America from afar — (X) The Arab world

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 28 May 2024

The American experience in the Arab world has gone from romanticism to realpolitik over the past two centuries, with many Arab eyes now increasingly looking east, writes Tarek Osman


America came to the Arab world to save souls.

American missionaries in the 19th century engaged several literary luminaries, largely from Lebanon, to create what they considered to be proper Arabic versions of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In the minds of these missionaries, the word of God was to be the gate through which America was to enter the Holy Land and beyond.

As a result, in the mid-19th century, the vast majority of American resources in the region were in the Levant, primarily at the command of missionaries. A few decades later, these founded academic institutions that evolved to become the American Universities in Beirut and Cairo.

America’s next wave of presence in the region was also led by scholarly types, this time hailing from the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

From Bill Eddy, the first American Arabist spy in the region, who worked mostly in the Maghreb, to cousins Archie and Kim Roosevelt, probably the most famous CIA officers to have worked in the Arab world, East Coast elites nurtured in exclusive schools like Groton in Massachusetts and universities like Harvard and Yale came to the Middle East thinking that American strategic interests dovetailed with the aspirations of the peoples of the region for development and to emerge from under the cloak of colonialism.

This romanticism soon evaporated when American interests clashed with these aspirations. Iran was the first theatre in which this happened in the early 1950s. America’s involvement, along with that of Britain, in deposing Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosadegh and orchestrating the return of the Shah, who had fled the country, revealed the primacy of America’s ruthless pragmatism. Realpolitik replaced romanticism.

By the mid-1960s, gone was the Arab view of America as being different from the other Western powers that had controlled the Middle East from the beginning of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries. The Arab-Israeli conflict and America’s strategic alliance with Israel cemented this new conception of America in the collective Arab psyche.

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and president Anwar Al-Sadat of Egypt tried to effect a transformation of the American-Arab relationship in the 1970s. Since the famous meeting on board ship in the Suez Canal between US president Franklin D Roosevelt and King Abdel-Aziz Al Saud in 1945, America had placed Saudi Arabia at the core of its engagement with the Arab world. Faisal, who often took assertive positions vis-à-vis American decisions concerning the Middle East, was a weighty counterpart whose gravitas and influence throughout the Islamic world America fully understood.

Al-Sadat also became convinced in the early 1970s that America was almost the world’s sole superpower, and so he tried and succeeded by the mid-1970s to alter Egypt’s strategic positioning from an alliance with the former Soviet Union towards increasing closeness to the US. Both Al-Sadat and Faisal entertained the idea that, with Saudi oil and the country’s commanding position in international oil markets, and with Egypt’s political, demographic, and at the time also cultural importance, they could gradually effect a change in America’s positioning in the Middle East.

This would not mean America’s abandoning its strategic partnership with Israel, but it would mean situating it alongside almost equally important links to the Arab world.

They failed to alter America’s positioning, but a lot of water has run under the bridge since the mid-1970s. Almost half a century on, America, now on the cusp of a new strategic confrontation with China, sees the Arab world differently, and the Arab world sees it differently too.

Whereas during most of its 150-year experience in the Arab world, America was always interested in the region, today it prefers detachment. Three factors lie at the heart of this new assessment of the region.

First, the importance of oil is receding. Oil will continue to be the world’s primary source of energy for the foreseeable future, but its share in the global energy mix, particularly that of the West, will almost certainly decrease substantially in the coming decades. America is also now a major energy producer and exporter in its own right. As a result, the importance of Arab oil, the key determinant of American policy in the Middle East over the past eight decades, is also declining.

Second, the Arab world has proven disappointing from many American perspectives. It has not, as many American strategists had envisioned, managed to move onto a trajectory towards political liberalism and democracy and a true market economy. Nor have Arab liberals or Islamists, each at different times forces that America has bet on, emerged as savvy politicians, let alone the strategic choices of the peoples of the region.

In the minds of many American commentators, the Arab world remains mired in the same socio-political ills and economic weaknesses and dependencies that American politicians and intelligence professionals observed eight decades ago.

Third, the Arab world is a long way from East Asia and the Pacific, the main theatre of America’s strategic confrontation with China. Most of the Arab world – with some exceptions, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf – has a limited direct interest, or any sway, in that strategic confrontation.

These factors have made many decision makers in America interested in a gradual detachment from the Middle East, especially after two decades of costly wars and state-building projects in the region that have arguably proven futile.

This last factor is also one of the reasons why there has been a corresponding desire among many in the Arab world for detachment from America. America’s legacy in Iraq has left a bitter taste in many Arab mouths. Despite their problems with the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, many Arabs saw the destruction of large parts of Iraq during the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 as being an assault on one of the countries whose history and culture have shaped the collective Arab psyche.

In addition, America’s way of operating in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past two decades has also planted the idea in many Arab minds that America has become a country that neither acts as a result of a cold strategic assessment, nor follows through with a steely determination on objectives it has previously put front and centre. Against the background of this increasingly powerful conviction, many Arabs, including in countries that have relied for decades on American defence, are now seeking strategic autonomy.

In addition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2011 Arab Spring has particularly harmed America’s positioning in the thinking of many influential groups in the Arab political economy.  Some of these believe that the Arab Spring was an American plan to reshape the Middle East, while others believe that it was a surprise and an opportunity for America to ditch its old allies. In either case, for these groups America has proven itself to be unreliable at moments of peril.

There is also another factor. As this series of articles has argued, a large part of America’s global positioning over the past eight decades has stemmed from its unrivalled economic, financial, educational, scientific, technological, and cultural power. The Arabs, like many other peoples worldwide, have for decades been attracted by these aspects of America.

Today, however, the world is rapidly becoming increasingly different from what it was over the past eight decades. Multi-polarity has become a reality, not just politically and economically, but also culturally. The East – largely Asia, but also different parts of the Arab world – has been gaining newfound confidence, such that it now no longer looks to America with such starry eyes. While America, mentally and emotionally, now wants to turn its gaze away from the Arab world, the latter is already looking in different directions and seeking new partnerships and cooperation.

The Arabs do not want, and they cannot politically or economically afford, to become seriously detached from America. But for many Arabs, a new strategic balance in their global relationships is needed, and that is why their eyes are no longer fixed on the West and America in particular but are increasingly looking towards the East.  


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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