NORMALLY the result of complex political, social, and economic forces, the future of the Middle East now is hostage to a single event: the outcome of the five-month crisis triggered by Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. Just how the Gulf crisis is finally settled will have a profound influence on every facet of life in the region. As the Jan. 15 UN Security Council deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal nears, analysts predict three possible conclusions:
Iraq withdraws from Kuwait as the result of a military conflict. A full-scale war would almost certainly dislodge Iraqi forces, cripple Iraq's military capability, and end Saddam Hussein's 11 1/2-year rule over Iraq.
If the war is short and decisive, as United States military planners intend, and if civilian casualties are low, the results could be favorable to regional stability and Western interests: Aggression would be punished; the standing of the US and its coalition partners would be enhanced; new leadership would take over in Iraq; and the weight of the Arab world would shift to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
If the war is long and costly, the region could erupt in a paroxysm of political violence, unleashing radical forces that could threaten regimes even in countries such as Egypt, where public sympathy for Saddam is low. Even with Saddam's defeat the result could be turmoil and uncertainty in the region for years to come.
``Depending on the length of the war, either the Arabs will be thankful that we beat Iraq and restored security to the region, or some Arabs will hate us forever for killing other Arabs,'' says Marvin Feuerwerger, a strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Many Arabs worry that if Saddam is overthrown, either as the result of military intervention or a popular uprising, the result could be a power vacuum in the Middle East which the US would fill.
Iraq withdraws from Kuwait without a war. The positive result would be that, deprived of the fruits of aggression for the second time in a decade, Saddam's legitimacy would be questioned and he would be forced to focus his attention on retaining power at home.
``If Saddam is not rewarded for aggression, the issue will be how to survive in his own country,'' says one Arab diplomat in Washington. ``The Iraqis themselves, not other Arabs, will be the ones to suffer as Saddam uses more repressive means to stay in power.''
At the same time, the political position of Arab leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd would be enhanced, reinforcing a trend toward political moderation in the region.
On the negative side, Saddam would remain in power and his military might would remain intact. The question, Dr. Feuerwerger notes, would then be ``whether Saddam would say, `I've learned my lesson' or react to his defeat by trying to cause trouble now and launching aggression from a position of greater strength later.''
One option for Saddam: terrorist attacks designed to undermine Arab adversaries like King Fahd, President Mubarak, or Syria's Hafez al Assad.
The crisis ends with territorial compromise. Analysts agree this would be the most dangerous outcome. Despite the relief of avoiding a war, the lesson of the Gulf crisis would be that crime pays. The political independence of the Gulf states would be more vulnerable. Iraq would dominate the OPEC oil cartel to the probable disadvantage of Western and third-world consumers. Tensions between Iraq and Israel would be exacerbated.
Iraq would also be a dominant influence in regional affairs with the leverage to obstruct future regional peace moves.
``An Iraq battered by an eight-year war was frightening enough,'' says the Arab diplomat. ``You'd have a veritable Prussia in the middle of the Arab world.
``At best, we've restored the status quo ante, even after bringing in outside help,'' concludes the Arab diplomat, commenting on the two scenarios that would leave Saddam in place. ``We've made an enemy of Saddam, but we haven't crippled him.''
It is just such potential vulnerability that has prompted persistent talk of new - and for a region wary of outside involvement, fundamentally different - security arrangements after the crisis is over. The options range from maintaining the current ban on military sales to Iraq to a new regional security pact that would guarantee member states against attack.
Many Arab states also favor stationing a UN peacekeeping force near the Iraq-Kuwait border and even an offshore US military presence capable of responding to emergencies.
However the Gulf crisis is played out, many experts predict two changes of far-reaching consequence to the Middle East.
One is the collapse of the illusion of Arab unity. Although it has waxed and waned in intensity since World War II, the idea that the Arab Middle East is one nation has never lost its basic appeal. Given its most compelling expression by the late Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser, the notion of pan-Arabism was also exploited by Saddam to rally Arab support after the start of the Gulf crisis.
By splitting the Arab world into pro- and anti-Iraq factions, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait has administered a serious, perhaps fatal blow, to the dream of Arab unity, many Middle East experts believe.
``The crisis has created a deep trench between the Arab peoples,'' says one official in United Arab Emirates. ``The veil of unity has been discarded.''
``There was always an element of hypocrisy on the subject,'' says the Arab diplomat in Washington, ``but it was a manageable hypocrisy. There was always enough trust to enable the Arab League to deal with crisis. Now the trust has been shattered. After passing through this terrible crisis, with forces ready to kill, it will be impossible for the leaders to meet again. It will be necessary to get rid of Saddam Hussein before even a modicum of unity can be restored.''
The other major change is what one former Arab diplomat calls an ``explosion of the questioning process'' that could spur the incipient process of democratic change, test the legitimacy of Arab regimes, and force a redistribution of the region's resources.
``The crisis has opened up an opportunity for [the Arab masses] to articulate long-suppressed aspirations,'' says Clovis Maksoud, former Arab League ambassador to the US and the United Nations. ``People are asking how Saddam - and by implication other political leaders - can make consequential decisions unilaterally. Why is there asymmetrical wealth and poverty in the region? Why are so much of the region's resources invested abroad? Why do we spend so much on arms?''
``War would become the license to answer these questions in an anarchical way,'' Mr. Maksoud continues. ``If there is a peaceful solution they will have to be answered to the satisfaction of the people or there will have to be reform.''
Middle East experts predict that how the US emerges from the Gulf crisis in the eyes of the Arab world will depend on its determination to help resolve the other, far more persistent regional conflict: the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
``If the US leans on Israel [to relinquish the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip], it will sustain credit won for defending the Gulf,'' says the UAE official. ``If the US allows the Palestinian issue to go unresolved, any credit gained in the Gulf will sink into the sand.''