Change comes rapidly, more so if it has been repressed for several decades. Such is the case with the Arab world where the latest strongman facing extinction is Libya's Colonel Gaddafi. Libya follows hot on the heels of Egypt where former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down a few weeks ago.
Unplanned regime change is never easy. (Of course, as in Iraq, the Americans will testify to the difficulties of 'planned' regime change.) Egypt remains messy; future planning is fraught with peril. Near term, businesses do not invest, tourists cancel visits and economic activity in general suffers.
Nevertheless, Egypt's institutional governance structure remains largely intact. The unitary command structure of the Egyptian military is intact. The bureaucratic framework waits to implement orders from new rulers, whomsoever that may be.
Libya's scenario is different.
There are reports that air force pilots have defected to Malta rather than obey orders to bomb other Libyans. Libyan diplomats, including from Libya's mission at the United Nations, have resigned in protest at Gaddafi's use of force against protestors. In some instances, these same diplomats are calling for the Libyan military to overthrow Gaddafi's regime.
|A view of Ottoman Tripoli in 1675 (John Seller)|
Libya's institutional framework was always subject to the often eccentric whims of the Colonel. In the past, Gaddafi has even attempted to entirely disband the bureaucracy. Oil wealth and a harsh security regime stopped people from asking hard questions.
Surely, the oil wealth still exists but in the past there was no Tunisian Flu. The Tunisian Flu does not spread like a normal viral infection. It spreads through the airwaves connecting the internet and more traditional forms of communication, the mobile phone.
To the Arab world's traditional ruling elites, the Tunisian Flu is deadlier than any other known virus. The ministries of health can buy inoculations for any sort of flu barring the Tunisian Flu. The new strand of virus is tantamount to biological warfare.
Within the Arabian Gulf, Bahrain has been notable for its relative political freedoms. It has had a noisy parliamentary structure for many years. Bahrain has always tolerated the odd demonstration or protest march, though hitherto none have posed a serious threat to the regime.
Bahrain is more vulnerable than the other Gulf Kingdoms to a change in governance structures. It suffers from sectarian cleavages exacerbated by perceptions that the ruling Sunni majority subtly discriminates against Shia Muslims, especially in immigration matters. Bahrain's depleted oil reserves mean the state's ability to spread largesse and quell unrest is limited.
No one is more aware of the stakes than Bahrain's royal family.
However, events in Bahrain are more important than they seem: the unrest provides a window into neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime is heavily invested in Bahrain, politically and economically. Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin for the Gulf region, a regional superpower not used to tolerating dissent.
Were the Bahrain royal family to be ousted, there is little doubt that some sort of a protest movement will develop in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the Iranian government might be tempted to quietly support the unrest so as to enhance its role as a regional superpower. In such a scenario, Iran's potentially increased influence over the crucial Straits of Hormuz will cause much consternation in the oil markets.
Saudi Arabia is among the top producers of oil in the world. The country is also the 'swing producer' within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), i.e. Saudi Arabia varies its production in line with oil's supply and demand dynamics to ensure a semblance of stability in the international market. Any prolonged unrest within Saudi Arabia will have repercussions on the global energy market.
However, given the strategic nature of Saudi Arabia's oil industry there can be no doubt the authorities have a contingency plan to secure the country's oil facilities in the event of serious unrest. Surely, the increased protection will not be foolproof, nor will it be cheap. Oil prices may still spike, as they already have, at the hint of instability in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. Nevertheless, the measures should keep oil flowing into the global energy markets.
Saudi Arabia does not have a Shia majority population, but the Shia community is concentrated in the oil rich eastern part of the country. Historically, the Shia community has little say in Saudi political system. Shia discontent spills over into violence periodically.
In the past, Saudi Arabia has dealt with serious unrest, bordering on insurgencies. Some may remember the take-over of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca by Islamic militants in the late 1970s. More recently, Al-Qaeeda inspired militants undertook a sustained campaign of terror against the Saudi government. Both threats were effectively neutralized by the regime.
Forty or so years ago, the domino theory dominated US political thought as it sought to contain communism in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Communism may be dead and buried but the domino theory might soon return to vogue, at least to address change within the Arab world.
The energy markets should not count on a quick and easy resolution to the current crisis in the Middle East. The Maghreb has undergone a revolution of sorts and its ripples are being felt in the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms. The law of unintended consequences may yet turn the Tunisian Flu into an Arabian plague.