Abu Dhabi – The United Arab Emirates has always been a good place to watch shifting geopolitical sands. From its days as a pearl-rich, British protectorate in the 19th century to its oil-rich reality today, assured by a robust U.S. defense presence, the region has had many backgrounds.
Now leaders throughout the monarchical states of the Middle East Gulf are bracing for the sandstorm of what they fear may be a “post-Western era.” That is, potentially decades to come of regional upheavals and realignment shaped by reduced U.S. engagement, a dysfunctional Europe and the influence of less-enlightened state actors and emboldened extremist groups.
The past week’s wave of anti-American rage across the Middle East and North Africa has sharpened the reality that the region is facing an escalating double threat: that of a nuclear-charged, expansionist Shiite Iran and the spread of Sunni, jihadist extremism from Somalia to Syria and from Cairo to Benghazi. Particularly troubling are the death of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and the torching of an American-run school in Tunisia. The events took place in two countries where Arab Spring hopes have burned brightest, where U.S. and European engagement has been welcome and where democratic change has been most promising.
The mob violence that followed the circulation of an amateur film negatively portraying the Islamic prophet Mohammad, coinciding with the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, is likely to reduce rather than increase the American public’s appetite to engage more deeply in the Middle East. American voters are weary of war, worried about the economy and becoming less dependent on Middle East energy thanks to the expanding natural shale gas exploration in the U.S.
The past week’s events will at the same time dramatically complicate consideration of more concerted Turkish-Arab-U.S. efforts to counter Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and end a gruesome civil war that has already claimed 30,000 lives.