Arabs and the new world crisis; "disappointments" and "opportunities"

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Publisher – Al-nahar
  • Release Date – Apr 11, 2022

We can address –again- the repercussions of international crises on the Arab region, politically, economically and security. Regarding the Ukrainian crisis, we have witnessed this same scenario in terms of economy and food security. Accordingly, this paper seeks to discuss the reasons for this imbalance and the ways to fix it, in order to align with Arab interests and the most beneficial and least damaging options.

With every new crisis the world experiences, we -Arabs- find that we have fallen victim to this crisis- often unwillingly- before anyone else. This scenario has not changed for more than a century. The world is full of hot and cold wars, political or economic crises in the east or the west every few years, and they all end with a huge bill paid by the Arabs.

Is the reason of this permanent weakness and irreparable defect in the political awareness of the regimes that have been ruling the Arab countries since the beginning of the twentieth century, or are they wrong bets, alliances and covenants that are misplaced and with the wrong people?

Today, we are facing a crisis that threatens to draw a new global political map. Will the Arabs experience new bitter disappointments again? Will history continue its same course and threaten them?

Alternatively, will we benefit from our experiences, and adopt our less costly and most beneficial options? This question deserves to be taken into serious consideration today.

At first, it may be useful to recall part of those experiences and disappointments we lived in our Arab region. When the Ottoman Empire began to weaken and slack at the beginning of the twentieth century, the first glimmer of hope for liberation from this occupation appeared, and calls for resistance rose with the wide presence of the Arab national feeling of belonging. The first Ottoman response was the execution of a number of patriot fighters in Syria and Lebanon on May 6, 1916; this date became martyrs’ day that the two countries honor every year.

When the news of the execution reached Prince Faisal bin Sharif Hussein, he threw his keffiyeh on the ground and shouted loudly: “Let us die for them, Arabs.” That cry was the beginning of liberation from the Ottoman domination, but unfortunately it ended in a sore disappointment that was manifested in the division of the Ottoman Empire after World War I in 1918, in addition to the fall of Arab lands that were considered an "Ottoman legacy" under the French, British and Italian mandates under the "Sykes-Picot Agreement", which was the Arabs' worst disappointments; this made matters even worse and it moved them "from the place under the tap to the place under the gutter," according to the common Syrian/Lebanese proverb. 

This division prevented the newly formed countries from completing the building of their foundations, and left the Arabs in a state of permanent weakness that forced them to seek help from the great powers in every calamity they or those around them experience. Thus, During the Cold War in the middle of the twentieth century even after their independence, they found themselves victim of the tensions between the eastern (Soviet Union) and western (America and Europe) camps.

Depending on the two camps has been repeated in various forms since then, deepening the rift between the Arab countries and leaving the Arabs as the first victim in every dispute that erupts between the two great parties, where they gain from every conflict nothing but a new disappointment that is added to the previous ones and paves the way for the next. As a result, their political and economic weakness increases, their division becomes entrenched, their causes and their peoples are lost.

Most of the Arab regimes and governments that have ruled the countries of the region bear a large part of the responsibility for consolidating this dependency, and linking the destiny of their countries to the decisions and wills of those powers and external parties.

These regimes have, almost always, failed in being a major driver and an important figure in the succession of major events around them, or even those that pertain to them. Rather, the internal political decisions of most Arab countries were transformed by their ruling regimes into creating a reality that is in line primarily with the projects and interests of external forces. Arab lands have also been turned into arenas for groups and parties working in favor of an expansionist state, and the political will of the Arab countries has been indefinitely robbed.

And here is the world today in a new crisis and a state of division and confusion prevailing since the Russian President declared war on Ukraine at the end of last February. Once again, the Arab countries find that they are in the midst of a conflict of influence and interests between East and West, due to their geographical location and their strategic ties with this or that party.

Accordingly, Arab governments are in a state of apprehension, while most of them are unable to take a negative stance against what Putin is doing. On the one hand, they look with concern toward Iran, which is preparing to sign the nuclear agreement that will allow it to proceed with its expansion projects in the region; on the other hand, to America whose behavior in the region no longer inspires confidence.

Therefore, the current situation poses several challenges for us that require a high level of political mobilization from everyone, as it is no longer acceptable to be dragged behind any international party without starting from our self-interest first. Here, we do not mean the individual interest of each country separately; experiences have proven the failure of this policy.

No matter how huge the divisions and distances between regimes are, geopolitics still imposes its conditions with force, creating effects and repercussions of every storm striking one country in the region on its neighbors sooner or later, so it leaves destructive effects everywhere that can no longer be foreseen and be prepared to ward off its dangers.

The Russian war on Ukraine creates a probable food crisis for most of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, caused by the lack of basic products, especially wheat and barley. According to reports, a third of Arab wheat and barley imports is from the two main sides of the conflict: Russia and Ukraine. Several countries such as Libya, Egypt and Algeria, depend on these two countries also to secure half of their wheat needs, which raises the possibility of what UN reports describe as a “food nightmare” in 2023 if the war continues for a longer period, and this would pave the way for new forms of turmoil and political instability to be added to the main suffering of most Arab countries.

This is in terms of the economy and food security. Politically speaking, the Ukrainian crisis has created a state of extreme polarization worldwide; the West has taken very strict measures towards Russia, and similar steps will be probably taken against everyone who supports Russia, as it is clear that President Joe Biden insists that anyone who does not stand with America today is against it.

However, the Arabs have not yet reached the place where they can stand “against” America in the form proposed by Biden, and at the same time they are exposed to many dangers if they stand with it, especially since it does not make enough efforts to support them, consolidate their positions, or preserve their interests even in the Middle East itself.

For example, if the Arab countries - the oil-rich ones - increased their oil production levels in accordance with the new OPEC decisions in order to cover the deficit caused by the western boycott of Russia, can America protect the Arabs from any retaliatory reactions by Moscow? Could America prevent Russia from expanding its support to Iran in return for example, increasing the Iranian interventions in many Arab countries, and providing more support to its proxies, including militias in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and other factions in Iraq and other countries in the region?

Do Americans realize the amount of losses the Arabs will incur, and the tension and chaos that will affect their shaky stability when they support America? Then does all of this have to be for free?

If we compare the position of the United States today regarding the aggression against Ukraine, with its positions of the many attacks that Arab countries have been subjected to over the past decade in particular, we can only say that America does not consider Arabs as allies or even true friends, but rather mere oil deposits and spaces to maneuver it uses whenever it decides to.

America has been leaving them within the range of Iran's missiles and its affiliated militias, and the Houthi missiles have reached Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, without Washington feeling that it has to move or even declare condemnation and denunciation; the Houthis are still not listed on the US terrorism list, and Western concessions are still being made to Iran in order to bring it back to the nuclear agreement, even the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will be removed from the blacklist!

It seems that America considers its allies in the region to be second-class and is not linked to any considerations regarding their geopolitical weight; this is not only unacceptable in international relations, but - in other cases – it implies the use of multiple standards! Since the United States has abandoned the Arabs, especially its allies, how can it demand today that they fully and absolutely stand by its side, explicitly condemn Moscow and respond to a set of demands that support it!

Is not this hostility against Russia, and perhaps this entails hostility against China as well, although the latter may in the coming short term be an important economic partner for the Arab countries, both rich and poor? However, these American demands sometimes include dictates about the countries of the Middle East, which appeared on many occasions and experiences.

America left all the countries it invaded and left them to face their fate alone, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and supported the “Muslim Brotherhood” in the early years following the events of the so-called "Arab Spring" (as in Egypt); moreover, to this day, it is still vetoing Syria's return to the Arab League, to name but a few.

In this context, I want to shed light on the Iranian problem once again. The majority of Arab governments adopted neutral position between the Russian and Western sides in the Ukrainian crisis, because Arab leaders consider it the closest way to serving the interests of their countries and the security of their people, and the best way to avoid the pressures on them from the two axes. However, what threatens their interests in this positive neutrality is the growth of Iranian power, which –over years- has been based on Tehran’s rejection of international laws, charters, and resolutions. 

Today, Iran is the victorious force especially after the nuclear negotiations that will free it from the remaining restrictions and allow it to interfere in many Middle East files, leading to the obstruction of projects in a country, inciting conflict in another, threatening stability elsewhere, and dedicating all of this in order to achieve its old expansionist ambitions.

There is no better evidence for this than its recent objection to the agreement reached by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on 21 March on the development of the Al-Durra field for natural gas, as the Iranians claim to have a stake in this field.

The crisis of this false claim comes in light of the escalating tension between Tehran and most of the capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council because of several files, the most important of which is the Yemeni file, not to mention the international situation that led to the global crisis in the energy field as a result of the Ukrainian war.

Therefore, and based on the assertion that opportunities are born from the heart of crises, and since the Arabs today are between the American hammer and the Russian anvil, one can add the fact that the interests and the stability of their countries fall under the Iranian control, which will not hesitate to disintegrate and weaken all the Arab countries it can reach, and to achieve sectarian division and strife. The Arabs, in return, should strive to find opportunities that correspond to the size of these crises and the obstacles surrounding them on all sides. 

Despite the disappointments, Arabs have suffered historically because of external interference and the arrogance of major powers, in addition to the blatant interference of regional powers in their affairs, and others.

Today, there is a window of opportunity for this whole situation to be different, especially since the world is witnessing a decisive and transitional phase, in which all political cards are now shuffled, marking the start of a completely new distribution of influence, alliances, and alignments.

In addition, the old international relations, which currently exist, are today also subject to rethinking and evaluation, leading to change, and the Arabs are no exception of this change. However, what is feared is that they are still not making the required effort in order to protect themselves, guarantee their rights, and enhance their power in the territory. 

Despite that, the intentions are there to engage in this matter, and in recent days, we have witnessed a wide and comprehensive diplomatic movement that included many Arab countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia - the most active - Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel as well.

The movements of these countries and their position regarding the Russian war on Ukraine suggest that they are aware of the need not to fall into the same series of previous mistakes. Pragmatic caution will make them avoid the adoption of the positions of any major country without thinking about it and guaranteeing it will preserve and support their interests, and perhaps allowing them to obtain inducements as well.

In the face of this Arab rejection, America must establish new relations with the Arabs based on mutual interests. I do not think that the Arab countries today are about to miss the opportunity offered by this unprecedented confrontation between Russia and the West.

In addition, I rule out that the intention of the current Arab diplomatic movement is to announce the war in the region. On the contrary, it is a kind of preparation for the consequences of what is happening at the global level, and the possibilities after Iran’s return to the nuclear agreement, and to be alert to what strength that might give it at the economic and military levels, and therefore the political one, which is the most important. 

The unified Arab regional position in the face of the Iranian threat is not limited to military preparation, for the diplomatic option will remain the first, the best and the most preferred one. Arab hands will be extended to Iran, but they will not be separate this time, rather, united on a clear vision of peace in the region, and a firm position on all factors affecting the future of their countries and peoples, positive or negative. 

Therefore, in international and regional relations as well, I find that the Arab countries that have chosen the third line between the Russian- the first- and the Western –the second- , will not abandon their non-alignment, which serves their interests first and may serve the possibility of their interfering to find a solution to the raging international crisis. 

Although this is an unenviable position for the Arabs in terms of difficulties and challenges, they share this position with most countries around the world. However, what distinguishes the Arabs in this regard is the wide scope available to them for movement and maneuver, and if they can benefit from it, all the threats surrounding them will turn into opportunities, and their disappointments will turn into the long-awaited bright and secure future.

 

Hasan Ismaik

STRATEGIECS Chairman