Discussions over change and upheaval are usually followed by the emergence of new global orders. This has happened over and over. Whenever disaster strikes, such as epidemics and conflicts, intellectuals and analysts delve into these discussions. Politicians, on the other hand, contemplate what tomorrow will bring, and on which side they are going to be – that is if they decide against ignoring the matter altogether.
International events reverberate in our Arab world, igniting a fear that something new will occur, which will likely bring about the Arabs’ demise. Rarely do we encounter discourses that focus on how peoples in our region envision the future of the universe and our own situation.
Surprisingly, debates of this nature were common decades ago, the first of which didn’t consider the “Arabs” to be separate states, but rather a “nation” that split up suddenly and without warning. What was trendy in the 1950s and 1960s of the last century, however, turned out to be less reasonable than initially believed. A movement that acknowledged the international reality of the Arab nation’s fragmentation into states and countries emerged. This was reflected in a significant book by Dr. Alieddin Hilal and Mr. Jamil Matar titled “The Arab Regional System: A Study in Arab Political Relations”, which was published by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS). Given the book’s significance to the Arab intellectual market, five editions were published.
The book was an effort during a time when Arab states were transitioning from fledgling independent countries to more firmly integrated states into the international community, and when oil and its wealth began to flow freely after the October War, which benefited both consumers and producers. The October War paved the way for peace with Israel, which was followed by the escalation of the Iran-Iraq War and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Two decades later, the “Arab Spring” broke up the tranquility and harmony that had prevailed in the 1990s.
This book, which retained its luster, represented a transitional phase that sought to differentiate between the “Arab regional system” and what was known at the time as the “Middle Eastern regional system”, and the current stage, which may require reevaluation in light of the facts that emerged at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. Three of these facts are noteworthy.
First, no Arab nation in the modern era has accomplished a miracle of any kind. Within the Arab world, there were no equivalents of Japan, South Korea, or any of the other Asian tigers. Only the United Arab Emirates came close to this, using the Dubai model to create an experience that came close to the Singapore model and attracting attention from other nearby and small countries like Qatar that were trying to copy it.
Second, after gaining their independence, most Arab nations turned into rentier states that relied on oil and gas exports or, like Egypt, on a relatively narrow range of commodities like oil, tourism, remittances, the Suez Canal, industry, and agriculture.
Third, the so-called “geographical neighborhood” countries have become infiltrated with the doctrine, diplomacy, and weapons of neighboring Arab countries. Terrorism, Covid-19, and the Ukrainian war have been added to this infiltration until the start of the third decade.
Nothing that happened in the past or resulted from it in terms of thought or diligence should relieve the Arab generations of thinkers of their responsibility to consider how Arab countries should deal with the modern world as it is, and not as we wish it were.
At this juncture, it’s important to remember that history, vision, and strategy are distinct concepts. History is an uncontrollable state of countless material and moral variables. Vision is the human endeavor to anticipate and pursue the future. A strategy is a well-thought-out plan for exploiting advantageous opportunities and mitigating undesirable ones in order to achieve specific ends. While the depths of history are too great to be explored and delved into here without risking confounding hope and imagination, a strategy lies at the center of the state’s operations regardless of its historical stage of development or its view of the world. The strategy must, by definition, be grounded in real, observable data, all of which emerged in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring at the start of the second decade.
The alleged Arab Spring resulted in a number of outcomes, the first of which is that the pre-Spring conditions could no longer continue because they had accomplished their goals and reached dead ends. Second, the Arab Spring precipitated a number of failed states (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and before that, Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan) and civil wars, which together killed hundreds of thousands of people, injured millions more, and forced 14 million people to flee their homes. Third, the radical fascism that arose as a result of the Arab Spring threatened the survival of Islam worldwide and shook the region. Fourth, the American withdrawal from the region and the subsequent attempts by Iran and Turkey to exploit the resulting political and strategic vacuum, especially in the wake of the fall of Syria and Iraq, only added to the devastation wreaked by this revolutionary situation. Fifth, in order to deal with this “revolutionary” situation, a two-pronged response was required, one of which was reform, while the other was a shift in regional power dynamics and an armed response to the revolutionary situation.
It’s important to note that there are two types of reform on offer in the region: hostile reform and friendly reform. Hostile reform originates from abroad, particularly the West, and is based on political reform with a focus on human rights. It aims to topple the current political systems (and, as a result, the current states) through a democracy with many flaws (the Iraqi model). Friendly reform comes from within Arab countries to correct widespread flaws in their social, economic, and political structures, in a quiet attempt to reconcile with the times. Developments along this last path occurred in a number of Arab countries, some of which drew on references from Europe. A long time ago Egypt’s ruler Khedive Ismail wanted Egypt to be part of Europe. However, Egypt at present has become more “courageous and determined”, as Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman said, as reform has come to represent the European experience in the 21st century.
Without much discussion, the Asian experience produced a new reference based on cases from China, South Korea, and Singapore. Whatever the case may be, it is sufficient to note that a number of Arab countries have recently begun to actualize the national state, to penetrate the regional framework of the state, and to develop social and economic values in response to the experiences of the developed world.
The crux is: Can this group be the backbone of a new Arab order? And, what are its opportunities and challenges?