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Time not on MideastAEs side.

Summary: Traditionally, time has been an asset in the Middle East, where the region has lived under very different constraints from the Western world. But the world is changing rapidly and time may be running out unless Middle Eastern leaders come to grips with these changes.

As vast deposits of oil and natural gas recently discovered in former Soviet Central Asian republics begins to impact the energy markets around the world--and if the Middle East remains in a perpetual state of crisis--it is very likely that United States and other Western countries will gradually begin to rethink their foreign policies in the coming decade.

That change will likely be to the detriment of the Middle East as the US and other developed nations will begin to establish closer and tighter relations with the countries of Central Asia. Assuming the former communist countries manage to emulate other former Soviet satellite states, such as the Baltics, and adopt truly democratic systems of government they stand to overtake the countries of the Middle East.

Meanwhile, a number of countries in the Middle East will continue to stagnate in a perpetual state of political limbo as yet others will remain in an eternal state of war. Western oil companies have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing infrastructures of countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan since the break-up of the USSR in 1991. The initial decision these new independent republics with uncertain economies and authoritative regimes for the most part was a big gamble. But it paid off.

Dividends from oil sales helped propel the Central Asian republics forward, though many of them are still struggling with the concept of democratic forms of government as we in the West understand it. As President Nursultan Nasarbayev of Kazakhstan told this correspondent in an interview last week, 'We here in the East do not agree with the stance that the Western way of life and views should be the ultimate truth.'

The president went on to say that this country was building democratic institutions in accordance with local realities and traditions. The truth of the matter is that dealing with less than democratic governments who sit on the vast amounts of oil reserves has never been a problem in the West and has never prevented the mega oil corporations from signing lucrative deals in the past. Lack of individual liberties--from freedom of religion to free speech--did not prevent the United States from supporting the ruling families of the oil-rich Gulf countries.

This desire to shift away from dependence on Middle East oil can be traced back to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war when the Arabs discovered that oil could be used as a powerful weapon after imposing an oil embargo. The West had little choice, if any, it needed oil to run its economies and there was hardly others sources that produced oil in such abundance as the Arab world. But if the Arabs learned a valuable lesson, so too, did the Western countries.

Serious efforts began to find ways of consuming less oil. Automobile designers began building smaller and more fuel-efficient cars. Greater efforts went into better insolating homes and offices. And the quest began for alternative sources of fuel, sources that would not make the rest of the world so dependent upon Arab oil.

The rising price of oil justified the exploitation of new oil fields such as Norway's and Britain's North Sea offshore platforms. The new sources of oil helped alleviate the great demand for oil from the Middle East, but with ever-increasing needs the West was still largely dependent on Arab oil. But the breakup of the Soviet Union and the discovery of vast resources of oil and gas in the former Soviet Central Asian republics is opening up an entirely new source of oil. This will undoubtedly lead to new policies vis-Ea-vis the Middle East.

The strategic value of a Middle East without oil for the United States and its Western allies is unlikely to have the same importance that it does today. Unless the current leadership of the Arab world begins to mature politically in the next 10 years, the next decade could find much of the Arab world stranded in the dust of the rapidly developing Central Asian republics.

Claude Salhani is a political analyst C specialising in the Middle East and C Central Asia

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Publication:Khaleej Times (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Apr 16, 2010
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