With flames of revolution raising high in the skies of the Arab (or Moslem?) universe, we can only contemn the interpretation “populations are struggling for democracy and civil/human rights”. Those populations hate their despicable despots, yes. They will enjoy ‘liberation’ (whatever liberation will mean), of course.

But too many millions have no prospect of work. They know too many facts of corruption, oppression and illegality in public life. They are conscious of too much distance from the lot of the proletarians and the one of the priviledged, including the siblings of people in authority. Probably the majority of revolutionaries would go back to docility, should they be offered a job. Democracy alone promises nothing to them.

But do we risk overestimating the importance of the Islamist factor? We do, in part. Perhaps a great many protesters would not expect to get an income, should fundamentalism triumph. So let’s be cautious in searching for religious motivations. On the other hand, Islam is not religion only. It is a cultural identity and a civilization, is a vast and proud ‘nation’, is the memory of an empire and the longing for revenge. In addition, fundamentalists have historically demonstrated their capacity to meet the basic needs of common people, in many ways. While the prospect of more democracy, more parties, more robber politicians will not impel to rebellion, a great many hungry people will expect something for them from ‘a call to arms’ of their religious leaders or propagandists. A tenet of their faith is social justice, while secularism and modernization announces almost nothing in terms of real, weighty solidarity with the proletarians.

In such a sense any fundamentalist mobilization is, or can be, more relevant than all efforts to conquer minds and hearts to the precepts of the Western political science -free elections. decent parliaments, the approbation of Western diplomats, presidents and media. Daily bread, not democracy or modernity, is the paramount aspiration of most Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, Sudaneses, Saudi Arabians, Yemenites, Afghanis and other Moslems.

The clash between secularism and fundamentalism is long a reality of the modern Islam, even in non Arab (or not entirely Arab) contexts as Nigeria or Sudan.The panislamist drive was born in the XIX century as a counteroffensive against the Western colonialism that had subjugated most Moslem countries. Such counteroffensive had several prophets, theorists and leaders. They advanced a variety of doctrines and battle cries. In the Arabian peninsula Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhb (1703-92) preached a very strict adherence to the traditional faith, a one which the Saudi dinasty later adopted. In Afghanistan an intellectual/politician who acquired a large following under the name Jamal al-Din Afghani (but he was born in Persia) became the champion of a Moslem revenge. Egypt is the cradle of the Moslem Brotherhood. Its founder was Hassan ibn Ahmad al- Banna. Born in 1906, he was killed in 1949. A disciple of his, Sayyid Qutb, wrote in a book that social justice had to be the basis and essence of any future Moslem nation. The Nasserist regime executed Qutb for subversive acts (but he was no terrorist). Presently the Brotherwood is the single well organized movement in Egypt. In 1981 an Islamic extremist killed the Egyptian president Anwar es-Sadat, who had signed a peace agreement with Israel.

In eastern Sudan sheikh Muhammad Ahmed proclaimed himself the Mahdi (savior), organized a state and an army that in 1885 defeated the British troops, killed their commander, general Charles George Gordon, and conquered Khartum. Movements and efforts somewhat connected with religious revival, also several jihads, arose in several countries of Africa and the Middle East. In Asia of course large nations such Pakistan and Iran were the products of the Islamic fundamentalism. Today the haters of Islamism are afraid that Egypt will become another theocratic Iran.

We have seen that Moslem thinkers and leaders have consistently emphasized that social justice is the basis and the heart of the faith. Therefore we can expect that fundamentalism will succeed in amalgamating with the revolutionary waves of today. By promising new, untried ways to better the condition of the vast masses of poor believers, fundamentalism might win the political victories that proved impossible in the past three centuries. Such eventual victories will probably be the result of a combination of forces -political, social, cultural, religious ones. Given the right circumstances, Islamism could even join its arch-enemy, westernization/modernization. Reactionary elements are not absent in pan-islamism, but even they may combine with adversaries in order to demolish or weaken the present structure of most Moslem societies.



Recently the Saudi government in Riyad placed an order for planes, helicopters and other weapons which possibly was the largest single war contract in peacetime. A shame indeed, when the Saudi armed forces are already well equipped for killing purposes beyond any probable need. That government has enemies, yes, beginning with Al Qaeda. But the latter are enemies that conventional warfare does not destroy nor deter. Certainly you and I would think of different, more civilized ways to spend the dollars coming from oilfields which represent 25% of all known reserves of the planet.

