The future of the Middle East may belong to those countries whose resources have never been in underground pools of crude oil, but rather in skillful, productive, educated people.
Though they sit on the rim of the most prolific oil area on earth, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel do not rely directly on oil revenues, since none of them have significant oil fields. All but Israel have benefited secondarily from the oil revenues of their neighbors.
Lebanon, for instance, despite internal disorders, has transferred cash, goods, and services between Arabia and the West through its numerous ports and banks. There are tens of thousands of skilled Lebanese working in the oil countries in banking, management, and entrepreneurial capacities.
Thousands of Syrians also work in the oil countries. The Syrian government, moreover, relies heavily on subsidies to keep its socialized economy running and to maintain its large standing army.
Jordan, similarly, receives Arab financial support, and thousands of its citizens work throughout Arabia. Jordan is considered to have the best-managed developing economy in the Middle East.
If world oil prices continue to decline, loss of subventions and of income from workers abroad will initially have a negative effect on the economies of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. But all three will survive, economists say, since all have developed relatively independently of oil.
In Lebanon and Jordan, especially, there are vigorous entrepreneurial classes that undoubtedly will make up for economic shortfalls through expansion into new areas.
A drop in oil prices cannot but benefit Israel, which suffers quite high energy costs due to its need to import virtually all of its oil. Declining oil prices may help dampen Israel's hyperinflation. Politically, Israelis are cautioning the West not to become addicted once more to cheap Arab oil, but they express satisfaction with the thought that the clout of the Arab bloc may be broken for the next few years.
All of these countries' economies are capable alone, but all have nevertheless depended heavily on foreign aid: Lebanon and Jordan from Arab oil states and the West, Syria from Arab oil states and the Soviet Union, Israel from the United States.
The foreign aid mostly goes to maintain oversized and over-armed militaries that face one another.
In the near term, because of the decline in secondary income from the nearby oil countries, these countries may have to seek even more aid, and this cannot come from Arabia. As the oil market has slowed, Arab patrons such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Libya have reduced subventions to Syria and Jordan. Money to Lebanon to aid its reconstruction may never be forthcoming, due as much its financial as political circumstances.
Thus, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel may have to go to the superpowers with requests for aid. This could increase East-West polarization in the Mideast with Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan looking ever more to the US, and Syria looking to the USSR.
To avoid this, and stand apart from the superpowers, these countries will have to depend on each other more. Already de facto trade links exist between Israel and Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, Lebanon and Syria, and Syria and Jordan. If these countries can be further reconciled to one another by means of a comprehensive Middle East peace, they might together constitute a new economic order in the region.
Syria has a strong farming base and contains the vital truck routes between Europe and Arabia. Lebanon's forte is banking, export of high-quality fruit and vegetables (though unfortunately at this point much of its cropland has been turned over to lucrative fields of hashish), and a worldwide trade network based upon Lebanese communities throughout the world.
Israel has a technologically advanced economy and is especially adept at dryland agriculture techniques. Jordanian farmers often buy Israeli seed and fertilizers. Last year in Bahrain, this reporter met an American agriculture specialist who was selling Americanized versions of the Israeli ''drip irrigation'' systems to Gulf Arabs.
Jordan is home to a sizable population of well-educated Palestinians and Jordanians - doctors, engineers, technicians. It also has a growing minerals industry.
All have mild climates, light but adequate rainfall, and world- class tourist attractions: Jerusalem, Petra, Baalbek, Palmyra. Even under present circumstances, it is possible to fly to Amman, cross to Israel, and enter southern Lebanon. Syria can be seen on a side trip from Amman.
It is an optimistic notion, but if the present ''common market'' that exists de facto can mature, these countries have the potential to become a bloc that can hold its own in the international economic arena.
To achieve that, of course, will take much more trust than is now evident. It will take an end to aggression, expansion, and intolerance. Political disputes - primarily the Palestinian homeland problem - will have to be settled. Territorial adjustments will have to be made, and military occupations ended.