No vacuum in the Middle East

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 26 Jul 2022

Drawing on Cold War history for comparison, Abdel-Moneim Said reviews unfolding developments in Arab-American relations


It was US secretary of state John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) who first described the Middle East as a “vacuum” that needed to be filled. There was before Cold War adversaries like the Soviet Union, China and other “communist” powers moved in to fill said vacuum. Dulles’ proposed strategy was the policy of containment, which was based on a series of defence pacts to block and isolate those adversaries. The Cold War was escalating and the superpowers were in a race over spheres of influence in this strategically located region with its vast resources of oil, which had become an essential commodity in times of war and peace. Dulles believed that even as mutual nuclear deterrence maintained the international power balance, strategic pacts at the regional level were the key to having the edge. Washington was pushing for the creation of the Baghdad Pact which eventually became the Central Pact. But revolutionary winds were blowing in the region. The Egyptian leader, president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, countered that there was no vacuum in the Middle East; the region was filled by its peoples, with their aspirations to progress and modernisation. If there was an enemy in the vicinity, he said, it was not the Soviet Union, but Israel, which had just made its untimely appearance as an aggressive and occupying power. 

When US President Joe Biden said, during his recent visit to the region, that the US could not leave a “vacuum” in the region, one could not help thinking, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Instead of the USSR, he pointed to Russia which invaded Ukraine, China whose economic and political influence is growing by the day, and Iran which, if left unchecked, may acquire a nuclear weapon with which to threaten the region and the US. To complete the picture, various reports encouraged speculation regarding a drive to create an “Arab Nato” that would no longer be Arab but “Middle Eastern”. As was the case some 70 years ago, from the American perspective, the leaders and peoples of this region did know where their interests lay and how to formulate their policies accordingly. 

The reality, which was made abundantly clear during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit last week, is that there is no vacuum in the Middle East. The gap between Biden’s discourse and that of the nine Arab heads of state he met with was glaring. It may be normal for an American president to open his speech with a salute to the US soldiers who had died in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was not normal not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians from the region who had been killed in those wars. After all, combat and the toll it took was but a prelude to the American definition of the stance they wanted to emerge from the unprecedented meeting between the US head of state and his counterparts from nine Arab countries. That definition was premised on the new line of confrontation that the US has drawn in the sand, which now pits Russia, China and Iran on the other side.

While the Saudi Arabian welcome was warm, in keeping with its traditional spirit of generosity, the Arab response was clear, maybe clearer than ever before in modern Arab history. That clarity was the product of intensive communications, consultations and coordination between the nine Arab heads of state in the weeks leading up to the summit. Perhaps the fact that Biden made Israel the first leg of his journey gave them additional time to think more deeply. The Arab discourse at the summit was based on three principles. First, there is no vacuum in the Arab region or the Middle East. There are leaders who have initiated sweeping reforms and who are perfectly able to identify their national interests, and there are peoples who aspire to a future of progress towards which could be seen from the windows of the conference halls overlooking various vistas of Jeddah. Secondly, there is no problem, in principle, with Washington’s proposition of a “rules-based international order.” However, that order should not discard one of the most important rules that have governed the international order since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, namely non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations. This means Washington should come to terms with the fact that the “people of Mecca know its ways better than outsiders,” as the saying goes, and that it should stop using “democracy” and “human rights” as stones to throw especially when its own house is made of glass. Thirdly, the Arabs are keen to have close relations with the US, just as they are keen to have mutually beneficial relations with all countries on the basis of their respective national interests. 

The summit unfolded as planned. A Saudi-US summit was followed by shorter ones between four Arab heads of state and Biden, after which the main summit convened and Biden and Arab leaders took turns at the podium. The first speech focused almost exclusively on the Iranian threat, which was odd given the stated need to reach an agreement with Tehran. The other speeches reflected no less of an awareness of that threat. But they simultaneously reflected a greater awareness of other threats to the region and the world, from the ongoing Israeli occupation of Arab territory to global warming and the urgency of water security. If the discourse was marked by a conscientious flexibility with regard to the difficult Palestinian situation, it also demonstrated an acute appreciation of many global and regional concerns that should not fall by the wayside. 

As explicit as such messages were, the US media and especially the liberal press, like the Washington Post, covered the summit as though it was a one-character play with a monologue and a single-track soundtrack. They still only saw a bleak vacuum. They did not even have the courage to recount what transpired in the first meeting between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman regarding the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As painful as that horrific incident was, great care was taken to ensure that the law prevailed and the criminals were brought to justice. A great wrong had been committed, but no country is innocent of such wrongs, including the US whose wars in Vietnam and Iraq will be remembered for the Mai Lai and Abu Ghraib massacres. And let us not forget the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was murdered by Israel in the course of performing her journalistic duties.

The mainstream American press and media displayed a complete lack of professionalism in their coverage of the summit, as well as a blindness to the greatest economic and social reform revolution Saudi Arabia has ever known. These were not inadvertent lapses; they were deliberate, a departure from a profession whose mission is to seek the truth. That press was out for blood, including Biden’s. He was blamed for becoming realistic, for not having come away with more, for failing to heed the advice and reminders from a media still set on disseminating a completely misleading and hackneyed image of the Arab world.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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