Middle East

Arab Spring may not lessen West's influence

Anti-Gaddafi protesters chant slogans in Egypt's Tahrir Square - 29 April 2011
Image caption Aspirations for political freedom are driving the revolutions sweeping the Middle East

After nearly a century of political stagnation, change is finally on the way in the Middle East, but what role will there be for Western powers in this new Arab world, asks Middle East analyst Gerald Butt.

The wholesale upheaval taking place during this Arab Spring is the first in the post-colonial era.

But there are signs that Western states - former colonial powers among them - will still be playing substantial roles in the emerging new Middle East of the 21st Century.

The last major upheaval in the region followed World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Britain and France had secretly devised a scheme to create nation states, trampling cynically over the aspirations of the Arabs for independence and unity.

Now, by contrast, it is precisely the aspirations of Arabs - this time for political freedom - that is driving the revolutions sweeping the region.

But while the desire for change is strong, the Arab Spring is following no co-ordinated course.

So there is ample scope for nations outside the region to devise stratagems as they seek to protect their interests.

The successful elimination of Osama Bin Laden is likely only to reinforce their confidence in taking positive steps to achieve their goals.

There is little, furthermore, that the Arab world - after decades of division, demoralisation and defeat - can do to stop them.

Familiar spectacle

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the popular uprising in Libya.

As Col Muammar Gaddafi turned his guns and fighter jets on his own people, the Arab League called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to protect civilians.

But the collective Arab world - for all its vast resources - could not muster sufficient political agreement to assemble the military hardware needed to impose the zone.

So, just when the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt appeared to be restoring Arab self-esteem, there came a humiliating call on the West to intervene.

Image caption Planes from Western nations are forming the bulk of the coalition force intervening in Libya

Now, not only are Western aircraft bombing targets across Libya, but military advisers from the three former colonial powers in the country, Britain, France and Italy, have been dispatched there.

For Arabs with even short memories, the spectacle looks depressingly familiar: Western forces helping to take control of a country rich with oil and gas.

Western powers have also intervened elsewhere - selectively. Some sanctions are being imposed on Syria for its brutal treatment of protesters - but not on Bahrain, where excessive force was also used on demonstrators.

Syria, in Western eyes, is a rogue state. Regime change there would neatly break the arc of Iranian influence that extends from Tehran to the Hezbollah strongholds of southern Lebanon.

Bahrain, on the other hand, is a key Western ally that provides a port for the US Fifth Fleet and an air base in the south of the island.

Saudi Arabia and all the Arab Gulf states, for their part, need Western support both to secure oil exports and to provide protection against what is regarded as a growing threat from an Iran with strong nuclear ambitions.

The growing Iranian influence in Iraq is also a worry in the Gulf. But the United States is preparing to increase the number of its embassy staff there next year to 16,000 - a sufficient platform, surely, from which to secure Western (and therefore Gulf) interests.

Egypt, too, looks set to maintain its ties with the United States. Public calls for the peace treaty with Israel to be scrapped are likely to be quietly ignored.

Any future leadership that took such a step would have to find funds to replace the $2bn (£1.2bn) that this cash-strapped country receives from Washington each year - and put its armed forces on a war footing again.

Then, just north of Egypt lies the strategically located island of Cyprus, where British sovereign bases provide a springboard for possible Western military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa.

All in all, then, the new Arab world, in many respects, is likely to look very much like the old one.

Colonial shadows

The key obstacle confronting those countries in the region that want to distance themselves from the influence of the West have been highlighted all too clearly by the Libyan crisis: the Arabs' failure to take action themselves.

Image caption Vast oil wealth has not lessened Western influence in the Middle East

Despite the billions of dollars accrued in oil revenues and the billions spent on acquiring military equipment, two key challenges have not been met.

The first is to achieve political co-ordination. Inter-Arab disputes and rivalries have seen the 22 members of the Arab League pulling in different directions, rather than working for a joint cause.

The second challenge is to develop indigenous industries, rather than rely on technology and expertise from abroad.

As successive UN Arab Human Development Reports have pointed out, too often the technology was imported but not the skills: "With few exceptions, the experience of individual Arab countries in technology transfer, management and adaptation has not met initial expectations."

The governments that come to power in the wake of the Arab Spring need to concentrate urgently on raising education standards, providing jobs for skilled graduates and developing indigenous talent, thereby enabling countries to stand on their own two feet.

Otherwise, the shadow of the former colonial powers and their allies is likely to fall across the Middle East for decades to come.

Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is a Cyprus-based writer on the region.

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