Understanding the uprisings - Dr Muzaffar Iqbal - Saturday, March 12, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=35790&Cat=9

One can think of many ways of understanding the current wave of mass protests in the Arab world. These can be understood as spontaneous uprisings of an awakened populace, partially-controlled changes with foreign instigators starting the initial flame, even a conspiracy-ridden scenario with Uncle Sam at the helm of affairs, cannot be ruled out. No matter how one starts out, certain basic facts remain the same in all equations and perhaps, it is these basic facts which can provide a better starting point for a more analytical understanding of the current state of this vast, resource-filled region.

Home to some 385 million people, representing less than one quarter of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the contemporary Arab world consists of 22 countries. Its boundaries straddle North Africa and Western Asia. There is perhaps no region of the world with such a concentration of authoritarian and repressive regimes. According to UNESCO, the average rate of adult literacy (ages 15 and older) in this region is 76.9 percent with Mauritania and Yemen lying on the lower end of literacy curve with an average of just over 50 percent and Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan on the other end, with adult literacy rate of over 90 percent. The average population growth rate in Arab countries is 2.3 percent.

Equally important for any understanding of the current situation are the historic realities: The Arab world took its present political shape through a regional reshaping at the hands of European powers during the 19th and the 20th centuries. Arabs in Africa had to wait until the 1960s before French armies left after bloody wars of independence, leaving behind polities which were deeply scarred and which were handed over to rulers who quickly established authoritarian regimes, mostly through military coups.

The Arab world accounts for two-fifths of the gross domestic product and three-fifths of the trade of the Muslim world. The oil and gas prices, which quadrupled between 2001 and 2011, have considerably contributed to the current boom as well as rampant corruption.

Over and above all of these basic facts is the reality of Arab oil which drives economies around the globe, brings invading armies to this region, and continues to hold the entire world in its grip as even a little turmoil in the region means millions of dollars of losses or gains. Arab countries hold 681 billion barrels of crude oil, representing 58 percent of proven global reserves, oil exploration and production. Egypt does not have oil, but its Suez Canal is central to America for it is through this narrow body of water that America’s lifeline passes.

There are also close to 300 billion barrels of potential, “undiscovered” crude reserves in this region. This means big money and big politics for exploration and extraction rights and concessions. This also means millions of dollars for the middle men and (some women), as well as a dirty game of who gets in first.

No matter, how one looks at these vast resources, the fact remains that “these massive reserves...mean that this region will continue to occupy special significance in the global oil industry and trade for many decades to come,” as the Saudi Oil Minister, Ali al-Naimi confidently said in the last OPEC conference.

There is no change in the global understanding of the importance of Arab oil, but there is a significant change in the Arab world itself: a new generation of mostly Western-educated leadership has emerged which understands the importance of what Arabs have in their hands far more than their fathers and grandfathers’ generations did.

This new generation is also becoming more confident of its potential as global leaders and although many of them are still bound to the tribal and family structures, there is a considerable change in their mental makeup as compared to their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations.

In addition, a middle class of sorts has emerged in most of the 22 states. Thus, compared to the past, when only the very poor and ultra-rich constituted these polities, there is an emerging middle class which is demanding its share in national affairs.

In addition to the current production of 21.5 million barrels of oil per day, more than one-third of which come from Saudi Arabia alone, the Arab countries have nearly 30 percent of the world’s proven natural gas reserves, with stocks of 54.1 trillion cubic metres and the potential to add more than 40 trillion cubic metres in the future.

Another remarkable fact is that most of the higher leadership managing Arab oil and gas reserves is now Arab. They are still dependent on European expertise and the numbers they quote in various international conferences all come from channels which are not wholly Arab, but it is still important that it is an Arab who speaks about what they have in their pocket, so to speak. For instance, it was an Arab, Saad al-Kaabi, Qatar Petroleum’s Director of Oil and Gas Ventures, who told a recent conference that Arab countries currently supply 13 percent of the world’s gas production and account for eight percent of global gas consumption.

Another important fact of the current state of affairs of the Arab world is global anxiety about future energy needs. With China – and increasingly India – consuming vast resources, there is fear of “running out” despite constant assurances by OPEC, whose secretary general, Abdullah el-Badri, recently said confidently that the Arab world has the potential to meet rising global oil and gas demand and “continue to play a leading role in supplying the world with energy needs far into the future.”

This psychological fear, which, nevertheless, has it foundation in reality is played out in various realms and serves as a political weapon as well. The future is uncertain by definition, but estimates for 2020 of Arab oil production range between 29 million bpd and 36 million. OPEC’s current actual production, including Iraq, hovers around 29 million bpd. The International Energy Agency forecasts that the demand for oil will increase from 85 million bpd now to 105 million bpd by 2030. At least 11 million bpd of this will be met by OPEC, most of it coming from Arab countries.

Everyone knows that massive increases in natural gas consumption are also predicted. Everyone also knows that rising global oil and gas consumption means much higher prices and that the age for cheap energy is simply over. Huge investments are also needed for the extraction of natural oil and gas in order to meet the needs of an energy hungry world. This also means a reconfiguration of global control over who gets what out of the oil business. For the average Arab on the street, all of this must add a certain degree of anxiety to a life ridden with the fear of midnight knocks, unending degradation, and the loss of rights and dignity.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email: quantumnotes@gmail.com

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