Arabs at a crossroads

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 1 Feb 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said sums up the Arab Strategic Conference

In November, I had the honour of taking part in the Arab Strategic Conference hosted by the Emirates Policy Centre in Abu Dhabi. In my presentation, I urged the Arabs to pool their strengths, reiterating my conviction that their real power resided in themselves. When I made that appeal, Tarek bin Ziyad was not far from my mind. The conqueror of Andalusia famously told his troops: “Behind you lies the sea, before you, the enemy. Your only course now is to persevere and to fight.” Centuries have passed since the Arabs stood at that crossroads. The times were different; it was another world. But Bin Ziyad’s words still resonate at critical moments when we are faced with great choices that yield historic results. 

Not long ago, a missile struck Abu Dhabi International Airport. The attack was repeated twice. Baghdad airport experienced a similar strike. Also not long ago, the Emirati port of Al-Fujaira and Emirati ships were targeted in the Gulf. Before and after this, Aramco facilities sustained missile strikes, as did Abha Airport and other locations in Saudi Arabia periodically. Behind these acts resides an unbridled Iranian interventionism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It builds and uses Iranian proxies who, like many before them, kill, destroy and undermine the security of Arab countries in the name of “resistance.” The problem is huge and multifaceted. It has been discussed before, from many angles. At one point it took on urgency in connection with the American withdrawal from the region. There followed confusion in Europe, internal anarchy in Washington, British blunders, and a resurgence of the Ukrainian question. Such developments abroad combined with fiery messages to various parts of the Arab region, including scandalous declarations about controlling the sources of the Nile, have presented the Arabs with weighty choices that demand decisions. This is no longer the age of Egyptian regional leadership. But nor is it the “Saudi era” or the “Gulf moment.” This is the era in which non-Arab regional powers are taking aim against Arab lives, water and stability.  

We know where it all began: the strategic disruption ushered in by the so-called Arab Spring. That was when the non-Arab regional powers, Iran and Turkey, seized the chance to encroach on the Arab region. We are now familiar with the details of the means they used towards this end. Fortunately, since 2015 it became clear that the pivotal Arab powers could and would no longer move backwards. They initiated comprehensive reform processes aimed at building their main components of strength on the broadest and sturdiest bases. These processes took the form of strategic visions that set 2030 as their target date. The results so far speak of relatively high growth rates, diversification of sources of income and major strides towards joining the ranks of global leaders. Moreover, this progress has occurred while the war in Yemen rage on, the war in Syria refuses to abate, the Libyan question sits on a powder keg, and Tunisia and Sudan are mired in the dual fight against anarchy and Islamist fascism. 

The region is thus standing on the knife’s edge between reform and the restoration of regional calm on the one hand, and the residual instability borne of an Arab Spring that brought neither fresh breezes or blossoms on the other. Just at this delicate juncture came the barrages of fire we have experienced recently. The main author is Tehran which feels that it is on the verge of an agreement with Washington on the Iranian nuclear question, after which sanctions will be lifted and all other matters dropped. Tehran insisted, and the US agreed, that the relevant Arab states had to be excluded from negotiations because the two sides want to reach a limited agreement. Then Tehran intends to advance its self-claimed right to this hegemony, to which testify the recent missile strikes. Washington, which is more concerned with what is happening in Europe, does not want to return to the Middle East. Moreover, at the moment, it has probably put most thinking about this region on hold because of the impending midterm Congressional elections in November. Turkey has no qualms about extending its palm to Arab governments while continuing to lend its land and airspace to the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents of these governments, perpetuating its occupation of Syria, undermining negotiations in Libya and bombarding Iraq from time to time. 

Anyone familiar with my writings knows that I oppose military engagement and strongly support what I call “strategic latency”, which is based on the ongoing development of the sources of strength. This applies in particular to Egypt which has had to contend with various Turkish conspiracies and flagrant encroachment on Egyptian water rights. In all events, discussions of major strategic matters not only entail the military dimension. They must also cover the political dimensions from diplomacy to the development and deployment of economic tools and other instruments of “smart” and “soft” power. At the same time, strategic and tactical decisions are taken, not by analysts, observers and experts, but by country leaders and sovereign institutions. With this in mind, an expert overview of the past decade of history indicates that what this region needs is an Arab Concert of Power to steer the region to strategic equilibrium, political stability and economic development. At one point, the Arab “Quartet” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain) embodied this idea, at least in form. However, that momentum subsided with the AlUla declaration which prioritised improving the inter-Arab climate and opening diplomatic channels to restore regional calm. 

But today, in the light of recent events, it is clear that the Quartet needs to be revived and charged, not for reconciliation but rather for the strategic management of a hostile reality. I stress that this is not a call to war or any form of military confrontation. It is a call to marshal the various instruments of strength to influence the behaviour of the adversary, safeguard the current reform processes and reshape the theatre of strategic operations. The point is to use these diverse means to deliver a series of messages to the effect that the Arab world is not as weak as some make it out to be and that others are not as strong and immune as they like to imagine themselves. Ultimately, the Arabs have the economic might, human resources and markets to enable them to persevere and win. But to achieve this, they need strategies and tactics, patience or boldness when the time is right, and clear priorities to be established by the governing institutions of the states in question. 

The function of intellectuals and strategic experts is to lend support by studying the adversary, and evaluating resources, potentials and priorities. In this regard, we can envision another coalition adding its strengths to the Quartet. This one would consist of a select group of political and strategic studies centres engaged in the serious work needed to inform leaders and Arab public opinion of the nature of the dangers and challenges that threaten not only the pillars of the Quartet but all Arabs. It is crucial that the security of Arab airports should remain inviolable, that no one should feel free to steal water resources that have belonged to the Arabs for thousands of years, and that the Arab nation state should remain strong in order to sustain the pursuit of progress and end the reign of anarchy. But no Arab state has the wherewithal on its own to handle all these weighty tasks ahead. At this critical juncture, they must acknowledge the historical importance of the current crossroads and the inevitability of summoning the courage and resolve to choose the right path. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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