Brave new world

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 6 Jun 2023

Since the Arab Spring wave of popular uprisings in 2011, several key Arab countries have practically disintegrated, with competing governments and armed militias fighting against each other for control.


Initial optimism and hope that a new era was about to dawn in the historically troubled region were replaced by deep pessimism and the sad reality that the world was accustomed to chaos in the region regardless of human loss.

Whether in Syria, Libya, Yemen or Sudan, the world has practically decided to live with the chaotic conditions there, not only doing nothing to help end the conflict, but even fuelling the bloodshed and all kinds of tragedies by backing up different warring sides.

Regional powers that had historic ambitions to expand their influence found in this turbulent situation the perfect opportunity to achieve their goals, making use of the reluctance of key world powers to interfere amid a global trend that sees countries electing populist governments and leaders that place the interests of their nations first.

For decades, especially during the Cold War, it was the world’s superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union, that determined how conflicts started and ended. Instead of direct confrontation, the Middle East and several other parts of the world became the playground for proxy wars between the two historic rivals.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was the United States that claimed world hegemony, along with key European allies. Yet this era of US dominance was short lived.

The majority of Americans have come to realise that adventurous wars abroad, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, were huge mistakes, if not disasters, which neither served US security interests nor set a good model on how foreign intervention might actually help to build democracy or economic prosperity.

Soon Russia and China emerged as key competing forces seeking to build what they describe as a “multipolar world order.” This competition among world powers is no longer limited to proxy wars in the Middle East and Africa, but is drawing closer to direct confrontations by the day.

The Russian war in Ukraine is not limited to the two countries, but is rather a direct undeclared war between the United States and Europe, on one hand, and Russia, on the other.

Generous American and European arms supplies to Ukraine and renewed pledges that it will ultimately join NATO are but a few indications that this war will last for years to come.  

Making the situation worse is the growing tension in US-Chinese relations, which are the focus of a contest over the future global geopolitical landscape.

On Saturday, the United States’ Indo-Pacific Command said that an American naval destroyer slowed to avoid a possible collision with a Chinese Navy ship as it passed through the strait between China and Taiwan.

The Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, told Asia’s top security summit that conflict with the United States would be an “unbearable disaster.” Yet he still refused to meet his US counterpart for direct talks.

This complicated and uncertain world order leaves the Arab countries not option but to take the lead in solving their own problems, and not to wait for external world powers to play their traditional roles, simply because they seem too busy with their own conflicts, or no longer see this region as a top priority. There have been several positive signs in this direction in recent weeks.

The recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, following rare Chinese mediation in Middle East conflicts, has generated hope that several other regional conflicts might be heading for settlement.

The recent Arab Summit in Jeddah witnessed the readmission of Syria to the Arab League, not necessarily because Arab countries approve the record of its regime in handling the conflict there, but because no solution can be reached to restore the integrity and unity of the Syrian state without the participation of the regime which in recent years has managed to regain control over most of Syria.

The same applies to the conflict in Yemen, which has turned the country into one of the most impoverished in the entire world, inflicting heavy losses on the people. The truce between the legitimate government in Aden and the Houthis in Sanaa continued to hold, even though it was not officially renewed.

Hopefully, this will pave the road for peace talks, mediated by Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and the United Nations, to end the war permanently and restore the unity of Yemen.

Recognition that Arab countries should be the party mainly responsible for solving regional problems can also contribute to reaching settlements for the ongoing, sad war in Sudan, despite continuous disrespect of the truces mediated by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Lebanon can also benefit tremendously from the renewed positive spirit of reconciliation in the region, and perhaps manage to surpass its long-standing deadlock, which has prevented the election of a president and a permanent government.

The Cairo-based Arab League will certainly have an influential role to play in supporting mediation efforts to end the many regional conflicts that have remained unsettled for years.

Yet, like similar inter-governmental organisations, this will require first strong backing from key Arab regional players, as well as bringing an end to negative intervention by non-Arab regional and international powers.

Arabs need to take their chances resolving their own conflicts now that its been so long since the world decided to let them down.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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