In many regions of the world, there are regional structures whose goal is integration and interaction. In the Arab world, all the projects that have been offered since the 20th century fell apart before being realised, writes Ruslan Mamedov, Project Manager for Middle East and North Africa at the Russian International Affairs Council.
The events of the “Arab Spring” that began 10 years ago were considered a tectonic shift, capable of overturning the previous development logic of the Middle East. While the collective West counted on “democratisation” due to their liberal ideology, Russia or China called for a more cautious assessment of what was happening. The region itself has been torn apart by the clash of ideologies, identities, wars, terrorism, drought, and, most importantly, the stagnation or underdevelopment of socio-economic systems. In many ways, it was the impasse in the development of states (and statehood) coupled with an external factor at a certain stage in history that predetermined the scale of these problems.
As noted in the Valdai Club report “The Middle East in Search for Lost Awakening” about the Middle East leaders, “This constellation, brought to the fore by extraordinary circumstances that happened in a tormented region of a crumbling world, is emerging as a generation of tacticians.” “Excessive pragmatism” and the absence of “philosophical quests” — these words really characterise the current elites in the region. This is how the history of the Middle East developed, especially the part of it where the balance of influence between global forces was ruined after the collapse of the USSR. In many ways, the elites of the Middle East states have to react, because, being in a region that has become an experimental testing ground, each of them could find themselves in the position of a “pariah”. Moreover, no one was going to leave such a pariah in peace, he was destroyed, if not by neighbours, then by external forces. The latter had enough strength, resources, capabilities and influence to implement strategies and “romantic” (but terrifying in practice) ideologies.
In the post-bipolar world, one external factor has been expressed too strongly — the United States, which has paid special attention to the Middle East region. American ideology for the Middle East was packaged in pretty boxes, but behind them was the brutal reality of military repression. It was only resistance that gave rise to a change in approaches, a redrawing of policy, the use of other methods of realising interests and, ultimately, taking into account the interests of the “other part”. But direct resistance without the necessary resources and suitable external conditions of the game between the global poles means looking for trouble. The Arab leaders were not ready for this. Given such regional uncertainty and the “bull in a china shop”, there could only be a desire to react, not to build a strategy; to answer, avoiding collisions, but not to threaten to attack.
Under these conditions, the most valuable skill was concealing one’s opinion — to avoid additional problems and reactions. The “Arab voice” and the character of a proud Bedouin, taught to young Arabists in domestic universities — went underground from regional politics, but did not disappear. We can assume that, hiding, the Arab nationalist movements are waiting for the necessary external and internal conditions to mature. The glimpses of the ideas accompanying these movements, although loudly sounded on the streets during the 2019-2020 protests in the Arab world, are still barely noticeable. Arab nationalist movements have not gained internal resources. External players ignored the ongoing mass demonstrations, as if not noticing them, but the elites of the Arab countries — disunited and with limited legitimacy — felt the growing demand of the population for justice.
Despite the fact that the protesters primarily addressed their demands to their own governments, there is another aspect related to external forces. Before speaking about this, we must indicate that we are talking primarily about the Arab world that suffered during the Arab Spring.
Parallel worlds, but no portal
The political map of the Middle East is well known to everyone, as well as the fact that it often does not reflect the real state of affairs. The states themselves do not exist within their borders — even those are determined by the colonial past. They also have difficulty settling down in lands which they claim. Of course, this state of affairs did not develop without the participation of neo-colonialism, a characteristic feature of which is irresponsibility. But this is not the point — we are talking about the region itself. And here the approach of a “game” reflects the situation well.
Imagine that you are playing a computer game with a portal. So, you are on one map, and then go into the portal — and you are transferred to the same map, but of a different colour, with different content and another set of tasks. These are parallel worlds. Using this analogy, one world of the Middle East is the one we are used to see on the political map, the other reflects the real state of affairs. The first world is the world of invented nation-states, the second is a complex world of clans, tribes, Islamist movements and external interests (specific military boots, tanks, aircraft and aircraft carriers) that are not visible on the first map. This is a more complete, complex structure, but the main thing in it is the threads of connections that lead from one actor to another, regardless of boundaries. Precisely speaking, the borders on this second map do not exist.
