Opportunity in Middle East turmoil - Outside View by Sidharth Bhatia

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Opportunity in Middle East turmoil
Mar 10, 2011

Like most others around the world, Indians too have watched with fascination and some fear at the rapid changes taking places in countries in the Middle East (India officially calls the region West Asia and North Africa.) Fascination because rarely have we seen such rapid fire changes in countries that looked stable and ruled with an iron hand by dictators and tyrants. Such raw people power was last seen when the Berlin Wall came down, which led to the vanishing of the Eastern Europe Bloc and the crumbling of the Soviet Empire. Some historians are also already comparing it to the French Revolution.

But there is fear too, for the thousands of Indians who work there, about the forces that will be unleashed and in the immediate term, about the impact of oil prices that could affect our economy.

It will be a brave forecaster who can predict how things will turn out. Events have caught everyone by surprise, including the leaders of those countries as well as the well-funded, well connected intelligence agencies of the big powers. With no political leadership to speak of, no organisation, no planning and certainly no broad agenda or manifesto, people in their thousands came out on the streets and demanded that their leaders get out.

The Tunisian leader Ben Ali made plans to move to Saudi Arabia at an hour's notice; he had no intention of leaving his country, till he finally saw the writing on the wall. At the time it looked like that the contagion would spread to other Arab countries, but no one knew where and when. Within days after that, Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled with an iron grip and who determinedly hung on till the last minute refusing to budge, had to shame-facedly move to a small resort town in his country. He tried to subdue the revolt like he had for three decades, but his army refused to co-operate.

In Libya, the armed forces have been firing on their own fellow Libyans, but large parts of the country are now moving out of government control. The end game for Col Gaddafi began when his friends around the world turned away from him; now it is a matter of time before he goes too.

The most surprising outburst of citizens took place in Bahrain. Unlike Egypt and Libya, the people here have a very high standard of living - per capita income is roughly an impressive 27000 dollars - and the country is much more liberal than many in the Gulf region. But Bahrain suffers from the same malaise that other regional countries do-lack of freedom. This is what Arabs everywhere have been demanding. The fight is not just for cheaper bread or more jobs it is for political freedom. Decades of oppression by despots who were only interested in lining their own pockets and stifled every bit of dissent finally got too much; new communication technologies, including cellphones and the internet provided the tools to facilitate the revolution. Already observers are pointing toward Algeria, Jordan, Syria and even Oman as potential candidates for such revolutions.

India's diplomatic responses have been slow and cautious, though we voted against Libya in the United Nations. But such caution is misplaced. We cannot be caught on the wrong side of history.

India has long-standing relations with this region. These ties go back into history. Arabs and Indians traded freely over 1,000 years ago and developed very close cultural links. During the colonial period, many Gulf countries were administratively managed from India and Sindhi and Gujarati businessmen moved to those countries to set up businesses. Even today many of the biggest business families in Oman, UAE and other countries are Indians. In the post-independence era Nehru had set up the Non Aligned Movement with General Nasser of Egypt and kept close links with the Gulf. Today, millions of Indians work in that region and send back billions of dollars -- $30 billion according to one estimate - to their country. India gets most of its oil from the Gulf.

With such ties, India cannot afford to be on the sidelines. Already organisations in Egypt are asking India to help with the elections. The general image of India is positive, as a nation which managed economic growth along with democracy and secularism. These are great strengths we take for granted.

Now is the time to step forward and engage with the new regimes of Egypt, Tunisia and even Libya. Not merely at the government level - that will happen - but as businessmen, entrepreneurs, experts. Private individuals and institutions must find ways to get involved in rebuilding those societies. The large corporations have been busy looking at the west for investment; but here are Greenfield opportunities that will go to those companies that will be quick off the mark; it is almost inevitable that western companies are already plotting their entry into these new free countries.

India thinks of itself as an emerging power. It has to start thinking and behaving like one. Forging a strategic partnership with the brave new world in the Middle East is a good way to begin.

This article is written by Sidharth Bhatia. Sidharth is a senior Indian journalist who has worked in print, broadcast and online media. He is a columnist and regular commentator on current affairs for several leading publications and on national television. This article was first posted on Personalfn.

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