The Arab Summit, hosted by Kuwait later this week, will be held under the slogan “Solidarity for a Better Future”. Yet, the current state of affairs in the Arab world permits talking about anything except solidarity. The Arab world has never been as divided as it appears today.
In fact, forming regional alliances that reflect both regional and international dynamics has always been a trademark of Arab politics. The latent force behind division has been ideological, sectarian, competition over leadership of the Arab world and more recently the standing on the Arab Spring.
A new cold war?
In the 1950s and 1960s the Arab world was divided into pro-Soviet Arab nationalists led by Egypt and pro-West conservatives led by Saudi Arabia. The two camps fought what the late Middle East expert Malcolm Kerr called “The Arab Cold War“, with hefty costs.
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Egypt’s exit from the Arab-Israeli conflict, following the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, changed Arab alignments. Syria and Iraq led the efforts to isolate Egypt and prevent further erosion in the Arab-Israeli balance of power.
The new alignment did not last long before the focus of division shifted, wherein the position on the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war became the new fault line. Syria, Libya and Algeria supported Iran whereas the Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan aided Iraq.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait reshaped the map with Syria, Egypt and the GCC countries joining the US-led coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Meanwhile, Jordan, the PLO and Yemen backed Iraq, in rhetoric of course.
Following the Madrid peace conference in the early 1990s, a Pax-Americana “peace axis” to contain both Iran and Iraq was formed. Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt played key role in the implementation of the “dual containment” policy. For 10 years, Iran and Iraq were isolated, weakened, and treated as pariahs in the region and by the international community.
After the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, a new regional alignment emerged with Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah acting as a resistance axis. Egypt, Jordan and the GCC countries, except for Qatar, formed the camp of moderates. The conflict between these two regional axes was most clear during the 2006 war in Lebanon and the 2008 Israeli attack against Hamas in Gaza.
The Arab Spring did not change the dynamic but made it more complex. As a revolution of freedom and dignity, the Arab Spring was ideologically blind. When it hit, it did not distinguish between the “moderate” Hosni Mubarak and the “resistant” Bashar al-Assad; hence the complication.
As a revolution of freedom and dignity, the Arab Spring was ideologically blind. When it hit, it did not distinguish between the ‘moderate’ Hosni Mubarak and the “resistant” Bashar al-Assad; hence the complication.
For almost half a century, the Arab world was divided into two major camps and the division was largely based on ideological differences and the position on Israel and the West.
Three rival groups
After the Arab revolutions, three rival groups emerged with multiple fault lines. They involved almost all sort of contrasts: Ideological, sectarian personal, and geo-political. First, we have the axis of resistance, which remained largely undeterred although it has been hard hit by the Arab Spring. The exit of Hamas and the inclusion of the Iraq Maliki government was viewed by many as a largely Shiite camp.
Second, the pro-revolution axis, which includes Turkey and Qatar, opposes the military coup in Egypt and calls for the restoration of the democratic process.
Third, the counter-revolution axis is led by Saudi Arabia and includes the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. The three rival groups are involved in a titanic confrontation throughout the region but particularly in Egypt and Syria, with different interests and stakes though.
The division within the Arab community of states over the position on the Arab Spring reached a new climax early this month when Saudi Arabia and two other Gulf states withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. The official statement attributed the move to Qatar’s failure to commit to the principles of “non-interference, directly or indirectly in the internal affairs of any GCC state, and to refrain from backing anyone who threatens the security and stability of the GCC countries, whether as groups or individuals, via direct security work or through political influence, and stop supporting hostile media”.
Clearly, the decision was intimately linked to Al-Jazeera’s favourable coverage of Arab revolutions, Qatar’s political and economic support for post-revolution Arab governments, and hosting Arab opposition figures, particularly the anti-Egypt military coup Muslim Brotherhood.
From the outset, Saudi Arabia viewed the Arab Spring as a threat and acted accordingly. It hosted the first deposed Arab president, Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and offered to host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after failing to rescue his rule.In Libya, despite the animosity, Saudi Arabia showed no enthusiasm for the overthrow of the Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
In fact, Saudi Arabia’s position on the Libyan revolution was largely negative. Had it not been for the geopolitical dimension of the Syrian conflict, and the fear of Iran’s regional hegemony should the Syrian regime survive, Saudi Arabia’s position would not have been different on the Syrian revolution.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s greatest success was in Egypt, the most contested issue with Qatar. On July 3, 2013, the Egyptian army, under the command of Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, overthrew President Mohammed Morsi.
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Saudi Arabia and the UAE played critical role in sustaining the post-Morsi military-backed government in Cairo. Had it not been for Riyadh’s open backing, the coup’s chances of success would have been very low.
As the host country of the Arab summit, the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad has been trying for some time to mend fences between Qatar on one hand and Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the other.
Yet, the withdrawal of ambassadors from Doha and the Saudi designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group have complicated his efforts.
Furthermore, with division hitting the heart of the most homogeneous Arab regional system – the GCC – and with three Arab axes fighting what each of them sees as a make or break battle, it is very difficult to understand the meaning of the slogan of the Kuwait Arab summit.
In fact, the summit will be considered successful if it manages to only prevent further escalation between rival brothers and hence the breakout of a mini Cold War within the GCC.
Marwan Kabalan is a Syrian academic and writer. He holds a PhD degree in International Relations. He is an Associate Political Analyst at the Doha Institute.