Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

Whither The Arab Spring? – A Talk by Saeed Naqvi

Indian Perspectives on the Current Happenings In West Asia

A Talk by

Mr. Saeed Naqvi
  Distinguished Fellow, ORF Delhi

16th August, 2011

Newsletter prepared by Abha Parekh, Research Fellow

The Arab Spring sent shockwaves around the world when it established itself, in December 2010, as a defining force in the Middle East and North Africa. The steady approach of the first anniversary of the events that sparked the series of revolutions in the Arab world provides an apt moment to re-evaluate where the world stands on issues of serious democratic reform and political progress. On 16th August 2011, as Syrian troops continued to attack peaceful demonstrators, and Libya’s civil war raged on in full force, the Indian streets were flooded with protests against the egregiously corrupt practices at every level of public life.

This was the background before which Mr. Saeed Naqvi, a senior journalist and a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi (ORF), gave a talk titled Whither the Arab Spring: Indian Perspectives on the Current Happenings in West Asia. Mr. Naqvi gave a detailed analysis of the root causes of strife in the Arab world, based on his rigorous research and personal experiences through his extensive travel in the region. The question and answer session which followed Mr. Naqvi’s talk brought out crucial points about India’s interests in the events of the Arab Spring and the future of its foreign relations with some key Arab countries.

The evening began with an introduction given by Shri Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman of ORF Mumbai. He drew a parallel between the peaceful protests in India and the revolutionary movements in the Arab world. “We at ORF are deeply interested in the spread of democracy around the world—in genuine democratic processes in democratically governed countries around the world, like India. Therefore, even though the topic today is the Arab Spring, we must begin by raising our voice in support of genuine democracy, in support of probity, accountability and transparency; otherwise even our democracy will be endangered.” Shri Kulkarni lauded Mr. Naqvi’s many achievements, comparing him to the veteran journalist R.K. Karanjia, the editor of one of India’s most firebrand fortnightlies, ‘Blitz’. “Karanjia interviewed many world leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and this specific interview contributed to making Nasser a household name. I consider Saeed Bhai to be a very worthy successor to the legacy of Karanjia, because no other living Indian journalist has covered so many international events and has interviewed so many world leaders as he has. I am certain that the talk he will give will have not only the flavour of a journalist, but also the rigour and insight of a scholar.”

To deal with a topic as complex as Middle East politics, Mr. Naqvi ascertained that we must “begin at the very beginning”. He identified three distinct faces of the Arab Spring: first, the events in Tunisia and Egypt, leading to protests in Morocco and Jordan as well; second, the involvement of Saudi Arabia and its strategic interests in maintaining status quo in the region; and third, the unique situation in Libya with Muammar Gaddafi. All of these, as he pointed out, are informed by the age-old conflict between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, and it is imperative to understand these dynamics in order to fully grasp the developments of the Arab Spring.


“What we don’t realize is that what is happening in the Middle East is a huge flare of Shia-Sunni conflict being built up and promoted on a scale that you and I are not aware of,” said Naqvi. He described Saudi Arabia, a nation with a majority Sunni population, as “the spider in the web of events in the area.” In 1979, when the Iranian Revolution led to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the advent of Ayatollah Khomeini, “Shi’ism became a big ogre in the minds of many establishments, particularly in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia. Islam became bipolar, with one pole in Riyadh, and the other in Tehran.” In the following decades, Saudi Arabia increasingly observed threats to Sunni dominance from large Shia populations in Iraq, Bahrain and Kuwait. Of these, Bahrain has particularly been a source of worry, owing to its unique demographic make-up – over 70 percent of the population is Shia, but the government is distinctly Sunni in character. Mr. Naqvi incisively pointed out that it was in Saudi Arabia’s interest to quell any revolution in Bahrain, because, “if the Shia population of Bahrain is able to come on top, then the causeway—the 37-km link with the Saudi areas where the oil is—will catch the flare from Bahrain and create problems in Saudi Arabia.”

Similarly, in Syria, he said, the ruling al-Assad family is from the Alawait sect of Islam, most closely related to Shi’ites. The Alawaits comprise roughly 12 percent of Syria’s population, and therefore Saudi Arabia is questioning, “If the Shias can come to power in Iraq, why can’t we get Sunnis to power in Syria?”


Yemen, another country that is facing public turmoil, also has a history that is deeply relevant to the Arab Spring. Before the 1990 unification of Yemen, “Sanaa was the capital of North Yemen, and Aden was the capital of South Yemen. Until the 1990s, you had Nasser’s holdover Socialist movement controlling Southern Yemen, and before the collapse of the USSR, the Soviets had considerable say over the events in Aden.” When the Soviets began their occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, “a Mujahedeen was created by the Saudis, the Americans, and Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan” to strengthen the Afghan resistance. North Yemen took on the responsibility of creating and nurturing a “homegrown, thoroughbred Arab Mujahedeen”, as they saw in it the potential to counter Soviet influences in South Yemen as well. Today, said Mr. Naqvi, “The same source that is plaguing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to some extent India, is creating and manufacturing Al-Qaeda in the Arab peninsula.”

