At last Egypt is reclaiming its historic role as the political and intellectual hub of the Arab world. Without doubt a domino effect is taking place throughout the Middle East, as young and not-so-young populations exposed to the super-modernizing forces of the Internet and satellite television oust their anachronistic dictators and dismantle oppressive police states. Crucially, these are popular revolutions – not the army coups of the 1950s and 1960s. In this sense they are the first genuine revolutions in the modern Arab world. And they are being achieved without foreign assistance or interference. Indeed, the world’s greatest democracies have offered zero moral or logistical support, with the current US and British administrations appearing uncomfortably wrong-footed - and thus risking a generation-long set-back for Anglo-American influence in the "new Middle East".
Most importantly, perhaps, the revolutions have had no sectarian foundation whatsoever and do not appear to be led by scary, big-bearded "Islamists". The wounded men and women on the streets are largely educated, English-speaking, and are no strangers to BlackBerrys, Twitter, email, middle class values and democratic principles. Getting back to the theme of Gulf Stream - this non-Islamist identity, I think, could be the real torpedo for the Al-Saud and the other Gulf autocrats, unless significant steps are taken very soon. Clearly buffered by strong welfare states and an ability to distribute wealth and employment opportunities to their people, the Gulf states need have no immediate fear of Egyptian-style protests over food prices and economic desperation (though in the case of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, never say never).
However, their indigenous opponents, who are becoming increasingly organized, can no longer as easily be dismissed as dangerous Islamists – or, in Bahrain’s case, as agents provocateurs stirring some kind of ill-defined sunni-shia conflict. Definitely, the Gulf rulers can no longer keep pedalling to the rest of the world the bogeyman image that their main opponents are crazy radicals who seek to establish anti-western Islamic theocracies. I believe they are not and have done for some time. It’s difficult, of course, to imagine mass uprisings in oil-rich states, but as regime change and democracy begins to encircle the Gulf states, the rulers – most of whom seem unable to implement real change – will soon feel considerable heat from densely populated neighbouring states. I doubt these will tolerate the squandering of the great and very precious pan-Arab oil gift on prestige projects, overseas properties, and other elite expenditure, while millions languish in angry Cairo, Tunis, Amman, and Damascus tenements.