, now the Kingdom of Jordan, and the creation of Iraq was part of the map-drawing after the Ottoman Empire’s fall. Hussein himself tried to become ruler of Arabia till he was evicted from the throne and the House of Saud seized power. The British Mandate yielded to the creation of Israel and Palestine.

That was short-lived and 1965 saw the redrawing of maps which was only the beginning. The creation of the United Arab Republic was a short-lived venture that was doomed to fail. The Arab nationalist impulse was never more than a faint beep.

Oil saw the forging of a strange alliance between America and Saudi Arabia who shared neither culture nor values yet conspired and plotted to hoist Sunni supremacy. France played a dubious role in the Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran and unleashed Shia aspiration for dominance. Meanwhile, civil war wracked Lebanon and discontent simmered in the Arab Street, to which the Arab Palace either remained oblivious or treated with disdain.

Where Karsh’s assault on the conventional narrative falters is in dealing with the recent rapid unravelling of an artificially constructed Middle East. Had America not waged war on Saddam’s Baathist regime which, for all its warts, was able to hold together people and territory, the Islamic State would not have happened, or at least its advance would not have been so scarily dramatic.

It could also be argued that America’s animosity towards Syria’s Assad helped fuel a rebellion that has transmogrified into hideous blood-letting tribalism, dexterously exploited by the Islamic State. In the Maghreb, American trickery and abandonment of regimes it had propped up as part of its Cold War politics contributed in no small measure to the much misinterpreted ‘Arab Spring’ which heralded the rise of virulent Islamism from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt, seeping into Jordan and beyond.

Indeed, the flawed policies, including pandering to the carefully and craftily scripted Muslim victimhood narrative, of the US and its European allies cannot be entirely wished away.

The duplicitous approach of the West while dealing with the Middle East is matched by the skulduggery of those in power or aspiring to power.

Yet, in the end it is the rejection of the democratic alternative by the street and the palace in the Middle East, the repudiation of all that is noble and good about the lands where Arabs (and others) desperate to save their lives and limbs now seek refuge, that has fetched them grief and sorrow. But for the tantalising lure of Islamism — what Karsh calls “Islam’s imperialist ambitions” — the Middle East could have been the world’s most prosperous and (perhaps) peaceful region.

The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta

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