Behind the scenes of the Arab spring

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by Tuuli Orasmaa

copyright Friederike Wipfler
photo by Friederike Wipfler

On November 29th, an ‘anticapitalist, feminist and ecologic movement’ based in the French part of Switzerland called SolidaritéS, organized a two-days’ debate around the constantly current topic of the Arab spring: Mass movements and revolutionary processes in the Middle East and North Africa. Many different angles were treated to give the audience a more complete image of the phenomena but the most enlightening speech took a look of what is happening behind the scenes: the impact of the petrol states on the Arab spring.

This opening lecture was given by Adam Hanieh from the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Hanieh, teacher in Development Studies of Palestinian origin, published a book titled Lineages of Revolt – Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket Books) in November. This work covers many elements our daily media rarely treats when explaining these mass movements: neoliberalism, imperialism and the impact and position of Gulf Arab states in a larger view. Hanieh drew a picture of various tensions and also a multifaceted unevenness developing in the area, all the way emphasizing the significant role of the petrol states.

Growing disparities

Like in many regions of the world, the neoliberalistic changes started in the 1980ies, for a large part, from increased indebtedness and the following structural adjustment programs imposed by IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. Opened goods- and financial markets in the Mediterranean Arab countries offered the Gulf-based oil capital a bunch of opportunities to seize. Since then this capital has been flowing continuously in different forms. Hanieh cited several clarifying statistics from the recent years, notably the impressive amount of foreign direct investments from the Gulf to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria: twelve times higher than the American ones and three times higher than those from the European Union (EU). Clearly, the Gulf investors largely feed the economy of the East Mediterranean states.

However, the neoliberalistic turn has had polarized outcomes. Two types of uneven development have taken place: The inner inequalities in the Middle Eastern countries on one hand and the growing gap between the Gulf States and other parts of the region on the other. In addition to the wealth provided by petrol, Hanieh pointed out another interesting advantage the Gulf has: Where the recent economic crisis hit more or less the whole society in the Mediterranean states, the Persian Gulf could respond to the situation on the expense of their migrant workers. Many states expelled their migrant workers in order to balance the economy and thus transferred a considerable part of the burden to the most vulnerable ones. An important fact to remember is that more than a half – in some states more than 80 percent – of the work force are temporary workers from neighbor countries or from farther Asia. Indeed, the growing disparities seem to have multiple outcomes.

A peculiar counterrevolution

The Gulf States’ hold on the neighbor countries is not limited to the economic sphere. Especially Saudi-Arabia and Qatar are openly supporting the political groups favorable to their ideologies: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is having Qatar in the background and Saudi-Arabia is providing the Syrian rebels with arms. This is not a surprise, of course. In each country undergoing the upheavals of the ‘Arab spring’, the politics are closely intertwined with the economy. The stakes are thus high for the Gulf States to keep the politics on the right track – for the sake of their business. Hanieh calls this a ‘counterrevolutionary role’. Even if the material and financial support to many opposition forces feed the revolts, the aim is, essentially, to re-establish the status quo.

Still, it would be fallacious to think of ‘the Gulf States’ as one block. They do share, according to Hanieh, a certain image of the future of the region. Naturally, the neoliberal economy is in the center of this vision, and this is why they hurry up to balance the political situation. However, there are rivalries between the Gulf States, as well. A good example is the Syrian opposition, within which Qatar and Saudi-Arabia are supporting different sub-groups. While it is difficult to say to what extent the dissonance between the opposition forces is a result of these rivalries, it is certain that they are not helping to end the conflict.

Call for regional solutions

Clearly, the economic and political spheres are inherently tied together. This is why we should reject all the monocausal explanations regarding this phenomenon we call Arab spring. “We can’t see the struggle against dictatorships separated from the nature of capitalism. A large part of the slogans we see in the demonstrations are demanding political reforms but the capitalist economy and its impacts on the society have a central role in these movements”, Hanieh states. At the same time, Hanieh stresses the point that although the movements started at a national level, the issue is regional. The Arab spring will not be ending with national-based solutions but probably only larger-scale, regional makeover can bring back the balance in the revolting countries. Therefore, it is of vital importance to understand the economic processes and the linkages they create within the entire region.

More about Adam Hanieh:

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