The Arab Spring: Leadership Needed, and Not Just There

Commentary | April 05, 2011

Much of the world has been enthralled, concerned and confused by what has been happening in the Arab world. All three emotions are understandable, justified by the swirl of events that allows people to read their hopes and fears into them, depending on their predispositions. It’s worth sorting out both our reactions to these events and the events themselves. 

Many are enthralled because maybe they see a little bit, or even a lot, of themselves in the young (and older) Arabs demonstrating and rallying in the street. The grievances the Arabs have expressed are more common than most of us would like to admit: high unemployment and underemployment, the loss of hope, crushing political and cultural oppression and repression, massive corruption, the selective use of the rule of law or complete lack of the rule of law, the powerful influence of connections (in Arabic wasta and koosa), poor leadership that has done little for the common person, increasingly cavernous differences between the haves and have-nots, declining living standards for many, and bankrupt educational systems, amongst many other problems both perceived and real.

Who could say that he or she did not feel some sympathy with those brave Arabs who have been hitting the streets, putting their lives and livelihoods in danger, and crying out at the top of their lungs that they want democracy, freedom and hope? Probably only the dictators and their cronies who have robbed them of their heritage and their hopes could do that. However, even they in their hearts of hearts could feel the pain of the street. Many of the current and recently ousted leaders did not start at the top and many came from poor backgrounds in small villages. That is one of the pungent ironies of all of this. And, yes, it does stink.

Many are concerned because of the effects all of these uprisings and revolutions could have on oil, gas, and other markets. Still others are concerned about what all of this might mean for the strategic calculus of the region and world. The Middle East and North Africa are vital areas for trade and resources, but also for cultural, political, and now revolutionary forces. In many ways, this area is the center of the Muslim world. It is also a place that has uncountable and powerful connections with Central Asia, South Asia, Europe, Africa and more.

Others are concerned about the immigration that may happen. Still others are worried Al Qaeda may gain from this. Even in some of the most geographically distant areas of the world, such as China, there are concerns that this unrest might spread toward them. The leadership of countries like Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and some of the Central Asian states should be losing sleep over this. The grievances we hear from the Arabs echo in the streets of Caracas, Harare and many more places. The Arab world has become the heart of revolution. These are mostly revolutions of the people, those who are Ibn al balad, (a son of the soil) and the shaab (the youth).  They are  looking to be free from the yoke of economic, cultural, and political repression that has constrained them and their countries from reaching their potential.

However, there also seems to be movement toward more government control and regulation of businesses and even outright nationalizations of some businesses in some countries where the corruption and inequality were over the top. A revolution in economic ideologies that counters the neo-liberalism and free market ideologies of the World Bank and the Washington consensus already seems to be taking hold in places like Egypt and this may spread. This is far from universal. It will be interesting to see how Libyan economic ideologies develop after 41 years of the irrational, mercurial, and "socialistic" policies of Qaddafi. There is also a lot of confusion on the ground about where the "Islamist" groups of the region will fit into the future. The seeds of future revolutions may be sowed already in the region. It is very difficult to tell where all of this is heading.

Indeed, many are confused by these revolutions. How could an area that was assumed by many to be so stable collapse into anger and dissent so quickly? Well, they really were not that stable to begin with. The people saw the weaknesses of the seemingly powerful leaders, their bluff and bluster, and moved on them. Those leaders were brutal because they were weak, much like schoolyard bullies.

Having about 20 years experience in the region and having lived in Egypt for six years, I could feel the anger and frustrations steadily build in many places. Once they saw the chink in the ostensible armor, they went for it. Once they saw weaknesses in the security forces and intelligence services that had kept them down, they were no longer intimidated. Although this is not a part of the world where passive resistance had any know track record, suddenly it took hold and worked well.  The results will have profound effects globally—for the EU, Africa, Asia and the world economic and political systems in general. This is just the beginning of a new wave of change.

What might this mean for Iran? My guess is that Arab Spring could visit this country sooner rather than later. What does this mean for the Shia-Sunni tensions? These tensions are part of the rebellions in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria and could spread to others, and not just in the region. The elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, which has the largest conventional proved oil reserves in the world, is the largest oil exporter, and has most of its large Shia population living just above its largest oil fields. And Iran has been stirring up trouble there.

What might this mean for Israel and the Palestinians?  The Palestinians are surely thinking about what this might mean for them. Also, the Palestinians are working through the UN to get many countries to recognize them. This could be one of the reasons why things have been more peaceful there than many might have expected. The Palestinians are employing new international tactics, and even internal tactics, such as passive resistance, which some thought impossible for this community. If Israel does not react in a strategic manner, and with a long term view toward its relations with its near and far Arab and Iranian neighbors, it could find itself in a very difficult bind in the near future.

What could this mean for the United States? This could either be an opening to a better future with the people of the region or a strategic disaster of epic proportions, depending on how the U.S. handles the manifold and powerful challenges this situation presents to it.

This is a time that calls for great leadership in the U.S., the EU, the Middle East and North Africa and more. Without such leadership, the results of these revolutions could be quite bad. If the Arab Spring spreads further into the larger oil producers such as Libya's neighbor Algeria, Iran and even Saudi Arabia, then all bets are off for the economic, political and even military fallout. The same could happen if various energy nodes--Ab Qaiq, the Al Basra Oil Terminal and the like--are seriously damaged or compromised. Then we have Yemen possibly disintegrating into multiple failed states, while Somalia, another failed state, serve as the other bookend to one of the most important oil and other cargo transport areas in the world.

Under certain scenarios we could be looking at $200-300 per barrel of oil and massive economic shocks to the world. I doubt that we are ready for any of this. The U.S. Government may shut down because Democrats, Republicans and the Tea Party cannot even agree to disagree. This is not comforting in a world facing such daunting challenges. The EU countries which are far more vulnerable to energy shocks from North Africa and the Middle East, seem even less prepared to handle the potential fallout. The least developed countries, many of whom heavily depend on imported oil, and particularly Sub-Saharan African countries, could be in for one of the greatest economic shocks of their recent histories if these events spin out of control. The global implications of these events and the unpreparedness of most countries to develop proper policy options to counter the economic and political shocks that could come from them are potentially profound.

None of this is predetermined and we can hope for the best. But hope is not a strategy and, although necessary, it is far from sufficient for the great leadership and strategizing that will be needed. This may be a time to go back in time and look at the rules of leadership as defined by George Washington, such as basing decisions on what is right rather than what is popular (now there is a thought), having a vision of a better future (and not just next week), doing what you say you will (instead of just saying what people want to hear), being honest, being responsible for decisions (no buck passing), doing research and development on decisions (not basing decisions on the 1% factor), building relations (not going it alone), being balanced (not extreme), being humble (not arrogant), learning from defeats (instead of just blaming others), and, observing things as they are -- not what you would like things to be.

Trying to understand  what is happening in the Arab world today, and developing sensible strategies in response to those events, is like sailing a ship in high and shifting winds, and in a very thick fog. You need very good leadership or you might just hit the rocks.

A former EWI senior fellow, Paul Sullivan teaches at the National Defense University and Georgetown University.  All opinions expressed are those of Professor Sullivan and do not represent those of The National Defense University, Georgetown University or any other entity he may be associated with.