The distinguished former secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously characterised US foreign policy as essentially domestic politics projected abroad. Of course, a person of such education and experience will know that foreign policy, as a branch of government activity, has its own particular properties where managing realities and events is concerned. His purpose was to draw attention to the varying degrees with which Congress, vested interest groups, lobbies, the media and domestic public opinion shape foreign policy. Some academic circles have done significant work on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies and found, not only a mutual influence between the two, but also that the nature of a system of governance – be it capitalist, socialist, democratic, heavily centralised, reformist or revolutionary – leaves its own imprint on foreign policy.
In this context, the political earthquake called the Arab Spring, which tore through the region at the outset of the 2010s, ultimately gave rise to two types of Arab state. One appeared in Syria, Yemen, Libya and initially Iraq, and may be taking shape again in Sudan. It combines armed clashes with social disintegration along ethnic divides, and swings between outbreaks of violence and ceasefires until the situation reaches a point of disorder conducive to foreign ambitions and opportunism, even if this is not necessarily by design. The second type represents an awakening to the reality of the dire consequences of the mistakes of the past and the dead-end paths then taken, and to the need to forge a future that is very different. This awakening is embodied in the Arab reformist state, which is grounded in the principles of the citizen nation state, sustainable development and the renovation of religious and civil thought in order to orient society towards modernity, progress and peaceful competition with others in economics, technology and innovation. There is no third option.
The countries that have followed the latter course are Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and, more recently, Iraq. All have made great strides in domestic reform, which generally focused on the development of the nation state as the starting point for modernisation, change and progress. In this spirit, they formulated detailed development visions and plans for a 15-year period from 2015 to 2030, featuring a range of infrastructural and other mega projects. As I mentioned in a previous article, these countries pursued three types of foreign relations. One functioned at the level of their mutual relations through consultations and cooperation in certain fields of activity. Another took the form of collective interaction with international powers, as was embodied in the Arab-US summit in Jeddah and the Arab-Chinese summit in Riyadh. The third took the form of joint action, as exemplified by the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh and the World Cup in Qatar.
Now, we can add a fourth sphere of foreign relations. It is unfolding in the framework of the “new regionalism” that was kicked off with the AlUla Declaration ushering in a regional detente, enabling an end to the Qatari crisis in inter-Arab relations, the Arab-Turkish rapprochement and, more recently, the beginning of a new age in Arab-Iranian relations. None of this would have been possible had it not been for internal reforms in the aforementioned Arab states, which necessitated generating the conditions for a regional environment conducive to the processes of comprehensive domestic development. This, in turn, brought into focus the much talked about aim of achieving regional stability and reversing the instability resulting from civil warfare and strife in Arab countries that had historically played a vital role in the region.
Some important steps have been taken recently towards resolving the chronic Syrian crisis, as well as the nascent and worsening Sudanese crisis. It was no coincidence that action on Syria began with a consultative meeting of GCC countries, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt hosted by Saudi Arabia in Jeddah on 14 April. That meeting led to another consultative meeting in Amman, Jordan, bringing the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq together with the Syrian foreign minister. It is no secret that these meetings and the various bilateral communications that accompany them are paving the way for Syria’s return to the Arab League.
Although this aim is both understandable and desirable in light of Syria’s importance and history, it is not as simple as just offering back its seat. The country is still captive to the bloody developments that began a dozen years ago. Complications in bringing Syria back into the Arab fold do not have to do with the Syrian regime remaining in power. Arab reform states support the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of others. The problem is that the crisis in Syria has to be settled in a manner conducive to conditions that are safe for the country’s reconstruction and the return of Syrian refugees to their homes. This necessitates a Syrian state free of foreign interventions and inclusive of all its citizens so as to eliminate the sources of conflict. With this in mind, the current Arab diplomatic stance, stimulated by the instinctive rush to come to Syria’s aid after the tragic earthquake, is inspired by a genuine desire to offer that country the comprehensive support it needs as it works to recover and develop as a strong, dynamic and constructive nation state capable of building at home and contributing constructively abroad.
Sudan presents no less of a difficulty. If the Syrian question has to do with a way out of the disastrous consequences of the Arab Spring, the Sudan question is how to prevent that country from plunging into another spring maelstrom. Sudan has succeeded in ending a corrupt and tyrannical epoch of Muslim Brotherhood rule, but it has not yet managed to escape the historical curse of partition, be it along regional geographical divides or along the line between the “civil component” and “military component.” The Arab reform countries have acted quickly in order to promote a ceasefire in Sudan to avert the slide into civil war, and they have been tireless in their efforts to rescue diplomatic missions and help and support Sudanese refugees. At the same time, they have encountered attempts to deceive them and perpetuate the fighting despite the ceasefire agreements. Still, with Sudan, as with Syria, the driving motive of the Arab reform states has been the desire to help build and sustain a unified Arab nation state, able to develop itself while keeping others from meddling in its affairs on this or that pretext.
We are watching the rise of a new front dedicated to generating a regional environment conducive to the reform processes taking place in the Arab region and to helping countries in need to develop the immunity against outside attempts to sow needless divisions and subvert their societies. Three steps must be taken to this end, the first being the development of the sovereign tools that can serve as an early warning system on potential unrest and foreign intervention. The second is close inter-agency communications to promote effective consultation, coordination and information-sharing to ensure the effective implementation of policies in all fields and avert contradictions and shortcomings. The third is to establish a centre for Arab regional studies staffed by researchers and experts on Arab strategic affairs. This centre would serve as the go-to scientific think tank for handling the residual effects of the Arab Spring and issues related to reconstruction and development in the post-Arab Spring countries. It would also study relations with Arab neighbours with an eye to promoting the prevalence of wisdom, realism and a shared desire to build a Middle East anchored in peace and the spirit of reform.
A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.