Arab politics was, since the Era of Independence, orchestrated by expansionist powers led by charismatic strongmen. The vacuum left by their eventual disappearance allowed for new types of hegemons to appear, just as destructive as their predecessors, writes Valdai Club expert Youssef Cherif.
Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Hafez al Assad in Syria, all have conducted hegemonic policies and subversive actions that affected every Arab country, while at the same time alienating the West. But the four regimes they established faded one after the other.
Three players took over their role: Saudi Arabia and the two small states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All have cultivated close ties with the West, relying on its military protection to build welfare states. These regimes’ doctrine focused on their survival first, especially that they themselves were directly threatened by Egypt and Iraq between the 1950s and the 1990s. The doctrine has, however, evolved into interventionism and regime change. The rivalry between the three states, which climaxed with the Arab Spring, has spilled over into a number of Arab states, contributing in the current havoc.
Each of the Arab World’s old hegemons (Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria) was led by a charismatic strongman, the Za’im, combining pan-Arab, nationalist, and leftist ideologies. They were able to project power in the region through soft and hard means. Their regimes were brutal towards their people; repressive police states alienating large segments of the population.
The leaders’ rhetoric was openly anti-imperialist, and they positioned themselves in antagonism to Western interests. They were after the Arab peoples’ hearts and minds, and worked for toppling the other leaders. They established a network of pan-Arab media outlets and other influence groups that glorified the leader, vilified his critics and spread his ideology.
They were perceived as warring chiefs, feared internally, terrifying their neighbors and the international community. Each had therefore amassed enemies inside his country, around it and outside the region. It was their Achilles heel.
Nasser personified pan-Arabism since 1952. He was helped by his charisma, the Voice of the Arabs radio, Egypt’s historic symbolism, its heavy cinema and music industries as well as Soviet backing. Nasserist cells operated in most of the Arab world, and the Egyptian army was deployed as far as Palestine, Syria or Yemen. Nasser’s political role, however, shrank after his defeat against Israel in 1967.
Egypt was able to remain relevant for a few years though, until Nasser’s successor Anwar al-Sadat’s 1973 October War. Since 1973 however, Egypt engaged on a gradual disengagement from Arab politics. The country became heavily indebted to the United States and Saudi Arabia, briefly to Qatar in 2011-13 and, since 2013, to the UAE. The country’s economic crisis worsens month after month, with a miserable human rights record and an army hardly able to control its own territory, as witnessed by the recent events in Sinai. President Abdulfattah al-Sisi claims to revive Egypt’s past glory, but it remains baseless bravado.
Saddam’s preeminence extended from his rise to power in 1969 until his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. He attacked Iran and invaded Kuwait, bullying junior neighbors such as Jordan and using Iraq’s large oil resources to finance militant groups in Palestine, Lebanon, etc. The US-led coalition that uprooted him from Kuwait as well as the subsequent sanctions diminished him, even though he never abandoned his combative rhetoric.
Saddam’s Iraq, from 1991 to the American invasion of 2003, was an impoverished repressive state, torn apart by strong opposition movements (Kurds in the north, Shia in the south) and a theater for frequent Western, Turkish and Iranian incursions. Iraq’s post-2003 civil war destroyed what remained of the country’s capabilities abroad. ISIS’ expansion in 2014 added another crack into this former regional power, and it accelerated the Kurdish movement towards independence.
Assad was able to maintain himself in a better posture, ruling Syria from 1970 up to his natural death in 2000. He kept Lebanon as a Syrian protectorate, maintained a state of war with Israel, and backed armed groups in Lebanon and Palestine. Assad managed to have faithful allies in different Arab countries, especially Baathists or Baath sympathizers.
Hafez’s son and successor, Bashar, had to face the interventionism of America’s neoconservatives. His rule was shaken by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which partly pushed his exit from Lebanon. Syria’s influence in the international stage decreased during Bashar’s rule, and the coup de grace came with the post-2011 civil war, which divided the country and opened it for foreign troops.
Gaddafi seized power in 1969. He used his country’s wealth to finance global revolutionary movements. He invaded Chad, threatened Tunisia, had military skirmishes with Egypt, Sudan, and the United States. He armed militias in Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, etc., and attempted to kill several Arab leaders.
The sanctions imposed on his country in 1992 kept him on a short leash and softened his policies, pushing him to start a disengagement from the Arab World and reconvert to pan-Africanism. But he never backed down completely, and it was only with his assassination in October 2011 that Libya ceased to be an interventionist country. Libya’s civil war has since destroyed the country’s institutions and power .
The demise of Gaddafi, the last Arab strongman, coincided with new players stepping up. These are the three Gulf Cooperation Council members Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
The new hegemons act in total opposition to the previous ones. They rely less on their leaders’ charisma than on their countries’ resources. Their absolute rulers mostly operate behind the scenes, rarely taking credit for what is being done under their order. They maintain good relations with the West, advancing Western interests, investing financially in Western capitals and distributing generous donations to Western academia, think tanks and media outlets. They also claim to be bulwarks against terrorism, which also appeals to the West.