Thus, as Mr. Naqvi elucidated these points, a clearer picture of the international forces and agendas shaping the Arab Spring began to emerge.

Mr. Naqvi stressed the unique character of the Libyan uprising, for a few reasons—its devolvement into full-fledged civil war, the stubborn leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, and its “pronounced African face”. He elaborated as follows, “There are any number of issues simmering in Africa, where the next battle, or tussle, for resources, minerals, oil, and energy is. Gaddafi got disenchanted with his Arab friends, and turned to Africa. He supported movements in Sudan, Chad, and Sierra Leone… If Europeans have to take an interest in Africa, Gaddafi’s links to all African movements must be snapped. Also, he has the kind of sweet oil for which European refineries are geared. Getting this oil in Benghazi is a key matter. Third, Gaddafi has the Great River Project. Libya is sitting on the world’s biggest aquifers of water. In an area where water can possibly be the reason for the next battle, he has created about 1600 wells, calling it the huge river project. On one end, you have oil, and on the other, tons of water. Additionally, Gaddafi is a very cocky man, a megalomaniac, a narcissist, and has insulted King Abdullah directly many times. King Abdullah wants his head on a platter!” With all these factors at play in Libya, Mr. Naqvi made it clear that NATO’s strategy to defeat Gaddafi and restore peace in Libya will have to be delicately framed and implemented in order to account for all possible consequences, both domestically and internationally.



Even though the topic at hand was a grave one, Mr. Naqvi peppered his talk with some witty and humourous jokes that provided the audience with some comic relief. In one instance, he described a cartoon that had appeared in a European newspaper, showing Europeans relaxing under an umbrella and sipping Campari. “A butler comes up to them,” Mr. Naqvi said, “and says, “Gentlemen! There’s a fire out there, and it’s near your houses!” To which they reply, “Don’t just stand there! Go and put it out!”” The audience was thoroughly amused by this whimsical depiction of the West’s efforts to control the situation in Libya.

In another instance, Mr. Naqvi relayed a conversation with his friend and fellow journalist M. J. Akbar: “Akbar asked me, if the Shias have 12 Imams, and could get a 13th, do you know who it would be? It would be George W. Bush!” As the audience’s laughter died down, he explained that it was because Bush had expertly invaded Iraq and dismantled its Ba’ath structure without the world realizing the consequences of his actions. Needless to say, Mr. Naqvi’s insertion of some lighter moments into his talk was heartily welcomed by the audience.


What have been the outcomes of these revolutionary movements in the Arab world? Is there still hope for democracy, or, as Ms. Radha Viswanathan, Fellow, ORF, phrased it in her welcome remarks, “has the Arab Spring turned into a Winter of Discontent”? Mr. Naqvi focused our attentions on the Egyptian movement, and its loss of momentum in recent months. Elections that were scheduled for September may now be delayed because of a UN General Assembly resolution on Israel and Palestine that is to be debated at the very same time. Mr. Naqvi warned, “You cannot have that issue in the vortex of Egyptian politics.” Even the drama surrounding Hosni Mubarak’s trial is indicative of the will of the Egyptian military to position itself as an antithesis to Mubarak’s harsh and corrupt rule, and to continue to remain in power in the longer term.

There is also no guarantee that the positive changes that have ensued will have a lasting effect in the region. Mr. Naqvi expounded on this using an anecdote: “In Iraq, I met with Ahmed Chalabi, who was previously the Deputy Prime Minister. I asked him how he felt about being blamed for the destruction of existing political structures in Iraq and the chaos that ensued after the American invasion. He said to me that had he not destroyed the Ba’athist party structure, things would have been worse. When I asked him why, he replied that in Tunisia and Egypt, the celebrations are premature, because even though Ben Ali and Mubarak have been overthrown, the institutions that existed under them have not been dismantled. If this does not happen, then no real change will occur. They need to start from scratch, like we did.” This advice, warned Mr. Naqvi, must not be taken lightly by the international community. “It is the wounded tiger,” he prophesized, “that leaps at you.”

