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The Ukraine War Will Create A Shift in the Middle East

By Muzi Kuzwayo
Published Sunday Times 6 March  2022

The bombs that fall on Ukraine are creating previously unimaginable political shifts in the world, including South Africa. European wars always affect us.

If Napoleon had won at Waterloo, ‘Le Sotho’ which is French for ‘The Sotho’ would be a proper Francophone country because the flag always followed the missionaries. The French connection would not only be limited to how Basotho pronounce the word ‘toilet’ like ‘twilight, and how they refer to sweets as ‘lipompong’ which is an Africanisation of the French word ‘bonbon.’ Needless to say, their delicious cuisine would certainly not include the horse.  

The consequences of this war will billow throughout the world like a vicious dust storm that crosses the seas and continents just as the dust from the Sahara fertilises the Amazon. South Africa will have to seek new allies to assist her in fighting her own internal war against poverty and unemployment.

War is the realm of death, deception and billions of dollars. Military assistance is never free as Sir Winston Churchill lamented in his book, The Gathering Storm. At the end of the First World War, the European Allies owed the United States 10 billion dollars, which is equivalent to 167 billion American dollars in today’s terms. Britain owed four billion of the ten billion dollars, while Russia owed Britain seven billion dollars. In the spirit of peace, Britain proposed a wholesale cancellation of debt, but America would have none of that, causing deep anguish among the British. 

“It imposed upon Great Britain,” Churchill wrote, “much impoverished by the war, in which, as she was to do once again, she had fought from the first day to the last, the payment of thirty-five millions sterling a year for sixty-two years.”

“They hired the money,” the US President Calvin Coolidge coldly said. 

Since then, the numbers have become astronomical. Four trillion dollars for the Second World War adjusted for inflation in today’s money; And according to Forbes magazine, the Afghan war cost America 300 million dollars per day for 20 years. 

Those who are giving aid to Ukraine have started counting it in dollars. Things are changing rapidly but as of January, the United Kingdom had approved a loan of 1,7 billion pounds to Ukraine to enable her to purchase two British minesweeper vessels and retrofit British weapons systems on Ukrainian existing vessels. According to Jessica Trisko Darden, an academic at the Virginia Commonwealth University, the USA has already given Ukraine at least 2,7 billion dollars in security assistance. The European Union is known to have added another 500 million dollars; Australia has thrown in a further 70 million dollars to the lending bonanza. This sounds eerily similar to Churchill’s caution of helping to breed an economic blizzard for a nation that is in distress by allowing it to “borrow from all directions, and swallow greedily every credit which is offered.”

Calling for a ceasefire would be the more prudent thing to do if long term peace was the real goal. An Ukraine that has been bombed back to the economic Ice Age is likely to become a poisoned well of fascism, but doing the right thing is seldom what nations do. They tend to do what is in their own interest. 

“Peace seldom reigns over all Europe,” wrote the 19th-century Prussian general and military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, in his book, On War. Since his book was first published almost 200 years ago, there have been at least 256 conflicts on that continent, excluding colonial and anti-colonial wars. Many of them are repeats between nations that have a passionate hatred for one another.

The current war between Russia and Ukraine is but a proxy war between Russia and the West. Isn’t it perhaps time to admit that there is an irrational hatred between Russia and the West? “We will bury you!” barked Nikita Khrushchev, the late Soviet leader to Western ambassadors in Poland during the Cold War. Fighting “The Evil Empire” is how Ronald Reagan justified the nuclear arms race against Russia. This mutual hatred predates Communism. For instance, in the Crimean War of October 1853, an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, the Ottoman Empire and Piedmont-Sardinia (countries before the formation of the Kingdom of Italy), fought against and defeated Russia. Napoleon also warred against Russia and even reached Moscow, though he couldn’t hold it. 

The failure of America to defend its friend, Ukraine, in this bout of European violence, their chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and failure to pacify Libya, has beamed an urgent message to the Arab countries that the US has become an unreliable ally. So the Abraham Accords, which are peace and economic agreements signed between Israel and some Arab states, have become a matter of survival for the Arab governments. Israel is the strongest military and technological power in the Middle East. Who could have thought that one day Arab countries would turn to Israel for their own protection?

