There are several reasons why change is coming to the Middle East, a region of great importance and interest for Pakistan. Islamabad, under the care of Prime Minister Imran Khan, is engaged in redefining Pakistan’s position in the world.
In which direction should it look? Under Donald Trump, the United States has distanced itself from Pakistan preferring, instead, to work with India. Washington, given India’s geographic and economic size, believes it could be built into a counterpoint for China. Nervous about China’s growing influence in the Asian mainland it needs a balancing force.
China, of course, is an option that Pakistan has often used, especially during periods of economic and financial stress. It is doing that once again. China has a strong interest in Pakistan; it is an important component in its Belt and Road Initiative.
The BRI would focus on land-based commerce that, according to Beijing’s line of thinking, has the potential to usher in a new global economic order which would link China by a network of roads and railways with the countries to its west.
To Pakistan’s northwest is Afghanistan, important in its own right but also as a gateway to largely unexplored and unconnected-with-the-world Central Asia. That part of the world is also changing. On March 19, Nursultan Nazarbayev, 78, who governed Kazakhstan for 30 years, announced his decision to leave the presidency. The changes in Central Asia are also worthy of attention and I will come to that subject in a later article. And finally there is the Middle East and the Arab world.
Thomas Friedman who writes a regular column for The New York Times believes that this region after having looked remarkably stable in the second half of the 20th century, faces an uncertain future. The old system was supported by five pillars all of which were either crumbling or are being pulled down.
They included the United States interest in the region, high oil prices after the hike in the mid-1970s, the ability and commitment to provide reasonably well-paying employment to the young people, the promise of finding a durable solution for the Palestinians, and the male domination of Middle Eastern societies. All these have changed.
The United States is less dependent on the Middle Eastern oil; in fact, it is now self-sufficient in energy from domestic resources. The man in the White House only has personal economic interests which have resulted in close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both are managed by Jared Kushner, Trump’s Jewish son-in-law.
The role of the United States diplomats has been reduced. Washington does not have ambassadors in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The decline in oil earnings is constraining the states’ ability to employ the increasingly restless youth. Jordan’s King Abdullah told a group of US military advisers that what keeps him up at night is just one thing — and it’s not ISIS or al Qaeda. It’s the fact that 300,000 Jordanians are unemployed and 87 per cent of them are between the ages of 18 and 39.
The old escape route for employment in the oil-rich countries is not working since they are under economic stress themselves. Women have become assertive even in Saudi Arabia where about a dozen are being tried in the Kingdom’s courts on unspecified charges.
Of these crumbling pillars, the one that matters the most is resentment among the youth. The young are unhappy not only with their economic prospects but also with the fact that they have no say in the way they are governed.
They also want the countries in which they live to have the respect of the global community. With these aspirations not being satisfied, they are prepared to take to the street. They did that in spring of 2011 when they were behind the fall four authoritarian rulers — in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. But the revolutions they started were incomplete. The deposed leaders were mostly replaced by the members of the old establishment.
It was the street that once again brought end to the long reign of 78-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the long-serving president of Algeria. He has been in office since he and his colleagues were part of the campaign, suffered a stroke six years ago and has not been seen in public since then.
Notwithstanding his semi-vegetative state, the old president announced in February that he would run again for the fifth term. That way he would be able to prolong the rule of the country by his coterie that has governed in his name. This proved to be too much for the citizenry, especially for the youth.
This led to the announcement that he won’t run again; the election for the president scheduled for April 18 was postponed to prepare the country for a new political order. Until then Bouteflika would stay in power. That was not acceptable to the young. The protesters were back in the street chanting, “No tricks Bouteflika”; a protester carried a sign that read: “No to the 4.75term”. It was clear that the youth were looking for clear and permanent change.
In all this turmoil in the Middle East, Pakistan has a lesson to teach but not one to learn. For almost half its life as an independent state, Pakistan was governed by strong men put in power by the militaries they led.
In 2007, Pakistan had its own version of the Arab Spring when the legal community came out in the streets and forced general Musharraf to leave office which he did the following year. Since then Pakistanis have been to the polls three times, changing each time the party that had governed before the election was held.
In July 2018, the youth put in power a new party and a new kind of politician who could — perhaps would — bring about enormous change in the country and its position in the world. Why that may happen is the subject of a book on which I am working which would suggest that Pakistan could become a model for the region which is trying to find a way to govern itself.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 25th, 2019.
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