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