The positive changes in the Arab world herald a new era for millions of people. At the start of this new era, we need to discard the terms “Middle East” and “Near East” which
are seen by many as Eurocentric and that perpetuate colonial perceptions of the region. To be more correct geographically as well, from now on let’s use: West Asia.
The United Nations already does; so does Canada. Other organizations also have adopted this more balanced definition, such as the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) forum: WANA instead of MENA. With time, using West Asia could help unify the nearly 20 countries and over 300 million people of this largely semi-arid region with a common identity and more integrated economic unit.
The “Arab Spring” or “Awakening” is another misnomer that needs to be addressed. The Arab protests that turned into revolts are more reminiscent of The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) by Gabriel García Márquez: the South American parable of a leader being overthrown is analogous to the domino effect of falling Arab dictators being overwhelmed by popular discontent.
Each Arab dictator is going his own way. The Tunisian fled to Saudi Arabia; the Egyptian stayed in his country as the military took over; the Libyan fought to the bitter end against other tribes; the Yemeni fights on against his people; and the specter of the Syrian stretches far and wide across the deaths of over an estimated 5.000 citizens in 2011.
Bashar al-Assad never wanted to rule Syria. He spent a stint in the UK studying ophthalmology. His older brother Basil was being groomed by their father, Hafez. But Basil died in a car accident in 1994 and Bashar was called to duty. More soft-spoken than his brother, Bashar and his entourage are unwilling to relinquish the power his father monopolized through and with the military. The Assad leadership is of Alawi origin – a Shia off-shoot – ruling over a predominantly Sunni majority.
Syria is the strategic epicenter of West Asia. What occurs in Damascus will have more drastic repercussions across the region than Qaddafi’s demise in Libya. Some say sectarian warfare is already underway; others claim that these are scattered skirmishes resembling the Tahrir Square theater, isolated in the center of Cairo. One thing is certain: civil war in Syria would most definitely spill over.
So there is a certain irony when Jordan’s King, the League of Arab States, and Turkey pressure Bashar to stand down: they ask for changes that would reverberate in their countries too. The Kurds are already itching for self-rule in South-East Turkey. Iran could also become more involved inside Syria. That’s just the beginning – but Assad must go.
Then there is the issue of Israel’s ties to Europe. What will happen if Europe enters an economic depression and trade potentially dwindles with Israel? In West Asia, Israel is the one country that identifies more with Europe and the United States. Israel has even built concrete walls and electrified fences to keep out the Palestinians and Arabs at large.
But Israelis speak a Semitic language and many are of Semite origin, as are the Arabs – this creates a huge paradox when one is called an anti-Semite. The sooner Israel makes amends with its neighbors the better for the entire region. Israel has great capacity in technology, including in the domain of clean energy. Such capacity could be optimized with more regional trade.
Moreover, European influence in West Asia is decreasing and being replaced by a new foreign policy emanating from the Arabian Gulf countries that are investing across the region. This is particularly poignant in Gaza where major reconstruction projects are being funded by Qatar. From Lebanon to Libya now, most Arab countries are experiencing a rise in investments from their fellow Muslims, while Europe is in particularly dire economic straits.
This is a time of tremendous potential for positive change across West Asia and North Africa. Harnessing solar power in the Sahara Desert can provide energy for all of Europe and Africa. The strongest winds in the world come off the Atlantic as well. This energy can be captured and used efficiently to bring clean water to more people, while using the by-product of ‘green’ hydrogen as a renewable source of energy (see the Sahara Wind Project, pp. 50-56).
With this Winter issue, Revolve Magazine is now being distributed in Turkey and Lebanon, thus expanding our presence in West Asia. Our forthcoming special report on water will then take you around the Mediterranean to see the effects of urbanization, climate change and pollution, as well as some local and regional solutions to the looming water crisis.