Middle East

Arab Spring: 10 unpredicted outcomes

Three years on from the start of the upheaval which became known as the Arab Spring, the Middle East is still in a state of flux. Rebellions have brought down regimes, but other consequences have been far less predictable. The BBC's Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly sets out 10 unintended outcomes.

1. Monarchies weather the storm

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The royal families of the Middle East have had a pretty good Arab Spring so far - rather better than some of them might have feared. That's been as true in Jordan and Morocco as it's been in the Gulf. The governments that have collapsed or wobbled were more or less modelled on Soviet-style one-party states propped up by powerful security establishments.

There's no one single reason for this of course. Bahrain has shown itself ready to use heavy-handed security tactics while others have deployed subtler measures - Qatar hiked public sector salaries in the first months of upheaval. And of course the Gulf Kingdoms effectively have exportable discontent - most lower-paid jobs are done by migrant workers and if they start chafing about conditions of work or political rights they can be sent home.

It's also possible that people feel a degree of attachment to royal rulers that unelected autocrats can't match - however grand a style they choose to live in.

2. US no longer calls the shots

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The United States has not had a good Arab Spring. At the outset it had a clear view of a rather stagnant Middle East in which it had reliable alliances with countries like Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It has failed to keep up with events in Egypt which has elected an Islamist, Mohammed Morsi, and then seen him deposed by the army.

No-one can blame the Obama administration for failing to keep up. It likes elections, but didn't like the result - a clear win for the Muslim Brotherhood. And it doesn't like military coups (not in the 21st Century at least) but is probably comfortable enough with a military-backed regime which wants to keep the peace with Israel.

America is still a superpower of course but it doesn't dictate events in the Middle East anymore. It's not alone in that failure - Turkey failed to pick the winning side in Egypt too and is struggling with problematic relationships with rebels in Syria.

3. Sunni versus Shia

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The speed with which unarmed protests against a brutal authoritarian government morphed into a vicious civil war with sectarian overtones in Syria has shocked everyone. There are rising tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in many parts of the region, and Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are now effectively fighting a proxy war in Syria.

The deepening schism between the two branches of Islam has led to startling levels of sectarian violence in Iraq too - it may yet turn out to be one of the most important legacies of these years of change in the Arab world.

4. Iran a winner

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No-one would have predicted at the beginning of the Arab Spring that Iran would gain from it. At the beginning of the process, it was marginalised and crippled by sanctions imposed because of its nuclear ambitions. Now it's impossible to imagine a solution in Syria without Iranian agreement, and with its presidency under new management its even talking to the world powers about that nuclear programme.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are both alarmed by America's readiness to talk to Tehran - anything that puts those two countries on the same side of an argument has to be pretty historic.

5. Winners are losers

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Picking winners and losers in all this is tricky. Look at the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. When elections were held after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, it swept into power and after 80 years in the shadows it finally appeared poised to remake the largest country in the Middle East in its own image. Now its been swept back out of power again by the army and forced underground, with its senior leaders facing long prison sentences. A year ago the Brotherhood looked like a winner. Not any more.

That was bad news for the tiny, politically ambitious Gulf Kingdom of Qatar which had backed the Brotherhood in Egypt's power struggle. In the early stages of the Arab Spring, with Qatar backing the Libyan rebels too, it appeared to have hit on a strategy for expanding its regional influence. Not any more.

6. Kurds reap benefits

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The people of Iraqi Kurdistan are starting to look like winners though - and may even be on their way to achieving a long-cherished dream of statehood. They live in the northern region of the country which has oil and is developing independent economic links with its powerful neighbour, Turkey. It has a flag, anthem and armed forces too. The Kurds of Iraq may be a beneficiary of the slow disintegration of the country which no longer functions as a unitary state.

The future won't be trouble-free (there are Kurdish populations in neighbouring Iran, Syria and Turkey too) but in Kurdish cities like Irbil, people think the future looks brighter and freer. That process began before the Arab Spring of course but the Kurds are taking advantage of the mood of change sweeping the region to consolidate changes that were already under way.

7. Women fall victim

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Some of the outcomes of the Arab Spring (so far at least) have been downright depressing. In the crowds in Tahrir Square at the beginning of Egypt's uprising there were plenty of brave and passionate women demanding personal freedoms alongside the political rights which were the focus of the protests.

They will have been bitterly disappointed. Stories of sexual assaults in public are frighteningly common and a Thomson-Reuters Foundation poll said Egypt was the worst place in the Arab world to be a woman - behind even Saudi Arabia. It scored badly for gender violence, reproductive rights, treatment of women in families and inclusion in politics and the economy.

8. Overrated power of social media?

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At the beginning of the protest movements, there was a lot of excitement in the Western media about the role of innovations like Twitter and Facebook, partly because Western journalists like Twitter and Facebook themselves. Those new social media have an important role in countries like Saudi Arabia, where they allow people to circumvent the hidebound official media and start some kind of national debate.

They had a role at the beginning of the uprisings too, but their use was confined largely to a well-educated and affluent (and often multilingual) liberal elite and their views may have been over-reported for a time. Those secular liberals after all were trounced at the ballot box in Egypt. Satellite TV remains more important in countries where many people can't read and write and don't have access to the internet.

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The story of Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian heart-surgeon turned TV satirist, sums it up. He did start by putting his material out on the internet but became an international phenomenon when he switched to a TV channel. He became known as the "Egyptian Jon Stewart".

An important difference is that Mr Stewart plies his trade in the United States - Mr Youssef is going to have to tread rather carefully under Egypt's new rulers just as he did under their Islamist predecessors. Egyptians like to laugh; their leaders don't like to be laughed at. Mr Youssef is currently off the air again.

9. Dubai property bounces back

The ramifications of events in the Middle East are still felt far beyond the frontiers of the countries where they happen. There is a theory that the property market in Dubai has spiked as wealthy individuals from destabilised countries like Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia seek a safe haven for their cash - and sometimes their families. The effects could be felt further afield too in property markets like Paris and London.

10. Back to the drawing board

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A map of the Middle East that was drawn up by Britain and France in a secret carve-up half way through World War One looks like it's unravelling. That's when states like Syria and Iraq were created in their current forms, and no-one knows whether they'll still exist in their current forms as unitary states in, say, five years from now.

No-one can do much about it either - Libya showed the limits of Western intervention where British and French air power could hasten the demise of a hated old regime but couldn't make sure that it was followed by democracy. Or even stability.

One old lesson - which the world is relearning - is that revolutions are unpredictable and it can take years before their consequences become clear.