From Damascus to Cairo, the early hopes of the Arab Spring have been dashed against the reality of old political and military systems that seem to defy the changes steadily occurring across the rest of the planet. Comparing regional progress on human rights, for example, it is easy for Middle Eastern peoples to despair and wonder, why us? Why does this region resist change at such a deep level that it is capable of reversing the hopes and dreams of millions of citizens who actively and courageously took to the streets in search of greater freedom?
The excessive, concentrated wealth that extractions industries created has notoriously depressed the empowerment of millions of people throughout modern history. But considering the unprecedented role of oil as the lifeblood of the global economy, it should come as no surprise that oil politics and rivalries have an especially destructive retardation effect on freedom in the Middle East.
Specifically, the rivalries of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are wreaking havoc on the legitimate rights of the Syrian people to resist the cruelties and tyrannies of the Syrian regime. They do so by allowing their citizens to fund jihadism that has undermined the emergence of a rational Syrian opposition that could be in a position to share power and eventually replace the current regime. The Gulf jihadist proxies know no compromise, no comprehension of the mosaic of Syrian society, no ability to offer a serious alternative to the current regime. Conversely, other parts of the Gulf, specifically Iran -- which, on the whole, has allowed greater freedoms to its citizens than other Gulf countries – is escalating war and confrontation with its military support for Assad and Hezbollah. Iran is paying a heavy price on the streets of the Middle East among Arabs and Sunnis for its support of a regime guilty of massive war crimes, including chemical weapons which Iranians rightly despise.
In Egypt, one is astonished to see billions of dollars flowing from the Gulf, first to the Muslim Brotherhood from Qatar, giving them a grossly unfair advantage over the rest of Egyptian civil society, and now Saudi billions funding the Egyptian military’s current turn at running the society. Nowhere, neither in Egypt nor in Syria, does one see billions flowing toward democrats because frankly there is no serious money for democracy in the Gulf -- neither Sunni democracy nor Shia democracy.
One major new development, however, is the election of the new Iranian president, and not only because we have seen more serious and high-level communication between Americans and Iranians than in the last four decades. There is also a great deal of discussion in the Gulf in terms of the possibility of rapprochement between the Gulf States and Iran, although with the Iranian Supreme Leader Khameini still healthy and firmly in charge, much skepticism remains in the Gulf.
What is missing from both Gulf calculations about Iranian behavior in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon and from American calculations about Iranian nuclear intentions, is a much more open and clear confrontation with the interests and legitimate needs of all governments of the region. We need to confront those needs and interests in a way that removes these rivalries from proxy wars in war-torn countries. Specifically, instead of fighting a proxy war in Syria, states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran need to be forcefully encouraged to confront each other with their legitimate security and economic needs and grievances.
If the major powers of the world, feeling rather powerless to stop the carnage in Syria without use of force, would like to do something constructive, then they should consider publicly prodding the Gulf States to the table of above-board negotiations regarding their legitimate needs, spheres of interest and vital security concerns. This might go a long way to keeping their proxy wars out of the lives of innocent Egyptians and Syrians, who are bleeding and suffering in ways that no decent civilization should tolerate. Specifically in Syria, we have the recipe for a complete destruction of civilization and a fight to the death of rival sectarian groups that is music to the ears of al-Qaeda. It is time for the Gulf States and the Iranians, along with outsiders such as the United States and Russia, to confront their own rivalries and security concerns, so as to spare Syria’s path towards cultural genocide. This can be accomplished by an honest confrontation with the legitimate geo-political, economic and military security needs of all Gulf States, including Iran.
Marc Gopin is James Laue Professor and Founding Director of CRDC at George Mason University, and Co-Founder of MEJDI LLC.