We are living in a rapidly changing world in which much seems unfamiliar compared to previous decades. The change is taking place not just at the level of the world order, but also at the level of regional orders, including the Arab regional order. Part of the transformation is to be found in the concepts of leadership and soft power.
Changes in the idea of regional leadership are connected with changes in the leadership of the international order. With the decline in US world leadership and the inability of China or Russia to fill the vacuum, no one state can today be said to be the leader of the international order. This is reflected at the regional level, and in fact the transformation may have begun at this level first.
Although the European Union was established decades ago, no one has ever talked of any one of its members as being the leader of the European regional system, for example. At most there has been talk of Franco-German joint leadership, and more often than not Britain was also included, though this was of course before Brexit. In view of today’s growing nationalist currents, the current trend in the EU is towards giving greater space for all member states to have their say.
The Arab regional order has experienced similar developments. After the 1960s, no single country stood at the helm of the Arab world. This was the result of many factors, including the development and consolidation of the nation state and its pursuit of policies based on national interest. This was only natural, as this is the logic that generally governs international relations, including those between fraternal states.
Another factor was the many threats to the national security of individual Arab states. These threats were largely connected to the geographical location of those states, meaning that the perspective of the Gulf states towards their national security priorities was not the same as the national security perspective as seen from the Nile. Again, this is perfectly natural and legitimate. Moreover, it does not deny the existence of many common threats, such as terrorism and extremism, or the existence of hostile intentions from non-Arab neighbours.
A third factor was former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which caused a major rift in the Arab regional order. This led some Arab governments to shift towards a more active and national-oriented foreign policy in order to safeguard their national security, advance their international standing, and forestall and danger of larger fish swallowing smaller ones.
However, these factors did not prevent a number of Arab states from coming together to forge a realm of common interests and reach a consensus on the sources of common threats to their national security. Recent examples of this can be found in the Quartet of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, and in the trilateral model of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.
The concept of leadership in the Arab region has also become broader and more nuanced. In contrast to the idea of there being a leader as the champion of all Arab causes, different countries can be leaders on particular issues or in particular ways.
Egypt, for instance, will remain the fulcrum of the Arab order, with what happens in Egypt having important ramifications on what happens beyond its borders. Egypt will also retain a key role in the Palestinian cause and on regional issues connected with its larger neighbourhood. In this respect, it has also forged for itself a unique and pioneering role in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries exercise leadership roles on issues connected with their geographical and regional spheres. At the same time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have assumed leadership roles in a bilateral framework and in broader Arab contexts.
In short, the notion of a single leader of the Arab world is no longer appropriate today. The realities of the contemporary world combined with the priority that the different Arab governments are giving to their own national-development projects can no longer sustain such a concept. The future lies in taking the lead on certain issues and developing networks of bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Soft power, too, is no longer the property of a single state. As the US political scientist Joseph Nye who first formulated the concept of soft power has pointed out, the distribution of soft power in the world works differently from the distribution of economic or military power. It does not follow the rules of mono- or bi-polarism, and it is diffused among different countries regardless of their size.
This also applies within the Arab world, where soft power is not restricted to any one Arab country. Many Arab countries have developed soft power capacities of their own that are not only or are no longer limited to the media. Soft power can be developed in education, tourism, and systems of values, as well as in any number of other areas.
Egypt still possesses vast reserves of soft power, as well as untold latent energies that can be unleashed through their further refining and development. At the same time, the development of the soft power of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab countries serves the interests of the greater Arab region, enhances Arab culture, and advances the Arab modernisation drive.
The Arab world is undergoing significant changes. We must handle these wisely and rationally. We, as Arabs, must think of ourselves as partners in a single initiative and one that is ultimately positive. If the losses of one country affect all the others, the gains of one country do not necessarily incur losses for the others. On the contrary, we should aim to work such that the gains of one are the gains of all.
*The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly