Arab grand strategy

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 26 Nov 2019

The new Arab alliance forming is not based on age-old notions of Arab nationalism, but rather strategic imperative. Its potential is vast, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

A “grand strategy” is a fundamental concept behind a country’s — or group of countries — public and national security policies and strategies. A prominent example is the US’s strategy of containment against the Soviet Union after the outset of the Cold War. In its framework, there arose a network of international alliances and military bases and a network of special relationships with Japan, Australia and the countries of Western Europe. Egypt’s non-alignment policy offers another major example of a grand strategy, in this case as a means to handle the Cold War. Cairo focused on three vital spheres in its framework: the Arab world, Africa and Asia. 

In many other Third World countries in the Arab region and elsewhere, this strategy was never framed so explicitly. A pro-Soviet outlook or special relations with the US before and after the Cold War provided a loose schema for strategic decisions. As the European integration experience expanded to the EU, that schema expanded to include the US plus European countries, Japan and Australia, or what is broadly referred to as “the West”. Of course, this did not preclude relations with fellow members of the Arab or Islamic groups, or special ties between them, as embodied by the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. 

Grand strategies have, at times, been intimately associated with certain ideologies. Communism and its dissemination shaped many of Moscow’s foreign and domestic policies. Capitalism and liberalism shaped most of Washington’s foreign and domestic policies. It was the latter — the liberal capitalist ideology — that prevailed after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. With this, the Americans had reached the threshold of the “end of history” and then they crossed it to conquer the world, starting with Iraq. As we know now, the neoconservatives saw the invasion as the beginning of change in Cairo and Riyadh. Indeed, the Obama administration’s position towards the so-called “Arab Spring” emanated from a belief in the notion of “Arab exceptionalism” which held that Arab countries were inherently impervious to Western liberalism and secularism and their applications. 

Today, Arab countries have many reasons to follow a grand strategy that responds to the new and changing global circumstances. It has become increasingly clear that there are limits to how much we can depend on the US and the EU. Washington has stopped looking for allies in the global order. It is looking for consumers for its weapons, technology and protection. On a visit to Japan and South Korea in July, then US National Security Adviser John Bolton asked Tokyo for a 300 per cent increase in its yearly payment, from $2 billion to $8 billion, and Seoul for a 400 per cent increase, from $1 billion to $5 billion in exchange for keeping US troops in the region. In such cases, it is always the US that sets the costs and fees, not the market. As for Europe, it is on the verge of losing an important ally due to Brexit and, more importantly, is torn between strengthening European unity and independence versus clinging to NATO skirts. The rift has considerably weakened EU decision-making while generating various forms of French-German friction. 

Another circumstance the Arab region needs to address comes from much closer to home. It is no secret that among the repercussions of the Arab Spring was that the consequent frailty of Arab states whetted the appetites of the Arab region’s neighbours. Iran, Turkey and Israel grew more aggressive in their designs for growing influence and even territorial acquisition in, respectively, the Arab Gulf, Syria and Iraq, and Palestine. During the same period, Ethiopia took advantage of the Arabs’ weakened immune system to move ahead with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The third major circumstance is that, in contrast to the many manifestations of weakness and deficiency during this period, the Arab region has simultaneously seen the real beginnings of a profound reform process in many Arab countries and, above all, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. Such a process and outlook brought a strong focus on the political, economic, cultural structure of the home front and, simultaneously, a strong sensitivity to foreign aggressiveness. 

Taken together, what such circumstances and recent experiences mean, firstly, is that it has become painfully obvious that the Arabs cannot confidently rely on outside powers. This does not mean severing relations or worse. Rather, it means that the world has a variety of sources of power to choose from, so there is no reason to stick to a single market. Secondly, Arab countries no longer have others to depend on and ally with apart from other Arab countries. This has nothing to do with “Arab nationalism” but with current strategic realities that dictate three possible grand strategies. The first is complete self-dependence. It is a highly costly strategy and only countries the size of the US, Russia and China would have the resources to attain it. The second is to board the train of the region’s neighbours and search history and geography for justifications to offset the losses and maybe to realise some benefits. The third is to generate a balance of forces that ensures that the costs of any aggression is borne by the aggressor, that makes it possible to build an effective regional security system, that offers the opportunity to resolve regional issues through fair negotiating processes, and that opens horizons to cooperative relations that benefit all. 

The foregoing strategies are available to Arab countries and, above all, the Arab quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain) whose alliance, I believe, was not just to confront Qatar. Perhaps now is the time for the intensive series of joint manoeuvres that we have seen in recent years to evolve into a solid coalition with military, political and economic dimensions. In a sense, steps towards this end have already been taken during the past few years. The maritime borders agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia cleared the way for both countries to optimise the utilisation of their respective economic zones in the Red Sea and its islands and for the development of Sinai and northwestern Saudi Arabia in the framework of the NEOM project. More recently, the UAE and Egypt signed a $20 billion investment fund agreement that will give a great boost to already existing cooperation. True, these are merely steps to advance cooperation. But if set in the framework of a grand strategy, they become part of a dynamic they can work to end current wars, repel outside incursions, resolve chronic historic crises and dilemmas, address the popular movements in the region, and equip the peoples of this region to take control of the means and mechanisms of the contemporary age before this age takes control of them through various forms of oppression and aggression. The potential for a coalition if this sort is enormous. Its concrete existence would silence sceptics and encourage other Arab countries to join. 

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 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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