The Arab citizen is right to feel wary of the new year and what it holds in store for our countries. He is right due to the mounting dangers of crises, rising tensions in rivalries and establishment of popular currents that are reforming politics in many influential countries.
Amid all this, we find the Arab world in the position of defending its existence and vulnerable to threats to its interests and very identity. This was recently demonstrated in the crisis created by the American administration after it recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This sparked real concerns among the Arab people over the fate of one of the most fundamental issues that define the Arab identity.
The Arab crises have become so severe and so numerous that the people have grown accustomed to them and they are now seen as a norm in the region. This is a very dangerous situation where the belief is that those in power are steering the crises, not resolving them, and that the people should grow used to this reality instead of tackling the roots of the problems. Managing the crisis is not a sufficient strategy to extinguish the raging fires. If we do not take immediate action to douse them, then they will spread to their surroundings and to new farther regions.
It is not my intention in this article to list the dangerous crises in the Arab world and detail their developments. I am here to present the concerned Arab reader with ten observations on the margins of these crises. I noted them through witnessing various joint Arab meetings over the past year. I will list them below, hoping that it would prompt the readers to engage in an open dialogue:
One: Though they may seem unconnected geographically, the Arab crises are similar in their nature, have the same players and are united by common factors. The majority of these crises are a direct result of “strategic vacuum” that emerged in the aftermath of the 2011 developments. These events led to a number of dangerous conflicts that weakened and toppled governments, political entities and security systems that used to control a massive number of people and large areas of lands.
The conclusion was the emergence of a dangerous vacuum on the security and political scenes in the heart of the Arab world and its margins. This vacuum is at the core of current regional conflicts because politics cannot tolerate vacuum and security cannot exist without a ruling authority.
Frank dialogue between Arab countries on the crises and threats is the only way to form a united and firm stance that would lead the Arabs to a position of power against their adversariesAhmed Abul Gheit
The race to fill this strategic void gave the opportunity for regional, neighboring and international powers to clash over establishing a foothold in the area. This gave free rein for ambitions to redraw the region and reap “rewards.”
Two: The 2011 cataclysm took place at a time when the Arab system was not at its best. In fact, – and there is no better way to describe it – it was divided on itself and between various rival fronts. The conflicts that erupted after 2011 widened the divide and developed into proxy and armed conflicts involving many parties from within and beyond the region. The conflicts have become so complex that it is difficult to ascertain the interests of each player. This situation could have destroyed the Arab world had the Arab policies continued in their state of fragmentation.
Three: The Arabs have not stood idly by and observed the chaos. Instead several Arab people and leaderships realized the need to regain the initiative and form an Arab front to confront the most dangerous challenges facing the national state. An agreement gradually began to emerge between the main Arab countries on how to label the danger and identify its threat. This, in my opinion, was the real starting point for resolving this crisis.
The Arab countries realized that the danger was not directed against the interests of this country or that, but it was directed against the very concept of the modern national state. The threat, therefore is comprehensive and dangerous in its scope. Confronting it requires a united plan of action and coordination between Arab countries.
It has become clear in the Arab world to witness those who are loyal to the national state and those who oppose and do not recognize it. These sides instead are loyal to the rivals of the state and hide behind “religious politics” or “politicizing religion”. They also do not hesitate to mix political practices with violence.
This image became clearer after 2014 amid the unprecedented emergence of terrorist groups that was embodied in ISIS’ success in controlling vast territories in the region. This situation, despite its catastrophe, helped unify the vision between the vast majority of Arab countries over their common fate.
Four: Despite this consensus among the main Arab countries in determining common threats, and despite the success in confronting some of these dangers, starting with ISIS, I can say that a “united strategy” in dealing with them is still absent. A clear agenda that unites all Arab countries is still unavailable.
For example, we do not have what we can call an “Arab policy on the Syrian crisis.” Yes, there are resolutions issued by the Arab League that define the unanimous Arab position on this crisis, but a “strategic plan of action” is still missing. There are, unfortunately, Iranian, Turkish and Russian strategies on Syria, but not an Arab one. This can also be applied to Libya in that there are collective efforts exerted by countries to tackle the chaos there, but no collective Arab action to unify them.
Five: This unfortunate situation has therefore resulted in the lack of any serious collective and comprehensive discussions of strategic Arab issues. There are dangers that are being confronted by each state or by a number of states. These threats are dealt with individually and often as a reaction and not through an initiative. For example, an Arab capital may come under some threat and then the Arab League would be called to convene to issue a resolution on the matter. Such action, even though it is important, does not act as a comprehensive strategy to confront threats.
