The emerging new global order — VIII: The Arab world

Tarek Osman
Monday 31 Jan 2022

The Arab world has entered the second decade of the 21st century facing seven acute problems.

First, the Arab countries no longer constitute a recognisable “world”. 

Although Arabic remains the most prevalent language in the region extending from Morocco’s shores on the Atlantic to Bahrain’s on the Gulf, other key unifying factors have been severely diluted. There is no common political rhetoric, let alone objectives. There is minuscule economic cooperation, let alone integration. There is extreme difficulty in the movement of humans and goods. And there has been an acute weakening of the traditional seats of cultural production and dissemination in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria that has neither been addressed nor seriously replaced elsewhere.

Second, Arab civil space has been emptied. Most of the Arab media is state-controlled. The lion’s share of the private sector in most Arab countries is in the hands of a small number of merchant families. Most Arab universities, labour unions, and professional syndicates have long ceased to be crucibles of their countries’ political scenes.

Third, destinations differ. Most of the Gulf states are reaping the benefits of four decades of immense wealth, such that a significant majority of their youth is now much more comfortable interacting with the most advanced parts of the world economically and technologically than with the rest of the Arab world. 

Most Maghreb societies have abandoned the Arabisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s and now sustain a cultural milieu in which a mix of Islamism and Europeanism is far more potent than Arabism. The result is that they are increasingly more linked to the north (Europe) and the south (Sub-Saharan Africa) than they are to the Arab Mashreq. 

The Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant have undergone a painful two decades that have exacted tremendous costs on their demographics, religious composition, availability of human talent, and, crucially, on their social cohesion. Those who can, leave; those who can’t, struggle to survive. 

Fourth, in the same way as destinations differ, so interests clash. There are now countries in the Arab world that are weaving new security arrangements, primarily with the Western powers and/or Israel, that other Arab countries consider to be damaging to their interests. On the other hand, there are also Arab countries that see in Iran a strategic ally at a time when other Arab countries consider it to be the most significant threat they face. These divisions transcend the clash of values we see between member states of the European Union and social constituencies in the US, and they give rise to conflicting national security doctrines.

Fifth, questions from the past that have tormented the present still haunt the future. After 150 years of development experiences within different frames of reference, the Arab world remains divided, and bewildered, by the role of religion – Islam and Christianity – in political legitimacy, legislation, the shaping of society, and national identity. 

Sixth, there is muted anger. The conditions that gave rise to the Arab uprisings a decade ago have not been resolved across most of the Arab world. A few Arab countries have advanced the kind of economic reforms that can gradually make their social contracts more sustainable. But in most of the rest extractive political economies, lingering inequalities, a lack of genuine representation, and oppressiveness fester and create angst under the surface.

Seventh, the Arabs’ place in the world has regressed considerably over the past four decades. Until the mid-1970s, the Arab world as a whole was developmentally comparable to most of East Asia, Latin America, and several countries in south-east Europe. Now almost the entirety of the Arab world has lost parity with all of these regions.

These challenges continue to simmer while the Arab world faces three immediate decisions. 

The first concerns the future of the nation state. The state has collapsed in some Arab countries. In others, the foundations upon which the state was built have been changing, typically with sectarianism eroding nationalism. In still other Arab countries, especially the small Gulf states that have achieved tremendous developmental success, their social composition and dynamics increasingly fly in the face of their fundamental principles. In some of these countries, citizens constitute tiny slivers of their populations. 

The vast majority of the young citizens of these societies have grown up in milieus in which Arabness has become a diluted societal component. The result is that in at least half of the Arab world the state needs rejuvenation, or often resuscitation, and in the rest the society is no longer truly Arab. These situations remind us of the mediaeval Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun’s view that Arab societies can either embrace the limited collectivism of family and community, in which specific constituencies might thrive but the state collapses, or they can adopt the harder, but state-sustaining, wider collectivism of the nation. The more Arab societies shirk making that decision, the more they will find themselves entrapped in the first situation.

The second decision is about fragmentation versus unity. Arab nationalism, the last political project to seriously call for and attempt a form of Arab unity, ended defeated and in the view of some defamed. But the notion of closer Arab cooperation, integration, and orchestration of foreign policy is much older than almost all other major political-integration projects in the world today, most notably the European Union. 

Today, ideas about serious Arab political integration and orchestration of action in foreign affairs might sound laughable. However, looked at from a perspective that includes the sweep of centuries, those who identify as Arabs – who believe that Arabic, Arabness, and Arab history and culture have formed their psyche – must confront the reality that divisions, diverse directions, and fragmentation are bringing the idea of a collective Arab polity close to atrophy. 

This brings us to the third decision, which is about self-respect versus self-delusion. The Arab world over the past quarter of a century has lost close to 30 million people to violent death, immigration, or permanent displacement. This is a human tragedy comparable to the devastation of Europe during World War II.  However, unlike Europe in the late 1940s and 1950s, glaring lessons have not been learned and there have been no “never agains”. The more the Arab elites refuse to reflect seriously on such lessons, the higher the likelihood is that further human tragedies will materialise. 

Like every country or region discussed in this series, the Arab world today is undergoing a transition. However, in the case of the Arab world, that transition seems to be through purgatory. Some constituencies in the Arab world are finding their way to reincarnation and to creating for themselves new chances at redemption. Perhaps in time they might find their way to states of bliss. The majority, however, are walking on a straight path where colossal mistakes accumulated over decades have brought them close to extended torment. 

An immediate awakening, firm will, serious discipline, and correct decisions could be their saving grace. 

*The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: