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February 18, 2011 6:37 AM Age: 10 yrs

STAY TUNED - The Uprising in the Middle East – in the Arab Streets

Category: Hank Boerner Articles
Source:  Hank Boerner, featured commentator

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February 18, 2011

“…and coming events cast their shadows before…” (to quote philosopher Thomas Campbell)

Today’s events in North Africa and Middle East region have certainly been casting long shadows over the rest of the world.  Top of mind is probably the topic of “oil,” since the United States, United Kingdom, nations in continental Europe, Japan, China, and other global economic powers rely on the Middle East black liquid gold (and gas) to run their economies. 

Remember the OPEC collective action in stopping oil flow to the West in 1973?  The Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries – founded by countries* mainly in the Middle East in 1960  -- decided to punish the western powers for backing Israel in the Yom Kippur War (involving Israel, Egypt and Syria armed forces). OPEC stopped the oil flow to the west in 1973 (the “Arab Oil Embargo”) and after the fall of the Shah’s government in Iran, 1979.

Chaos reigned in fall 1973 – oil prices moved from about $25/$30 per barrel in constant dollars to more than $100 BBL.  (For years the global price was fixed at $6 per BBL.) The price of everything oil-based soared and gas station filling lines in the US were commonplace as supplies dwindled.  We are still recovering from the shock to the systems of the industrialized west from events of 1973-1974 and the shortages of 1979.

Remember the chaos after the fall of the Shah of Iran – one of America’s most powerful allies in the midst of the Middle East?  His Imperial Majesty was armed to the teeth by the United States – and still could not hold on to power.  The awful aftermath of the revolution that led to the Islamic Republic and the capture of the US embassy and the Americans held hostage is not really over -- we are still living today with the consequences. (The world debates: Does Iran have nuclear weapons?  Will it have?  Will Iran threaten neighbors?  Will the US have to stand militarily as a shield for Iran’s neighbors?)

Sir Winston Churchill once described Russia this way:  “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Often I have thought of the region east of Turkey that way.  Contradictions abound!  Thomas Friedman, the savvy columnist of The New York Times and author of “Flat Earth” books, once wrote that it is not only important for us to take heed of what is happening in the Arab streets, but also in the Arab basements, out of our sight. What is being cooked up there?

The 18-day upheaval in Egypt led to clear outcomes – the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak, has stepped down.  The military is firmly in charge (as has been the case for a half-century;  President Mubarak was once head of the air force.)  There will be an election (and the west may or may not be happy with the outcome – look at the elections in Lebanon and the West Bank territory).  Another strong man may emerge – then what?  What are the US options in the region? What are our clear interests – beyond preservation of oil flow?

There were clear shadows in the Middle East that preceded today’s events.  There are no functioning democracies in the region except for Israel.  Little Lebanon had a democracy and a delicate balance-of-power for many decades.  The country was destabilized when the refugee Palestinians moved from Jordan (where they were pushed out – Black September commemorates those events) -- and moved to Lebanon where a fragile democracy was flourishing. A prolonged civil war eventually and then clashes with Israel (and an Israeli invasion) led to interference in the country’s affairs by Syria and Iran. In recent weeks Hizbollah has been assuring its place as political and philosophical leader in Lebanon.

The United States has much at stake in the region.  The oil flows from Saudia Arabia and the Arab Gulf states help to sustain our thirst for fossil fuels.  We have a naval base in Bahrain.  We have tens of thousands of military and other personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other lands. 

One of our primary allies is the House of Saud.  There are 15,000 members of the Saudi royal family; all of these “have’s” enjoy some kind of support from the Kingdom’s oil revenues. Soon there will be 30,000, as former CIA operative and now author Robert Baer points out…and then more royals expecting their share.  The rest?  “Subjects” (not citizens) of the monarchy.  There will be great pressure on the have’s from the have not’s – internally, and externally as potential and real enemies covet the oil treasures of the Arabian Peninsula. Today, right next door in Yemen and in nearby Bahrain there is tumult in the Arab streets -- and Al-Qaeda is operating in Yemen  (It is considered Osama bin Laden’s homeland.)

My work took me to the Middle East for a number of years.  I was in Lebanon during the Civil War on the late-1970s -- a scary place for a westerner.  I remember sitting at the Beruit airport waiting for my flight to Amman at dusk.  All of a sudden the flight attendant was rushing me to the Boeing 727 – we had to leave before the sun set because “for sport” young people were firing their AK-47s up at aircraft and watching the tracers etch their path!  The downtown buildings, once the urban jewels of the region, were in ruins, bullet-marked from top to bottom.  My meetings were in a bombed out office with no exterior walls in some places.

I was in Iran all throughout the last days of the Shah.  (My assignment was to coordinate the Middle East Civil Aviation Conference/MECACON for October 1978.)  My client was the chairman of Iran Air, who was gunned down at his home by terrorists just before the conference opening.  My other client was the director general of civil aviation -- who fled the country for North America.  The Iran Air chairman and I had a meeting one week and I flew home; a few days later he was greeted at the door to his home and gunned down by revolutionaries.

My last trip to Tehran was certainly memorable.  As I exited the Boeing 747, I saw US- made Huey helicopters taking off and strafing the downtown where the mobs were sacking government buildings.  American military jets were unloading truckloads of armaments and ammunition.  I was taken around in an armored car to get to my hotel – which had emptied!  Shortly after I left, the Shah took up a handful of Persian soil and departed for the west.  A revolutionary government was organized, and then power shifted to the Islamic Republic.  In the process the American embassy was seized and occupants held hostage for 444 days.  I remember after the revolution receiving copies of the Tehran English-language daily with gruesome photos of the leaders of the Shah’s government after they were executed – one aftermath of the revolution.

We do not always understand the depth of the rage and anger against the west, and against the United States.  We experienced some of that in the September 11th attacks, the attack on the USS Cole, and the bombings of our embassies.

It is not so hard to understand what may be in the minds of the protestors in the Arab streets today.  The region has not kept pace with the dramatic changes taking place in the west – technological, political, cultural. No democracy.  Oppression by rulers – “monarchs,” in many places.  This is like other revolutions an uprising by the young.  There is great disparity between the elites, the have’s – and the have not’s.  Great poverty abounds in Egypt, in Gaza, and in many Near East nations. Many young people are unemployed or under employed.  They have been graduated from colleges and universities and cannot put their education and skills to work.  The price of food and other everyday items can soar for the average family. CNN and other cable channels bring the world into the living room – and basements! – hour-after-hour.

The events in the region are contagious – revolution can easily spread thanks to Twitter feeds, cell phone texting, YouTube, the World Wide Web, Al-Jazeera television reporting, CNN global reporting – and more.

The leakage of electronic buzz cannot be stopped by governments.  When the Shah was toppled, there was a build up over several years of protests against his rule – and the cozy relationship with the west and especially the USA.  Video and audio tapes and buzz in the mosques were the means of communicating revolution.  The Ayatollah Khoemini was in exile – and the Carter Administration pressured the Shah’s government to grant total freedom of the press and to re-open universities closed because of protests.  And to let the Great Leader back in the country.  We rushed our view of democracy.  Be careful what you wish for!

The advice to Stay Tuned to the Middle East is apt, I think – there is much in the region to tune into and watch.  There could be serious consequences for the west as well as for people and nations in the east.  (Think of the immediate impact of the potential closing of the Suez Canal.  Think of the long-term consequences of having many unfriendly powers with military power in this powder keg region.  We are already fighting a war in Afghanistan and looking to exit Iraq.)

It is comforting to hear those in the Arab streets looking to America as a guide – we, after all, are a nation born in revolution and the overthrow of foreign, despot rule.  Franklin Roosevelt’s call for freedoms rings out across the ages to distant lands. Can we continue to be a beacon in that and other ways?  Can we positively influence the occupants of the Arab basement?  Stay Tuned!

* The founding OPEC countries were Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela.  Later members included Qatar, Indonesia, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Gabon, Angola.

Hank Boerner is a featured commentator of Governance & Accountability Institute and Accountability Central. He was involved in Middle East affairs for almost a decade earlier in his career.



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