Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Fallout of the 'Arab Spring': Challenges for India1

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Fallout of the 'Arab Spring': Challenges for India1

Article excerpt

Beyond the emergence of new regimes in four countries - Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, there have been three major consequences. These will have a very significant continuing impact within the Arab world and for all countries that have a stake in the region. They are:

(i) in the immediate term, the evolving geopolitics of the West Asian region will be greatly influenced by the outcome of the Arab Spring induced acrimonious standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran personifying a vigorous Sunni response to what has been perceived to be a rising Shia threat;

(ii) in the longer term, the political rise of Islamist forces is likely to inject a new and powerful factor that could transform many Arab countries into very different personae from that the world has known and dealt with for a long time now; and,

(iii) the surprise emergence of two increasingly influential new players in Arab world geopolitics - the 6 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Turkey, and the return of Egypt to mainstream Arab politics.

The Saudi-Iranian Cold War

The estimated Shiite population percentages of the GCC countries are: Bahrain around 68 per cent; Kuwait about 30 per cent; Saudi Arabia about 18 per cent; Qatar and the UAE about 10 per cent each; and Oman about 8 per cent. About 65 per cent of Iraqis are Shia. Including Iran, that has 90 per cent Shias, more than 60 per cent of the combined populations of the eight countries of the Gulf region are Shia. Yemen has a 35-40 per cent Shia population. More than 50 per cent of the Arab Gulf region's oil reserves are located in the Shiite populated parts of the region. After the US engineered downfall of the Sunni regime in Iraq, the Shiite political forces emerged as the predominant component of the country's ruling dispensation for the first time in modern history. Iran now has much more influence in Iraq than fellow Arab countries or the United States.

The Shias of Iraq and the GCC countries have been consistently treated as second-class citizens and discriminated against. Furthermore, there is a huge and unbridgeable asymmetry between the national power of the GCC countries and that of Iran in terms of demography, institutional capacity, military manpower strength and indigenous capability. These features provide Iran with enormous potential leverage in exploiting the Shiite identity to destabilise regimes of the Arabian Peninsula countries even without the need for overt instigation of the local Shia population. Saudi Arabia is acutely aware and traumatically afraid of these realities and has adopted the principle that offence is the best form of defence.

Within weeks of protests starting in Tunisia and Egypt, the wave hit Bahrain. The protest movement in Bahrain was not originally motivated by sectarian considerations but by a quest for dignity and equality through greater economic opportunity and political freedom for all its citizens. However, alarm bells rang out loudly in Saudi Arabia, as Bahrain is less than 30 kms off its eastern seacoast where most of its Shiite population is concentrated. Saudi Arabia immediately accused Iran of instigating the huge daily demonstrations and soon thereafter dispatched troops to Bahrain making it abundantly clear that the royal regime there or indeed in any GCC state, would not be allowed to fall. Saudi Arabia also granted $ 10 billion as aid to finance sops to the restive population even as the King announced some reforms. Bahrain's King had appointed an independent commission of enquiry, which had concluded that there was no Iranian interference and that the government had used unnecessary force. Nevertheless, the Bahraini regime, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries continued to blame Iran by ceaselessly and loudly projecting events in Bahrain in sectarian terms succeeding thereby in pre-empting Western reform oriented pressures on themselves. Meanwhile Bahrain has been actively inviting and granting citizenship to Sunnis from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria to reduce the demographic advantage of the Shias and has recruited even more Pakistani ex-servicemen to bolster its security forces. …

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