The Arab Tomorrow

By David B. Ottaway
The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

For centuries, Egypt was the center of the Arab world. Now its discontented intelligentsia is debating intensely whether Egypt can any longer shape Arab policies toward an immovable Israel, a belligerent Iran, fractious Palestinians, or an imposing America, much less grapple with the Islamist challenge.

On the western shores of the Persian Gulf, the accumulation of massive oil wealth in the hands of kings and emirs has given birth to a new Arab world. It has supplied vast sums for the building of hypermodern global cities that lure business and tourists away from Cairo.

The Arab states are bound together by a common language and shared religion. They have a culture rooted in 1,400 years of Islam, with its memory of the powerful caliphates based in Damascus and Baghdad. Since 1947, the struggle against Israel has been the Arabs' defining mission.

From 1952 to 1967, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was the undisputed Voice of the Arabs. He offered a vision of an Arab world transformed from a colonial jigsaw puzzle of artificial states into a single Muslim community stretching from Morocco to Oman.

His successor Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel after a trip to Jerusalem in 1977. Since his assassination in 1981, the Arab world has struggled to find its bearings.

The 21 countries of the Arab League, embracing 350 million people, live in a state of squabbling and fragmentation. Even the six Arab monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) and the four Mediterranean countries of the Maghreb (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) have made little headway toward unity.

The Arab world has been plagued by civil wars (Sudan, Lebanon, and Somalia), militant Islamist insurgencies (Algeria, Iraq, and Somalia), and sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims (Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain), as well as a struggle pitting extremists against mainstream elements over the meaning of Islam (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Algeria).

Central to the region's turmoil is the widening rift between Sunnis, who account for nearly 90 percent of the Arab population, and Shia, who form tiny minorities in most Arab countries. The Sunni-Shia conflict was given new life by the Iranian revolution of 1979, which produced a Shiite theocracy determined to expand into the Arab world.

The challenge from Iran helped stoke Sunni fundamentalism and put Islam front and center in the political discourse and daily lives of Arabs. Islamic political parties have now surpassed secular parties as the most dynamic forces in Arab political life. Mosques have become cauldrons of political activism. Islamist groups now occupy a central role in Arab politics.

The tidal wave of political Islam has rocked the Arab world’s mostly autocratic rulers. The ruling families of Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain have reigned for centuries. The Saudi royal family has ruled on and off for more than 250 years. In Morocco, the ruling dynasty came to power in 1666. Secular Arab leaders have been working hard to establish their own family dynasties.

Arab leaders proved master manipulators of democracy. They used elections to illustrate the dangers of democracy. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in early 2005, and Egypt elected a new parliament late that same year. The conservative Wahhabi candidates swept the Saudi contests, and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood became the main opposition group in the Egyptian parliament.

Arab leaders have seized upon the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism to promote their civilian and military intelligence services to the forefront of political life. The heads of these agencies have become so powerful that they often play the role of kingmaker, or simply become candidates for the top job themselves.

A group of Arab scholars argued in 2002 that a freedom deficit lies at the core of the Arab world's woes. The group probed the causes of the Arab failure to keep up with the rest of the world: 65 million Arab adults, mainly women, remain illiterate. Less than 1 percent of Arab adults use the Internet and 1.2 percent have computers. No Arab university has any standing in world rankings. In 2002, one in every five Arabs was living on less than $2 a day.

Saudi Arabia is the one new Arab powerhouse to have emerged as a player on the international scene. As the world's central oil bank and holder of massive dollar reserves, it is unique among the Arab states. The kingdom is the only Arab country in the G20.

Saudi diplomacy now has limits on the Arabian Peninsula. The spread of massive oil wealth since the sharp increase in global oil prices began in the late 1990s has enabled even the tiny emirates to defy the Saudi kingdom.

The Saudi powerhouse cannot impose its will on its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC established a collective defense force in 1986 under Saudi command, but it never amounted to more than a nucleus.

For Saudi Arabia, Iran looms as the main challenger to its religious and political influence in the Sunni Arab world. But Qatar has at times aligned itself with Tehran against Riyadh. Oman and the United Arab Emirates remain on good terms with Tehran. Dubai is the main terminal for Iranian exports and imports.

These statelets have massive oil and gas wealth. In 2008, Qatar had a gross domestic product of $106 billion and the Arab Emirates had a GDP of $270 billion. Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman had similarly outsized economies.

The world financial crisis of 2008-09 hit Dubai and Oman hard, but the other gulf statelets simply dug deeper into their foreign reserves. Saudi Arabia, with $400 billion in its pocket, hardly skipped a beat.

Egypt still has the mightiest army, the biggest population, and the most central location. But it is resource poor and heavily dependent on unreliable revenues from abroad. The decline of Egypt has been a bitter pill for the country's best and brightest to swallow.

The Arab world now stares at two contrasting models of its future: autocracy and theocracy. The Arab political cauldron contains all the ingredients for explosions in the years ahead.

AR  I see war looming between the Gulf states and Iran. Egypt can at best unite the Maghreb.