“Smooth and easy” are the last words I would use to describe the previous decade of Arab history. A lot of blood, sweat and tears would more accurately sum up that period, which brought a mixture of collapsed states, confrontations with terrorist and extremist groups, civil strife and warfare, interventions by regional powers, and international meddling and infiltration. While many of these phenomena were facets of the disaster known as the Arab Spring, they nevertheless opened the way to a revision process and the rise of an Arab comprehensive reform drive to rescue the Arab state through economic development, a renewal of religious discourse and other needed changes. The emergence of the reform drive was a “revolution” in itself. It was a rejection of conditions that were stagnant and unproductive, and simultaneously conducive to a state weakness that rendered the fate of the Arab region prey to the greed and ambitions of others.
We now have a group of countries that have embraced the concept of the Arab nation state as a core political entity and set their sights on catching up and competing effectively with other nations as an inspirational driver for social, economic and cultural progress. If the left-wing radicalism and Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s were regional movements, they were countered by conservative and reactionary immobility and backwardness, which was the internationally designated fate for the region. Accordingly, today’s reformist drive requires an approach and methodology that not only aims to promote change and turn the tables against those opposed to change, but also to generate an environment conducive to sustainable positive and progressive development in those countries that have chosen this path. This is not to propose or suggest the existence of ideological battles such as those that took place many decades ago under the banners of Arab nationalism, the proletarian class struggle or rigid fundamentalist dogma. Rather it is to advocate a model for Arab progress that we know in advance will depend on considerable effort and innovation. It will also need to draw on the experiences of others, especially those that appear to have the most in common with our own, namely the East Asian development drives that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the stagnant backwaters of poverty, into prosperity and wellbeing, and then onward to economic and technological superiority.
Two previous articles of mine are relevant in this regard. One appeared in this space on 10 October 2018 entitled “The necessary return of Iraq,” and the other appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 28 July 2021 under the title “What has the ‘Spring’ come to in Syria?” The first took a geopolitical approach and called for the restoration of equilibrium in the Arab region in order to bolster it in the face of regional challenges. The second assessed how the Syrian pre- and post- Arab Spring experience reached a dead end. As we know, change these days occurs faster than we can ever imagine. The Iraq we saw at the time of the first article saw another wave of spring, but this time inspired by the conviction that the only way to free the country from the scourge of terrorism and the lack of government was to ceaselessly strive to establish the nation state. In the four years since then, Iraq drew on its inherent strengths, and on its history and civilisation to defeat terrorism, restart the development process and restore the oil sector to the control of a state serving all its citizens with all their diverse sectarian and ethnic affiliations. It also overcame many obstacles in order to hold general elections, after which it navigated a very bumpy road for about a year until it established its presidential, parliamentary and executive institutions. It fielded many criticisms, reservations and observations about the process along the way. But what ultimately counted was simply setting off from a point that could then be used as a benchmark to assess progress, adjust course and set off again in the right direction, which would always be possible if the political leaders grasped the lessons of the previous stage and were armed with sufficient patriotism to work for the general welfare of everyone.
The Syrian case was no less challenging. Indeed, it has been and remains fiercer and more violent. On top of the Civil War, foreign incursions and massive displacement of the Syrian population ushered in by the Arab Spring, Syria has become a multi-front battleground between regional and international players, from Turkey and Iran, to the US and Russia, while another battle rages between Israel and Iran. As though that were not enough, Syria was recently struck by a powerful earthquake that caused yet more damage and loss of life. But as they say, nothing shows us more clearly who our friends and enemies really are than a disaster. Amidst the outpouring of sympathy for Syria as well as Turkey in that ordeal, the Arabs were quick to act and the results of their actions were palpable. In addition to urgent relief, the Arabs stepped up the process of restoring relations with Syria and welcoming it back into the Arab League.
Iraq has also been gradually returning to the Arab fold, rejoining the Arab League and in other tangible ways. Most notably, it spearheaded the establishment of the “New Levant,” a project first mentioned by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on 25 August 2020 during the trilateral summit between Egypt, Iraq and Jordan in Amman. As the summit statement explained, the project brings together Iraqi oil, Egyptian human capital and a Jordanian linkage in the interest of creating a trilateral economic base capable of sustaining long-term investment and mutual trade, and stimulating the Arab market as a whole. The joint statement released after the heads of state of the three countries met on 27 June 2021 revealed that the emergent partnership had assumed strategic dimensions that pointed to potential economic integration in certain domains. This involved several projects that called for Egyptian and Jordanian contributions to Iraqi reconstruction in exchange for oil. Unfortunately, little came of it at the time apart from the bilateral rapprochement, since Iraq was still in the process of sorting out its domestic sociopolitical circumstances.
Now, two years later, reabsorbing Iraq and Syria into the Arab order are more essential than ever in light of the many changes in the region. Firstly, Iraq has definitively set itself on the path of tangible reform grounded in the nation state and a series of state-building mega projects. It has thus augmented its capacities, as a state, to become an effective partner in the Arab regional reform and development drive. Secondly, it is impossible to abandon Syria to its particular plight. History has shown that when one Arab country is isolated, it does not pay the price alone. All other Arab countries in its vicinity also pay a heavy toll.
So considerable diplomacy and political acumen are now in order. It is up to the Arab reform countries to bring both Iraq and Syria back into the framework of collective action. The “new regionalism” that I have often discussed in this space and elsewhere, offers the necessary inspiration, flexibility and collective resources conducive to this end once a consultative framework has been determined. Participants will not only need to discuss obstacles and challenges, they should also explore the potential arising from new realities such as the new bridges that were forged after the earthquake, the Arab gas pipeline, and the regional and international weight of Arab powers, whether or not they fall within the scope of the Abraham Accords.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly