In terms of motive, the revolutions underway in Tunisia and Egypt are typical
of those throughout history in that the desired end is, as ever, to rectify an
unsustainable concentration of wealth in a few hands.
In Egypt, a thousand families own substantially all the wealth, and in
particular the relatively small proportion of habitable and fertile land.
Whereas the escalating cost of food is cited as the spark for the revolutionary
flame, the truth is that food is eminently more
affordable to people who are not paying over half their salary in rent, as is
routinely the case in teeming Cairo.
In terms of the means, both Islam and socialism offered a narrative to the
dispossessed. In Syria and Iraq, the socialist and secular Ba'ath movement took
power and savagely consolidated it, whereas in Iran Islamists overwhelmed a
socialism already on its last legs and then ruthlessly exterminated the
But it is evident to educated, intelligent and increasingly connected and
worldly wise young Middle Eastern populations that the economic tenets of 7th
century desert Islam are no more appropriate for the 21st century than Marx's Das
In an age of pervasive direct communications, the steering wheel of despotic
control is now coming off in government hands and Middle Eastern populations
are no longer governable in the way they were. As John Gilmore puts it, "The
Internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it."
Leaving to one side the questions of how and why, the key issue for the US is
the effect of further revolutions in the Middle East on the principal objective
of US foreign policy for the past 100 years: energy security.
Where the money is
In the developed West, political power is centered in the financial system, but
in the Middle East, power and the wealth that flows from it resides in access
to and control of natural resources, and particularly oil and gas.
So in Iran we have seen a continuing power struggle between two conservative
oligarchic factions for control of the oil and gas complex of companies. This
became urgent as the process of privatization got underway, and the truth is
that the last vestiges of theocratic control in Iran ended in June 2009 on what
was to all intents and purposes a hostile takeover bid. While there is a
genuine thirst for democracy in Iran, there is nothing at all political or
religious about recent events: there are no suicide bombings "for profit".
Moreover, the clear economic failure of Islamism in Iran, and the evolution of
Islamic movements in the modern economies of Egypt and Turkey demonstrate a
fairly clear understanding of the necessity for a distinction between state and
Turning to US energy security, any faction taking power in a Middle East
oil-producing nation has as great an interest in keeping oil and gas flowing as
its predecessors and will probably even aim to increase the flow in order to
spread the wealth more widely, at least at first.
Secondly, no matter how antipathetic a new regime may be to the US, it will
always sell its oil and gas to the highest bidder. Ideology, whether religious
or political, will always take second place to the market. Venezuela under Hugo
Chavez demonstrates this realpolitik as one of the most consistent US oil
suppliers, while for 40 years, even including the Cold War, Russia reliably
supplied the European Union with natural gas and oil products in return for
hard foreign currency.
Since the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the global economic
landscape has entirely changed, and an economic policy vacuum has been created.
There is no longer an acceptance in the Middle East that the Washington
Consensus market architecture offers a way forward, and in fact there is a
dawning general recognition that the combination of compounding debt and
private property frequently has undesirable and unsustainable effects.
The challenge of our times is to create a 21st century global economic
settlement based on the emerging networked knowledge economy. This must offer
hope - and share productivity gains with - the excluded and dispossessed
populations not only of the resource-rich Middle East, but also the
resource-poor, in which category even the wealthy US and China now find
The pervasive spread of direct instantaneous connections, and the exponential
growth of the "knowledge society", began in the US, which can and should lead
the development of a new generation of networked markets.
Plan A failed in October 2008: the Middle East, and the rest of the world
increasingly reliant on Middle Eastern oil and gas reserves, need a Plan B
based on a new global energy settlement - a Bretton Woods II.
Chris Cook is a former director of the International Petroleum Exchange.
He is now a strategic market consultant, entrepreneur and commentator.