Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dissecting the regional order

The Arab order remains in peril, the factors in which are both recent and longer term. Understanding both is vital to formulating a collective response

Finally, I had the opportunity to visit the Jenadriyah Festival or the “activities of the National Festival for Heritage and Culture” in Riyadh as it is officially called. This was not the first time I was invited to attend this important cultural convention, but fate had always intervened, until this year. My contribution to the activities was to take part in a seminar session called “Threats to the Arab regional order.” I listed six:

The current moment is fraught with the cumulative repercussions of the past six years since the Arab Spring that quickly turned to hot sandstorms that severely weakened the Arab state and sapped its immune system in the face of difficult internal and external pressures. Since 2011, the Arab regional order has been plagued by distorted strategic balances, with failed states emerging in Libya, Sudan and Yemen and the Levant in its entirety, from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon to Palestine, in a state of collapse. This regional environment in conjunction with the internal vulnerabilities of individual states and the opportunities this affords to arms smuggling activities in all directions, creates a highly volatile situation. With, additionally, the increasing numbers of refugees, the rising economic burdens of aid and the decline in oil prices since June 2014, the security risks in the region are direr than ever.

- For three decades since the 1970s, the West under the command of the US was close to Egypt and the conservative Arab states. But after the events of 11 September 2001, these countries began to question the seriousness of that support on the part of the West which began to complain of the stagnation of Arab regimes. Then, after the initial ardour fired by Tunisia’s “Jasmine” revolution and Egypt’s “Lotus” revolution followed by the catastrophic consequences of the Arab Spring, Western countries began to doubt whether Arab countries were capable of modernising and instituting democratic change. Indeed, Egypt officially shifted from being a strategic ally of the US to a state of being neither ally nor enemy. Although similar expressions were not voiced on the US’s other Arab allies, tensions began to rise between the US and Gulf countries after the 30 June 2013 Revolution in Egypt. Therefore, it is perhaps no coincidence that the West and the US above all were prepared to reach an accommodation with Iran over the nuclear issue. To this we should probably add another factor which is that the US and Western countries have succeeded in reducing Western reliance on Arab oil by resorting to various technologies or cooperative arrangements with other countries. In fact, they managed to reduce the price of oil by 60 per cent from November 2014 to June 2015. This is not to suggest that the Western alliance with Arab states has ended. However, it does compel the current Arab security order to contend with a different reality in its relations with the US and the West in general.

- A war over natural resources, whether oil or water, looms and threatens regional stability. Ethiopia saw in the Egyptian Spring a golden opportunity to press forward with its Grand Renaissance Dam project on the Blue Nile, which threatens to diminish the amount of water that reaches Egypt and the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam. The Ethiopian measures encouraged other Nile Basin nations to follow suit and to study the implementation of hydraulic projections on the Nile without consulting or obtaining approval from Egypt. The tensions surrounding Egypt’s water resources are mirrored in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya where conflicts are centred around the geographic locations of oil wells. The rise of IS (the Islamic State group) and the establishment of the Kurdish region in Iraq by gaining control over Kirkuk was informed by demographic and strategic motives, but also by competition over oil resources.

- The peace agreements between Egypt and Israel in 1978 and between Israel and Jordan in 1994, and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process that began with the Oslo Accords in 1993, have become a basic part of the regional security order during the past 40 years. However, many factors have interwoven to place this peace and the Arab-Israeli peace process in grave jeopardy. These factors we can condense into two. The first is the failure of the US and the other concerned parties to reach peace agreements in spite of repeated attempts by all administrations in Washington. The second is the conditions generated by the Arab Spring which, on the one hand, turned Sinai into a breeding ground for the terrorist Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis that declared its allegiance to IS in Mosul and, on the other hand, turned Syria into an open field for Hizbullah and, therefore, a target for repeated Israeli strikes. In addition, anarchy in Syria and the vacuum in Iraq, together with population displacements from these countries into Jordan and Lebanon, among other pressures, have weakened the power and capacities of the central state. All the foregoing factors have rendered Arab-Israeli borders tense and volatile.

- Non-Arab neighbours have vested great hopes in the opportunities offered to them by the Arab Spring to fulfil their ambitions. As mentioned above, Ethiopia took advantage of the situation in order to alter the equations regarding the management of Nile waters. To Israel the “Spring” offered hope that Arab countries would be distracted from the Palestinian cause by their domestic problems, although it was disconcerted by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the new Arab radicals. Iran tried to turn the Arab Spring into an extension of its Islamic revolution. When the situation changed with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the spread of IS in the Sinai and the Levant, Tehran moved to expand its influence through Shia factions in Iraq, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Moreover, it strove to rebuild its relations with the US and the West though an agreement in which it could sustain its nuclear capacities even if it could not obtain nuclear weapons. Turkey, for its part, saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to penetrate into the Arab region in the Middle East by means of its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ankara lost one envisioned field for expansion. Its drive is still in progress in Syria, which is geographically closer and strategically more important to it.

- The management if inter-Arab coalitions that have been forged to contend with these threats has not yet reached a standard capable of serving the cause of Arab regional security with the required degree of efficacy. On this subject there is much more to be said.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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