This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 01/05/2011
The year is 2017. The Arab spring has concluded but the Persian Nowrouz is in strong form. As Egypt's new foreign policy took shape, Turkey's zero-problem one was being reset. In the summer of 2011 Syria, under protest pressure, unleashed Hezbollah on Israel — Hamas now under Egyptian-Qatari patronage declined to participate. Israel, happy to save the house of Assad, heavily shelled Beirut and Damascus. There are protests in Beirut against both Syria and Israel but the Arabs are shamed into supporting Syria. The Syrian revolution is stillborn while Bashar Al Assad promises sweeping reforms. His GCC fundraiser tour is not very successful. Meanwhile double-digit inflation continues to take its toll on Iranian citizens. The green revolution keeps pushing, the Ahwaz uprising is bloody and the rift between the religious and political leadership keeps widening. This culminates with calls for demonstrations throughout the country on the beginning of the Iranian year in the spring of 2012, known in Farsi as Nowrouz. A revolution is upon Iran. But the theocracy pre-empts its toppling with its own ‘perestroika'.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad is forced to resign by the Supreme leader who appoints, ex-president, Hashemi Rafsanjani as caretaker-president. New Iran allows non-conservative candidates to run for office again as long as they ensure allegiance to the constitution. New Iran develops a new foreign investment law; Turkey, Qatar and Total are first to enter. New Iran continues to support Hezbollah, but with Syrian support lines cut it is more resistance lip service than logistical and financial support. New Iran opens a back door communication channel with UAE and Saudi via Egypt to address ‘long term issues of mutual concern'. New Iran works with Turkey to redefine its Syrian relationship. In many ways, Iran is reforming faster than Syria. But, driven by a realisation that expanding its regional influence at the cost of internal economic disparity was not sustainable, New Iran is not New Egypt; it's Iran-lite.
Women are still required to cover and alcohol is still illegal but there is a realisation that this transitional period will ensure the country's reforms are sustainable. As the focus shifts from redefining its regional role and alliances to reviving its ailing economy, the royal and non-royal diaspora are urged to return and contribute to rebuilding Iran. More of the budget previously allocated to foreign support is diverted to development. Iran is well on its way to its own renaissance.
Meanwhile, across the Gulf, Bahrain continues to suffer from social strife. Its economic woes have effectively made it a GCC-sponsored state. With its economic diversification programme more plan than reality. Saudi Arabia continues to rely mostly on oil revenues but has had to roll back some of its social benefits of 2011/12 due to budgetary constraints and the need to keep oil below $100 (Dh367) per barrel. With Masdar finally making the transformation into a funding incubator and the DIFC inheriting Bahrain's banking centre position, the UAE fares a little better. Qatar continues to post double-digit growth and, following the Ashgabat agreement, has taken a particular interest in investing in Oman. In Kuwait, there are rumours that the next premier will not be a member of the ruling family but nothing else has changed.
The GCC continues to fund itself through oil and the world economy may grumble from time to time but everyone is producing at full capacity and alternative energy sources are still decades away. Iran and Egypt continue to turn their graduates into start ups and scientists into patents and move inefficient public services to the private sector. There is no misconception that the military, though from an arm's length, still runs Egypt and that the clergy, together with the military, still run Iran. However, in both countries, the traditional power bases are learning to love off-hand management the way Turkey's military did with Erdogan.
There are rumblings of envy in the Gulf. Mid-level civil servants, second-generation family businessmen and seasoned intellectuals wonder how all this happened so fast. There is a sense of a moment lost but one that is immediately cushioned by the sense that there still are a few more moments to come.
Simultaneous attempts spring to rebuild the Gulf's civil society movements with a specific focus not on the welfarism of individual benefits but on its regional and global challenges of relevance. Businessmen voice their concern about the sustainability of the economic model among each other. Economists continue to point to education as a core challenge that comparatively disadvantages school graduates in the job market in a way that superior university franchises cannot address. Intellectuals lament the lack of interdisciplinary national think tanks that could've sounded, beyond military aggression, alarm bells of competitiveness and innovation lag. Gulf governments respond, individually, with calls of varying urgency for a revamp of their educational systems, launching nationwide training and rehabilitation programmes and public-private entrepreneurship initiatives. There are also accelerated privatisation councils. While, for the first time, the government, business community and intelligentsia all seem to agree on reform it is the general public that does not. The need to radically change the welfare state is met with massive opposition from the public. The change is too drastic, too fast they say. Why was there no planning ahead they ask. Nobody knows because everyone thought Hosni Mubarak would never fall and Iran would never change.
Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator.