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The Middle East Channel

Arabs in the shadows of their neighbors

One of the most striking characteristics of Arab politics in recent years has been the glaring dearth of assertive political leadership. The era of autocratic strongmen who ruled over large swaths of the Arab world since the 1950s, particularly — but not exclusively– the military dictators, resulted in an arid political landscape bereft of functioning ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

One of the most striking characteristics of Arab politics in recent years has been the glaring dearth of assertive political leadership. The era of autocratic strongmen who ruled over large swaths of the Arab world since the 1950s, particularly — but not exclusively– the military dictators, resulted in an arid political landscape bereft of functioning political institutions, emasculated traditional political elites, smothered civil societies, and arrested national economic development. The legacies of these rulers/usurpers have been national catastrophes and civil strife in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan and Yemen, or political, social and economic stagnation in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman — have on the whole escaped the political upheaval and economic degradation of the other Arab states because of their hydrocarbon resources, and because the ruling families have managed, albeit with considerable difficulties at times, to cloak themselves with a thin veneer of political legitimacy, e.g. Kuwait, and to a lesser extent the UAE. However, the autocratic, closed, centralized, and exclusive political spaces in these countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, where civil society is constantly undermined, made it inherently difficult for these new states to establish viable and modern political institutions that could underpin effective and assertive political leadership.

The extent of this decline of Arab leadership can be seen in the utter failure of the Arab states to hold their own against their neighbors: an increasingly belligerent Israel waging wars with impunity while continuing the colonization of the West Bank and the Golan; an assertive Iran casting its shadow over the Arab side of the Gulf and bent on shaping the future of Iraq and Lebanon; and especially an ascendant Turkey with an ambitious political, economic, and cultural mission to reclaim its bygone influence in its old imperium.

Today Egypt, a much diminished regional power, is going through a precarious transition to a post-Mubarak political order. Saudi Arabia is increasingly alienated from the U.S. and frustrated with the Obama administration over its handling of Iran, the Palestine issue, and the Egyptian uprising. Iraq is still trying to heal its deep wounds despite a brittle political system still susceptible to external and especially Iranian machinations. And in Syria, the Assad dynasty is waging a brutal war on its citizens and pushing the country towards the abyss of civil strife.

Even if the Arab uprisings under way evolve in the right direction and put those societies on the path of real political reform and the creation of democratic institutions, it will be many years before countries like Egypt, Syria, and Iraq could claim regional leadership roles. For years now almost everything the Arab states have done has been in reaction to policies, initiatives, and moves by their powerful non-Arab neighbors.

The dilemma of the ‘moderate’ Arabs

For decades, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the two "moderate" Arab pillars that the U.S. relied on to contain Iranian influence, shore up Pakistan, defeat the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan, and fight terrorist groups. Under Mubarak, however, Egypt dropped the mantle of Arab leadership. Its peace treaty with Israel, and more importantly its willingness to live in the shadow of a much more dynamic Israel, considerably weakened its hand in influencing intra-Arab relations, checking the rising power of Turkey, or providing a counter-weight to Iran and Syria in Iraq and Lebanon.

During George W. Bush’s presidency, Washington’s alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia further undermined the regional standing of both countries. Bush’s lack of interest in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, more importantly his unqualified support of Israel’s wars in 2006 and 2008 against Lebanon and Gaza, his invasion of Iraq, and the way he conceptualized and conducted his "war on terror", presented the two countries with tough choices. Under pressure from Israel and the U.S., Mubarak’s Egypt, which was unable to influence events even in tiny neighboring Gaza, found itself a willing accomplice in Israel’s siege of the impoverished strip. For Saudi Arabia meanwhile, the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad altered the fragile balance of power in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and provided Iran with a strategic victory. Finally, Saudi Arabia’s failure to convince the Bush administration to seriously back its Arab Peace Initiative (adopted by the Beirut Arab summit in 2002, then reaffirmed at the Riyadh summit in 2007) to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict was a stunning setback to the leadership of the moderate Arab camp at the hand of its American ally. Palestine was, is, and is likely to remain one of the major issues regional players invoke, honestly or deceptively, to highlight their leadership ambitions. Thus, Palestine is at the core of Turkey’s Erdogan’s as well as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bids for primacy in the region in the absence of this Arab leadership.

Of all the major Arab states capable of exerting sizeable leadership, Saudi Arabia is the one still trying to shape developments in its traditional sphere of influence, the Arabian Peninsula. Riyadh is trying to prepare for a Yemen post-Ali Abdullah Saleh, more than a year after it intervened militarily to help the Yemeni government put down the Houthi rebellion. In mid-March, Saudi Arabia further maintained the status quo in Bahrain by force of arms when it lead an expeditionary GCC force to shore up the Al-Khalifa family against a peaceful uprising seeking political reform, end of discrimination, and genuine representation. Riyadh’s preoccupation — which many would call obsession — with Iran triggered its military moves in both countries, although no credible evidence of Iran being the prime mover in both cases was ever presented.

However, in Saudi Arabia diplomacy remains hamstrung by geriatric leadership and a complex, extremely slow decision-making process that makes it difficult during times of crisis for Saudi leadership to be nimble and quick, which is in stark contrast to the energetic diplomacy of its smaller neighbors Qatar and the UAE (who for all their admitted assertive leadership can still not seriously threaten to provide sustainable leadership roles through sheer lack of size).

