Tuesday, June 7, 2011

‘Youth aspirations triggered Arab Spring’

I interviewed the Dean of American University of Sharjah on American policies in the Middle East for our newspaper The Gulf Today. Hope you enjoy reading this:
Mr Mark Rush-photo by Kamal Kassim
The Arab uprisings have been driven by economic forces and generational changes promoted by technology, according to Dr Mark Rush, Dean, College of Arts and Science, American University of Sharjah.
The uprisings began with technologically-savvy young people who are facing economic uncertainty, argues the dean in an exclusive interview to The Gulf Today.
Dr Rush was a member of the Department of Politics at Washington and Lee University. He taught courses on American Government, Comparative Government, Constitutional Law, Election Law and Democracy. He will be teaching on American Politics and Government in the fall.
Excerpts: The Mideast is witnessing unprecedented changes. Do you see a direct US strategic role in these developments?
 The US has an interest in Middle East developments. Ensuring the security of the region’s oil supply has been a stated American interest. The US is committed to promoting democracy. Yet, I think it is not accurate to say that US policies have played a strategic role in the Arab Spring. After 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the nature of world politics is much more complicated. The world is multipolar. The US plays a key role in world affairs. But its influence has waned with the end of the Cold War and the rise of China, India, Brazil, the EU, etc.
While Washington has a keen interest in the Middle East and North Africa, so do London, Beijing, Moscow and Brussels. US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrates its strategic interests. But, European military forces have played a significant role in the Libyan crisis. China and the US have invested heavily in the region. It is clear that the entire world has an interest in the region’s affairs.

So, who or what is behind the Arab Spring?
 The Arab Spring has as much to do with the generational changes promoted by technology, social media as it does with any foreign nation’s intervention in the region. There is certainly US interest in this — the concern about democracy. But I presume it is a good thing. To be specific about Arab Spring, there are no reports of direct foreign intervention — at least in terms of giving rise to the protest movements. Social media helped it happen by enabling young jobless people in Tunis speaking to young unemployed people in Damascus, who could speak to similar ones in Cairo. What you are seeing is a generational desire for more popular input into the governmental process. Governments are struggling to deal with the economic crisis. Unemployment in the region is high. Egypt’s unemployed population is as big as the entire population of Libya. The uprisings did not begin with retired people or the clergy. It is about simmering local aspirations and hope that change of government will solve the economic problems.

Do you think the movements are fizzling out?
Democracy is a process. The establishment of democracies takes time. If one looks at the history of democracy in the US since the 240-odd years, it has suffered civil war, economic recession and religious violence. After its revolution, the US created one form of government. Ten years later it had to re-do it all. Sixty years later, there was civil war and 100 years later the civil rights era brought forth resolution to lingering racial problems. The process of democratisation has not necessarily been peaceful.

The US has persistently stated that uninterrupted access to oil is of vital national interest. Are the developments in the region a fallout of such a line of thinking?
 Oil security concerns everyone. The interest of the US in this region reflects that of every other country that has depended upon or continues to depend upon oil. The US, China and the European Union all depend on oil to drive their economies. But, the concentration and vast quantity of oil in the region has amplified that interest. The developments in the region can be connected to the world’s — not just the US’ — interest in the area. Western intervention, especially in drawing somewhat artificial political boundaries and then withdrawing in the second half of the twentieth century, has certainly laid the foundations for contemporary unrest. The Middle East is a patchwork of religions, ethnicities, nationalities and so forth. The national borders crisscross them. But, the world’s interest in oil, and the extent to which it has been associated with the economic boom and busts in the region, has served as a catalyst for the recent unrest.

Is it all about oil?
On one hand, the world is interested in maintaining uninterrupted access to oil, and on the other, the entire world is looking at alternative energy sources. This is intriguing. If the rest of the world manages to decrease its dependence on oil — ostensibly to render their economies more green and sustainable — it will have a great impact on this region. Imagine if the Chinese were to go green enough to dampen their demand for oil. The cost of oil would plummet and this would have an incredible impact on the region’s economy. If the world goes green it is a great economic threat to any petroleum-based economy.

What precautions can the oil economies take?
The best way out is diversification. Dubai’s economy is quite diversified and offers a good example.

The US has pledged to establish an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Israel has rejected the call. If similar aspirations in East Timor and South Sudan could be easily met, why not Palestine?
No, it did not happen in these regions as easily as you have described. There was an awful lot of violence in these places. The process of partitioning old states and building new ones can be fraught with conflict and violence. When I think of difficult changes, I think of the events in India and Pakistan after the British withdrew. Kosovo and the Balkan states were born of violence as well.

A factor that worries Americans is the financial cost of the Afghanistan war, expected to be $113 billion this year. Has Obama been able to convince people that the fate of countries in the Middle East and elsewhere is worth the money? 
 Americans are increasingly aware of the cost of Afghan war. Every soldier killed, every plane downed demonstrates the cost of the military presence. All that money could be used for domestic purposes. The US strategic dominance of the region is undermined by the way China is increasingly the big market for oil exporters. If China becomes the region’s big investor, will not the geopolitics between the two superpowers become complex!
The US and China are certain to compete. The impact of the US role here will diminish to the extent that other nations or regions (China, India, the EU) gain more influence. There is much at stake that promotes cooperation between the US and China. Their economies are linked. If either one fails the other will suffer. Chinese economic growth has been driven in no small part by the capacity of the American economy to buy Chinese goods. One can expect relations between the two countries to be complex. But, wise leaders in both will promote cooperation.


  1. Woah. Good stuff. Whatever I could understand that is. :) Good to be back here after a long time..

  2. Ramesh,

    Excellent questions and pretty honest answers. Glad you shared this interview. Really liked it.

  3. Nice interview and amazing what is happening in the Arab countries.

  4. I have never read such a long post, here, in your blog!I don't follow Arab politics, so can't understand much.

    You have done it and must be good, Ramesh!

  5. nice thanks for sharing ...very interesting in fact.

  6. Very informative. Thank you for sharing

  7. Impressive, sir :)Thanks for sharing it here.

  8. wow, you must have had an interesting experience interviewing him.

    could'nt understand much of it though, perhaps I don't know what's happening in arab countries.