CAIRO — Shortly after being deposed in a military coup, the late King Farouk of Egypt was said to have remarked that one day there would be only five kings left in the world: "The king of hearts, the king of diamonds, the king of clubs, the king of spades and the king of England."
Today, nearly four decades later, the cataclysmic events unfolding in the Persian Gulf suggest that, for the Middle East at least, King Farouk's rueful prophecy may yet come true.
The titanic struggle between Saddam Hussein, a man who would be king, and the U.S.-allied monarchies and sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf has inflamed passions and unleashed forces that ultimately may destroy them both.
There is little doubt in anyone's mind that Iraq will eventually lose the Gulf War. But in trying to peer beyond the fog of war to the changes that lie ahead, government officials and diplomats throughout the region forecast a period of uncertainty and turmoil--a period in which many of the region's autocratic monarchies and military regimes could become casualties of the ensuing peace.
Polarization stemming from the Gulf War has already challenged the strengths of some pro-Western Arab regimes and exposed the weaknesses of others. It has broadly split the Arab world between the haves and the have-nots, and widened the divisions between the rulers of the region and those they rule.
Indeed, some analysts suggest that the war to liberate Kuwait has so deeply divided the region that it may only be the opening battle in a wider Arab civil war. If they are right, it will not be a war in the usual sense, with Arab armies clashing on the vast plains of great deserts. But it could be a war of terrorism and subversion and, ultimately, an East European-style revolution against some of the more fragile regimes in the region.
Not everyone, of course, holds such apocalyptic visions of the future. But even those with less alarmist views agree that the Arab world is in for major change.
"We are not sure all the changes will be as profound as some people think," said Osama Baz, a senior adviser to Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. "But we are certain that, in the aftermath of this earthquake, the Arab world will never be the same."
Some believe that, in much the same way that World War I brought sweeping changes to Europe, drawing down the curtain on the great empires of the day, so too has the Gulf War set into motion a series of events destined to transform the political map of the Middle East.
"Of the future I am sure of only one thing: We will never return to the status quo ante. The old order is over and cannot be restored," said Cairo University political scientist Ali Hillal Dessouki. A "new map" will have to be drawn for the postwar Middle East, Dessouki added, noting that strategists throughout the region are already "starting to plan for this."
What will the map of the new Arab order look like?
If the anti-Iraq coalition holds together, it will be a map whose political contours are likely to be shaped by a new alliance among Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. A recent decision to establish a trilateral commission to coordinate relations marked the first step toward cementing this new alliance, which represents a remarkable shift in the strategic geometry of the Arab world.
As late as last year, Syria was still castigating Egypt for signing a separate peace agreement with Israel; now it is denouncing Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Tel Aviv. While it remains to be seen how long this new alliance will last, the combination of Saudi money and Egyptian and Syrian military manpower should dominate the region in at least the early postwar years.
"It will be the basic foundation for the future," said Egypt's foreign minister, Esmat Abdel Meguid.
"The Egyptians see it as the axis around which the Arab world can revolve and maintain stability," a senior Western diplomat added.
Yet even the most optimistic analysts doubt that stability can soon be restored to a region recovering from its greatest shock since the creation of Israel in 1948.
"The first thing we will see after the immediate crisis is a period of accounting, a period in which different countries will try to settle scores with each other," Dessouki said.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, can be expected to make life difficult for the pro-Iraqi government of Yemen, while Egypt could seek to influence a change of government in Sudan. "It will be a very unstable time, and the most we can do is to exercise a strategy of damage limitation," Dessouki said.
The extent of the damage the Arabs will have to limit cannot be easily predicted. How long the war lasts, whether Israel becomes involved, whether the coming ground offensive is taken into Iraq itself and whether Hussein somehow survives defeat--the answers to these and other open questions will all bear upon the final outcome.