The primary concern of these regimes was their survival, and they relied massively on a western military umbrella for that. The conflicts emerging among their leaders, the Arab Spring and America’s relative disengagement from the Middle East, as well as the disappearance of the old hegemons, were the main reasons behind the change in doctrine they operated. The status-quo seeking sheikhdoms became interventionist powers active thousands of miles outside of their borderlands.
The Saudi monarchy was, for most of its existence, at odds with the four old hegemons. And although it encouraged political Islamists outside its borders, Saudi Arabia rarely worked at challenging the existing status-quo. The kingdom had an immediate zone of influence – i.e. the oil sheikhdoms around it and Yemen – but its reach was minimal elsewhere. Saudi-funded media outlets, especially the London-based Arabic language newspapers and the paid-for reports in Arab media, targeted the elite more than the general public.
It relied on others to provide security; hence the United Kingdom and then the United States, and for about a decade Saddam’s Iraq (to counter Iran, in the 1980s). The country’s two main assets are its oil wealth (largest world reserves) and the Muslim Hajj; the former gave it Western protection, and the latter offered it with a mythic aura among Arab peoples.
In 2009, the Saudi army entered Yemen to stop the Houthis, seen as Iranian proxies and a source of instability on the Kingdom’s southern borders. Saudi Arabia was then leaving isolationism behind. When the Arab Spring began, the Saudis defended some crumbling regimes, but advocated for the overthrow of others. In fact, the Kingdom opposed democracy and Muslim Brotherhood power, but had separate grievances with Assad and Gaddafi. Saudi Arabia then supported Sisi’s 2013 coup in Egypt, engaged in a destructive war in Yemen, and it is now working on overthrowing Qatar’s ruling family. Saudi Arabia is also an important contributor to the US-led coalition against ISIS and the war on terror.
Qatar is a tiny peninsula on the Arabian Gulf. It got its independence from Great Britain in 1971, but accepted Saudi supremacy. A palace coup in 1995 brought to power Prince Hamad, father of the current Emir. Saudi Arabia hosted the deposed Emir and tried to return him to power, but failed. 1995 was the year of Qatar’s autonomy from Saudi hegemony.
In order to protect his rule, Hamad diversified his country’s foreign partners, investing economically and politically in many places. To guarantee Western support, Qatar hosted the largest American military base in the region (Al-Udeid), and positioned itself as a middleman between Western capitals and extremist groups. It also invested massively in Western capitals. Qatar worked on the Arab peoples’ sympathy too. It launched, for that purpose, Al-Jazeera and a series of research centers dedicated to political and international affairs.
In the years 2000, Qatar forged close ties with militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and even Taliban and Al Qaeda. It supported the Muslim Brothers who were to become the most important political players after the Arab Spring. It intervened militarily in Libya in 2011, and bankrolled armed and non-armed groups throughout the region. Its role decreased after the events of 2013 (change of Emir, coup in Egypt, civil war in Libya, etc.), but the Qatari regime proved resilient.
The UAE kept developing economically since its 1971 independence from Great Britain, with city-states such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi transforming into hubs for international finance and trade. On the contrary to Qatar, Emirati leaders never challenged Saudi hegemony, and evolved hence quietly in the Kingdom’s vicinity.
The Emiratis benefited as well from the American, British and French military umbrellas, hosting military bases of these countries and conducting joint drills and missions. Just like Qatar, the UAE adopted an effective policy of investments and donations that augmented its popularity among Western decision makers and mainstream intellectuals.
The UAE’s interventionist coming-out is recent in comparison to its two neighbors, and can be traced to the beginning of the Arab Spring. The UAE followed Saudi Arabia’s line, opposing democracy and the advent of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Qatar’ ascendency. Emirati fighter jets are flying from Libya to Syria to Yemen, and UAE money is influencing Arab politics everywhere. To counter Al-Jazeera, the UAE hosted the Saudi funded Al-Arabiya in 2003, then added Sky News Arabia in 2012, besides supporting a number of pan-Arab media outlets and research centers.
The new Arab hegemons therefore, benefiting from large economic resources, minimal political dissent (although that is changing in Saudi Arabia), less foreign pressures and a strong international support, are freer than the older ones in their decision-making. The results have been worrisome for the countries of the region.
Since the Arab Spring began, the three countries’ massive involvement as well as the size of the event put them in two opposing camps. Saudi Arabia and the UAE championed status-quo, restoration and anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies. Qatar, on the other hand, supported the Muslim Brotherhood and several revolutionary groups.
The Arab world became consequently a place of contest between the two camps. The Arab Spring mutated into a proxy war between a Saudi-Emirati axis and Qatar. The destruction of Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as the crises in Egypt and Tunisia, are partly the consequences of this feud, and the current Gulf Crisis is taking it to new levels.