Middle East expert Guido Steinberg told Deutsche Welle in an interview that Egypt and the Gulf States will play a pivotal role in determining whether political upheaval will continue across the Arab world.
Steinberg says Egypt's success holds the key to development in the Arab world
Guido Steinberg is an expert on the Middle East - with a special research focus on Iraq and Islamic terrorism - at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
Deutsche Welle: The 'Arab Spring' is drawing to an end. Now, we're seeing events akin to civil war unfolding in Syria and Libya and there's no knowing how they will end. As an expert on the Middle East and the Arab world, where do you see further 'Arab revolutions' in five years from now?
Steinberg says Germany still needs to formulate a Mideast policy
Guido Steinberg: It's very difficult to make predictions considering that everything that we know in the region is changing. But the region will never again be what it was before 2011. Authoritarian regimes will face increasing problems in the next years. Despite that, I don't think that many regimes will be toppled. That will depend crucially on how far Egypt turns into a success model.
Until the 1970s, Egypt was a kind of leader in the Arab world in every respect. In the cultural sphere, Egypt still remains one. There are high hopes that Egypt - because of its strong demographics and its wide-reaching cultural power in the past - can create a sort of model.
At the same time, there are fears that the events in Libya or even experiences in Iraq will prompt many Arabs to worry about civil wars erupting in their own countries. I believe that in five years, the seed of these revolutions will have grown but not many regimes will have been overthrown. That applies especially to the conservative monarchies in the Gulf that have proven to be extremely stable as well as to countries such as Morocco. Algeria perhaps is a country more at risk by popular movements.
How do you see developments in the strategically-important countries in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
Overall, I think that the conflict in the Gulf region will become increasingly significant for three reasons: firstly, the importance of oil and gas reserves in the region will grow in the next years, adding an international dimension to the conflict. The US has great interest that nations such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia remain stable.
Secondly, Iran plays a big role in the region. I think that in the coming years, the regime in Tehran will continue to exist in a similar form to what it is today. Thirdly, the conflict between Shias and Sunnis will play a role. That's already the case in Bahrain today and that explains the huge attention the country has drawn from the Saudis, the Iranians and the Americans. The further rise of Iran will lead to the Gulf conflict taking on increased significance in the coming years.
Steinberg predicts that the fallout from unrest in Gulf nations could be potentially massive
Also, the consequences of the collapse of regimes in the Gulf region will overshadow everything that we're currently seeing in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The Gulf region is the stage where world politics will be played out.
How should foreign policy experts in Germany, Europe and in the US react? What should political leaders be prepared for?
We should try and consolidate efforts in countries where we do have influence and where changes have taken place. That means, for instance, that we have to continually approach the Egyptians and ask them how we can help them in order to stabilize all the things that they have already achieved. That applies particularly to the economic field given that Egypt's economy has been completely battered after decades of dictatorship.
It's likely to be a difficult and vast task. In other countries too, we must back reforms, support the opposition more strongly and listen more closely to what's happening in society. For a very long time, we've shown too little interest in doing that.
German politicians must first make it clear what goals they aim to pursue in the region. The fiasco on policy toward Libya earlier this year was a clear indication that the German government hasn't clearly defined what our interests are and which strategies we want to use to pursue those interests. This uncertainty has been around for a while even though it's worsened under the current government. It's perhaps an indication that the region does not really interest us as much as is claimed in speeches by politicians. So, Germany, it seems, first has to develop a Mideast policy in the first place.
Europe has been divided in its response to the conflict in Libya
For Europe, the divisions of the recent past first need to heal. I don't see that happening in the next few years. The conflict over Libya between the French, the British and the Italians on one side and Germany on the other has made it clear that there is no common European foreign policy. Europe cannot be taken seriously as a foreign policy player. That will not change in the next five years.
That means that a lot will depend on the Americans. And the big question is how far the Obama administration - assuming that President Obama will be re-elected in the coming year - will have the strength to do so. There are plenty of other pressing problems for the US such as the relationship to China and North Korea, Iran and its nuclear arms.
Weighed against that, I fear that the events in the Middle East and North Africa will lose relevance overall. It's only when countries such as Bahrain or Saudi Arabia become a topic is when we can hope for a really targeted and active American policy. But by then, probably, it will be too late.
Birgit Götz interviewed Guido Steinberg (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge