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Tracing Power Shifts In Arab World – OpEd


By Mohyeddin Sajedi

The undisputed Arab leader in the 1950s and 60s, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a source of influence on the Egyptian neighbors fighting two wars with Israel.

In the war of the 1950s, a power balance between the emerging global forces caused the defeat of the tripartite attack of Israel, Britain and the United States.

Abdel Nasser suffered a big defeat in the war of the 1960s with the escalating Cold War between the Western and Eastern power blocs, but his popularity made up for the loss.

He partook in the Yemen War and many of the young Arab leaders in the countries that had recently been freed from the reigns of colonialism were inspired by him and called for the unison of their countries with Egypt.

When Abdel Nasser passed away, some of the countries in the Persian Gulf region had only recently gained their independence and were still under the dominance of former colonial powers.

Egypt’s victory in the 1973 war with Israel placed Anwar Sadat, Abdel Nasser’s successor, in a favorable position. However, the new Egyptian president’s shift of policy in approaching the West and signing a peace agreement with Israel reduced Cairo’s influence and cut down on Egypt’s regional policy making to the same degree.

Syria, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq each struggled to fill in, collectively or individually, the vacancy in the Arab League created by Egypt’s withdrawal. A resistance front was created to withstand the negative effects of the Camp David pact on the Arab world.

Algeria was a revolutionary state under Houari Boumediene and his Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika played an important role in the country’s policy making. In Syria, Hafez al-Assad held power and hauled the flag of Arab ethnicity. The former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi portrayed himself as being fond of Abdel Nasser. Saudi Arabia was on the opposite flank and governments such as Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman were presented as backward regimes.

Close ties between Riyadh and Washington coupled with Saudi’s oil wealth and being home to the holiest Islamic place gave Riyadh a sway in the decision and policy making of the Arab world.

Simultaneous with Egypt’s exit from the Arab power circle, the Islamic Revolution prevailed in Iran, wielding a massive blow to the US and Israeli interests. Furthermore, in the Arab world the Palestinians and the Resistance Front also found a vital backing.

Not long after, Iraq attacked Iran. Baghdad depicted itself as the guardian of the eastern gates of the Arab world against the ripples created by the Islamic Revolution. In this way, it managed to attract the financial and political aids of the newly-established Arab states of the Persian Gulf, who were trying to secure a place for themselves in the Arab world in the mould of the [Persian] Gulf Cooperation Council.

After Algeria’s coup-like election results were made public in early 1990s, Algiers’ power started to decline. Thereafter, Damascus, Baghdad, and Riyadh emerged as rival, and sometimes coordinated, policymakers of the Arab world, though none of them could fill the void of Egypt’s influence among Arab countries. Egypt’s return to the Arab League, once more revived its past role as a prominent player in the Arab-speaking region which continued until the fall of the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

Engagement of Iraq’s former dictator, Saddam Hussein, in futile wars which eroded the economic and political power of Iraq followed by US invasion of the country, practically marginalized Baghdad in the decision-making process of the Arab world. The recent revolution in Egypt and the following chaos which has lasted for months, also caused Cairo to lose its past position to an extent where few people outside Egypt currently know the name of its foreign minister. Syria is also grappling with a profound domestic crisis and cannot even maintain its past influence in Lebanon and on its former Palestinian allies.

The destruction of the traditional decision-making centers in the Arab world has shifted its power to the Persian Gulf region which now plays a unique role in delineating the future outlooks of the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and to some extent, the United Arab Emirates are now new decision-making centers.

These countries are characterized by: hefty oil wealth, authoritarian rules heavily dependent on the West, low population and absence of an elite or middle class, tribal structure, immunity to the wave of Arab uprisings, extended relations with the United States, and replacing tension with Iran for Palestinian-Israeli tension. Unlike the past power centers of the Middle East, the new decision-making center does not stand for intellectualism and elitism in the Arab world.

The role played by this center in opposing the Tunisian revolution, taking part in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, mediating power transfer in Yemen, suppressing people’s protests in Bahrain, trying to influence the future outlook of Egypt by supporting Salafi parties, and attempting to overthrow Bashar Assad in Syria are some of the main features of the new power center of the Arab world which also makes good use of media leverage.

This center is using the Arab League as a shroud of camouflage. High oil revenue allows this center to avail itself of economic factor and change the Arab League’s plans. Like its predecessor, there are differences among members of the new power center, examples of which included different treatment of the new Tunisian regime by Qatar and Saudi Arabia or their approach to the crisis in Yemen.

Obviously, the new center, due to dictatorial nature of governments making it, cannot be harbinger of democracy in the Middle East. Political weakness of its members shows that it has no long-term agenda or strategy of its own and is following the agenda set for it by the United States and the West.

Current efforts by its members are also aimed at making their societies immune to the engulfing waves of the Arab Awakening.

The power of this center is not permanent. Changes in the Arab states and restoration of the past role played by such governments as Egypt and Iraq, as well as the ongoing confrontation between Iran and US are the main factors which will finally determine the fate of this power center in the world.

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