In order to understand the future impact of the Abraham Accords on the sands of the Middle East, let us teleport ourselves back to the Golden Age of Islam and the subsequent European Renaissance. In the chapter, “The Story Told by A Jewish Physician” out of the book, One Thousand and One Nights, we hear that Baghdad was the “metropolis of all the cities of the earth.” We know that this was where the House of Wisdom was situated, built by Harun al-Rashid or Aaron the Just. Works from other countries and periods were translated here, Aristotle’s works, Cicero and many others; This is where algebra was invented, using Indian and Arabic numerals. Baghdad was the seat of medical and scientific discoveries until the Mongol leader, Hulagu Khan, came six hundred years later, conquered the city and burnt down the House of Wisdom.

Then the big shift began and Florence became the centre of the Renaissance. 

There are several conditions necessary for a country to become a global power. Firstly, there needs to be a major shift in their worldview. The fact that some Arab countries and Israel have become both trading and military partners opens new possibilities in the region. The subsequent interaction between Israel and its neighbours is likely to blunt religious fundamentalism as Arabs, Jews and Iranians interact in cultural melting pots such as Dubai.

The second condition is the birth of new technologies. Israel has taken an unassailable global lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. New ways of reaching people, such as social media, are making it easier to bypass gatekeepers on all sides and will strip them of their assumed role as the authorities on what is right and wrong for society. In Europe, it was the invention of the Gutenberg printing press that liberated the people from the grip of the clergy. Recently, Lebanon banned the commercial release of a film called ‘Death on the Nile” because it is starring an Israeli-born actress, Gal Gaddot, but the people are streaming it directly into their homes, bypassing the government’s restrictions.

Thirdly, the experience of a different world helps to change minds. The millions of Middle Eastern youths who have run away from their warring countries have now experienced a different lifestyle in the West. They will carry this back home when they return, leading to further de-radicalisation. The crusaders who attacked Islamic lands brought back a new way of living into the West, including education for all and not just the aristocrats.

The fourth condition is the rise of the arts, which paint a lyrical and visual alternative to the prevailing straitjacket of the current leaders of society.

The fifth condition is material prosperity. The Israelis are good at desert farming and as they share technology and know-how with their Arab trading partners there will be economic growth and benefits. 

Ironically, disease or a major catastrophe is also a necessary pre-condition for becoming a global power. The Black Death also helped usher the Renaissance. The Post-Covid boom will create a new society in the Middle East, as it will around the whole world. The uptake of technology will even reach the parts of the Middle East such as Mauritania and Yemen where slavery still exists. Liberated slaves will further help change the economy and contribute to the culture just as the liberation of African-American slaves led to strong music and sports industries in the USA.

Education is the ultimate condition for becoming a global power. Countries that educate their children give them an opportunity for upward mobility. In the past some Arab leaders were accused of educating only members of their own tribes in order to limit political resistance to their leadership. Online education has changed that and the result will soon be felt.

“This is quite a game, politics,” said the retired African-American civil rights activist and politician, Bill Clay. “There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” As South Africa staggers on the slippery road of high unemployment, extraordinarily high levels of poverty and inequality, will the country change course and make sure that it benefits from the Abraham Accords or will it remain in the camp that boycotts Israel? Is this a déjà vu moment? Haven’t we been here before? When the liberation movement had to choose between the collapsing Soviet Union and the West of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan? The path was imperfect, the result was uncertain but negotiations were the only option. Will South Africa make life easier for its people through economic growth or will it remain deep in the doldrums of what Donald Trump pejoratively called ‘shithole’ countries?

The harsh dunes of misery will mercilessly bury the nation that is sheepishly tied to its old ways. Since the publication of Von Clausewitz’s book, Africa has had over 500 conflicts. 

This is the time for new leaders to bring new thinking that can reverse the tide of poverty and suffering on these shores. Let the old and dying guard rest peacefully in the cool monuments of their past glory. They did their work faithfully. It is time for new leaders who have the unyielding will and the expertise to usher the Golden Age of Africa. 

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