The greater Middle East stretching from Morocco to Afghanistan is in a state of flux because of the force of internal developments and external pressures. The Arab Spring was an indicator of the internal forces at work in the countries of the region. Foreign interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the continuing stand off on Iran’s nuclear programme, and the unresolved Arab-Israeli and Palestinian disputes are examples of the external forces trying to influence the course of events in the Middle Eastern countries. In view of the extent and intensity of these forces, it is almost certain that the shape of the whole region will undergo radical changes in the next one or two decades. The developments flowing out of the Middle East cauldron will inevitably cast their shadows on Pakistan. Therefore, despite the hazards of predicting the future, our leaders and opinion makers must try, as best as they can, to anticipate these developments and plan for safeguarding our national interests in the turbulent years ahead of us.

The main driving force behind the Arab Spring was the desire of the Arab people for liberty from the oppressive regimes which had ruled them for decades and for an escape from the economic exploitation to which they had been subjected by their ruling elites. The speed with which Presidents Zine El Abidine and Hosni Mubarak of Tunisia and Egypt respectively were overthrown showed the bitterness of their people. The fall of the Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt reverberated throughout the Arab world where the people had been denied for decades their rightful role in running the affairs of the government.

As the military coup against Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi shows, the ruling classes in the Arab world responsible for oppression against and exploitation of their people have struck back with a vengeance. The revolutionary process to rid the Arab people of the yoke of the exploiting ruling elite will, therefore, take a lot of more time before it reaches its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, the days of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East are numbered. Meanwhile, the Arab world will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis and suffer from continued political instability.

Another source of tensions and instability in the greater Middle East is the wave of sectarianism sweeping the region. The rivalry at play between Iran and Saudi Arabia is partly the offshoot of sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and partly the competition between them for pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf region. The ongoing conflict in Syria may be a protest against the authoritarian character of the government of Bashar al-Assad. But it also has roots in the sectarian differences in Syria between Sunnis constituting the majority of the population and the ruling Alawites, a minority Shiite faction. The internal conflict in Syria has been aggravated by the involvement of other regional countries on sectarian lines with Iran and Iraq on the side of the Bashar al-Assad government and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan supporting the Syrian armed opposition.

In Afghanistan, the Sunni-Shiite divide has played a role in the internal armed conflict and in the support of the major regional countries to one Afghan faction or the other. Pakistan itself also suffered heavily from sectarian terrorism, especially in 1990’s. Several more recent terrorist incidents in Pakistan have obvious sectarian overtones. What remains to be seen is whether the Muslim leaders will have the wisdom to tread the path of religious moderation or whether they will be swept by growing sectarian passions. It wouldn’t be surprising if non-regional powers get involved in widening the sectarian divide in the Middle East in accordance with the imperial policy of divide and rule.

The Arab-Israeli dispute and the unresolved Palestinian issue are two of the most serious destabilizing factors in the Middle East. The injustices committed by Israel against the Palestinian people with the tacit support of the West led by the US have engendered strong anti-West feelings in the Arab world and may have been the single most important factor responsible for the establishment of Al Qaeda. The US determination to exercise control over the oil and gas resources of the Persian Gulf region and its support to pliant regimes in the region, which are willing to serve its strategic interests, have added to the bitterness among the Arab people and intensified anti-Americanism in the region. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, reflecting its tendency to place excessive reliance on the use of military means to achieve its goals, further radicalized and destabilized the region.

The US claims to be the champion of democracy but at the same time has offered tacit support to the military coup against President Mohammad Morsi of Egypt, who had been democratically elected last year, primarily because Morsi had Islamist leanings. It supports human rights in general but blocks effective action against Israel when it subjects the Palestinian people to atrocities. The US policies in the Middle East thus are often contradictory and even counterproductive from the point of view of the long-term US interests in the region.

The US drone attacks against terrorist targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Yemen may have killed some terrorists. But by causing collateral damage and loss of innocent human lives, they may also be reinforcing anti-Americanism, fomenting extremism and adding to the pool of potential terrorists. In Afghanistan, America has succeeded in weakening Al Qaeda but it has failed to restore durable peace and stability in the country because it did not evolve a well-considered political policy to complement its military effort. The net result is that barring some dramatic developments, the US is likely to leave behind an Afghanistan suffering from internal armed conflict and chronic instability. US relations with Iran after the Islamic revolution are a story of missed opportunities and excessive reliance by Washington on coercive diplomacy. Let us hope that the recent contacts between the leaders of the two countries on the Iranian nuclear issue will put their relationship on a positive trajectory.

The Middle East, despite the prospect of continued instability in the foreseeable future, is an area of vital importance for Pakistan as its political, security, economic, commercial and cultural interests are deeply engaged in the region. Our policies towards the Middle Eastern countries must be based on the principle of non-interference in their internal affairs and the careful balancing of our short-term and long-term interests. While we must continue to maintain close friendly relations with the governments of the region, we must also remain cognizant of the historical trend towards participatory forms of government. If possible, we must even encourage this trend.

Our past policy of avoiding involvement in intra-Arab disputes and rivalries has served us well in the past and must be adhered to in the future also. The same applies to our resolute support to the Palestinian cause. While calling for religious moderation, we should discourage sectarianism in the Arab and the Muslim world. We must remain sensitive to the desire of the people of the region to gain freedom from the control of and exploitation by non-regional powers. We should also call for the development of a security structure in the Persian Gulf region to strengthen regional peace and stability and facilitate peaceful settlement of disputes. This may be the best way to avoid the growing Saudi-Iranian rivalry, which has the potential to destabilize the whole region and damage our critically important security and economic interests.

The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.