Is The Middle East on the Brink of Collapse?

Is The Middle East on the Brink of Collapse?

by | published July 9th, 2013

While my initial academic training was in physics (ok, theoretical physics), my Ph.D. is in political science. Both color how I view the world.

Often the rigor of one has provided some perspective to the questions of the other. However, sometimes they collide–and that leads to some frustration.

The events of the past several weeks make a good case in point.

Well before the latest uprisings in Egypt, the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region was showing signs of another bout of political instability.

Of course, since the global energy sector is smack in the middle of it this is hardly an academic exercise for us.

But these days it is the recognition of how these two ways of thinking- one driven by event and belief, the other supposedly by supply and demand – interact that will make for some profitable investment moves.

Now there are still some pundits who see geopolitical uncertainty as an extraneous element. They admit it happens and, when it does, the result can be disquieting for natural gas and oil prices.

But they have yet to recognize it has become a recurring series of events. The truth is the geopolitical is not an exception to the “normal;” rather, it is an endemic part of it.

Theoretical markets may operate on equilibrium, perfect/open information and predictable results. But real markets are messy and emotional, especially in rapidly unfolding events.

Much like the streets of Cairo this morning…

Trying to Make Sense of the Turmoil

There remains the inevitable attempt to derive meaning and predictability from such events. As I often tell students, understanding is not a function of nature, but of the human mind’s desire to put the outside world into a particular sequence of space and time.

Much of what passes for commentary on the latest Egyptian crisis, what some are calling “Arab Spring, the Sequel,” takes this approach. Somehow if we put each major event in its own box, we can put into perspective…that is, we can somehow come to control it by limiting its impact.

Of course, we really don’t. Perspective is accomplished only after the dust settles and some time has passed. It doesn’t happen while the events themselves are in motion.

Yet gradually the way in which those events are perceived begins to change.

We are in the midst of such a revision, surrounding one of the most hallowed of Western institutions. Throughout North America, much of South America and across Europe, democratic elections have been the hallmark of the modern age.

However, genuine elections have been late in arriving for most MENA countries and are precariously juxtaposed against religious and cultural traditions not generally supportive of popular choice being the yardstick of limiting rulers.

The lessons are hard for many, and fatal to some. Elections resolve little when the fundamental disagreements run so much deeper.

In this region, voting cannot be about who gets to make decisions when the more fundamental issue of whether such matters are even subject to the ballot box remains unresolved.

Here, those most vital parts of human life have not been viewed politically. Rather, they belong to a much more encompassing belief system.

Within this dynamic, the most difficult accomplishment is to develop a secular Islamic state. Turkey had been the model, but is now under stress. Azerbaijan has been another. But there the onset of what could develop into a genuinely competitive presidential election may test a Shiite tolerance for both Sunnis and Christians.

It was naïve to believe that a device for selecting political leadership (and that is what democracy is) could succeed without unrest where the Western underpinnings of that approach are only recently in view.

These include middle class values, a sense of the individual, market economics, a separation of church and state, the right to make a profit and generate wealth, and a broad consensus on the primary of human rights.

All of these in their own ways limit government, while fostering openness to education and opportunity serve to level the playing field. Most of us were not born into privilege; we had to work at it.

But we did so within a system that encourages taking a chance, which rewards success.

The New Arab Spring is Far More Dangerous

That is not the picture today in the MENA region.

The initial Arab Spring of 2011 was misunderstood. It may well have had crowds in the street clamoring for change. But it was overly simplistic to translate that into elections as the solution.

This new version of the unrest is less visionary and for that reason far more dangerous.

This morning for the first time some of my contacts in the region are expressing concern over the collapse of order and the threat of protracted civil war. Make no mistake. If this begins in earnest, it will not recognize any borders – sovereign, geographic, or cultural.

It is not simply the body count that is escalating. So also are the genuine prospects of protracted conflict. This is the new reality our expectations must confront in the Middle East.

The scientist in me seeks the solution of the puzzle. Yet that part also recognizes the very act of observation changes what we think we see. The political scientist assumes the human ability to choose is fraught with conflicting pressures. Reason pulls us one way, emotion often another.

Seems my own internal tug of war has something in common with the situation unfolding on the banks of the Nile.

Both are going to be in flux for some time to come.