But there are two important, over-arching lessons that must not be lost in this issue, he argued. One of them, as he discovered in a conversation with Israeli politician Dan Meridor, is that the Arab Spring has taught us to be humble, and to shed our hubris. “With all the intelligence networks we boast of, no one could predict that the death of one unknown Mohamed Bouazizi would lead to all of this,” he said, highlighting the self-immolation of the street vendor to protest against his harassment by the municipal authorities in December 2010 that led to mass uprising in Tunisia. The other lesson, stressed Mr. Naqvi, was to realise that our knowledge of events, developments and trends in the Middle East is extremely limited. Mr. Naqvi remarked sadly, “Every time I travel, I despair, because I realise that all the sources of our information are exactly the same—the authors, the executioners, the judge and the jury are all one and the same. We live with a degree of amnesia, and our tendency to forget the past allows a deluge of biased and propagandist news.” It was thus especially valuable to the audience to be able to hear a detailed and in-depth analysis from Mr. Naqvi on the Arab Spring and the lesser-known, yet crucial narratives that are driving it.


Mr. Naqvi answers questions from the audience


Even though Mr. Naqvi did not find time to talk to about Indian perspectives on the Arab Spring, the question-answer session was effective in bringing these issues to the forefront. The distinguished audience included Mr. Prakash Shah, who was previously India’s representative at the United Nations, and an ambassador to Japan, and Ms. Parvin Daneshvar from the Iranian Consulate.

Mr. Shah rightly pointed to three key Indian interests in the Middle East—firstly, the large population of Indians, approximately 7.5 million, that live and work in the Gulf countries as temporary immigrants; secondly, the remittances from these workers that contribute to the Indian economy; and thirdly, the supply of oil to India, which relies heavily on countries in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Mr. Naqvi agreed, and went on to lament India’s weak foreign policy with countries in the Middle East. “Our embassies in these countries are seriously lacking,” he commented. “We do not have enough people there who speak Arabic, nor do we have any journalists in the region who are collecting information. The challenge before us now is to reengage with this world, and to do that, we need to decolonise our minds.”

In response to a question posed by a journalist from the Times of India about the possibility of Islamic fundamentalists like the Muslim Brotherhood filling the power vacuum in these Arab countries, Mr. Naqvi explained, “Very often, the Muslim Brotherhood evokes images of fundamentalism, which then lead to images of terror and disaster. In fact, in a dictatorship where the majority of the population is Muslim, the only political ventilators are the mosques, and they, therefore, should not be automatically discarded. There is no such thing as an Islamic monolith, as the world has slowly come to discover. India too has historically dealt with these issues, both within its borders, as well as with its neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh. We must now recognise it in the Middle East and use this newfound understanding to create a stronger policy.”

Finally, in response to a question about Arab perceptions of India and its democratic traditions, Mr. Naqvi displayed much hope in friendly relations and lasting cooperation between India and the Middle East: “Nowhere in the world are we respected more than in this region. Contrary to our imagination of a great divide between Hindu and Muslim mindsets, we are held in very high esteem by the people there. This can, and must, be a driving force behind our re-engagement with the Arab world.”

About Mr. Saeed Naqvi

Mr. Saeed Naqvi is a journalist, television commentator, interviewer and Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. He has interviewed world leaders and personalities in India and abroad for print as well as TV media. His writings have appeared in several publications, including BBC News, The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, The Indian Express and Outlook magazine. At The Indian Express, he started in 1977 as a Special Correspondent, and eventually became Foreign Editor for the newspaper in Delhi in 1984. Since 1986, he has been the Editor of World Report, a syndication service on foreign affairs. His books include Reflections of an Indian Muslim and The Last Brahmin Prime Minister.

About ORF Mumbai

Observer Research Foundation (ORF) is a leading non-partisan Indian Think-Tank that seeks to influence public policy formulation. It was established in New Delhi in 1990 by R.K. Mishra, a widely respected public figure, who envisaged it as a broad-based intellectual platform pulsating with ideas needed for India’s nation-building.

In its journey of twenty years, ORF has brought together leading Indian policy makers, academics, public figures, social activists and business leaders to discuss various issues of national importance. ORF scholars have made significant contributions toward improving government policies. ORF has produced a large body of critically acclaimed publications.

Until recently, ORF’s activities were based mainly in New Delhi. Beginning 2010, ORF Mumbai has been established to pursue the Foundation’s vision in India’s business and financial capital. It has started research and advocacy in six broad areas: Education, Public Health, Inclusive Development, Urban Renewal, Youth Development, and Promotion of India’s Priceless Artistic and Cultural Heritage.

ORF Mumbai’s mission statement is: Ideas and Action for a Better India. It will champion the cause of balanced socio-economic development and a better quality of life for all Indians. It will also work towards strengthening India’s democratic institutions to become more responsible, responsive and sensitive to common people’s needs and concerns, especially those of most vulnerable sections of society.

Besides conducting diligent research in its above six core areas, ORF Mumbai also pursues wide-ranging initiatives like:

*         Maharashtra @ 50 Study Centre

*         Forum for India-China Citizens’ Dialogue

*         Centre for the Study of India’s Ancient Knowledge Traditions

*         Gurus of Science Series


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This entry was posted on 16/08/2011 by in ORF Mumbai.
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