SPEAKING FREELY How Iraq will win the Arab Spring
By Riccardo Dugulin
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While the aftershocks of a recent bout of violence are still being felt from South Lebanon to Tripoli, the roaring streets of Cairo and their anti-government slogans do not bode well for Egyptís political stability. Meanwhile, torn apart by devastating civil and proxy war, Syria can no longer be considered the Near Eastern power house it used to be. And despite their financial aura, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE do not have the political strength, manpower or
regional unity to single-handedly lead the crumbling Middle Eastern chessboard.
Realities on the ground indicate that the coming years will see the emergence of a major Arab power vacuum which may well be filled by radical and fundamentalist groups further eroding statesí ability to assert their policies in the region.
These widely verified elements constitute a major source of alarm for regional and international policy makers, and analysts should not implicitly dismiss the role that can still be played by Iraq.
For a long time considered a possible buffer state between Iran and its Arab adversaries, Iraq has been partially left out from the mainstream regional calculations after the beginning of the "Arab Spring".
The unresolved questions of personal safety, terrorism and control of the territory by the central government are easily misleading as they create an impression of instability and unsolvable issues.
As the traditional power hubs of the Arab word are at best soul-searching and at worst imploding, Iraq could yet emerge as the Arab winner of a spring that wasn't.
In a region bracing for an additional decade of conflicts and their aftershocks, Iraq has already gone through the major part of a bloody devastating war and is now focused on reconstruction efforts. These efforts can also be sustained by a diversified and resource rich economy bound to attract further international investors who, in turn, will increase the preparation and expertise level of the millions of young Iraqis looking for opportunities to live in peace and security.
Ten years after the beginning of the US-led military operations in Mesopotamia, a number of conclusions can be made in regard to the outcome of the international campaign in Iraq and its impact. Without entering into the debate of whether the war should have been avoided or not, one result is clear: while Syrians are engaged in their civil and proxy war to rid themselves of Bashar Al-Assad and while Egypt is slowly walking toward a political breakdown, international intervention in Iraq was able to effectively free the country from Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime.
In addition to that, the continued presence of US troops in the country and their commitment to have "boots on the ground" enabled the international community to facilitate the processes of nation building.
It is clear that the cost paid by the Iraqi civilian population has been high and keeps on being so due to the high risk posed by the ongoing terrorist threat. Nevertheless, at present, the country has a constitution and political institutions slowly progressing toward a national representative system.
Every election and legislative challenge remains filled with obstacles and may well trigger major acts of violence but a legal framework is already in place, thus laying the foundation on which the future of the country can be built. On top of that, the fall of Hussein's regime and the formation of the new structure have set the base for a multipolar market economy which can in the medium term prove to be highly beneficial for the country's citizens.
Iraq is, in fact, a decade ahead of its Arab neighbors who are just starting to look for new political and economic bases. While the war devastated the country and its population, the new situation is setting Iraq apart from the rest of the regional quagmire.
The second point to be stressed is that the country has now all the cards necessary to re-establish itself as a successful regional economy. Basing itself on gigantic oil resources, Iraq maintains the hub position connecting the Gulf and Central Asia to the Near East while having the possibility to foster a strong industrial sector.
The attempts at reconstruction have spread out to all sectors of the Iraqi economy and society, thus constituting a genuine opportunity for the country. The government's and private sector's ability to raise the interest of foreign investors and satisfy their needs represents a major challenge, but the hundreds of Europeans, Northern American and Chinese enterprises already operating in Iraq are a strong indicator of the country's attractiveness.
The key factor to be taken into consideration lies in the diversity offered by the Iraqi economic outlook in itself appealing to states and investors from all sectors and of all sizes. As there is a country to reconstruct, the possible return on investment is higher by double digits than those found in the region.
Finally, there is also the underlying strength of the country: its human capital. With more than 30 million habitants - 30% of whom are under the age of 15 - the possibilities of development based on a stable and structured educational environment are higher than Iraq's Arab neighbors. The fact that the country's government and institutional organization address the problem faced by their youth and the present lack of technical skills is representative of an overall advance in the national reality.
The number of young Iraqis willing to travel abroad to better their professional characteristics and contribute to their country's reconstruction while benefiting from its market is instrumental in defining the difference between Iraq and what were once the Middle Eastern giants of Syria and Egypt.
These indicators should by no mean be misinterpreted. The challenges Iraq is still facing are enormous and the security environment in the country does not allow safe travel outside of guard perimeters. The overreaching centralization of political and economic power in Baghdad comes in stern contrast with the breakaway pushes from the Kurdish region while economic development in Basra is slowed by bureaucratic and legislative obstacles.
In addition to that, the possible rise of Iraq is in itself something regional Arab and non-Arab players watch with a wary eye while they draw policies to keep the country as their permanent client for commercial, energy and cultural aspects.
As the Middle East's status quo is crumbling and is likely to lead to another decade of instability, Iraq with its semi-functional political system, its economic resources and possibilities and a pool of millions of young citizens ready to invest themselves in the processes of reconstruction has the possibilities to come out as a regional winner of the "Arab Spring" while benefiting of a new power position in the region.
Riccardo Dugulin holds a Master degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance Company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. His personal website is www.riccardodugulin.com
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.