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  1. July 9th, 2013 at 14:25 | #1

    Thank you for your insight on the middle east. We in the west are looking at an ideology,Islam, that is mostly foreign to us. Our values
    contrast markedly with theirs making it very difficult for us to make sense of what is happening in that part of the world. My simplistic view is that we should be friendly,trade goods with each other, provide humanitarian assistance where needed but otherwise stay disengaged.

  2. charles
    July 9th, 2013 at 14:33 | #2

    Well thought out and expressed. Personal contact, interest and concern seems to have brought out deep reasoning and perspective.

  3. Ashley Goodman
    July 9th, 2013 at 14:41 | #3

    This is a brilliant article and I will save it. It should be sent to every MENA leader so that they may gain some perspective if that is possible. Passions are so wrapped up in religious sectarian beliefs that it is extremely doubtful that the turmoil created can ever be resolved unless by mutual extermination. I have family in the ME. I fear for them

  4. Ed Nichol
    July 10th, 2013 at 00:58 | #4

    Gosh! How simple we are. Its all some sort of religious thing. Right….In reality, the US and GB want chaos. And they have it. Its not about money because we know that you can just print all you want. To push back, the Ruskies don’t actually care about us. Create a dead zone? maybe. Do it with a small “manageable” nuclear war? Maybe. Except war is seldom manageable. And Israel is somewhat important. So maybe five years of nonstop bloodshed. Except for two things. Many MENA are intelligent and there is the internet for those who want to talk and organize. With luck, the West will be stopped.

  5. July 10th, 2013 at 04:25 | #5

    Kent I had a “fleeting” thought the other day about Linc Energy and the focus of their business. It appears that they have been developing a new technology, UCG, for quite some time. UCG has been quite innovative and leading edge as MANY new “ideas” over time have proven. IF UCG is so successful for “tight coal” is it possible that a similar technology, as it COULD relate to “tight OIL”, be their “answer from DOWN UNDER” to OUR focus on fracking for “tight shale petro” ? Does that “idea” reckon with any of your theoretical scientific education and experience?
    Just a little “mind twiddling ” !

  6. Bud Hancock
    July 10th, 2013 at 07:15 | #6

    The turmoil in the MENA area is not one that will ever be settled politically. The clash of idealogies, namely of Islam and all non-Islam belief systems, will only be resolved by war and violence. While we in the west tend to settle our differences politically, sometimes successfully, sometime not, the basic tenet held by the majority population in the MENA, that Islam should rule the world, and all who oppose it should be killed, makes a political setlement impossible. We in the US MUST develop our all of abundant natural resources and become totaly energy independent, thereby retaining our sovereignty and freedom. Failure to do so will spell the falol of our way of life

  7. July 16th, 2013 at 19:32 | #7

    With our vast amounts of energy here in the USA, both oil, gas, and coal, which if only partially developed, would make us totally independent from world markets, and would also allow us to balance our budget and reverse our balance of payments deficit; yet the Obuma Regime refuses development of our energy. The environmentalists along with the Regime through the EPA and other agencies of OUR government in concert are attempting to destroy, denigrate, and thwart our energy development at every turn! My question to you is, where are both the Regime and the environmentalist getting their funding – including the leaders of the Democratic Party. My bet is the Arab governments are funding all parties in a conspirece to restrict our energy from our market and the world markets therefore keeping energy prices high. How can this possibly be investigated and proven with a brain dead press

  8. Michael Frederick
    July 30th, 2013 at 19:18 | #8

    The only successful way forward is to fully develop our energy sector in the western hemisphere so our way of life will not be upset by the turmoil in the MENA These countries should have been the most develop and advance nations in the world today but religious dogmatism, power and greed together with corruptions has made them what they are now the generations of today wants a better life and one wonders if they will ever get it because they was not educated to be leaders but followers.
    The selfish class thought they would have rule forever but has created a problem for themselves and maybe the whole world.

  9. Maril Ridenhour
    August 1st, 2013 at 16:41 | #9

    Dr. Moor, I appreciate your insight. It is a welcome change to so much emotional and superficial commentary. You offer insight to which I not previously been exposed and it is extremely helpful. Thank you.

  10. Ken
    August 6th, 2013 at 18:00 | #10

    I may have missed it but I don’t believe you ever mentioned Islam in your article. Do you not think that plays any role in the instability of the “region”?

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