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The Great Game redux
by Muhammad Yusuf November 22, 2012
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Canadian filmmaker Alexandre Trudeau’s documentary titled The New Great Game: The Decline of the West & the Struggle for Middle Eastern Oil, is a timely and thought-provoking work on the events surrounding the oil-producing regions of the Arabian peninsula.

Circulating around the region, from the Shatt Al Arab to the Suez Canal, he gives a lens eye view of current history by focusing on countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Egypt, Israel, Bahrain and Libya, where recent happenings have threatened the flow of oil. India, China and the USA too figure in the film, representing outside powers which have a stake in the oil resources of the Middle East.

It is Trudeau’s contention – backed by authorities like Robert D Kaplan, American journalist, Zbigniew Brezinski, geostrategist, Noam Chomsky, linguist and historian and Niall Ferguson, professor of history - that Western domination of the Middle East is over. Trudeau argues that after centuries of Western domination, the waterways of the Middle East are now being contested in unprecedented ways by the aforesaid new players. They include pirates roaming sea lanes, local powers threatening sea-lane chokepoints and people who rise up to bring down authoritarian rulers.

“With no simple solutions for maintaining control of oil flows, the West is facing a crucial decision,” he says. “Already weakened by extended military interventions, faltering economies, and strained global partnerships, the US and Europe must decide whether violent intervention or benevolent passivity is the best course of action.” In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Inter alia, Trudeau’s fascinating documentary charts the turbulent waters to show how the logic of empire is being tested by a rapidly changing Middle East. With fresh-from-the-ground footage and testimony from experts and actors in the region, it zeroes in on how disparate events occurring on land in such places as Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen and at sea in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, are all part of the same story - one about conflict, change and competing global interests in one of the most strategic and volatile regions of the world. The story, says Trudeau, is one of the slow dismantling of an old order and of the makings of a New Great Game.

Ocean-borne trade is the foundation of the global economy. The Middle East is a hub for world shipping. And a major source of the world’s greatest commodity, oil. But the sea-lanes here narrow into what are called chokepoints. And these chokepoints are the keys to control of the Middle East.

One of them is the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow exit from the Arabian Gulf. Twenty percent of the world’s oil supply passes through this Strait. The rivalry between Iran, Israel and the United States make it a flashpoint. Conflict in Hormuz has the power to hurt everyone who consumes oil.

To the southwest, the Gulf of Aden ends at the Bab el-Mandeb strait, a hunting ground for Somali pirates and pirate hunters. Both are part of an ongoing drama which hints at an unravelling of Western domination in the area. To the north lies the Suez Canal, gateway to the Mediterranean.

For decades, the West controlled Egypt and the canal. But all this is changing. After 500 years of Western domination, says Kaplan, “we are slowly going back to an age of indigenous control.” There are new players and new agendas in the Middle East. Faraway peoples, like Indians and Chinese, need the region and its oil. Their ships have multiplied and their influence grown.

The interests of the Chinese now brush against those of the Americans. Therefore, from Libya to Iran, from the waters of the Mediterranean to the pirate coast of Somalia, a new great game for control is unfolding. And what happens in these sea-lanes is crucial to the whole world.   

The geopolitical intrigue for control of the waterways of the Middle East is now intensifying. The drums of war can be heard beating once more. Israeli and American elements would like to bomb Iran into submission and stop its nuclear progress. This comes at a time when the West’s worldwide supremacy is visibly coming to an end, especially in the Middle East, according to Trudeau. He gives his raison d’etre: messy wars have weakened Western capacity to project power globally. He raises the question: why then is there talk of a new war? Is it one last bold move to restore slipping control?

After centuries of naval domination of the region’s waters, the West faces the rising tides of indigenous control all around the Indian Ocean arch. New economic giants emerge to the East and come to this key region with healthy appetites for resources and overflowing pocketbooks, while Arab masses rise up and make themselves heard, toppling tyrants and potentates one after the other.  In the wake of these uprisings, few certainties remain. “But one thing is clear,” avers Trudeau. “The West no longer dictates outcomes like before. And it is far from sure what action, war or otherwise, can change the course of history.”

The dramatis personae of his film, as seen from the deck of a ship that is plying regional waters and which is Trudeau’s floating platform, include Yemini rebels, Saudi Shiites, the Iranian N-bomb and political influence, Somali pirates, Egyptian revolutionaries, Libyan oil, Israeli warhawks and Bahraini malcontents. They make a witches’ brew of socio-political seething, that bodes ill for everyone.

Trudeau’s argument closes with the thought that uni-polarity – i.e., when the West monopolised power in the Middle East – has become a thing of the past. Multi-polarity, with many contending powers calling the social, economic and political shots, is the name of the new game. 

He graduated in philosophy from McGill university in 1997. Since 1998, he has produced and directed documentaries through his Montreal company, JuJu Films. In his work, he focuses on such issues as the Liberian civil war (Liberia: The Secret War); on youth and democracy in Yugoslavia (Belgrade: One Year After); on middle-class Baghdad during the war on Iraq (Embedded in Baghdad); on the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories (The Fence); on the detention without charge of Canadian terror suspects (Secure Freedom) and on the plight of the Darfuri refugees (Refuge).

He has produced radio documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the troubled legacy of Canadian peacekeeping - The Third Chance - and is a frequent contributor to leading Canadian publications like ‘Maclean’s’ magazine and ‘The Toronto Star’ newspaper and has reported from China, Iraq, Liberia, Haiti, Israel, Palestine and Russia. He is a director on the boards of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and the Nature Conservancy of Canada and is currently writing a book on modern Chinese society. He lives in Montreal with his wife and two young children.

The New Great Game has been filmed on location in 19 countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Oman, Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia, Seychelles, Kenya, Egypt, Israel, Libya, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, China, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.?

The Great Game was a term for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia in the nineteenth century. It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901).

Will The New Great Game do for the Middle East what Kim did for Central Asia? Can Trudeau do a Kipling? The answer, surely, is rising and falling with the waves of the waters of the Middle East.

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