Security in the Arab region

Abdel-Moneim Al-Mashat
Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

An Arab security association could help to identify threats to Arab security and draw up strategies for collective defence, writes Abdel-Moneim Al-Mashat


The US has not tired of its quest for a “New” or “Greater” Middle East, an item on the foreign-policy agendas of US presidents from George W Bush to Joe Biden.  

The concept is founded on complex reasons and has various anticipated results. One component is premised on the notion that the Arab states cannot go on in their current shape as defined by geographical borders that have come at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. While the Arab countries are not unique in having different ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities, advocates of the New/Greater Middle East argue that reconstituting these countries is the only way to solve the problems generated by inter-communal tensions. 

This generally translates into schemes for the partition of the Arab states and the dissolution of their existing national identities. Iraq, Sudan, and Libya are among those targeted for this process.

The second component of the US plan is to build a regional order that includes non-Arab states. Israel, Iran, and Turkey are often mentioned, but Israel is the main focus. It is towards this end that the so-called “Abraham Accords” were signed between a number of Arab states and Israel during the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

A third component of the New Middle East is an extension of the former and involves the creation of a regional military alliance that would include Israel and be backed by the US with the purpose of deterring threats to the region. Michael Flynn, former national security adviser to Trump, championed the idea, urging the creation of a security organisation comprising Israel, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Egypt, and Jordan. 

The idea was floated again ahead of Biden’s visit to the region in July, albeit with the addition of Iraq. But apparently it was again laid to rest, as occurred during the Trump presidency.

When discussing security threats to the Arab region, we should accept a number of governing factors. 

First, Arab demographics have changed radically. New generations have arisen that have little regard for the Arab nationalist model, not just because a greater Arab nation is such an ambitious ideal, but also because the members of these generations have been educated in the West or have been heavily influenced by it. As a result, the political frame-of-reference has shifted from a pan-Arab vision to the nation state or regional organisations, both of them falling short of the “Arab nation” that enthralled past generations. 

Second, the Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010 did not result in modern systems of government attractive to Arab young people. On the contrary, they delivered a powerful shock that drove the Arab peoples to turn inwards and to focus on the home front and discard the Arab dimension. 

Third, the shift in the global order towards greater plurality has inspired Arab young people and their new leaderships to diversify their foreign-policy outlooks rather than cling to traditional allies. This gives them the flexibility to establish closer relations with new parties. 

Perhaps these factors help to explain the lack of enthusiasm for the Arab League as a pan-Arab organisation. It certainly needs restructuring, and there is a need to reformulate its mission and find new goals for it that are commensurate with today’s world. 

I myself have urged the need to reform the League in order to make it and its activities more responsive to the ideas and aspirations of Arab young people, thereby strengthening it as a unifying bond. However, I still have the highest admiration for the League’s founding fathers and for those thinkers and politicians who formulated the Treaty of Joint Defence and Economic Co-operation of the League of Arab States. 

This enshrines the principle of collective defence with the provision that state parties “consider any [act of] armed aggression made against any one or more of them or their armed forces to be directed against them” and requiring them to act in concert to repel aggression. Crucially, it also links security with economic cooperation. 

Nevertheless, given the attitude of Arab young people towards the League and the general lack of enthusiasm for activating the Joint Defence and Economic Cooperation Treaty, and in the light of current regional and international changes, it might be useful to think in terms of creating a modern institutional framework for the protection of Arab national security that would effectively be the sum product of the national security of each individual Arab state. 

Should there be an organisation specifically dedicated to serving the security needs of the Arab peoples and states? An Arab Security Association (ASA), as it could be called, could define the components of Arab security, identify the potential sources of threats, and draw up strategies for collective defence. 

The ASA would be a military pact designed to protect the national security of the Arab states individually and collectively. It would be independent of the Arab League, would be chaired by the Arab heads of state, and would include Arab ministers of defence. If the creation of the ASA, wherever the Arabs chose to headquarter it, could proceed in tandem with further Arab economic integration, which will be more crucial than ever in the near future, then this would also be better for all Arabs. 

The world is changing rapidly and radically. Soon, there might be no room left for small economies, and weak economies might not be able to survive at all. Meanwhile, as we all are aware, the economic potential of the Arab region is unlimited and not just in energy but also in agriculture, manufacturing industries, and tourism. 

But why not include Israel, Iran, and Turkey in the projected ASA, some might ask.

The reason is that these are states that have expansionist projects that come at the expense of the Arab countries. They are all a source of threat to Arab national security. Iran occupies the Emirati islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, and it uses its Shia sectarian affiliation as a means to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab states. 

Turkey continues to encroach militarily into Syria and Iraq. Israel still occupies the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan Heights, and the Lebanese Shebaa Farms. If any of these countries relinquishes its expansionist projects into Arab lands, they might be able to join the nascent Arab organisation. But on the basis of my personal knowledge and experience, I doubt that they will change their behaviour.

It is high time that the Arabs took charge of their own security. They have the necessary means to do so.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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