Anyway our present theme is not moralizing about the ethical choices of Riyad. Our theme is some strangely unknown features of the Arabian modern reality. We now find it natural that the Arab monarchies are very rich. But as recently as the Thirties of last century the major wealth of the Saudi economy was fishing natural pearls; and the largest receipt of the Riyad treasury was the taxes pilgrims paid to enter Mecca and Medina. Pearl fishing was cruel- most persons engaged in it died younger because of the stress of diving for natural pearls. Today the Saudi king collects enormous royalties and fees from the oil/gas industry.

The predominantly arid peninsula is now inhabited by more than 60 million people. Qatar, 1,4 millions, numbered 30,000 sixty years ago. This means that oil and a thunderous modernization has attracted so many immigrants as to provoke imbalances and distortions. Gulf emirates whose populations were tiny, today may have non-native majorities. Societies have formed where at bottom Indians and Sri Lankans are house servants and manual laborers; above them a middle class of educated Indians and Arabs works in offices and technical jobs. The top stratum of foreigners is made of Palestinians, Lebaneses and Western expatriates. The native Arabs share the oil bonanza in a number of ways: they do not pay taxes, are compensated by foreigners to act as their partners or legal ‘sponsors’ -foreigners are not allowed to own firms and houses. In addition there are jobs, state loans and outright gifts which can only go to natives. Many young Arabs do not feel compelled to find employment.

The sudden wealth and some over-ambitious modernization programs have generated mistakes. In Dubai, formerly a small gulf port, oilfields are now empty, so the emirate had converted into a giant financial and tourist center. In 2009 the international crisis and the consequences of a property bubble forced Dubai to ask the help of Abu Dhabi, where modernization had been wiser.

Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1932, the year when the kingdom came into existance. We know that before oil the Arab peninsula was poor. It wasn’t always so in the remote past. Kingdoms and principalities of the South were the legendary producers of spices: aromatic, very valued vegetable productions used in religious rites, cookery, medicine. In the south-western hill country native plants grow whose resins give frankincense and myrrh. The local princes (one of them was the Queen of Sheba of the Bible) also monopolized the trade from India and other Asian spice-producing countries to the Mediterranean.

Out of the three historical great sections of the 3 million Peninsula -Arabia Petrea to the North, Desert Arabia in the center, Arabia Felix in the South- the third one was (comparatively) green and fertile in spices. Now divided in two states, Yemen ( including Hadramouth) and Oman, Arabia Felix saw around 500 a.C. an episode of Christian domination (of the Abyssinians from Axum) and another one of Hebrew influence. Central Arabia was of course the origin and nucleus of Islam: from there Mohammed preached and acted to create a world faith and a great empire. Internecine conflict soon erupted between factions, so the highest authority of Islam abandoned Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed. The caliphs of Damascus and Bagdhad plus other leaders competed to guide Islam. In 1517 the whole of Arabia fell to the Ottomans. Three centuries later Great Britain conquered Aden and most coastal territories; only Yemen remained independent.

Today the king in Riyad, while remaining a feudal sovereign, is the foremost protagonist both in the modernization of the peninsular society and in repelling the political/terrorist attack of adversaries such as Al Qaeda. The latter is said to maintain an operational basis in Yemen.

Why have we dealt with Arabia, a small ‘continent’ which is usually ignored when oil is not involved? Because long depressed Arabia might find a role in the geopolitics and, more importantly, in the future evolution of wide sections of the globe. An experiment is going on in the peninsula, one that may both fail and succeed: grafting an almost futuristic modernity into a very old tree. Some traits of modernization are frightful, such as the golden sanitaries and precious plumbings of the seven star hotel in Dubai, the yachts as big as ships, other marks of unbridled consumerism of many former dromedary and goat shepherds.

However, who can say? With her northern shores on the Mediterranean, Arabia is the homeland of the entire race of the descendants of Shem, now chiefly represented by Jews and Arabs, but in ancient times including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Phoenicians, et cet. Arabia generated, in addition to three world religions and unsurpassed civilizations, a large empire. Notwithstanding present deformed, adulterated cultural circumstances, Arabia could possibly go back to enriching the Family of Man.

A.M.C., Daily Babel