New Year, New Challenges: Fareed Zakaria’s Perspective on the Middle East for 2012

A year ago, the Middle East was shaken by the Arab Spring and the subsequent fall of three of its most enduring autocrats. Then in the midst of the upheaval came news about the death of elusive terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden. But these endings have not yet brought about new beginnings; instead they have brought new challenges, says prominent foreign policy commentator Fareed Zakaria.

Zakaria, host of CNN’s flagship international affairs program,
Fareed Zakaria GPS, is also editor-at-large of TIME magazine, a columnist for the Washington Post, and a New York Times-bestselling author. In an interview with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, Zakaria discusses the economic and geopolitical complexities facing Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, the influence of Iran, Turkey, and China in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, as well as how he sees the future development of Arab Spring nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Foreign donors support 92% of public services in Afghanistan. For example, much of the country’s electricity is subsidized by international aid. Will Afghanistan be able to survive as the international community plans its exit?

Fareed Zakaria: It’s a very good question. At some level one has to remember that the exits and withdrawals and the drawdowns that one talks about are all about the military presence there; the U.S. military presence and, to a certain extent, the foreign military presence. That will have an effect on reducing economic activity because these militaries spawn a huge amount of local business. Any place that there is military, the local shopkeepers, the local suppliers, all kinds of translators, all of these businesses boom. That will go away, but I don’t think that it will mean that aid will be reduced. There is no plan to do that, but the amounts of aid involved are relatively modest by western country standards. So, I’m not as worried that you will see a collapse of the aid budgets that the Afghans are getting, but you will see a reduction in economic activity, and a reduction in this big footprint that the western militaries leave. Now, part of this — this is the strange thing about Afghanistan — is that it is a very poor country [that has] become the focus of enormous international attention. One of the things very few people focus on is that the Afghan defence budget is, roughly speaking, US$3 billion a year. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) is US$1 billion a year, so this is 300% of its actual GDP. It’s obviously unsustainable unless you have foreign aid. So there will have to be a continuation of foreign aid to just keep the place afloat.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Considering regional challenges, India and Pakistan could share technology in water scarcity and agriculture, for example. So why aren’t they working together to tackle some of the similar issues they face?

Zakaria: They have so many areas where they could work together, but the most important thing they could do is trade together. I mean, there is the absurdity now that India will buy things that Pakistan makes from the farthest regions of Africa and the transportation costs are huge but they can’t buy them from Pakistan. Pakistan will buy things from Europe or from some place in East Asia, or from Vietnam for example, rather than buying it from an hour away in Punjab where it’s made, because you’re not allowed to trade.

If you were to have peace and good relations, first of all you would see a massive tourism boom in both countries. Both sides want to see and visit, in many cases, their old homelands. They want to see the country. It’s so easy. The language is not a barrier. The second thing you would see is massive amounts of trade, for the reasons we were describing, and Pakistan is actually a very good place to do business. In many ways, India has a more cumbersome licence quota raj than Pakistan does. So, there’s lots of compelling reasons on paper for this relationship to be better. It’s just that those advantages on paper don’t get translated in practice.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: China has been investing heavily in Afghanistan and Pakistan for years. Do you think it is a good opportunity for China to make investments in the Middle East as well?

Zakaria: I think the Chinese have tended to be very narrow in their conception of why they are going into the rest of the world and investing. What China is trying to do right now is really secure for itself energy supplies and raw material supplies. So, I think it’s not that they look at it as the Middle East or South Asia. What they’re largely looking at is: ‘How can we make sure that in order to keep growing economically we have access to the supplies that we need?’ That means oil, natural gas, copper, aluminium. I think that they will continue to stay on that track. They’re very interested in the Middle East because of oil, but they seem unwilling to take on a larger, more political role, [or articulate a] political vision of what that means in terms of the politics of the Middle East.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are different, as you point out. They have long been involved and they maintain that involvement. I suspect that involvement will grow. There is a dynamic; it’s unspoken, but everybody on the grounds knows it; that is, the rise of China is producing a rivalry between China and India. The battleground in a certain sense is Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Gilani, tried to play on that when he announced that the Chinese had agreed to build a port in Pakistan recently. The Chinese, the next day, publicly repudiated that claim. Effectively they were saying, "We’re not playing this kind of strategic game." So, even they are conscious of the fact that they don’t want to be seen as playing some kind of great power political game. So even [in that sense], I think they will be quite restrained. The Chinese right now have a goal of economic growth, and raising the standards of living of their people. It’s a very good model, frankly, for Pakistan to look at, in terms of how focused a national leadership can be and how much they can achieve with their focus in that way.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Across the MENA region there is rapid population growth. In countries such as Yemen, there are extreme water shortages and growing insecurity. Do you think these problems are going to get worse before they’re finally addressed?

Zakaria: The weird thing about population growth is when people look at China and India and Brazil and Indonesia, they look at population growth as a great plus. They say, "This is great. They’re going to be young, demographically vibrant. They are growing populations, growing middle class." When you look at it in the context of the Arab world, you think that it’s a huge burden and a problem. That tells you something. Basically, if you have governments that can organise their politics and economics in a productive way, the fact that you have lots of young people should be a plus. It should be a good thing, not a bad thing. The reason it was viewed as a bad thing was because you have corrupt, dysfunctional, non-representative governments that are not delivering for their people, and in that context a lot of young people means the dangers of social revolution, it means the dangers of dysfunction, it means the dangers of chaos.

