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Arab states can be unstoppable when they work together

Arab League foreign ministers meet to discuss the situation in the Palestinian territories at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, last year. (AP file photo)
Arab League foreign ministers meet to discuss the situation in the Palestinian territories at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, last year. (AP file photo)
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04 Apr 2021 01:04:56 GMT9
Baria Alamuddin
04 Apr 2021 01:04:56 GMT9

I was struck by last week’s news conference featuring the Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi foreign ministers, at which they discussed Yemen, Libya, Palestine and any number of other issues in great detail, without paying even lip service to the crisis in Lebanon.

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi calls for “internationalization” of the Lebanon crisis, but why is nobody talking about Arabization of the Lebanon issue? A determined and decisive Arab role could compel key parties to form a technocratic government, while offsetting the disproportionate impact of Iran’s support for Hezbollah. I can’t imagine any patriotic Lebanese citizen who wouldn’t embrace such Arab reengagement with open arms— not for the benefit of a specific faction, but for rescuing Lebanon as a nation and reestablishing its Arab identity and sovereignty.

However, in the past decade there has been a progressive withdrawal — indeed exclusion — of Arab states from Arab issues. The Arab world is irrelevant in Syria, Russia and Turkey call the shots in Libya, and there are vigorous efforts to exclude Arab states from Iraq. Meanwhile, the views of a fragmented Arab world over the Iran nuclear issue are set to be ignored again by the new US administration.

Arab League states used to at least muster a display of solidarity around unifying issues such as Palestine, but the requirement for unanimous voting while fundamental differences emerge between members has rendered the Arab League irrelevant. Why is nobody even calling for the traditional spring Arab Summit?

The ayatollahs of Tehran have established their hegemony over Lebanon remarkably cheaply (under $700 million annual support for Hezbollah). This is small change compared to what GCC states repeatedly dole out in humanitarian aid. Iran is itself an economic basketcase and enjoys such exclusive influence only because other players long since abandoned Lebanon to its fate.

A 2020 plan for Saudi Arabia to invest $3 billion in Iraq’s agricultural sector was abandoned due to fear-mongering by Iran’s proxies, including a black propaganda campaign by media outlets connected to Nouri Al-Maliki and Qais Al-Khazali. The Iran-affiliated Fateh parliamentary bloc demanded the interrogation of Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi over Saudi investment, while paramilitary entities threatened that “any form of Saudi investment will be a target.”

This is shocking! The underdeveloped Iraqi agricultural sector lost out on this massive funding because of Tehran’s determination to exclude Arab states. Last week Kadhimi visited Riyadh and received an additional $3 billion for an Iraq investment fund — and of course the campaign to discredit this vital support is already underway.

Iran’s economic, diplomatic and military capabilities are minuscule compared to the collective resources of the Arab world. If only one day we muster the political will to collectively deploy these capabilities in the service of Arab unity, prosperity and sovereignty, then the Arab world will truly be an unstoppable force.

Baria Alamuddin

Iraqi and Arab markets are flooded with substandard Iranian goods, with a balance of trade often exclusively in Iran’s favour. No less a figure than the Iranian head of the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce declared: “Iraq does not have goods that we want to import.” Lebanon is in a similar situation, with particular concerns over non-approved medicines that violate WHO standards. Meanwhile, levels of trade between Arab states are often woefully low.

Arab states are losing control over their sovereign borders: In Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Iran-affiliated militias dominate crossing points. Iraq’s Finance Minister Ali Allawi described these activities as “organized plunder.” He estimates that 90 percent of Iraq’s $7 billion annual customs duties is stolen by these paramilitaries.

The decision by many Arab states to shun post-2003 Iraq was based on justifiable principles, but resulted in Baghdad becoming wholly excluded from the Arab camp, governed by a succession of leaderships who were largely in Tehran’s pocket. Arab nations have only belatedly embarked on the process of reengagement with Iraq, and they are being outmaneuvered by Iran at every turn.

Likewise, the Arab boycott of Bashar Assad and Syria’s suspension from the Arab League was wholly understandable, but where is the strategy for re-establishing Arab influence throughout Syria? The Astana process (Russia, Iran and Turkey) was a transparent tool for eliminating Arab and Syrian voices from any say in Syria’s future direction. Instead of establishing a roadmap for peace, the process has consolidated several statelets controlled by the Astana powers. Assad and Hezbollah are now allowing Russia to prospect for oil in Lebanese waters.

Taken as a whole, these processes amount to the de-Arabization of the Arab world, as Arab states are divested of their sovereignty before our eyes. I have never seen Arab citizens feeling more depressed and dejected about the state of their region, and the ceaseless flow of news reminds us every day how humiliated, fragmented and powerless the Arab world has become.

Before 2011 it was common to talk about an “Arab bloc” acting together to advance Arab interests in international forums such as the UN. Other than the EU, it’s unusual to see a bloc of about 20 states acting in concert on the global stage, so such an “Arab bloc” could wield immense influence.

Unfortunately, even during these periods of Arab unity we had an embarrassing tendency to over-rely on America and the West to solve our problems, and Arab conflict resolution and collective defense mechanisms were never developed. Each time I ask a particular high-ranking Arab defense official when the Arab League joint defense agreement will be activated, he laughs ironically and says: “Hopefully next year.”

Although there have been serious disagreements before, there has never been a phenomenon like former Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who has actively sought to advance Iran’s interests at the Arab level — for example, through boycotting Arab League meetings about Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia.

In an era when several states are dominated by Iran’s allies or embroiled in conflict, absolute Arab unity may be an impossibility. But if the Arab League is indeed no longer fit for purpose, core Arab states must take matters into their own hands and assertively advance Arab interests — not in a Nasserist pan-Arab sense, but by reasserting the sovereignty and Arab identity of individual Arab states.  

Iran’s economic, diplomatic and military capabilities are minuscule compared to the collective resources of the Arab world. If only one day we muster the political will to collectively deploy these capabilities in the service of Arab unity, prosperity and sovereignty, then the Arab world will truly be an unstoppable force.

• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.

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