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Weathering the storm

The Arab Quartet should become the foundation of a drive towards Arab strategic cooperation, one capable of addressing regional and international crises alike

Abdel Moneim Said , Friday 27 Mar 2020
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A hurricane is a complex storm system that spells natural disaster. It combines tempestuous winds, torrential rains, floods, whirlwinds and whirlpools into an extremely powerful and destructive package. Developed countries are generally prepared for such events.

They have early warning systems that give them time to take the necessary precautions. They build on previous experiences to develop new and better response plans. They also have the ability to handle the aftermath with reconstruction, compensation and reforms that help avert the mistakes of previous experiences. Today, the Arab world is experiencing a storm of this sort.

In part, it is a product of nature, like the “dragon storm” that battered Egypt a couple of weeks ago. But a large part of it began with the so-called Arab Spring which swept Arab countries so violently and in different ways that it rendered them vulnerable to the ambitions of non-Arab regional powers.

Maybe the seeds for this weather system were planted with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, nurtured by the militarisation of the second Palestinian Intifada, fed by the US invasion of Iraq and other phenomena that culminated in that hot khamaseen called the Arab Spring that shook the foundations of the Arab state.

Fortunately, some Arab states weathered the storm. Some of these managed to recover fairly quickly while others managed to ride the crest and let the future take care of the cracks and fissures. At the same time, from the rubble and ashes, there arose awareness of the need for urgent and deep political, economic, cultural and religious reform.

Now we are facing a new storm system. It is called Covid-19 and it struck the whole world. One of its consequences was plummeting oil prices.

It struck while some Arab countries were struggling to form a new government, others were experiencing new outbreaks of political uprisings, and yet others were facing waves of foreign aggression: from the Iranian offensives in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen (and even Morocco) and the Turkish military interventions in Qatar, Syria and Libya to Israel’s bids to annex large chunks of occupied Palestine while pretending it will grant independence to a Palestinian state, and last but not least the Ethiopian attempt to build a dam, one of the most important purposes of which is to deprive Egypt of its historic, geographic, legal and moral right to the waters of the Nile.

All of these developments have had debilitating effects on Arab countries, on the Arab region, on the Arabs’ international relations and on Arab resources and energies, creating even greater pressures on the Arabs’ dwindling influence and prestige. 

Things cannot continue this way. This is not about the type of losses that some countries can ward off with their money or power, others can avert through their connections with the East or the West, and others might be able to cope with in other ways. What we are facing is an ongoing assault. It hasn’t revealed its face openly, but it can be seen in the processes of attrition, in the diversion of resources from construction and reform to battles against flagrant aggressions and infiltrations, and in the sapping of energies in endlessly protracted negotiations on matters over which agreement is actually within reach. 

The balance of powers in the region is not in the Arabs’ favour, which is why non-Arab regional powers have been able to capitalise on our harsh circumstances in the past and are now trying to capitalise on no less harsh circumstances in the present. Although the entire Arab region is under attack, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been singled out. The former by Ethiopia via the Nile, and Turkey via Libya, and the latter by Iran via Iraq, the Gulf and Yemen, and by Turkey in Syria.

Strategically, what we are looking at is an attempt to lay siege to the basic foundations of the Arab order. The remedy to this can only be an Arab one. As readers of my columns know, I am not an “ultra Arab nationalist”. I do not subscribe to a notion of Arab nationalism that supersedes or ignores the particular individual interests and properties of each Arab country.

However, the countries of Europe, Asia, South America and even Africa have learned how to come together and work collectively to counter adversities precipitated by similar types of imbalances or deficiencies. Their first step toward resistance was to promote profound internal reform. Many Arab states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, have already initiated ambitious reform projects.

But reform, however sweeping, is not sufficient in the face of the current storm system, with its gale force winds and lethal vortexes. So far, as things stand, there is only one effective mechanism for collective Arab action against the threat: the Arab Quartet made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain. Unfortunately, the Arab League, despite the efforts of its secretary general, is shackled by an Arab order that is feeble and beleaguered.

The Arab Quartet should not be seen as an instrument for dealing with Qatar. That problem is not nearly as important as the need to focus on other regional and international parties in order to rectify the balances of powers and to establish a regional security order to prevent further attrition to Arab rights, to their security, land and territorial integrity, territorial waters and stability. Just as reform drives alone are not enough to contain and find a cure for Covid-19, they are not enough to combat the Arab regional illness which is the product of disparities in power and the ferocity of the onslaught from some regional powers. 

There are heartening experiences we can draw on. For example, the maritime border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia opened a vast horizon for bilateral cooperation in many fields, not least the project of building a Red Sea regional order extending down to the Horn of Africa. In like manner, the maritime border agreement between Egypt and Cyprus paved the way to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum which, in addition to Egypt, includes Arab countries such as Jordan and Palestine. Of course, such experiences are also not enough. They forge the beginning of the road but do not take us to the ultimate goal. 

While the world is preoccupied with the fight against Coronavirus, Iran, as hard hit as it is by this contagion, appears poised to ratchet up its designs in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Lebanon. Ethiopia is looking to Arab Gulf countries for investments while planning to monopolise control over the Nile which brings water to Egypt. Israel is fighting the virus with one hand while trying to snatch up the Jordan Valley and annex West Bank settlements with the other.

The Arab Quartet can serve as the nucleus of a Concert of Arabia, a strategic order capable of rectifying the imbalances and weaknesses that provided the openings that non-Arab powers have taken advantage of. The way forward will not be easy. But what will be more difficult is to continue as is, with each country facing the threats and contagions on its own.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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