27 Mar 2018 21:23 IST

West Asia is more volatile than ever

People walk through debris in the center of Afrin in Syria

With IS and Al-Qaeda’s influence at an all-time low, one would think the region would see some peace

If awards were given for being the most volatile regions of the world in the last 70 years, West Asia — stretching from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa to Iran — would be a top contender.

With the militaries of Western nations stretched and withdrawn from large portions of West Asia, one would think that the era of conflict in the region is finally drawing to a close. After all, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are both largely gone. Iraq is fairly stable as a fledgling democracy and Iran’s crippling sanctions were lifted by the P5 + 1 nations (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, the UK, the US — plus Germany), nearly $150 billion that was withheld from it was returned, and its people unleashed. Right?

Hardly. The region is more volatile than ever before.

Ruling with an iron fist

Let’s start with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, under its young heir apparent Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is undergoing so many changes so fast that reasonable people can question if these changes are sustainable. To placate the West and the large under-35 youth population of the country, the young prince has been rapidly scrapping decades-old cultural rules that were almost medieval in nature. In a few months’ time, women will start driving on their own in the kingdom, hold positions of power in companies and will no longer need male chaperoning for most activities that their counterparts around the world take for granted.

Saudi Arabia also recently lifted a 70-year ban on flights to and from Israel, which can also now use its airspace. While these changes are welcome, their implementation raises serious concerns.

The prince has alienated millions of people who liked things the old-fashioned way. Change is sustainable when the majority is on board, but the prince has not gone about persuading a reluctant public. He has instead ruled with an iron fist, ruthlessly placing hundreds of royal dissidents under house arrest, taking away their passports, charging them with corruption, confiscating their wealth and removing them from ownership of corporations and property. All of these victims are now sworn enemies of the young leader, although they are currently subdued under threat.

He has made enemies outside the kingdom as well. In an interview with a US television channel, he said he would pursue a nuclear programme if Iran were to obtain nuclear capability. Nothing should scare the world more: two nuclear neighbours harbouring religious discontent going back 1,400 years. Saudi Arabia is largely Sunni while Iran is Shia.

Iran’s influence

Meanwhile, Iran is up to its neck in extending its influence in the region. Its militias are a constant presence in Iraq. The Iraqi army regularly strategises and executes attacks on dissidents and terrorists by coordinating with generals of the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard.

Iran is also a huge presence in Syria, having helped Bashar al-Assad hold on to power by supplying Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, a country that is already under heavy Iranian influence. If Russia were to withdraw from Syria, Iran is ready to take over Russia’s role — a devastating possibility to peace in the region because Israel borders Syria.

Yemen’s civil war is now in its third year. The fighting sides are propped up by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both Israel’s PM Netanyahu and the Saudi Prince have compared Iran’s moves to that of Hitler — a rare time when the two sworn enemies agree on one thing: the power of a third enemy.

Worsening state

Egypt continues to repress people and Libya is an ungoverned mess. The irony of the Arab Spring of 2011 — which ousted despotic rulers in four countries and sparked civil unrest in a dozen countries — is that things are much worse than they were before. If the objective of the movement was to give more power to the people and hold leaders accountable, it failed miserably. Oppression and a sense of hopelessness are so paramount that boatloads of refugees try to flee the persecution every day; many drown.

According to Pew Research, more than one in twenty people living in West Asia (5.6 per cent) have been displaced from their homes. This is the highest ratio on record for a region since the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began collecting data on displaced persons in 1951.

While the rest of the developed world and rapidly developing economies such as Russia, India and China talk about jobs, health, transportation, technology, trade and industry, many of the people in West Asia face far more fundamental challenges. The shamelessly wealthy nations of the region — including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar — are hopelessly unrepresentative of the everyday problems faced by millions there.

If your head is aching just reading about what is happening in West Asia, be thankful Afghanistan and Pakistan were not included — it would have been a lot worse then.

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