As I have stated in the past, Iran will emerge the clear beneficiary out of the Arab uprisings, simply because the weakening of the conservative Arab states and their increased suspicion that they cannot rely on the US when mass protests erupt. Tel Aviv and Washington are well aware of that possibility, and to offset western, especially US, dependence on the Middle East, many believe that the only solution is to become less dependent on fossil fuels by developing new sources of energy. That would indeed be great and eventually it will take place, but what about the near future and what about the fact that the Middle East was strategically significant even for centuries before the West developed a dependence on oil?
It is a given that Saudi Arabia and the conservative Arab states have nowhere to go except to remain a loyal US allies. But what if Saudi Arabia takes a chapter out of Turkey's increasingly multidimensional and multilateral foreign policy that looks to China and Russia. Saudi regimes knows only too well that it has a limited lifespan and that the US is well aware of it. Given that the US does not have Turkey in its back pocket now that prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has forged close ties with Syria and Iran, will Israel, which is at the core of the problem for US Middle East policy, be America's sole reliable partner in the region, and does it make any sense for US interests to have its foreign policy held hostage by the Israeli lobby?
In the last decade during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia has been regionally isolated partly because it sided with the US in its anti-Islamic global campaign, partly because it is the 'old guard', partly because it funds the infrastructure that allows for fanatic anti-Western Islamists to train their followers, partly because it has always had a tough anti-Israel rhetoric and a very accommodating policy toward Tel Aviv, partly because it has pursued a strong anti-Iranian policy, and because it has not taken the leadership in the Arab
world to realize major changes such as a resolution to the Palestinian statehood question.
While the Saudi regime has maintained control of society partly because of the oil wealth and partly because it has played the political card of Islamist extremists, even providing resources for elements the US considers 'terrorists', the question is whether that will be sufficient to appease the majority of the population that sees change imminent throughout the region. Saudi King Abdullah has expressed his support for embattled President Hosni Mubarak and slammed those "tampering" with Egypt's security and stability, and threatened the US that Saudi Arabia will reexamine its foreign policy options that may include ameliorating relations with Iran.
In 2010 the Saudis have been receptive to Erdogan's Turkey that has distanced itself from Israel, forged closer ties with Iran and Syria, and is trying to resurrect the old Ottoman Empire foreign policy that would have Ankara as the central player in the Middle East. If the Saudi regime sees itself threatened after the popular uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, we may very well have a Saudi-Turkish alliance, which indirectly helps Iran and Syria, both countries much more stable politically than Saudi Arabia and the conservative one-party rule Gulf states. This much the Saudi regime hinted to Obama for failing to support Mubarak.
The rapid rise of the young population across the Muslim world, which is experiencing the highest birth rate in the world behind sub-Sahara Africa, may also force the Saudis to realize there is no alternative than to change or be removed from power. The sheer rise of young population growing up radicalized, web-cell-connected, and demanding political change necessarily spells potential uprising across the entire Arab world.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad was correct to observe that: "there is a lesson for everyone" in the regional upheaval. In a Wall Street Journal interview, he argued that Arabs for decades were suppressing anger and desperation are now reacting both to how their own governments and foreign powers have impacted their lives. "It is something new that will change many things, at least in the way we think as governments and as officials regarding our people. This is the most important point, and the other thing that is going to change is the way the West and the great powers will look at our region."
Assad is aware that his country is not much different from Egypt - one-party state, impoverished population, a questionable human rights record, long-standing intrigue involving Lebanon and Iran, Syria may explode unless it too introduces more social, economic and political reforms. At the same time, Syria like Turkey and Iraq have a problem with the Kurdish minority that the US & EU use as a political weapon to charge Damascus with human rights violations. Unlike Egypt, Syria has not been a US 'client state' dependent militarily and economically on the world's superpower that has an ongoing war against "Islamic terrorism".
