The Arab order has been fudged into the larger Middle East, says analyst Gamil Mattar

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 26 Mar 2017

Not much should be expected from the Amman Summit of the Arab League, argues Gamil Mattar

Gamil Mattar
File photo of political analyst Gamil Mattar (Ahram)

For the past four decades Gamil Mattar has been consumed by Arab affairs, first as a diplomat, then as a researcher and now as a prominent commentator and analyst who is very well frequented with Arab foreign policy circles.

This week, ahead of the Arab Summit that is scheduled for Tuesday in Amman, Mattar told Ahram Online that he has “really no big expectations of the summit, despite the many challenges facing the Arab world on so many levels.”

His reasons are many, varying from a lack of political will to the complexity of each problem. However, Mattar’s greatest source of disappointment over the lack of collective Arab action is the "sad fact" that "there is no such thing as an Arab order left.”

“I hate to say it, but this is where we are now; there is no Arab world as such. There are Arab countries and there is a Middle East to which these countries subscribe,” Mattar said.

The Amman summit is due to take place against the backdrop of diplomatic efforts to bring a semblance of order or peace to two Arab countries in particular: Syria and Libya.

Both have been crushed by the militant political bras de fer that followed the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, which managed — with Western help — to eliminate Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi who had ruled for 40 years, but failed to bring an end to the regime of Syrian ruler Bashar Al-Assad, who has been in office since June 2000, in succession to his father who ruled for three decades.

Other Arab countries are also suffering considerable instability: Yemen that is steeped in poverty and strife among conflicting powers supported by battling regional players, essentially Saudi Arabia and Iran; Iraq that is still failing to recover from the multiple ethnic fissures that emerged following the US-led war and invasion in 2003; and Somalia, whose strategic placing on the Red Sea brings to it considerable foreign, regional and international interference.

“A great part of this and other problems among Arab states have to do with the high level of presumption that many Arab capitals tend towards regarding their status in comparison to other Arab countries, and about the role they could play beyond their own borders,” Mattar said.

'Outside intervention' 

These same Arab capitals have also failed to put a lid on expanding intervention in Arab affairs on the part of international and regional powers, particularly “Iran, Turkey and of course Israel that is pursuing endlessly expansionist policies across the region and not only when it comes to Palestine," Mattar argues. 

Outside intervention is such that it would be hard to argue, he says, that Arab affairs are even mostly decided within the realm of the Arab order.

“This might be something that we will read in resolutions to be adopted by the Amman summit, but beyond that it is essentially and unfortunately a very feeble influence that most Arab capitals have on the management of Arab affairs.”

Syria is a country that has been contested since 2011, essentially between Riyadh and Tehran. Today, the country’s affairs and future is essentially being decided by Russia in consultation with Iran. Libya, meanwhile, is a country that three North African Arab capitals — Cairo, Tunis and Algiers — are trying to fix, but any final scheme would have to be approved by the UN, the EU, the US and Russia.

The Palestinian file — once called "the central cause of the Arab world" — has been put on the backburner for more than five years with most Arab capitals immersed in the waves of the Arab Spring, or trying to ward it off. There is consensus neither among key Palestinian figures nor among concerned Arab capitals, while the position of the US administration under Donald Trump remains ambiguous.

How did the Arab world arrive to such an impasse, seven decades after the launch of the Arab League that was intended as a forum to cement and develop a nascent Arab order? Answers Mattar: “It has been a long and unfortunate road of mismanagement and wrong choices.”

For Mattar, the Arab world or Arab order has become fudged into a larger Middle East. One reason for this, Mattar argues, relates to the failure of Arab leaders to properly manage Arab resources to serve Arab interests, either at the national or larger regional level.

“There has been a lot of waste; a lot of resources have been drained in futile ways, be it oil, investment capacity, political influence, and the rest of it. They have all been irrationally spent and I would not say that any single Arab leader is without guilt, in one way or another,” Mattar argued.

At a wider level there is the failure of the today 22 member states of the Arab League, which represents the Arab order, to achieve any sort of integration, be it political, economic or in security matters.

Since the signing of the joint Arab security treaty in the early 1950s, Mattar reminds, “There has effectively been less than a handful of meetings for Arab ministers of defence, and that was that, really."

“A couple of years ago, Egypt put forward a new proposal to establish a joint Arab military force, but this proposal was immediately crushed by Saudi Arabia that pursued instead a made-to-measure alliance for its war in Yemen,” Mattar said.

