US-Arab Relations... "From George Washington to Mohammed ben Abdallah: Greetings"

The Moroccan-American Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1778 is the oldest US treaty of its kind still in force, and the longest unbroken relationship in American history. Nearly two and a half centuries later, what does the US-Arab relations look like?

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Publisher – Annahar Alarabi
  • Release Date – Jul 5, 2021

“This young nation, just recovering from the waste and desolation of a long war, have not, as yet, had time to acquire riches by agriculture and commerce. but our soil is bountiful, and our people industrious; and we have reason to flatter ourselves, that we shall gradually become useful to our friends …  I shall not cease to promote every measure that may conduce to the friendship and harmony,” The US president George Washington says in a letter to the Sultan of Morocco Mohammed Ben Abdallah in 1789 who had been the first to recognize the independence of the United States of America from the British Crown, following the founding fathers’ signing of the Declaration of Independence on July, 4th 1776.  

Even though the Independence Day celebrations take place on this date, the ratification of the famous declaration only marked the beginning of a long and bloody battle for freedom from British rule. With the years of war ahead, the 13 colonies needed allies. It is true that the French are known for taking up arms alongside the Americans; yet, Morocco, the Muslim-majority Arab-African state, was the first to recognize the newly independent United States. 

On December 20th, 1777, Moroccan Sultan Mohammed Ben Abdallah (Mohammed III) announced that all ships sailing under the US flag could freely enter Moroccan ports. "This action, under the diplomatic practice of Morocco at the end of the 18th century, put the United States on an equal footing with all other nations with which the Sultan had treaties," the US State Department Office of the Historian explains.

The following year, Moroccan and American diplomats began correspondence that eventually led to the negotiation of a formal treaty between the two nations. On July 18th, 1787, Congress ratified the US-Morocco Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which defined the framework of diplomatic relations in addition to non-hostile guarantees, market access “on the most favoured nation basis” and the protection of US ships from foreign attacks in Moroccan waters.

Today, the US-Morocco Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the oldest US treaty of its kind still in force, remains the longest unbroken relationship in US history. However, nearly two and a half centuries later, the US-Arab relations seem to be undergoing some changes.

US-Arab relations are not a simple issue that can be easily tackled. Since the turn of the millennium, specifically after 9/11, 2001, both sides have distorted the image of the other or at best misrepresent it at home. Mutual policies, strategies and activities have deepened the misperception, until the relationship has become exceptionally complex, the fair talk about which may need to go beyond this paper, or any brief short discussion. 

The complexity of relations comes from an important element related to the unity and will of political administrations. The United States, on the one hand, is one nation/state with a single will in foreign policy that manifests itself in a unified decision; but the Arabs, on the other hand, consist one nation but spread over several states, where wills vary and decisions rarely unite. Thus, the issue of relations with the US has often witnessed stark differences, rivalry, conflict and accusations, and therefore Arab foreign policy toward the US ranges from the highest levels of friendship, cooperation and alliance to advanced levels of disagreement that amount to enmity. 

Generally speaking; however, the United States relationship with the Arabs today differ not only from the one at the time of its independence, but even from that at the beginning of the twentieth century; namely, the end of World War I which led to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the independence of some Arab countries, or even later when the then traditional major powers (France and Britain) tried to share the Ottoman pie in the Arab countries among themselves, without heeding the will of the peoples of the region and their right to self-determination. 

The image of the United States in the Arab "provinces" of the Ottoman Empire was generally positive, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean or what is now the Levant. Arabs viewed the US as a superpower but a non-imperialist power like Britain and France, and American liberalism was not a vicious slogan, but a reality practiced by American missionaries, grandchildren and collaborators, and tested by Arabs — even Turks, Armenians and Persians — in the corridors of the Syrian Protestant College (now known as the American University of Beirut) and its sisters in Cairo, Istanbul and Persia.

The US role was not limited to education or missionary, but also included significant relief efforts at the time to save the region from the repercussions of World War I. President Woodrow Wilson's remarks on the right to self-determination sparked the imagination of Arab elites to believe that the United States was different from the European powers that agreed to divide the Middle East after the war, just as they divided Africa in the late 19th century, and did the most egregious act, that is, the famous 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain pledged all support for the establishment of a "national homeland" for Jews on Arab Palestinian soil. 

However, this British "promise" and the subsequent consolidation of relations between the United States and the new Arab-based state of Israel were the first key point that changed the direction of Arab-American relations. 

By the end of World War II and the decline in the roles of traditional powers along with the crystallization of US-Soviet bipolarity, Washington's interest in the Arab region increased, and the principle of US President Eisenhower to "fill the void" in the Middle East, just free from mandate and traditional colonialism, emerged. In the 1970s, this American interest also increased, focusing primarily on the Gulf states that used their oil as a weapon in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the US then wanted to ensure that the oil continued to flow without interruption. In contrast, in all its policies toward the region, the United States never abandoned its unlimited support for Israel, even when it stood against it in the 1956 Suez War. 

It must therefore be noted first that any Arab "enmity" towards the United States is certainly not a historical confrontation or a conflict of cultures or religions, as the advocates of the hypothesis of a "clash of civilizations" are trying to promote on both sides. It is rather a recent phenomenon fuelled primarily by some US foreign policies, and the grave mistakes made, especially after 9/11, such as the invasion of Iraq without a clear strategy of how to rebuild and develop it peacefully in ways that guarantee its independence and sovereignty and prevents foreign interventions, consequently turning it into an entrance through which regional powers attempt to impose their hegemony on other Arab countries. 

Since the US independence from the British Empire to the present day, historical contexts and major events prove that the relationship between Americans and Arabs is originally friendship, not disagreement. Appreciation for the values of American liberalism and democracy among Arabs is widespread, as well as the admiration for its model of richness, media, cinema and technological development, in addition to its secularism, law and system, albeit mixed with levels of disappointment as a result of its negative roles in the Arab world and its inconsistent strategies, which, though had good ends and intentions, have had adverse effects on the ground in many cases.

The parties to this relationship, both American and Arabs, do not lack mutual needs, nor commonalities. In addition to having roughly equal population, the two peoples share the characteristic of diversity, as instead of being of a single race, they share common language, history and cultures that characterize the great nations which occupy vast areas of the world. Americans have a dominant religion, i.e., Christianity, with its various sects and groups which coexist with minorities that embrace other religions, and just as most Americans are Christians but some are Jewish or Muslim, most Arabs are Muslims, but some are also Christians and Jews.

This is true in theory, but reality shows that Israel remains the main sticking point. Therefore, the United States, and the Israelis themselves, must realize the fact that they will not be able to enjoy peaceful coexistence with their Arab and Muslim neighbours through endless military intimidation, and that injustice, coercion or the force of arms will not secure the legitimacy required for a "Jewish State". That's what obliges the United States to take a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; for finding a solution would deprive most of the region's anti-American and destabilizing militias their "source of legitimacy," contribute to deny some Arab leaders the scapegoats they use for all the shortcomings of their governments and their failure to develop internal conditions in several Arab countries, and open the door wide to correcting Arab-American relations and returning them back to recognition, mutual respect, friendship, cooperation and common interests.




Hasan Ismaik