Soft sands and stormy winds in the Arab world

Amr Moussa
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The year 2017 witnessed important developments linked to the ongoing movement of change in the Arab world. Some indicate that military clashes and terrorist acts will decrease, such as in Iraq, Syria and Libya, while others indicate that they will continue, such as in Yemen and terror attacks in Egypt’s Sinai.

On the other hand, international efforts have intensified to reach political solutions that are still incomplete and expected to take shape in 2018. This is applied to the turbulent situation in the Fertile Crescent region, southern Arabian Peninsula and Arab countries in North Africa. Based on the above, the Arab world is unstable and so are its neighbors in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region.

As for Iran, Turkey and Israel, they complete the picture of the Middle East and they lie in wait to reap any rewards. They stand in a position of power, have smart administrations, strong tactics and the ability to maneuver that enables them to achieve strategic visions. These are assets that are completely absent from or partially available to other regional countries.

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This is a very brief introduction to the situation in our region at a time when we bid farewell to an old year and welcome a new one. The welcome cannot be complete without acknowledging that the reconstruction of Arab societies, through real and comprehensive reform (in the fields of education, economy, justice and administration and imposing the rule of the constitution, law and democracy…), has not taken place. Its real beginning has not even started yet, which deals a blow to the movement of change or at least slows it down.

It weakens the Arab strategic position at a time when regional balances are being assessed to see who can be a partner and who can be fragmented or indefinitely destabilized.

This situation demands Arab citizens to call on governments to exercise caution. The region is headed towards a new reality and the search is on for the “new regional system,” which will unavoidably be established. At this point a very honest proposal needs to be made.

A united Arab stance, should we reach it, will mean a political weapon that is greater than allying with this major power or that regional country

Amr Moussa

Mistakes of the past

Arab governments, or Arab rulers, do you want to keep on correcting the mistakes of the past or do you want to build a new Arab system that is based on a modern vision of Arab solidarity and that takes into consideration the factors of the 21st century and the aspirations of our mostly youthful societies?

Conditions should be prepared for them because this century will reject and defeat all who remain frozen in a certain mentality or who believe that what took place in the 20th century can be replicated.

Or have you determined to put an end to the collective Arab life and each go your own way to achieve your interests and safety, even if it may be temporary and superficial? On this note, let me say the following:

One: Whoever seeks the protection of major powers will remain exposed because in reality, this was never about protecting a country or its interests. It was about the more powerful pursuing their interests and once they are achieved, then the weaker player will be cast aside (we saw what happened to the Shah of Iran and the figures that were toppled in the “Arab Spring”, all of whom were thought to be “protected”).

Two: Whoever believes that he can use Israel in a plan or policy against Iran, for example, will discover that Israel is manipulating him and that Iran and Israel may at any moment reach an understanding that totally disregards Arab stances and their interests. The possibilities of this happening are clear to all who are aware of political games and their complexities.

Three: Those who believe that the US holds all cards, or at least 99 percent, of the regional game are mistaken. The situation is no longer the way it was in the 20th century. The cards have been distributed and several of them are being seized. The Arab world must obtain some of them. The ways to do so are well known in political science and it can happen, even if through certain conditions.

Four: Abandoning the Palestinian cause and claiming that we have more important problems would be a “grave strategic error.” The cause that we are clinging on to could create for the Arabs important political cards through which fair regional arrangements can be reached for the Palestinians and all the Arabs within a peaceful framework that falls in line with the new regional system. In this regard, we should closely examine the aftermath of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.

Five: As for Iran, it is a country that has a long history in the region where Arabs make up a majority, either in countries or population. There is no doubt that old and new disputes exist on the Arab-Iranian scene. There is also no doubt that Arabs generally refuse the export of the revolution and the majority of Arab support the rise of a civil state, whose authorities are the constitution and laws and nothing else.

Declaration of ‘victory’

Senior Iranian officials’ proud declaration of victory and boasting that Tehran now controls four Arab capitals was very negatively received in the Arab world. In addition, concerns have been raised about the threats of Iran’s ongoing pursuit of its agenda to impose its hegemony over the region.

At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s call for dialogue should not be disregarded and it should be viewed from a peaceful perspective. Time should be given to determine whether his call reflects a change and development in Iranian policy or if it is a political maneuver.

