There is much talk these days about a world in upheaval after which we will see the rise of a “new” global order. This is not a new phenomenon.
Whenever war, epidemic or other such catastrophes strike, analysts and commentators give in to these kinds of discussions. Politicians start thinking about what might happen in the coming days and how they might work with it, oppose it, or just ignore it.
And what transpires at the global level has an echo in our Arab world where people are yearning for something new. Unfortunately, whatever that “new” is, it tends to be an ill, for rarely is any thought given to asking what the people in the region might want and how they envision its future.
A few decades ago intellectuals came up with various conceptions that took as their premise that the “Arabs” were not states but a single “nation” which had by some fluke or other split up.
That kind of thinking was common in the 1950s and 1960s. Before long, the logical and empirical weakness of this notion was impossible to deny and there emerged a trend that recognised the international reality that peoples are divided into countries and states. In this framework, attention turned to an important book, The Arab Regional System: A Study in Arab Political Relations by Alieddin Hilal and Gamil Matar, published by the Center for Arab Unity Studies.
This seminal work, which eventually went into five editions, contemplated a period in which the Arab countries had evolved from post-independence entities to more rooted and self-confident states. Oil wealth flowed, benefiting producers and consumers alike. The October 1973 War opened the doors to peace with Israel. The 1980s brought the Iraq-Iran war and then the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. The 1990s brought a period of peace and concord, but also the factors that would lead to the so-called Arab Spring two decades later.
Matar and Hilal’s influential book represents a kind of transitional phase between a time when political scientists sought to differentiate between the “Arab regional order” and the “Middle Eastern regional order,” a concept that had begun to gain currency at the time, and the present day, which seems to demand a different kind of thinking based on facts that struck home in the 2010s.
Three of these facts are worth mentioning here. The first is that no Arab country has produced a miracle of any sort in the modern era.
We have no Japan, South Korea or Southeast Asian tigers in the Arab region. The only country that came close was the UAE which turned Dubai into something of a Singapore in the Gulf that inspired its neighbours to emulate it.
Secondly, the vast majority of Arab countries in the post-independence era became rentier states dependent on a single resource (oil) or, as in Egypt’s case, a bundle of resources such as oil, tourism, Suez Canal revenues, remittances from Egyptians working abroad, and a few agricultural products and manufactures.
Thirdly, the non-Arab countries of the region have infiltrated their Arab neighbours using sectarian, diplomatic and military instruments, to which have been added terrorism, the pandemic and electronic warfare.
Regardless of the extent of the continued value and relevance of the intellectual contributions of the past, this does not exempt new generations of Arab thinkers from addressing the need for Arab states to deal with the contemporary world not as we wish it would be but as it actually is.
In this context, it is important to bear in mind the difference between “history,” “vision” and “strategy.” The first is the product of a million tangible and intangible variables that we can no longer control. It is too deep a subject to delve into here.
The second is the human endeavour to foresee a particular future and strive to reach it. It involves much wishful thinking and imagination.
The third is a plan that engages human and material resources to attain certain targets set in accordance with calculations of opportunities and risks.
While the first two might play a role, strategy is the nuts and bolts of the business of the state regardless of its stage of evolution and its vision of itself and the world. Strategy, by definition, must rely on solid, concrete facts. In our case, these facts emerged from the events of the 2010s which opened with the Arab Spring. That so-called spring produced the following set of conclusions:
- It was no longer possible to sustain the pre-Spring status quo after its aims and purposes had reached a dead end.
- The Arab Spring uprisings led to several collapsed states (Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya followed on the heels of Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan beforehand) and civil strife and warfare that left hundreds of thousands dead, millions wounded and at least 14 million displaced persons and refugees.
- The Arab Spring also gave rise to a theo-fascist permanent revolution which shook the region and the world and imperilled the Islamic faith.
- The foregoing phenomenon was aggravated by the US withdrawal from the region and Iran and Turkey’s attempts to take advantage of the resultant political and strategic vacuum, especially in Syria and Iraq.
- Countering this “revolutionary” state required a two-pronged response. One part was to change the regional balance of powers and fight those who perpetuate of that theo-fascist revolution by the use of force if necessary. The other part was comprehensive reform.
However, there are two types of reform available for this region: “hostile” and “friendly.” The first is exogenous and imposed, primarily by the West. It prioritises political reform with an emphasis on human rights and aims to topple existing political regimes (and often succeeds) using a flawed democracy.
The second is indigenous and prioritises reform of the flaws in social, economic and political structures in the framework of a calm and rational reconciliation with the contemporary age.
This latter path has achieved considerable progress in a number of Arab states. Some of these had once taken Europe as their frame of reference in the manner of Khedive Ismail in the 19th century who stated that his aim was to turn Egypt into a part of Europe.
Today these countries are bolder and more resolved. In the words of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the Arab reform states are the 21st-century embodiment of the European experience. Of course, the above-mentioned Asian model (China, South Korea, Singapore, etc.) remains another frame of reference.
But frames of reference aside, the Arab states took as their starting point the need to embrace the principle and concept of the nation state.
This they applied across the territorial expanse of the state through a comprehensive development process designed to bring social and economic standards in tune with the experiences of the rest of the developed world.
Can a “new” Arab regional order be built on the shoulders of this group of Arab reform states? If so, what are the opportunities and the challenges?
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly