In his speech, which was delivered to the Saudi Shura Council by Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz referred to “unprecedented challenge facing the region, which had not been experienced before”. This, despite the fact that the region had passed through many difficult times in the past too. Earlier, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi publicly called for a “religious revolution”.
Both the king and president where right. I can see at least four challenges: First, the civil war in Syria and Iraq; second, the growing conflict in Yemen that is threatening the existence of the state; third, the sharp fall in oil prices; and fourth, which is rarely spoken about, is “religious revolution”, to borrow Al Sissi’s words.
Those four challenging issues are hard to resolve. The conflict in Syria is causing tremendous human misery, with about 250,000 dead and millions of refugees living in very difficult conditions in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere. The international relief agencies are almost bankrupt and can barely help anymore.
Promises of funds from some donor states made at the Kuwait conference have not materialised. The conflict has produced a number of armed groups under various names, some of them using Islam as a shield to justify their criminals acts, to the extent that international alliances has been formed just to fight these gangs. In Iraq, the picture is no different. Sectarian rifts have left deep scars among Iraqis, the kind they have not seen for almost 100 years.
The conflict in Syria and Iraq is spilling over; last week a Saudi border post was attacked by terrorists based in Iraq. It is also clear that the current crisis in Yemen is pointing towards a brewing civil war.
Add to this the growing Iranian involvement in the country. In fact, one Iranian official boasted that a fourth Arab capital (after Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus) had fallen to Tehran. Also, the Iran-backed Al Houthis in Yemen may interfere with the security of the GCC states on the orders of their sponsors.
If we look at the falling price of oil, we can see that the plunge was extraordinary. It may make GCC states rethink their developmental plans. If the prices come down to the $40(Dh147)-$30 mark, it would be alarming and could provoke social unrest. Most countries had budgeted for average prices of $60-65 per barrel. More serious questions will be asked by the public, which is less controllable these days with the spread of mass media. Questions, for instance, about the distribution of wealth, corruption and nepotism, etc will be asked in the public arena.
After almost four years of drastic changes, some Arab intellectuals are asking themselves: Why do ‘revolutions’ here differ from those in other parts of the world? Even in Tunisia, after a series of general elections, a politician from the ‘Old Guard’ has taken the top job.
The entire region faces uncertainty, whatever wishful thinking some of us may want to indulge in. These challenges will not vanish with time. Firm action is needed on the ground.
Mohammad AlRumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@rumaihi42