Six: The national Arab security is still being dealt with as a file from among many others. There is the file of combating terrorism, another on the ongoing Israeli occupation, a third on the Iranian threat, a fourth on Turkey’s ambitions, others on refugees…. This current approach of dividing files and issues impedes the possibility of collecting a united Arab force to effectively deal with any of these dangerous and pressing files. Instead, each Arab country or group of Arab countries are left to deal with what they perceive as a direct threat to it or their security, existence and interests.
National Arab security, from what I understand, is a single comprehensive file that includes several issues that should be dealt in connection to each other and not in increments. A mechanism should be reached that allows for frank discussions between Arab countries to set an agenda of priorities of Arab national security.
Seven: Regional adversaries are exploiting this situation in their interest and they are taking advantage of the flaws in the Arab body. Tackling this interference and these threats as a single file is the only way I see to effectively confront this meddling.
Moreover, the threat to Riyadh from Iranian-made rockets provided to the Houthis is in fact a threat against all Arab capitals, from as far away as Muscat to Rabat. Arab forces should be mobilized to confront this threat so that a clear message is delivered to adversaries that they are not facing a country or two, but a massive human, economic and military bloc.
For example, when a state such as Egypt, whose population makes up a third of the Arab people, has its water security threatened, then this issue should be addressed due to the major social and economic repercussions it may have. This threat is viewed as regional one and it should be dealt with as such.
Discussing all issues in this comprehensive and interlinked way is the only way that will allow each Arab side to frankly voice its concerns and, more importantly, specify what it expects from others. The best way to conduct this frank discussion is through the Arab League, which today is the only available way to achieve consensus and later united Arab action over any issue or cause. It is still the most capable organization to host such a discussion and work on developing and translating it into a work plan and strategy.
Eight: The effective way to deal with the regional threats and spiteful agendas against the Arab world, lies in filling the loopholes that the opponents have escaped through. Cementing national countries and resolving conflicts and internal clashes represent the best strategy to confront regional meddling that has found a place for itself in this mess.
Nine: The Arab scene is not completely ruined by destruction. There are some signs here and there that there is a will among several leaderships and peoples to end this “crisis of civilization”. For example, I will highlight the great efforts undertaken by the Gulf, Egypt and Maghreb to radically “change the social-economic situation”.
These efforts reflect a major desire to defy challenges and problems and join the current age. They are also focused on a fundamental truth that half of the Arab population is less than 24 years old, meaning we are living our future today. We should not deal with the present as an extension of the past, but it should be a short bridge to a future that is rapidly taking shape before our eyes.
While I do acknowledge the development efforts, I can honestly say that they will remain vulnerable to failure if we cannot provide the stable regional environment that will enable them to continue on growing. This is what I call “fortifying growth” and it cannot be possible without a collective security strategy that provides security to everyone. This will consequently defeat terrorism, eliminate extremism and reform the predominant culture of societies.
Ten: Coordinating Arab stances and reorganizing the Arab internal scene are no longer ideological visions or theoretical political ideas, but they are facts that impose themselves on the ground and challenges on the agenda of Arab work. It is my deep conviction that Arab countries are all in one boat: They either all reach the harbor of safety or, God forbid, they will lose their way together.
Arabism today is not a sentimental slogan, but a political and strategic necessity. It is the only idea that can unite all defenders of the national state in confronting terrorist groups, saboteurs, secessionists and advocates of sectarianism. Arabism in its new modern look is open and accepting of diversity without the need to eliminate the other.
It is the way to pull back together what has been fragmented and restore what has been lost. The rule of law, ensuring equal opportunities and respecting different identities within a modern state – a state for all of its citizens – are fortifications that protect the state itself from the dangers of fragmentation and chaos.
Finally, I say that frank dialogue between Arab countries on the crises and threats, whether internal, regional or international, is the only way to form a united and firm stance that would lead the Arabs to a position of power against their adversaries – and how many they are.
This will enable them to confront threats that do not jeopardize the state itself, but the entire Arab entity and its common identity, starting with the recent danger against the Palestinian cause and the city of Jerusalem. These blatant attempts to eliminate the cause should be a warning bell to all sides and it demands that we mobilize all of our energies in collective work.
Amid all of these dangerous challenges, I have never lost the hope that the Arab world will be able to treat its wounds, pull itself back together and catch up with this age. The darkest days are always followed by the rising dawn.
This article is also available in Arabic.
Ahmed Abul Gheit is the Secretary General of the Arab League.