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The Arabs, the West and their own visions for the future

The West and the Arab world, indeed, do have long-term interests that converge – and we ought not to belittle nor ignore them

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

As an analyst and academic on the interchange between the Arab world and the West, among other things, I’m often dumbstruck by the obvious disconnect in perceptions in both about the other – and the failure of both to admit certain truths about themselves. It’s been like that, it seems, at least my whole career – and it would be nice to think that after the past four years – goodness, it has been that long already – it might have looked like it was changing. Perhaps in some ways, it has but that’s been more about the force of gravity, rather than any new vision anywhere – whether in the Arab world or the West.

Far too often, far too many within the region have simply waited for leadership to come from the outside – particularly the United States

H.A. Hellyer

The Beltway; Westminster; Brussels – you name the Western policy center, the situation remains the same. The expectations, particularly in the United States where the largest amount of political prowess is centered, of what the region ought to be doing or not doing, are tremendous. The Arabs should do this; the Arabs should do that; and at the same time, there is this confused message. It’s not necessarily a deceitful message but it is a contradictory one. Many will argue the U.S. and the West is ‘doomed if they do, doomed if they don’t,’ which allows a sort of cop-out for inconsistent – or arbitrary – polices on a variety of issues. At the same time, there will be those that argue the U.S. must not lead in the region – that it is the Arabs who ought to lead in their own region on dealing with problems therein. However, the reality is that the U.S. is not some kind of neutral bystander in the Arab world. On the contrary the U.S. and the West have long been involved in the Arab world both directly and indirectly and the effects of that involvement have sometimes been positive, but have often been exceedingly negative.

Noble principles

Perhaps policy makers try to keep what they consider to be values and noble principles at the back of their minds in forming a long term strategy for engaging in foreign policy – but that in the short to medium term, it’s going to be considerations of what they consider to be immediate national interests that will always have a veto. It’s not an entirely flattering view of how policy makers work – but it is the most honest one offered by Western officials. If the Arab world tries to point out this policy or that policy on country x or y is not in keeping with a stated value or principle – well, let’s stop pretending it works like that. One might imagine that the national interest of a certain Arab country in reality converges with a Western one but that’s not necessarily the way that those in positions of power perceive it. In that regard, a reality check, as obvious as this might all be, is in order.

The problem, however, in pointing all of this out, is what it then leads to from within the region. One would hope that a realization that the short-term interests of the West might not be convergent with the short-term interests of the Arab world even if the long term interests might result in a prolonged effort from within the Arab world to build more sustainable societies. And let’s be clear; sustainable societies have to be built on certain principles, such as the rule of law, respect of fundamental rights, and pluralism.

A dawdling pace

Let’s also be clear and note that this is hardly an effort that most Arab states are remotely interested in. Or if they are (let’s be charitable), it is at a pace that snails would find to be dawdling. How many Arab states are deeply in need of judicial reform, as we have seen in infamous court case, time and again? How many times have the most abysmal human rights reports been written about states in the region? How many times has one side in the region complained about sectarianism from another – and yet, deploys and utilizes that very same sectarianism, but simply from an opposite lens?

The response when this is pointed out is that Western countries also have their problems; that human rights organizations do not respect the culture of the region and that the ‘other side started first’ in terms of sectarianism. There’s a grain of truth in all of that but it is all pretty much a cop-out. Of course the West has its problems but that’s hardly an excuse for the Arab world to ignore its own. Yes, human rights organizations may be primarily Western driven in terms of their worldview but let’s be clear and note that certain values are indeed universal and are even stated, if rhetorically, to be as such by Arab statesman and leaders. And while Iran, the bogeyman in the room, may have a sectarian agenda in mind, does that mean the rest of the region has to play ball? It can’t offer a more advanced program than that?

In the end, when it comes to the Arab world, it is, and always has been, about leadership. Far too often, far too many within the region have simply waited for leadership to come from the outside – particularly the United States – and they follow its lead. Why? Can the Arab world not produce leaders of its own to instigate, to initiate, to inspire?

Standing their ground

There’s a lot of heart in this region. Four years ago, I stood in a square in the capital of an Arab country, and I saw that heart on display. The vision of that square – and I remember it clearly – was all about the rule of law. I remember how everyone stood their ground about that, whether in terms of litter, safety, or social welfare – in actual practice. The vision of that square was all about pluralism – it’s what allowed Islamists, feminists, leftists, Copts, Muslims, and others to stand side by side.

It was real, though so many have chosen to forgotten it, because of the pain they have in realizing the chance they had in that moment… and lost. That was due to many different groups, including those whose only wish was power rather than any real positive change for society.

But that moment was real and history is made by moments like that. The Arab world remains direly in need of an autonomous vision that is rooted in its own history and perspectives and which does not fall into the trap of autocracy, dictatorship, or radicalism of any kind, including Islamist or otherwise. If the Arab world truly wants to stand on its own two feet against not only the likes of ISIS, but on the world stage in the 21st, 22nd and centuries beyond, it has to learn a perennial lesson. If the Arab world does not recognize that radicalism finds its most fertile ground in the soil of oppression, the Arabs will be doomed to plant their future generations into dirt that only saints could emerge out of as inspirational. The more likely options are less pleasant to envisage.

The West and the Arab world, indeed, do have long-term interests that converge – and we ought not to belittle nor ignore them. Yet, they won’t always be convergent in the short-term – or at least perceived as such, because such immediate concerns are seldom decided by noble principle, as much as they are by provisional and passing pragmatism. But the greatest short-term and long-term interest of the Arabs is something that demands and requires a truly independent vision from within the region – it can never be provided from without. They could do worse than to look back at that square – and many other squares around the region – that sought liberation.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.