23 Feb 11
Bahrain and Libya Raise the Stakes
by Rami Khouri
BOSTON — The continuing insurrections and revolts by enraged Arab citizens across the Middle East have now spread to Bahrain and Libya, and these two states raise significant issues that go beyond the existing implications of the overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. In different ways, both Libya and Bahrain are deeply associated with the world of Arab energy producers and exporters. So the anticipation of these countries’ governments implementing policies that actually reflect the opinion of their people raises the prospect that Arab wealth and Arab public opinion might soon converge — with astounding implications for the region, but especially for Iran, Israel, Turkey and the United States and other major Western powers.
Libya has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars in the past 42 years of authoritarian and often imbecilic rule by the family and friends of Muammar Gadhafi. Should that regime be overthrown, and Libyan foreign and domestic policy be subject to the will of its people, we are likely to see radically different uses of national wealth from oil income. While excessive wealth almost always fosters mismanagement, corruption and enormous waste of assets, in this case we might find that the Libyan people will insist on using their national wealth more productively and sensibly, perhaps sparking a new era of growth and human development across North Africa.
Bahrain is important in the same sense because it is located in the heart of the oil- and gas-producing Gulf region, even though it has little of its own oil left. It is nevertheless a symbol of populist citizen revolts achieving their first triumph in this strategic energy-producing region. The Bahrain revolt will be seen by many around the world mostly as a rebellion by Shiite Arabs who resent being ruled by the Sunni minority in the country. Others will worry that majority rule in Bahrain in a small country where Shiites are the majority will be another victory for Iran and its growing influence in the Arab world. Some may be concerned that a democratic Bahrain might force the United States to close its large naval base there. These are all fascinating but secondary aspects of the changes underway. The most important thing taking place in Bahrain is that national policy-making may soon occur on the basis of the majority of Bahraini citizens expressing their views freely and formulating policies in a manner that responds closely to their values, rights and aspirations.
If these two states that are deeply anchored in the Arab oil and energy world pursue policies that are faithful to their people’s sentiments, we could see major changes in how Arab countries work more closely together to pursue more collectively beneficial domestic, regional and global policies (as Western Europe did after World War Two, for example). More democratic Arab countries with plenty of money are likely to become more sovereign countries, rather than puppets of Western powers or hostages to Israeli concerns (for example, seeing their armed forces defined by what Israel allows Western countries to sell them). Sovereign and wealthy Arab states that think for themselves are likely to make major adjustments in their relations with the three major non-Arab regional powers of Israel, Turkey and Iran. This would mean being more critical of Israel, less hostile to Iran, and more inclined to associate more closely with Turkey and its impressive economic and regional policies. If the United States, Europe and others abroad deal equitably with the Arabs, and also address Israel and Iran on the basis of law and legitimacy rather than naked self-interest driven by indigenous emotionalism and pro-Israeli political blackmail, they will find themselves welcomed as valuable friends and partners across the Arab world.
The changes underway in Tunisia and Egypt point the way to a historic change in how Arab countries are governed and what policies they pursue. The transformations that have been unleashed and are spreading across the region will need years to settle into a permanent pattern of new policies and governance systems. When such changes reach the Arab countries associated with oil and energy — like Libya and Bahrain — as is happening these weeks, the stakes suddenly become much greater. From the perspective of the citizens of these countries, however, the process at hand is the same.
Arab men and women want to be treated like human beings and citizens, with God-given human and civil rights. The advent of citizens with full rights and freedoms in Arab oil-producing states is a novelty they and the world have never known. We should welcome it with open arms, because it may mark a very important boost to the development of the entire Arab region in a more rational, balanced, sustainable and accountable manner than has happened in the last several generations.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.