Mideast Revolution: People Lose, Oil Wins

Members of a newly-formed militia stamp on pictures of Col. Gaddafi in Benghazi, Libya on Feb. 26, 2011. Trevor Snapp

The biggest potential losers in the still-roiling revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa are the people themselves. Many are democrats at high risk of being overwhelmed over time by new dictators and organized religious extremists. But the uncontested winners are already quite clear: those who own, sell, and bet on oil. In the last month alone, oil prices have leaped almost 10 percent, even with only tiny dips in supply.

While these revolutions have produced daily thunderclaps worldwide about a new democratic future for the Middle East, power structures remain largely intact. Almost every country in the region looks as if it's marking time, waiting. So far, those who took to the streets succeeded only in ousting their unwanted masters—Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia—and not in really changing the power status quo ante. In Yemen, the established leadership does look shaky. In Libya, where the media proclaimed the rebels as victors last week, it seems like a standoff with Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

In Tunisia, where it all began, the revolutionaries are awaiting elections. The once banned Islamist party Al-Nahda has just been legalized. In Egypt, the protesters still find themselves in the strong grip of the military. Elections are set for September, and the military, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, can be expected to top the parliamentary polls. In Bahrain, the huge Shiite majority took to the squares and made the Sunni autocracy tremble—only a causeway away from the Saudi Arabian oil jackpot. To date, the revolutions have generated far more drama and hope than real change.

The fighting in Libya has understandably monopolized attention, though its international importance is modest. Its normal output of oil sits at only 1 percent of daily global consumption. But watch out: legions of neoconservatives are demanding military action against Gaddafi, though his Arab neighbors say "stay out."

Israel is the biggest strategic loser. The Jewish state has relied on Arab autocracies to subdue the anti-Zionist sentiments of their peoples. And Israel can't do anything to fix its plight. Times are not at all conducive for new talks with Palestinians.

The United States is also a loser, but it need not be a big one. Washington's power depends on whether the revolutions peter out or launch new anti-American rulers. Whatever happens, Washington will confront greater anti-Americanism. The fact is that Arabs generally see the United States as the protector of the corrupt autocrats who long ruled them and the savior of the hated Israel. Counterterrorism operations and anti-Iran diplomacy will suffer.

Turkey will be a model for Arab nations lucky enough to democratize. Its foreign policy balances between the United States and the states of Islam and is also now somewhat anti-Israel. Internally, Turkey balances between an Islamic and a secular state. The country has internal stability and a promising economy.

Conventional wisdom holds that Iran has won the lottery. But don't bet on it. Iranians are Shiites and Persians; the revolutionaries are mostly Sunnis and Arabs. These groups don't particularly care for one another. Most important, Arab revolutionaries must surely despise Iranian leaders who beat and slaughtered Iran's freedom fighters a mere two years ago. Iran will gain only if regimes like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, strongly anti-Tehran, weaken and fall.

It's quite possible that the revolutionary fervor will tire amid economic shortages and other burdens, and fade. Or the revolutions could erupt once again, suddenly, and wipe out all the dynasties in their path, forcing profound recalculations of U.S. policy. But two things are certain: the oil barons and traders will get richer, and most people worldwide will scramble against higher oil and food prices and declining economies.

Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.