Like his father who maintained considerable distance from the US, Assad in my view is safe for now at least. However, the only way his regime can survive is to continue to broaden reforms started in spring 2000 (Damascus Spring) but interrupted after about a year; to continue the modest economic reforms designed to stimulate growth via lower interest rates, to rely on treasury bills and bonds as a means to finance development and reduce Syria's unemployment; to do better planning on water supply, conservation, and pollution amid rapid population growth and agriculture where much water is wasted; to continue the road to forging closer ties with its Muslim neighbors, and negotiating a new relationship with the US that has imposed sanctions on Syria for supporting the Islamic Jihad organization. Under the new Middle East, the US will have to become more realistic about Hezbollah.
Unless the US lifts sanction on Syria placed there to appease Israel and right-wing ideologues in congress, unless it tries to deal with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah as political entities instead of labeling them 'terrorist'; unless the US restrains Israel from encroaching on Lebanon and bombing Syrian targets, as it did in October 2003 on the pretext that it was a 'training facility for Islamic Jihad', and again in September 2007 when Israeli jets struck a facility in Deir ez-Zor Governorate, killing a number of people and justifying their actions by alleging that North Koreans were building a nuclear reactor; and unless the US forces Israel to observe permanent peace instead of perpetual war with the Palestinians, Washington will find that in the future the Middle East may become a Chinese and/or Russian sphere of influence in a form of a different type of Cold War. The Turkish-mediated negotiations between Tel Aviv and Damascus in April 2008 demonstrate that there can be a political solution, but only if the principals agree and the US pressures Israel to negotiate.
For Israel, the new path it needs to carve out for its future is not more of the same, because the world has changed and left Israel behind in the days of the early Cold War. The solution is not patch-work diplomacy like forging closer ties with Cyprus and Greece to counter-balance Turkey. Such diplomatic maneuvers are fine, but temporary and do solve the core of the country's problem nor do they break its co-dependency relationship with US, nor are they a substitute for an equitable political solution to the Palestinian question.
A couple of years ago, I proposed that best thing that Israel can do for itself, the best solution for lasting Middle East peace, the best solution for the US that has been 'mothering' Israel for 60 years is that this small nation should become a member of the EU and NATO. This would mean greater self-restraint and responsibility on Israel's part, but it would work best for the people and for neighboring nations. The psychology of co-dependency with the US, and inordinate fear that pervades throughout Israeli society and reinforced by dead-end policies that unfortunately its supporters in the diaspora promote will have to subside before it becomes possible for a future visionary Israeli leader to make bold moves toward permanent stability, perhaps on the EU-NATO membership model.
For the US, the road to self-interest is also one that points away from Israel, and in the longer-term away from the Middle East entirely, depending on how rapidly technology changes that relies less on non-renewable energy sources. US and global dependence on oil, natural gas and coal have caused many wars in the past and a great deal of misery for millions of people who never benefited from resources their land produces. For the next two decades, these three sources of energy will each account for 27-36% of the world's energy needs according to British Petroleum.
Assuming that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates are correct that the Middle East has 1.35 trillion barrels of oil in reserves, or equal to 56% of the world’s 1.35 trillion barrels of reserves, and 2.66 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, the supplies are insufficient to maintain global economic growth at cost-effective prices. Even with new energy players like China, Poland, and others, the key question if the supply will be sufficient to keep price under 4% of US GDP, which takes us right at $80 per barrel, to sustain steady growth without precipitating inflation and uneven sectoral distribution of income that contributes to cyclical economic contractions not just in the US, but throughout the world. If nations have to borrow to purchase energy priced above what the economy can support, balance of payments rise rapidly and bring about the inevitability of recession, unemployment, with the possible consequences of social and political instability.
In the near future, the Middle East will remain the world's most volatile region, because the US has wrongly placed so much at stake in this area. Longer term, however, the new security risks may be in the trans-Caucasus-Central Asian region that is very rich in energy sources and strategically significant. The economic, strategic and political relationship of the US with China and Russia, and the relationship of the last two nations with each other will determine if the trans-Caucasus-Central Asia region will become the new Middle East in the future.