The struggle for Syria redux

In 1965, Patrick Seale, Syria’s modern biographer, published his classic treatise "The struggle for Syria" a pioneering analysis of the dynamics of the Arab cold war, describing the intense and "tireless Hashimite (Iraq) solicitude and yearning for Syria and the equal determination of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to obstruct any such liaison." Egypt and Iraq’s rival bids for Arab leadership were premised on the belief that Syria held the key for such primacy. Whoever controls Syria or enjoys her favors will lead the Arab world. Gone is that world eloquently analyzed by Seale, replaced today by the non-Arab regional powers — Turkey and Iran — competing to shape and influence Syria at this sensitive moment in its history. This is a moment rich in ironies.

Not only is Syria the focal point of that rivalry, but also Iraq, the old claimant of Arab leadership, is itself in the same sorry predicament while its once rival Egypt is watching silently from afar. In Iraq, Turkey is trying quietly to blunt Iran’s influence by building economic and political bridges with Iraqi Kurdistan and forming a Sunni counterweight to Iranian backed Shia groups. Both Iran and Turkey are taking advantage of the openings provided to them by America’s tremendous investments in blood and treasure there, and they are both seen by Iraqi groups to have more political influence than the U.S. or any other Arab state. While Turkey is trying to influence the behavior of the Syrian regime and its opponents, it keeps a weary eye on Iran, cognizant of Iran’s strategic high stakes in Syria and the likelihood that Iran would react ominously if it believed Turkey to be actively undermining the Assad regime. By contrast, the GCC states have limited sway in Syria, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have downright hostile relations with Nouri Al-Maliki’s government in Iraq.

Syria was the key for Iran’s emergence in recent years as a Mediterranean power for the first time since Persia’s epic wars with the ancient Greek city states. Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its support for Hamas in Gaza were mostly due to its special relationship with Syria. Iran is providing the Assad regime with the technical, financial and intelligence wherewithal to crush the uprising, and the fall of the Assad regime would thus deal Iran a major strategic setback and weaken its Lebanese and Palestinian allies.

Syria was also the gate through which Turkey achieved its initial successful return to the Levant. Turkey is Syria’s main trading partner, and Damascus was the key for the economic deal signed by Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan in 2010. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who saw the recent electoral victory of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a vindication of Turkey’s leadership claims in the Levant, the Balkans, and the Caucuses, has invested significant political and economic resources in Syria, as well as considerable personal efforts to cultivate the Syrian leader. Erdogan tried to present Bashar Assad to the West as a modernizing leader they could do business with and a potential peacemaker.

Of course, Turkey’s much vaunted policy of "zero problems with neighbors" is now in serious danger given the bloody crackdown that Assad has unleashed on a mostly peaceful uprising, in a way that could drag Turkey into the conflict. So far Erdogan’s efforts at cajoling, criticizing and/or threatening Assad to reform or else risk his demise have been in vain. Erdogan’s major investments in Syria and his stubbornness which prevents him from admitting that his gamble on Assad had failed are the main reasons why he has not yet broken completely with his previous protégé. Yet, because of geography, economics, and military preponderance, Turkey nonetheless remains the most influential outside player in Syria, why the Obama administration continues to coordinate its Syria policy closely with Turkey.

Still, and more broadly, Turkey’s economic and political ascendancy under the AKP and Erdogan’s leadership, its vocal and principled support for Palestinian rights, its "return" to the Middle East waiving its foreign policy of "zero problems," and its projection of itself as a modern state with an Islamist heart, have appealed to many Arabs, particularly Islamist factions, as a worthy "model". And in so doing, Turkey has arguably been by far the most successful of the non-Arab regional powers in cementing it regional status. Turkey’s role in influencing events in Syria will moreover remain strong, and may grow at the expense of Iran, while its profile in Egypt will be more visible then that of Israel.

Along with its economic investments and products that flooded Arab markets, Turkey is wielding its soft power and seducing the Arabs’ collective imagination. For a number of years now, tens of millions of Arabs, mostly during the month of Ramadan, sit in their living rooms mesmerized while watching racy Turkish soap operas dubbed in Arabic. The hunger for Turkish popular culture, just like the hunger for a strong leader like Erdogan, speaks to a deeper sense of malaise and decay in the Arab World. It is remarkably shocking for an old culture that created the magnificent Thousand and One Nights, along with a fantastically rich poetic tradition, to subcontract to Turkish production companies the mission of dreaming, imagining, and mythmaking on their behalf.


An Arab world caught between the Scylla of illegitimate, weak leadership and the Charybdis of ambitious, belligerent neighbors remains an acute problem for not only itself but also for policymakers in Europe and especially the United States. Already the imbalance of power created by this Arab defect is weakening Washington’s hand in its attempts at shaping and/or checking the influence of Turkey, Iran, and Israel in the internal affairs of their Arab neighbors. Washington will serve its long term interests in the Middle East by restoring a semblance of a balance of power among the major Arab and non-Arab contenders in the region. And the only viable, long-term approach is for the U.S. to invest politically, strategically, and economically in the admittedly precarious and painful transitions in the wake of Arab uprisings on the road of representative governance.

Watching the convulsions, uprisings, civil wars and other morbid symptoms associated with precarious transitions in many Arab states, and how Iran, Israel, and especially Turkey are jockeying for primacy in the region, one could only conclude that the Arabs, particularly those who live in the Middle East, have condemned themselves to live for the foreseeable future in the shadows of their neighbors.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel and correspondent for the Lebanese daily Annahar. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_ melhem.

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