I recently took part in an important conference on The Post-Pandemic World (13-15 November) hosted by the Emirates Policy Centre (EPC). I contributed to the panel on The Arab World at a Crossroads. Some days before, I had turned 73. For more than 50 years of that time I was involved in public work concerned with Egyptian and Arab issues, often fateful ones for the Arab region. The concept “at a crossroads” forced itself frequently and with great urgency on my generation and I was often grappling with questions about the choices available to what we variously termed the “Arab world,” the “Arab peoples,” the “countries of the Arab region” or the “Arab nation.” The multiplicity of names reflected varying degrees of yearning for an all-embracing Arab idea. But that idea inevitably ran up against the reality of what, from a political science perspective, might be described as an amalgam of nations pressured from the outset to unite and simultaneously counter-pressured by internal ethnic or sectarian tensions.
At the crossroads in question in the EPC panel discussion, one arrow pointed to ongoing or renewed conflict due to the continued influence of the effects of the Arab Spring, such as civil warfare and interventions on the part of non-Arab regional actors that leaped on the confusion and upheaval generated in order to expand their spheres of political and military influence and control. The other arrow pointed to the path of rapprochement, restoration of calm, pursuit of opportunities for cooperation and attempts to address never-ending problems. The purpose of our session was to determine which path would prevail, whether at the greater regional level as exemplified by the Abraham Accords and the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, or at the level of individual states in crisis, such as Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen.
I broached the subject in terms of the two waves of political uprising in this region in the second decade of this century: the first at the beginning of this decade, in 2010-2011, and the second at the end, in 2018-2019. The first resulted in the ascendancy of Islamist movements and the violence and warfare they brought. The second posed a challenge to the political groups parading in the name of Islam whether at home or in neighbouring regional powers. Both waves aimed for radically changing an immutable status quo whose very stagnation defied the rapidly changing world. What both waves lacked was to be found in a third. This was initiated by Arab states that had managed to weather the storm of the Arab Spring and then to launch extensive reform processes that set their target dates at the year 2030. In choosing comprehensive reform, these Arab states effectively embarked on the path of the 21st century and its sciences, technologies and industries.
Several Arab countries are pursuing the path of comprehensive reform, but not with the same approach or ideology. Rather, whether this process is unfolding in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco or Tunisia, the details vary from this country to that, depending on the local historical context and other factors. Nevertheless, they do share certain common denominators. Above all, they have all taken as their starting point the need for radical economic change so as to be able to emulate the experiences of the emergent economies that began to soar about four decades ago. Basically the aim was to stimulate the economy by investing heavily in infrastructure, urban development and the modernisation of the industrial and technological sectors while simultaneously putting into place effective social safety nets.
The comprehensiveness of this approach to reform did not include certain concepts advocated by Western institutions whose prevailing liberal discourse is out of touch with the political realities of these regions. But the comprehensiveness did embrace all sectors of society and all religious, ethnic and geographic affiliations. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the process involves a geographical thrust towards the Red Sea. This is not just about the Neom city project but also a multifaceted economic, social and cultural expansion along the whole of the kingdom’s west coast. In Egypt, there is a similar thrust “from the Nile Valley to the sea,” causing a blossoming of urban and other developmental projects from the Sinai down the shores of the Red Sea and along the northern coast from Taba to Salloum. In both the Egyptian and Saudi cases, the geographic expansion stimulates demographic diffusion and the discovery of untold amounts of resources yet to be tapped.
In short, there is a third way to make change. It is conducive to extensive processes of restoring calm, as exemplified by the Al-Ula Declaration which paved the way to the resumption of relations with Qatar and Turkey, and by the Iraqi, Jordanian and Egyptian New Levant initiative. These and similar endeavours are setting the stage for major regional reconciliations. It has also become possible to use the Jordanian window to open a path to Damascus, the epicentre of the harshest crisis to come out of the Arab Spring. Moreover, this trend towards regional solutions for regional problems has so far given rise to paths to peace with Israel. Both have an economic nature indicative of future trends. One is the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum agreement that includes seven countries, at the centre of which reside Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Then there is the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
All these developments combined tell us that the Middle East has begun to prepare for the period after the US withdrawal from the region by implementing domestic reforms and pursuing cooperative avenues towards ending the environment of regional violence. This regionally endogenous approach has enabled the Arab countries spared from the wrath of the Arab Spring to pursue the radical changes needed at home and to summon the necessary flexibility and adaptability to respond to the challenges resulting from the US withdrawal from the Middle East. There is plenty of room for more political and economic investments and initiatives towards the realisation of regional stability. At the same time, there are still political forces set on diverting the above-mentioned Arab powers from their chosen course, such as the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Ennahda Party in Tunisia and the current upheaval in Sudan which I have previously discussed in this column under the heading of “regional crises.” Bearing this in mind, the sustainability of the third course is contingent on deepening the reform process, building sources of autonomous strength and persistent efforts to achieve regional security anchored in a healthy and dynamic nation state.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly