Jasmine M El-Gamal
the task of promoting multilateralism in the Middle East has rested with two
institutions: the League of Arab States, a broad alliance for collaboration on
political, economic, and cultural issues, and the Gulf Cooperation Council
(GCC), which deals mainly with economic matters.
differences in their history, focus, and membership, both bodies were intended
to serve as vehicles for ensuring Arab unity on crucial issues – such as
opposing Israel – and avoiding conflict among member states.
decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rallied Arab countries around the
common cause of supporting Palestinian statehood. But since the 2011 Arab
Spring uprisings, three far more divisive issues have come to the fore: the
perceived threat posed by Iran, the spread of regional terrorism, and the rise
of political Islam (or Islamism).
developments have ruptured traditional alliances and created much more fluid
patterns of multilateral cooperation in the region. And current Western policy
toward the Middle East – in particular that of the United States – is likely to
reinforce this trend.
Sunni Arab governments regard Iran’s regional influence and activities as a
fundamental threat to their interests. The increasingly hostile rivalry between
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Iran on the
other, has thus eclipsed these countries’ traditional shared opposition toward
number of Arab governments are working on an unprecedentedly close basis with
Israel to address the Iranian threat.
cooperation, which had largely taken place behind the scenes, burst into the
open in February 2019 at the US-led “anti-Iran” conference in Warsaw, which
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu hailed as a breakthrough in
will likely grow stronger as Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their strategic
competition and proxy confrontation in the region.
threat of jihadist terrorism throughout the Middle East has aggravated by the
violent conflicts in Syria and Libya and has since manifested itself in
multiple attacks in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and other countries, has strained
the Arab League and turned its member states against one another.
Libya’s then-ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi violently quelled a popular uprising in
his country in early 2011, for example, the League suspended Libya from the
organisation and actively supported Qaddafi’s ouster by Nato and Libyan rebel
forces later that year.
Arab League members denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for enabling
terrorism in the region, and expelled Syria from the body.
League is divided over Syria’s membership. Several Sunni Arab states are
strongly opposed, arguing that Assad has allowed Iran to expand its influence
in the region and empower Shia militias, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, that
pose a direct threat to their regimes. The Iraqi and Tunisian governments,
however, have publicly called for Syria to be re-admitted.
the rise of political Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring – including the
popular election of Islamists in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia – has
reinforced regional divisions.
the Islamist surge, the authorities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE
launched an unrelenting and coordinated effort to stem the rising influence of
groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in the region.
dramatic example of this was the Egyptian military’s forcible overthrow in 2013
of Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member who was the country’s first
democratically elected president.
countries were divided over Morsi’s ouster, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE
supporting the move and Qatar staunchly opposing it.
issues have not only fractured the Arab League, but also have split the
economically focused GCC.
notably, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and non-GCC member Egypt have imposed
a political and economic blockade on Qatar since 2017, claiming that the latter
supports terrorism in the region and allows its capital, Doha, to serve as a
safe haven for exiled Islamists. Qatar’s close ties with Turkey and Iran are
also a source of regional tension.
collapse of traditional multilateralism in the Middle East has coincided with a
marked shift in America’s approach to the region under President Donald Trump.
His predecessor, Barack Obama, strongly favored multilateralism and
coalition-building, which enabled the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the earlier
NATO-led military intervention in Libya.
contrast, proudly proclaims his disdain for multilateral institutions and
prefers to deal with like-minded partners (as well as adversaries) on a
bilateral basis. Furthermore, his staunch opposition to Iran has led him to
align the US fully with the anti-Iran bloc in the region.
administration’s approach makes it all the more likely that Arab governments
will continue cooperating with specific regional allies on key issues rather
than trying to reach a broader consensus within the Arab League and the GCC.
prospects for Arab unity, already slim, will fade even further.
Headline: Is Arab unity dead?
Source: Free Malaysia Today