Arab power ebbs and flows with oil prices

Few Americans can forget the energy crisis of 1973-74, when lines at gas stations stretched back for miles and even included, at least once, the US president's limousine. Arabs likewise don't forget those heady moments when their leaders first seized control of the price and production levels of oil.

Yet while American drivers soon found ways to return to the open road, and to lower fuel prices, the sudden wealth caused seismic tremors throughout the Middle East that still reverberate today.

Oil has torn at the region's social fabric, as many in wealthy countries have adopted a more materialistic lifestyle. And the wealth has been a magnet for some people in poorer countries, who leave their homeland to chase after better jobs in the oil-rich states.

Not only that, but oil has been a key factor in determining which countries lead the Arab world.

But with the power of oil now on the wane, leadership roles in the Middle East may shift yet again. Egypt, for one, has sought to reassert its role on the political front by playing a role in the peace process over much of the past decade.

Who used to rule

In fact Egypt, with its layers of civilization stretching back to prebiblical days, traditionally held the Mideast's leadership role. Milad Hanna, an Egyptian sociologist, remembers the years before World War II, when Egyptians would take up a collection for the "poor people of Mecca [in Saudi Arabia]" and send beautifully embroidered cloth for the holiest shrines on the Arabian peninsula. "It was the other way around then," he says. "We were the rich country, and looked up to."

But in the '70s and '80s, oil wealth propelled Gulf Arab states - including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar - to the fore. What resulted was a division between poor Arab countries with large populations, such as Egypt and Syria, and very rich countries, some with tiny populations.

These newly wealthy countries had only begun coming to grips with modernity a generation ago. Tremendous changes were in store.

Among them was the advent of the "mechanized Bedouin," says Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. Many Bedouins migrated to cities and exchanged their camels and horses for "Mercedes or Toyotas, though they still behave like a Bedouin," says Mr. Ibrahim.

Another hybrid was the "cultural broker," a young, Western-educated local who would interpret between the two worlds, Western and Arab, which were brought together by oil wealth.

"Many new classes emerged, but there were also feelings of deprivation by some who felt they didn't get what they were entitled to," says Ibrahim, who in 1980 published a book of case studies dealing with the region's upheaval. "Like sudden wealth anywhere, it created its own social, economic, and cultural imbalances."

Some point to the upheaval in lifestyle. "Ordinary people felt forced to take advantage of the oil wealth, and for intellectuals oil was a disaster," says Mohamed el-Sayed Said, at the semiofficial Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It corrupted Arab society, steering it toward hedonism and consumerism. It opened a door to a life my generation can't relate to. What about self-reliance and hard work?"

Leaving for greener pastures

Others cite imbalances created by the rush of millions of workers from poor Arab countries to rich ones. Builders, office workers, even soldiers and judges took jobs in the oil-rich states, which had too few of their own nationals to employ in most sectors.

The remittances sent home by Syrians to their families, for example, have been instrumental in developing that country, but the cash flow has had drawbacks as well. "It was a burdensome duty, and there was a sense of exile, or being dealt with as an inferior. It wasn't milk and honey - it was seen as a necessity," says Sadek Asem, a sociologist at the University of Damascus.

"People would come back with their own sense of superiority and had acquired a consumer, gadget-loving attitude that locals disliked," says Mr. Asem.

The flip side was that Gulf Arabs were sometimes hard to find in their own countries: "I once lectured in Abu Dhabi [United Arab Emirates]," says Asem, "and it was no different than at home. I was speaking to the same Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese."

But many assumptions have changed with the dramatic drop in oil prices - from $40 a barrel in 1981 to below $10 last year, and now just above $20 a barrel. Per capita income in Saudi Arabia alone has plummeted from more than $14,500 in 1981 to some $6,000 today. By contrast, average Egyptian income was $1,500 last year.

"All these are welfare states, and people got used to certain things," says Hassan al-Ansari, of the Qatar Center for Futuristic Studies in Doha. "But the future is not as dark as people think. If you look around the world, we are far better off than most people. We shouldn't be panicking."

More shifts in the works

Some see the wealth dip in the Gulf as an opportunity to restore some balance. "Non-oil producing countries are catching up, and that's a healthy sign," says Khaled al-Maeena, editor of the English-language Arab News in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "In oil countries there is a restructuring, and people are more focused on creating a new ethos - a new work ethic."

Paying the hefty American military bills for the 1990-91 Gulf War dug deep into Gulf nations' pockets. Furthermore, drops in the oil price for the rich and economic reforms for the poor have narrowed the wealth gap in the Arab world.

These shifts have changed perceptions. "Those who felt rich and arrogant are still rich, but not so arrogant," says Ibrahim, the Cairo professor. "They have been shaken, and seen how vulnerable they are."

Egypt, meanwhile, has made its own bid for more influence. Although initially shunned by the Arab world for making peace with Israel since 1979, Egypt has since become an integral player. In 1996, for example, Egypt organized a summit of Arab leaders in Cairo to challenge Israel and its newly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to maintain the peace process.

And as peace negotiations heat up again, both the Palestinians and Israelis have recognized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as an important player in the peace process.

It's made it all the more difficult to ascertain just where power lies in the Middle East. "If you ask where in the Arab world is the influence, you can't say," says Fouad Ajami, the director of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "It has been a roller-coaster ride: the coming of this great wealth, and then losing it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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