According to Mattar, the failure to integrate has essentially been about the reluctance of some Arab countries to acknowledge the leadership of others: first the Saudis declined the leadership of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser; then the Saudis shrugged the attempts of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to assume leadership of the Arab world.

“This is not just about military or political leadership, but even development and culture,” Mattar said. As a result, he added, “The very pioneering and promising plans for integration that were schemed in some of the best Arab brains in the 1950s through the 1970s were all trashed, or almost.”

While failing to act collectively, Mattar said, Arab countries for the most part were failing to make any significant development leaps, at least “serious development that goes beyond the mere finding of oil or other natural resources.”

This lack of development is not just about prevailing autocracy, but also curtailing civil society, “despite the many promising syndicates and workers unions that were there across Arab countries.” With declining soft power capacity came also a lack of vision for the future.

This said, “of course, in a sense we have to acknowledge that the failure of the Arab League has to do with the way it was established by the British in the mid-1940s, when they knew that the time was coming for them to leave this part of the world in the wake of the end of their empire and the rise of the US after World War II.”

The very member states of this pan-Arab organisation were also, in many cases, the making of imperial powers, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

“So we ended up with some Arab leaders who were not really content with the borders of their newly independent nation states and who tried to expand the scope of their power, either through attempted unities as pursued by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi or by war as pursued by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. And these leaders were assembled in a unity framework that they had not really visualised or structured,” Mattar said.

Throughout its seven plus decades, Mattar said, the Arab League has faced serious challenges that raised question marks over its credibility.

These, he argued, included the failure of Arab states to take a clear supportive position towards Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal; the failure of Arab countries to agree on a position on the war in Yemen in the 1960s and the failure of the Arab countries to prevent the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the 1990s, despite a successful effort a couple of decades earlier that prevented a similar attack.

The challenges also included the subsequent stance in support of foreign military intervention in the Gulf to liberate Kuwait; and the failure of Arab countries to take a collective position on how best to handle the Palestinian cause.

“And, of course, the suspension of Egypt’s membership in the Arab League upon its peace deal with Israel in 1979 dealt one of the most serious blows to the Arab League, given the central role and responsibility that Egypt always had in the League,” Mattar said.

Despite the establishment of a branch of the pan-Arab organisation in Tunis during the decade of Egypt's suspension from the League, and a potential new branch opening in the UAE, to host leading Arab meetings, Mattar argues that the role of Egypt as host of the Arab League headquarters remains central.

Consequently, any serious attempt to improve the state of the Arab organisation would have to have a strong Egyptian push, “something that does not seem to be in the works for now.”

Amid the many home front challenges that the Arab Spring brought to Egypt, Cairo has had little energy to invest in the pan-Arab organisation. “Of course, a lack of initiative was there before, given the fact that [former president Hosni] Mubarak had chosen to manage relations with a few selected Arab leaders away from the pan-Arab organisation,” Mattar said.

But it was the Arab Spring, Mattar said, that put the pan-Arab organisation before the most unsettling questions: what kind of Arab regimes should the League support, and what form should Arab nation-states take?

Following the initial success of the January Revolution in Egypt, the League acted to support calls for democracy in Libya, Syria and Yemen. It took the decision to suspend the membership of Libya and Syria in condemnation of regime attempts in both countries to quash protests and demands for democracy.

The elimination of Gaddafi allowed the Arab League to bring Libya back in, under a new transitional government.

Prompt Saudi intervention in Yemen, the immediate backyard of the oil rich monarchy, and the quasi war between Saudi Arabia and Iran there and in Syria, prohibited a long term effective role for the Arab League, especially as Egypt, the central Arab country, was suffering internal disturbances with the failure of the elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi to act inclusively.

His ouster later inaugurated a reversal of the tide of the Arab Spring across the region.

Today, Mattar argues, the question as to the nature of the Arab nation state, put to the pan-Arab organisation, remains pending. Yemen and Libya, both suffering serious disturbances, are still present in the organisation while Syria remains out, despite the keen wish of some countries — including Egypt — that the regime of Bashar Al-Assad be reinstated in the pan-Arab organisation.

“The key developments do not start in the Arab League; they start elsewhere, maybe in Tehran or Ankara or Washington, and then they are accommodated in the Arab League. This is why I am convinced that there is not much to be expected of the Arab summit beyond traditional positions that have little impact on the ground. And this is why I stand by my assessment that there is not much left of the Arab order,” Mattar concluded.

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