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Friday, January 24, 2020

Pan-Arabism should be revived

by Linda S. Heard

Illustrations by Guillermo Munro Colosio

If the Arab world continues to splinter, the voices of individual Arab states will not only be drowned-out by other powerful nations, they will also unwittingly play into their enemy’s hands says the author

Geopolitically-speaking, big really is beautiful. Most nations have cottoned on to this reality and forged sturdy military or economic alliances, which is why the European Union (EU), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the African Union (AU), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) were born. And it goes without saying that English-speaking countries such as the US, the UK, Canada and Australia whose leaders often boast of having ‘shared values’ usually have one another’s backs, along with that of Israel.

Such alliances assist in bolstering floundering economies, allow small countries to punch above their weight and help solve disputes between member states before they escalate into conflict. It may be that the mighty US will one day implement upgrading NAFTA into a North American Alliance, binding America with Canada and Mexico, a goal that has been simmering in the pipeline for years but has met with severe opposition from rightwing Americans who object to open borders, not to mention the idea of the AMERO, a common currency.

When so many nations are gravitating together in a molecule-like fashion for reasons of stability and security, and are able to set aside their differences, it seems incomprehensible that, instead of coming together, the Arab states are growing further apart – and especially when one takes into account that they exist in a growingly dangerous neighbourhood that contains two loose cannons – Israel and Iran.

What about the Arab League, you might say? The fact is that until fairly recently it was little more than a debating society. It has become more proactive at the urging of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and was instrumental in bringing about a ‘Nofly’ zone over Libya. But its 22 member countries rarely agree; certainly there are massive splits in opinion over how to handle Syria where over 8,000 civilians have been killed by the regime. The Arab League has no army at its disposal and its statements carry little weight unless they happen to coincide with the aims of big powers.

Arabs seeming inability to unite in spite of the obvious benefits seems incomprehensible to outsiders. Haven’t they learned anything from history, beginning with Britain and France’s divide-and-rule policy that resulted in the carving-up of the Middle East, to the Neoconservative’s ambition of slicing Iraq into three states?

If we refer to a paper, written by Oded Yinon, an Israeli journalist and senior advisor to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as long ago as 1982, it’s evident that Israel would like to see Egypt carved-up into a Sunni state and a Coptic Christian state – and the oil-and-gas-rich Sinai returned to Israeli control. “The dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target,” he writes, adding that Iraq’s dissolution is even more important to Israel than that of Syria.

“The entire Arabian peninsula is a natural candidate for dissolution due to internal and external pressures,” he adds. “Israel’s policy, both in war and in peace, ought to be directed at the liquidation of Jordan under the present regime and the transfer of power to the Palestinian majority. Such territorial diminution could still be on the cards as we’ve witnessed in Sudan where the oil-rich south has been lopped-off into a primarily Christian state.”

Moreover, the Gulf Arab states are being menaced by the Islamic State of Iran both territorially and in terms of Tehran’s incitement of Shiite populations to rise up against governments.

Given the threats from their neighbours and the powers that covet the region’s oil, gas and strategic waterways, it would surely be sensible for the Arab countries to construct a powerful, diplomatic, military and economic union, which if had been in place in 2003, would probably have deterred Iraq from being ravished. It’s more than likely too that if this had been the case, that the Palestinians would now be settled in their own state.

When Europe has been willing to overlook the scars of two world wars to permit Germany to take the leading role in the EU, on paper at least, forming a meaningful Arab union should be a simple process. After all, Arabs share common faiths, a common language, as well as similar cultures, social mores and traditions. Were 325 million Arabs empowered to reach even a loose consensus on the issues that matter to them, they would be able to fend off enviers and foes, elevate educational standards, create enough stability to invest in each other’s countries, as well as creating jobs and ensuring that no Arab child is ever forced to beg on the street.

Pan-Arabism was the dream of Egypt’s former president Jamal Abdel-Nasser who forged his country’s unity with Syria in 1958, resulting in the United Arab Republic (UAR). That didn’t work, primarily because it wasn’t a partnership of equals and Syrians ultimately felt resentful about having to take marching orders from Cairo.

Yet despite his failings, Nasser stood strongly for Arab causes and was almost universally adored throughout the Arab world for his inspirational speeches which made his listeners proud to call themselves Arab.

Tragically, there is little Arab pride around today with many young Arabs aspiring to becoming Western clones, forgetting their rich family-oriented culture of respect, hospitality and generousity. A few days ago, I came across a rousing song on YouTube called ‘Habibi Watani’ (‘My Beloved Country’) sung by Abdel Halim Hafez (Egyptian), Najat Al Saghiri (Egyptian) Saba (Lebanese) and Wahda Jazairia (Algerian) that lauded the Arab Ummah or collective Arab nation state. There are no such songs written now.

The sort of patriotism and quest for Pan-Arab nationalism that prevailed in Nasser’s time is virtually absent nowadays; it has been replaced by sectarianism, tribalism and an ideological battle between secularists and religionists. Indeed, the very concept of Pan-Arabism is being laughed-off as antiquated, idealistic or unworkable.

In truth, as the region undergoes a period of flux engendered by the so-called Arab Spring, bringing Arabs together is a mountain too far to climb, but that shouldn’t imply that the summit isn’t worth reaching once the dust has settled. Isn’t it time that Arabs stopped disagreeing long enough to remember there’s strength in numbers; long enough to strategise a peaceful and prosperous tomorrow?

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