The relationship with Iran should be viewed from an Arab angle and it should be approached while keeping in mind the past, present and future dimensions of this relationship. A united Arab stance, should we reach it, will represent a political weapon that is greater than allying with this major power or that regional country. Neither alliance will harbor good intentions towards the Arabs and neither will honestly take their interests into consideration.

Six: As for Turkey, its ambitions to restore some of the power it enjoyed over the Arab world during Ottoman rule is emerging, through a 21st century approach. In this regard, Turkey will be seeking to achieve its interests, which do not necessarily coincide with Arab ones. It will seek to do so through a strong Turkish military, economic and political presence and in playing, as much as possible, an effective role in reshaping some regional countries and governments.

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In this regard, Turkey is forming its alliances and is being selective in the locations it sets up base. We have seen several examples of this. It has a military base in Qatar, meaning the Gulf, and a dominant presence in the Sudanese island of Sawakin, putting it in the Red Sea.

Ankara has a strong strategic political stance on Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq, and alliances with extremist regional and international organizations, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood, all in coordination with Iran and its regional policy. In addition, Turkey is enjoying a positive policy with Russia and a special position with the United States and various other western alliances.

Given the above, Turkey has managed to garner very special strategic positions that are bolstered by its strong economy and successful management, even if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest policies raise several questions.

In reality, we should be wary of Turkey’s ambitions, especially in regards to its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and its efforts to achieve a regional system with an Ottoman or religious identity. We as Arabs, starting with Egypt and the Gulf, must closely and diligently study Turkey’s actions that make it a force in the Gulf and Fertile Crescent.

Seven: Israel. Our problems with Israel are related to the establishment of a Palestinian state, whose capital is East Jerusalem, ending the occupation of Arab land and thwarting its dreams of expanding to the Nile and the Euphrates. The reality is that the 2002 Arab initiative that was launched in Beirut is the key to reaching peace, ending enmity and paving the way for stability in the region.

At this point, we as Arabs should declare a clear stance against Israel’s obstruction of the two-state solution. We should propose a peace agenda that is based on two possibilities, either this or that, within a timeline and transparent international authority. With that I mean establishing an independent Palestinian state or one that brings together Israelis and Palestinians alike. Israel must choose.

The Israelis and Americans have made the Palestinian state option a mirage for Arabs to chase while Israel colonizes and “judaizes” Palestinian land. The one-state option should be on the agenda of any negotiations table along with the option of the Palestinian state. We have negotiated over the latter for over a quarter of a century to no avail. Negotiations, should they be held, must be within a timeframe. Once they end and talks of a Palestinian state end, then so will talk of a Jewish state. We can then begin serious discussions on a single state for all Israelis and Palestinians.

Yes, it is time to officially and internationally propose the one-state option, regardless of Israel’s rejection of all fair peace options.

Eight: Ethiopia. It is considered a major country in the Horn of Africa, which includes the three Arab countries of Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti. Ethiopia also enjoys strong strategic ties with Egypt, which are represented now with the Renaissance Dam project and its threat to Egypt’s share of Nile waters.

Arab and Islamic family

There is no doubt that Ethiopia is part of the Arab and Islamic family that spans the Asian and African continents. Common interests should therefore be taken into consideration and problems with Addis Ababa must be resolved, starting with the Nile dam dispute. The dispute should be tackled through a major development and investment operation within a new regional framework.

The above is not simply a recap of 2017, but it is a preparation for the new year. It is a brief and quick examination of the rapidly moving regional situation that stands on soft sand and is being blown by stormy winds. The region is filled with demons, who are drawing a terrifying scene.

There are however some glimmers of hope that can only be strengthened through restoring Arab consciousness and having leaders assume their responsibilities towards the current and upcoming generations according to a clear vision of the future. Experienced Arab leaders could help in drafting this vision within an Arab proposal for an Arab and regional security system.

In this regard, it would be best to review the proposal that was made at the 2010 Arab League summit to set up a league of Arab neighbors or study the possibility of setting up a regional security and cooperation system in the Middle East.

These proposals have their conditions and demands and their establishment requires creating suitable Arab and regional factors, starting with Iran reconsidering its regional policies and actions, Turkey going back on its Ottoman ambitions and Israel ceasing its rejection of Palestinian rights. Can we as Arabs rise to the occasion?

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Amr Moussa is a veteran politician and diplomat and former Secretary-General of the Arab League. He tweets @amremoussa.

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