There are times when the US and the West in general throw up their hands over the Middle East, by which they mean, when we take a closer look, the “Arab world”. Such fits of despair have their origins in the proscriptions of the historian Bernard Lewis in the 1960s and, subsequently, in Fouad Ajami’s pronunciation of “The End of Pan-Arabism” in 1970s.
They have since become a kind of mantra reiterated every decade or so when circumstances give rise to the belief that the end is nigh for the Arabs, Arabism or Arab states. In the 1990s the “Arab exception” gained currency as a term that summed up Western frustration that Arab states had failed to catch up with the train of nascent democracies that emerged after the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe and then in Latin America. After the turn of the millennium, the Arabs were blamed for the waves of terrorism that reached their zenith with the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington, DC.
That gave birth to the satanic notion of bringing regime change to the Arab world at the end of a tank barrel. When the US invaded Iraq it was commonly said in Washington that the target was not specifically Baghdad, but Cairo and Riyadh as well.
The war in Iraq wreaked untold tragedies with irreparable consequences. The same applies to the war in Afghanistan that Washington had started before that. In the 2010s, Western jubilation at the “Arab Spring” did not last long because that season soon revealed the theocratic and terrorist movements and organisations that had been ready to pounce, and unleashed a maelstrom of violence and civil warfare that tore societies apart and wreaked massive destruction.
In the middle of that decade, a Middle East Strategy Task Force (MEST) was formed to study how to repair and rebuild this devastated region. A bipartisan assembly of Middle East specialists, the group was headed by Madeleine Albright who had served as secretary of state under Bill Clinton and Stephen Hadley who had served as national security adviser to George Bush Jr.
In their final report, they concluded that the “root causes” that precipitated the deterioration in the region essentially lay in the lack of liberal and democratic traditions. The Democrats and Republicans had no differences to pick with each other over this outlook on the Arab world.
On 5 September, Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, came out with a grim assessment beneath the heading “The End of Hope in the Middle East” and the subheading “The region has always had problems — but it’s now almost past the point of recovery.”
Cook is not alone in this prognosis. Others have held similar notions, sometimes based on a focus on a single Arab country, generally Egypt or Saudi Arabia. What they have in common is not only their liberal frame of reference, which is no longer the only gauge of progress in the world, but also the notion that the tides of change in the US have called into question the ability to sustain progress in light of the intense complexities engendered by contemporary modes of production combined with the universal backlash against “globalisation” and the recoil into nationalist isolationism.
If, as it seems, scholars in the West have applied a distorted lens to their approaches to the Middle East and, specifically, the Arab world, the greater flaw is to be found in a deficiency in scholastic rigidity, close observation of developments in this region and fairness. The region has endured a number of brutal tests during the past two decades, starting with the Islamist extremism and Islamist terrorism that hit this part of the world harder than anywhere else.
These radical trends interwove with the tumultuous waves of the “Arab Spring” generating the chain reactions that resulted in political and economic collapse, civil wars and numerous forms of chaos that were not at all “creative”. Nothing in that brew was conducive to the processes of democratisation and construction of the civil state that theorists in Washington had envisioned.
One phenomenon that escaped the attention of the various American think tanks and task groups is that despite the succession of tragedies, the Arab state proved more resilient than imagined. Algeria had emerged from the dark 1990s with a state stronger and fitter to “rise up” and engage in the search for a brighter political future.
Despite the invasion of Iraq and the US’s attempt to dismantle the state and reconstruct it on the basis of a sectarian/ethnic quota system, Iraq has remained unified and the Kurdish secessionist referendum failed. Even at the fiercest heights of the Syrian conflict, there has not been a move from within Syria or abroad to partition that country. The same applies to Lebanon, Libya and Yemen apart from in the imaginations of US think tanks.
More importantly, the Arab world had not been idle all this time. Various reform initiatives emerged during the first decade of the 21st century and these began to be implemented during the second decade in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Bahrain. Tunisia pursued a path of its own under the heavy weight of the Tunisian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political facade, the Ennahda Party. Political success there came hand in hand with economic deterioration and a rollback in secularist values.
In short, the Arab world has been dealing with its crises through profound reform processes that reached deep into its various countries’ distinct geographic, historical and intellectual makeups. Saudi Arabia and Egypt furnish models certified by the IMF, World Bank, UNDP human development reports, global competitiveness reports and similar studies that US researchers generally do not consult unless they support their opinions.
The reforms go beyond the mega economic projects that have multiplied their land use rates to projects that resolve long intractable problems in education, health and housing.
These have proceeded in tandem with concerted efforts to renovate religious thought, empower women and constructively address minority issues. An unprecedented cultural/civilisational awakening has accompanied this developmental process as evidenced in the recent archaeological excavations in Saudi Arabia and, in Egypt, in the construction of more museums, roads, towns and universities than in the second half of the 20th century.
The Arab world did not passively succumb to difficult fates. It was resistant to the forces of disintegration and ready to rebuild itself using methods applied by emergent powers as opposed to the Western path which had proven a failure in many experiments carried out under Washington’s supervision.
And it persisted despite pressures from all sides, from the aggressive behaviours on the part of Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel to direct interventions on the part of Russia and NATO.
Arab responses to these pressures were epitomised by Riyadh’s leadership of the G20 and its attempt to solve the Yemeni conflict without partitioning Yemen and in a manner consistent with UN resolutions, by Egypt’s proposed peace and prosperity project for the Eastern Mediterranean, and by Bahrain and the UAE’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East. Surely these and other developments should inspire hope and point the way to a promising future that Cook apparently does not wish to see.
*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 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.