Browsing through the index of any Year Book on the Middle East creates the immediate impression that it is either about a region on some other planet, or that the Arab world enjoys more than its share of political, economic and social cohesion as well as cooperation. So numerous are the general and regional organizations (complete with acronyms) avowedly dedicated to the achievement of those ends that, if Arab unity is in fact not flourishing, as events should suggest, there must be in progess a gigantic exercise in make-believe.
Not a single field - whether political, economic or professional, and no matter how small - has been neglected. You name it and there is an organization to cover it. Take any institution at random and the absurdity of its scope and focus immediately becomes obvious.
The Arab League’s Human Rights Committee (HRC) studies subjects concerning human rights, particularly violations by Israel. Barred from taking an active interest in violations in member countries, the HRC has apparently left the exposure of Israeli transgressions to western rights groups. The logic of its silence over Libya’s recent expulsion of hundreds of Palestinian workers must have been that if Israel is allowed to get away with hounding Palestinians why should an Arab country not be permitted to do so.
Likewise, the Arab Labour Organization (ALO), an Arab League body, is supposed to represent and develop independent Arab trade unions, but Arab League members will not allow the establishment of a regional institution or brook interference in national industrial relations. The ALO, for instance, looked the other way when Libya and the United Arab Emirates expelled thousands of ‘foreign’ workers.
Again, the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development (AOFAD) was established in 1970 to guarantee food security for the Arab world by turning Sudan into a bread basket through the development of its vast agricultural lands. But Egypt, which is a member of AOFAD, is actively supporting Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda in turning those agricultural lands into battlegrounds, and dismembering Sudan at the behest of the US.
Then there is the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) founded in 1969 in Tunis to ‘promote Arab fraternity.’ The only fraternity it promotes is between States that heavily censor broadcasting and have common interest in suppressing free speech.
The quest for Arab unity dates back to the dissolution of the Othmaniyya Khilafah at the end of the 1914-18 world war. The emergence of independent Arab States at the end of the second world war at first appeared to be a blow for Arab nationalism, with Egypt assuming the leadership of the movement for Arab unity.
The fact that such movement was actively manipulated by the British government at the time meant that any institutions set up to promote Arab unity were bound to be a tool of British imperial interests. The League of Arab Nations, set up in 1945 under Egyptian leadership, was initially controlled by Britain, and later by the US, which began to replace it as the leading power in the Middle East during the mid-1950s.
Membership of the Arab League multiplied in the early 1960s, when British and French possessions in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa respectively became independent. But the increase in the number of independent States did not, contrary to common belief at the time, bring additional muscle to Arab nationalism or unity. The plethora of nation-States, in fact, meant that Arab unity was taken hostage by the competing interests of those States and the rivalries among ruling elites.
In many articles in the Crescent International [Muslimedia’s sister-paper based in Toronto], as well as in numerous other writings and speeches, the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui, laid bare the divisive consequences of the nation-State for Arab nationalism and for the larger Muslim Ummah. It is sufficient to say here that such consequences had been so destructive for Arab nationalism that before long Israel, the raison d’etre for the Arab League, ceased to be perceived as the main external threat to individual Arab States.
The 1967 Six-Day War was the last major armed conflict between Israel and Arab frontline States. The October 1973 skirmishes, in which Egyptian forces crossed the Nile - earning for then-president Anwar Sadat the title of ‘Hero of the Crossing’, served only as a cover for Cairo’s disengagement from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Egypt, the most powerful member of the Arab League, was expelled in 1979, following its conclusion of a ‘peace treaty’ with Israel. It took eleven years for Egypt to be invited back into Arab councils. During those years, the Arab world was split into regional groupings that proved to be closed shops. Four regional organizations were created to represent them.
The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), representing what has been dubbed as the ‘oil-producing tribes,’ was the first (1981), followed in 1989 by the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), linking North African Arab countries, which were more interested in ties with Southern Europe. The Arab Co-operation Council (ACC), first inaugurated in February 1990, was an amorphous creation linking Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen - more a reaction, in fact, to the other bodies than an attempt to lead the Arab world.
The disintegration into regional units was aggravated by the disruptive effects of artificial State boundaries dating back to the colonial era which also made nonsense of any attempts at regional co-operation. The border dispute between Bahrain and Qatar, for example, has made the smooth conduct of GCC business almost impossible, while the AMU has ceased to function partly as a result of differences between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara issue. Morocco wants to incorporate it, while Algeria supports the Sahrawi struggle for independence.
The 1990-91 Gulf War destroyed any lingering hope of achieving genuine unity among Arab countries, which are now so bitter and divided that they fear their Arab neighbours more than Israel. The result is that the more vulnerable of them, like the GCC States, seek protection from the US against their Arab neighbours.
When, for instance, in 1994 Saudi efforts - with help from Egypt and the Gulf shaikhdoms - failed to break up the North-South Yemen Union (established in 1990), Riyadh sought an intelligence assessment of a Yemeni threat to the House of Saud. US president Bill Clinton had to send three top aides to deliver a 200-page study on the subject and reassure the jittery Saudis.
In early March, a top Saudi ministerial delegation flew to Washington to extract a pledge from the US to protect the kingdom against Iraq. Clinton, who met the delegation, promised to protect Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies against Baghdad.
The region’s huge oil wealth has failed to bring military or political security to the Arab world. As the Egyptian writer Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal wrote in his book on the Gulf War, ‘the beginning of the second oil century, as the twenty-first will be, does not bode well for a region that possesses two thirds of the world’s reserves but has yet to learn to use it.’
Muslimedia - March 16-31, 1997