So, I think that’s the most powerful incentive – it should be the most powerful spur for these Arab countries to get their act together. In some cases I’m moderately optimistic. I think Tunisia will turn out better than most people realize. I think the same about Egypt; I’m cautiously optimistic. I think it will take longer than people realize, because it’s a big country and it’s going to have to go through some early cycles of democratization. There will be groups that will win in the early years that are better organized than others, like the Muslim Brotherhood. But one hopes that people will soon see them for what they are, and ask if can they really deliver on their promises and on the things people want — jobs and economic progress. So, I think that there’s hope there, but the problem is there are enough countries that are still so mired in dysfunction. We talk about the Arab Spring, but it’s worth remembering that the Arab Spring has affected a handful of countries. We still have the Syrias of the world. We still have Yemen, as you say. You still have the entire Gulf, where pretty much very little has changed.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Where is Turkey’s place in the MENA region? Can they diminish Iran’s ambition?

Zakaria: It’s a very interesting phenomenon. It says something about the state of political leadership in the Arab world, or the lack thereof, that the two countries that are really vying for leadership positions in the region are both non-Arab, Turkey and Iran. I think it is profoundly in the region’s interests and in the world’s interest that Turkey win that contest; and it is winning that contest. Iran increasingly looks like one of the old Arab autocracies. It has lost energy. It has lost any sense of inspiration. It is seen as a regime of thugs, and the energy has all gone to the Arab Spring, to the openness of the new Arab youth. When I was in Cairo, the people I talked to all looked to Turkey as a model, because they viewed it as democratic, powerful economic model, capitalist, a great trading country, able to deal with the west and the east, confident, assertive. They looked at Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, as being a kind of modern Muslim leader who they could respect.

I think that if Turkey does become the model, I think it’s only for the good, because Turkey has deep ties to the west and wants to be a responsible state. It is part of NATO and still has aspirations to be part of the European Union. I think that there are people who worry a lot about Turkey’s policy towards Israel, but it’s worth pointing out, this is a shift that is taking place across the region and it’s basically because of democracy. The old relationship that Turkey had with Israel, or that Egypt had with Israel, was a relationship based on the fact that Turkish foreign policy was run in a totally undemocratic manner by the generals. Egypt was a highly repressive autocracy in which three men decided its foreign policy. What’s happening is these societies are now open and transparent and accountable, and their foreign policies are going to reflect the will of the people. [Turkish Prime Minister] Recep Erdogan is a great politician; he understands where his street is, and he is going to have a more popular foreign policy.

The Israelis will have to, I think, adapt to a world in which the peace will not come by making or cutting a few deals with generals and kings, or getting the United States to bribe a few leaders to make peace with them. Peace will come from having engagement with the Arab people and finding a way to make their case to the Arab people and find some security and some areas of co-operation with the Arab people. That’s an inevitable long-term trend that Israel will have to get used to.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Since the Arab Spring, Gulf countries have pledged to spend more than US$150 billion on social spending. Support now flows towards things such incubators and entrepreneurship efforts. Do you think that this is an effective strategy to keep people happy?

Zakaria: There are two methods of maintaining stability in the Arab world: repression and bribery. What you’re describing is the second. The Saudis and the Gulf States in general, as you say, opened the taps on massive social spending in the wake of the Arab Spring and the hope is that this will keep the populations happy. Now, historically it has worked, you have to say. If you look at Saudi Arabia, they have provided their people with lots of social services and benefits, and it has kept people generally content. If you have that much money and you have a smaller population, as the Gulf States have in general — think of a country like United Arab Emirates or Kuwait or Qatar, tiny populations — perhaps it’s possible.

I would hope that they really invest in education and in upgrading their human capital, because even in the Gulf you still have appalling levels of literacy, or illiteracy, I should say, particularly for women. If you look at Saudi Arabia, it’s the perfect example, where you have a very high unemployment rate and yet Saudis don’t want to work. They have to import five million people, guest workers, from outside the country to do any of the work, because the Saudis don’t want to do any work. Now, you’ve got to create a workforce that has a work ethic, that has some skills, and I don’t see much evidence that that’s happening. We’re seeing a lot of high profile, fancy education projects in universities and, as you say, incubators. The tough stuff is just getting the basic educational system in shape, improving it and forcing people to do hard work and, in a sense, incentivising them to do that work. That is not going on, in fact quite the opposite. They’re living on more and more subsidies.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How do you perceive NATO’s role in Libya versus elsewhere, and what are the challenges you see for Libyans as they rebuild post-Qaddafi?

Zakaria: I think what NATO has proved, and I think it’s very important, is that there are ways for outside forces to help in cases of extreme humanitarian need and political urgency without being seen as an imperialist power, and without having to take on the entire burden of an invasion and occupation. The fact that NATO’s involvement was limited and that it was in support of a Libyan opposition, I think has been very important and very successful. Because of its limited role, the burden is placed squarely on Libyans, and the Libyan opposition in particular, for governance in the country’s post-war period. [Former U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell said about Iraq, "If you break it, you buy it." The truth about what NATO has done here is by maintaining a limited role, by staying in the background, they haven’t broken Libya, and they don’t own it.

Now it is up to the Libyans to manage the post-war process in Libya and they will either succeed or fail, but it will be their success or their failure. That’s as it should be. If every humanitarian intervention has to then end up with a kind of quasi-colonial occupation, you’re just never going to get any humanitarian interventions. So, in that sense, I think it’s been a very positive role.

Will Libya make it? Look, it’s in great chaos right now. It’s a big, big country. People forget, it’s the largest country in Africa with one of the smallest populations. But it has had an incredibly responsible and effective opposition movement so far. They have been very responsible about being inclusive and tolerant. They have the enormous advantages of oil and the resources that will come with it. So, I think that there’s a good chance that Libya will actually come through this whole wreck. In any event, it will be a vast improvement over the crazy, truly lunatic regime that Colonel Qaddafi ruled for 42 years.

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