Today’s Middle East is immersed in this “second map”. For example, the sheikhs of Iraqi tribes are associated with representatives of their tribes — the heads of large and often high-tech corporations — in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Kuwait. The Westernised clans which presently rule Iraq are closely linked with London by their threads and finances. This map clearly shows that adherence to the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood (banned in the Russian Federation) gives rise to the unexpected alliance of many groups throughout the Middle East (from the elites in Qatar and Turkey to the Egyptian oppositionists who have gone underground; from the Islamist parties of Tunisia and Morocco to the Islamist movements in Idlib). There are also radicals of different colours who can establish control over territories, sell smuggled oil (and everything that brings money to maintain another parallel world — and such scenarios are known in computer games). The very existence of this other world requires the participation of those who generally want to remain on the first map. States and regimes also have to go through the portal in order to keep their finger on the knobs of this game — they do it in order to survive. Hence, for example, there is Tehran’s specific approach with the use of Shiite groups in the failed states. All this, again, without looking at the borders, which were easily dissolved by Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Americans who killed him, by this very murder also showed that they knew no borders. No one will ever remember how and when the portal of chaos to this parallel world was opened.
Today, the experts of the Gulf monarchies or American think tanks believe that the Iranians are to blame for the troubles of the region because of their “Khomeinist” or neo-Shiite ideology. But if you analyse the recent history of the region, you can come to other conclusions. It’s not even about the specific overthrow of the Mossadegh government organised by the American special services and the coup d’état in Iran in 1953. When in 2003 the Americans invaded Iraq, one of the largest and most significant states for the balance of power in the region, a very big “black hole” appeared in the Middle East. Two years earlier, the Americans had invaded Afghanistan. And throughout this period of time, they strengthened their military contingent in the Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other countries. In these conditions, Iran could not stand aside. It was surrounded by countries that the United States destroyed, and from which a stream of refugees poured. The portal was already open, it was necessary to act — to ensure their safety. And Iran began to use all the tools it had, developing a wide and specific network of contacts throughout the region. It worked best where people clung to their identities in the destroyed states (Iraq was destroyed by the Americans, Syria or Yemen in many ways by regional players, including the Gulf states). But it seems that with the restoration of statehood, the role and influence of external forces — like the Iranians — will weaken.
“Arab voice” from the underworld
In many regions of the world, there are regional structures whose goal is integration and interaction. In the Arab world, all the projects that have been offered since the 20th century fell apart before being realised. The key supranational organisation, periodically representing the voice of the Arab world, was the Arab League. In the 20th century the participation of the Arab League in regional affairs meant legitimacy. The organisation, of course, was criticised, but it continued to function. In the 21st century a lot has changed. A number of decisions discredited this organisation, and many began to forget about it. But has the naive desire to establish an “Arab nation” disappeared?
In the Arab segment of social networks, one can find the concept of janahei al-alam al-arabiy or “two wings of the Arab world”. As a rule, this means Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, cooperation between these two countries could provide an interesting synergistic effect that would force non-Arab regional and global powers to reckon with the countries with the largest Arab population and the largest hydrocarbon resources. Nevertheless, such an alignment has not yet taken shape. Having carried out a number of active foreign policy moves with the aim to demonstrate its capabilities during the 2010s, Saudi Arabia never received the status of a recognised leader of the Arab world (despite making this claim in previous periods). As we have already noted, Iraq was undermined by an external invasion, while the Syrian issue — and Syria is considered the “heart” of the Arab world — finally demonstrated the regional forces’ lack of the ability to seek compromises, as well as the inferiority of the “regional” forces to resolve conflicts independently. There is also the problem of the structural return of such a major force as Egypt, which over the past decade has not occupied a place worthy of its status in regional affairs.
Half a century ago, the “Arab voice” in world affairs came from Cairo. Gamal Abdel Nasser forced the global powers to adjust, to work with each other and against each other, to seek answers to questions that were not always raised by them. The very formulation of the Arab position in international relations was presented in one form or another. Arab socialism, which in fact was a hidden form of Arab nationalism, was generally accepted and widespread. Later it would be said that the regimes failed, the ideology of Arab nationalism failed. The Islamist movements have launched attempts to replace it, but even they, once in power, will not be able to solve pressing problems. Hamas and Hezbollah, specifically, are not considered suitable for nation states, there are also questions related to how effective these structures could be in addressing the conditions of the revived Arab states. It seems that if state institutions are rebuilt, there would be little room for them. But this can happen only at the moment when the player approaches the solution of the tasks set in the “underworld” — he finds a portal that will either bring him to a new map, or return him back to the old one, but understandable, familiar, with the established rules of the game. And this process can be spurred on not by internal, but by external conditions.
These external conditions are formed by the “crumbling” world. In this world, the “Arab voice” can be heard. The voice itself can again sound from Cairo — the capital of the state with the largest Arab population and a rich history, which is actively developing its armed forces and economy (impressive achievements in the last five years), as well as political experience and regional recognition. It is the country where the headquarters of the Arab League is located, and can distinguish itself favourably over the next decade, not only and not so much because of its own development, but rather because of the serious decline of its neighbours, who will not have time to recover (Lebanon, Syria, Libya, etc.)