The Libyan Uprising: A View from the Middle East

As the leading publication of the Canadian Left, Canadian Dimension usually gets it exactly right (a good example: Gross Stupidity: US-Cuba Policy for 50+ Years, March 19, 2011). Yet in his online blog on the same date, Murray Dobbin unfortunately gets another issue exactly wrong (Libya: No End of Western Hypocrisy).

Dobbin mistakenly characterizes the current conflict in Libya as a civil war, when the struggle there in fact represents an armed insurrection. He appears to assume that the rebels had no justification in abandoning peaceful protest in favour of armed struggle, when in fact they had no choice but to adopt the latter. And more seriously, in my view, Dobbin seems to misunderstand the true nature of the Western Empire’s evolving strategy in the Middle East, as it fights to maintain its historic hegemony throughout the region. These slips are not surprising, since few people have the time to follow all the rapidly changing intricacies of events in the Arab world.

But at this point in the uprisings sweeping through the Middle East it is particularly important for the Left to develop accurate analyses of events in the region, since to be misinformed means to unwittingly oppose the very forces we should support. For this reason, I am putting forward a markedly different interpretation from Dobbin’s of the situation in Libya, informed in part by my perspective as a Canadian but also a 12-year resident of the Middle East.

I would first begin by supporting Dobbin’s broad statement that there is no end to Western hypocrisy: I expect that most of us would agree that hypocrisy is one of the most prominent features of Western capitalism, as the Empire attempts to reconcile its imperialist ambitions around the world with the rhetoric of “liberal democracy,” needed to maintain support for its policies at home.

But the important point is that as the cracks in the Western Empire’s foundations now become more and more pronounced, this hypocrisy is starting to play out, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, in totally unexpected ways. On the Left, we need to be crucially aware of the real nature of the West’s new strategy in the region–so as not to get caught up in the new imperialist game. Recognizing the current shifts in the West’s hypocrisy and regional strategy will assist us in throwing our weight behind the broad forces we support, and in challenging more effectively the new imperialism of the 21st Century.

So why is the West’s hypocrisy game now different? Essentially: because a new and unanticipated actor has now emerged in the struggle for the political control of the Middle East: the Arab Street.

The Middle East: Life-blood of the Empire

To fully understand what is happening in Libya and identify the nature of the West’s strategy here, we must first place this struggle in the regional context. Simply stated, the unrest sweeping North Africa and the Middle East represents the greatest potential threat ever, not only to the regimes directly under fire, but also to the very heart of the Western Empire, which obviously runs on oil: its very life-blood. It is impossible to underestimate this point. As they say: follow the money. To understand the West’s new game in the Middle East–follow the oil.

Case in point. Libya accounts for roughly 4% of the world’s supply of crude; remember that when Libya’s output dropped by 30% shortly after the uprising began, the spot price of crude jumped by $15 a barrel. A long-term disruption in the supply of Libyan oil strikes a blow at the life-blood of the Western world–not a fatal blow, but a blow nonetheless. (Saudi Arabia came to the rescue, offering to make up the difference in world output. Ah, a friend in need is a friend indeed!)

But, much more importantly, now move east to the Gulf States. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, accounts for 40% of the world’s supply of crude–ten times that of Libya. Thus, Saudi Arabia is the true elephant in the room in the Middle East, and for America and the West all of these conflicts: Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt… are really about Saudi Arabia.

How so? Do the math. If the armed uprising in Libya were to succeed, and the oppressed poor in Saudi Arabia should ever get the notion that political change could be achieved through armed struggle, oil output to the West could be disrupted even more easily there than has been the case in Libya. (Saudi Arabia’s oil is predominantly in the Eastern Province, where large segments of the disenfranchised Shia are located.) And if Saudi output were to drop by 30%, as was the case in Libya, the price of crude would probably double. Economists agree that at the current moment in the so-called global “recovery” even $150 oil would plunge the world back into recession, or into a 1929-style depression. A lengthy, 50% drop in Saudi production would bring the Western World to its knees.

And that’s just if there were “unrest”. Now look at a map of the Middle East. On one side of the Arabian Gulf lies Iran; on the other, Saudi Arabia. If a popular-based regime change were ever to occur in the Saudi kingdom, you could potentially have governments hostile to the West dominating the entire Arabian Gulf and, more significantly, the Straight of Hormuz. Some 40% of the world’s oil flows by tanker through this narrow channel, not only from Saudi Arabia, but from Iran, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. In the event of serious tensions between the West and Saudi Arabia / Iran, access to oil from the Gulf States could be not just cut back, but literally cut off. Talk about vulnerability.

But it doesn’t stop there. Just south of Saudi Arabia lies Yemen, which controls the Bab el Mandeb, another tiny passage–that controls the flow of oil from the western coast of Saudi Arabia out into the Indian Ocean. So what happens if there is unfriendly regime change in Yemen? The West loses control of this second, strategic passage. And south of Yemen is of course, Somalia: a failed state already completely beyond the reach of the Empire.

So, can’t get oil out of the Gulf through the Straight of Hormuz or the Bab el Mandeb? Well, try shipping it north and west through the Suez Canal. But the Suez Canal is controlled by Egypt. And as things stand, the government in Egypt could potentially become unfriendly to the West, also.

You may ask, why would popular-based governments in all these countries necessarily be “unfriendly” to the West? Because–unlike the Arab dictatorships throughout the region–the Arab street strongly opposes the cornerstones of American foreign policy in the region: the War in Iraq, the War in Afghanistan, and most importantly of all, the unrelenting 60-year-old persecution of the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.

What all this has to do with Libya is that everything–I mean everything–in a chain of major uprisings (and we haven’t seen anything yet) in all of these countries, including Saudi Arabia, could be triggered by a successful uprising in Libya–that is, one that succeeded in confronting the Empire and toppling a Western-backed dictatorship through armed resistance and revolt. An event of this magnitude would send a message of hope to all the dispossessed throughout the Arab world: a message that nothing can stop the will of the people.

So does anyone really believe that the governments of the Western world actually want the Libyan insurrection to succeed in its quest to effect regime change in Libya? You can bet your bottom barrel of oil they don’t.

Then why on earth would the West be supporting the Libyan rebels in their assault on the Gadaffi regime, through the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and cruise missile attacks on Gaddafi tanks and aircraft? I will discuss the precise nature of the Libyan conflict, and then the “new Western hypocrisy” and how it works, in a separate, upcoming article.

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