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The concept of Arab unity is not new to global politics and developmental dynamics. This concept has been around for more than a century especially after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and there are several historical events that act as proof to this effort. Some of these events include the “The Arab Revolt of 1916”, “The Arab Congresses of the 1930s”, “The League of Arab States of 1944”, and the brief unity between Syria and Egypt.
Although the idea of Arab unity has remained dormant for the last few decades, its urgency has began surfacing in the realm of modern Arab politics. The need to harness the resources of the Arab world is the main motivation behind the calls for Arab unity. Furthermore, the volatility that has characterized the politics of different parts of the Arab world has made the prospects of unity attractive. This paper catalogs some of the problems that have hindered the concept of Arab unity.
Some of these problems include Western Imperialism, contrasting forms of government, and the influence of Islam among others. Within the last five years, the Arab world has been thrown into turmoil through the phenomenon that is famously known as ‘The Arab Springs’. These struggles have been characterized by calls-for-change in regimes throughout the Arab world. Currently, countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Libya are embroiled in military struggles that resulted from the Arab Springs.
So far, the concept of Arab unity has been highlighted by the Arab-cultural renaissance that occurred in the 19th Century, the failed efforts of the early 1900s, the emergence of cruel dictatorships, conflicting political ideologies, and undeveloped democracies. This paper examines the concept of Arab unity and the main obstacles of this concept.
Currently, the Arab world is consisted of twenty-two countries that are loosely connected by a populist pan-Arab identity. Both the citizens and the leaders of the Arab world readily welcome the concept of unity along the lines of Arabic identity. The Arab nation/world traces its roots to the 20th century when several countries in the region started disentangling themselves from the shackles of colonial supremacy (Choueiri 2001). From this point onwards, the North African territory and the Middle East started disintegrating into independent states. The struggle for unity came soon after most Arab countries had achieved their independence.
Although “strong divisions existed among Arab leaders, social movements and intellectuals, concerning what unity meant and what practical form it should take, the consensus was that an Arab association of some sort was necessary for an Arab revival” (Gause 1999, p. 12). Eventually, the need for independence among countries in North Africa and the Middle East gave rise to the concept of Arab nationalism and the current regional model of the Arab world.
The unification of the Arab world was originally meant to help countries to join forces so as to get rid of the Ottomans. The struggle for unity in modern history is highlighted by various hidden agendas that were not part of the initial calls including conflicting ideologies, revolutions, and military conflicts. The element of religion is also contained within the concept of unity where Christians feel the need to exist in equal terms with their Muslim counterparts.
Today, the presence of rich resources in the Arab world has revived the call for a unity that aims to create marketing blocs. Furthermore, the looming threat of terrorism within the Arab region means that a united front has better chances of tackling this problem. Incidentally, some of the current obstacles to unity are also the impediments to the war on terror.
Obstacles of Unity
Western imperialism is cited as an obstacle to various problems within developing countries. When the Arab world came into contact with the West, the concept of nationalism became a prominent feature in this region. Consequently, the dormant concept of pan-Arab identity became more pronounced within various quarters including “Lebanese Christian Arabs, who then led their compatriots in the movement to base political and cultural life on nationality, not religion” (khalidi 1991).
The shift from religion to nationality as the basis for unity gave prominence to Western concepts such as modernism, democracy, and statehood. On the other hand, the Christians who reside within the Arab world gladly welcomed the western models because they carried the possibility of unity between all religions without the influence of colonialism. Nevertheless, the concept of unity outside religious affiliations only existed as an ideology as most stakeholders were later to learn. The unity between Christians and Muslims had the capacity to eliminate colonial influence. However, in most parts of the Arab world, Christians represented the elite members of the society.
The Christians were also at the frontline in the calls for unity and this made their agenda suspicious to the rest of the Arab world. In most parts of the Arab world, “the Arabs’ rejection of western influence (Algeria for example) was a reason for the Arab states to unite, but when those states succeeded in eliminating Western Imperialists, the division between the Arabs deepened” (Rubin 1991, p. 538). The absence of the imperialists meant that there was no longer any motivation to unite the Arab world. The pioneering champion of Arab unity, Abdel Nasser of Egypt, found it hard to come up with another unification agenda that would appeal to all stakeholders (Yaqub 2004).
The Western imperialism created a quagmire of divergent views some of which were informed by the distaste that resulted from these colonial ideologies. However, the Arab society did not have any solid and pressing agendas that could sustain the calls for unity just as colonialism had previously done.
There exists a disparity between ideology and reality as far as Arab unity is concerned. This divide has persisted for the most part of the last century beginning from the time when imperialists left the region. Most scholars agree that “the problem for the Arabs is how to explain and eliminate the problem between what is and what ought to be” (Wing 2008). The confusion that arises when making considerations between reality and ideology has acted as an obstacle to Arab nationalism for a long time.
On most occasions, the negotiators of unity have aimed for far-fetched goals that are distant from the reality on the ground. An example of the disparity between reality and ideology is the trailblazing efforts of Egyptian leader Nasser. While most of the Arab world considered Nasser a hero and champion of unity, none of his proposals was ever put into practice. The father of the Arab nation was an ideological success but a failure in reality.
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Consequently, Abdel Nasser was only a symbol of Arab pride through his military prowess and sense of economic prosperity. The ideologies of Arab unity also appeared to lose over reality when the successor to the father of Arab nation ‘sold out’ to the Western powers. Anwar Al Sadat’s strategy to form an alliance with the United States provided a more realistic option for the leader than Nasser’s dream of Arab unity (Shemesh 2008).
The fact that Egypt signed a treaty with Israel shortly after also presented a harsh reality for the Arab world. Previously, the prevailing ideology was that a united Arab nation would be able to face its prevailing challenges including the Israel-Palestinian war. Eventually, the reality on the ground led to the assassination of Anwar as he was considered an impediment to the ideology of a united Arab front.
According to Rubin (1991), the ideological institutions that fueled the concept of Arab unity also carried with them the agenda of the personality who would be at the helm of the resulting outfit. The concept of a supreme ruler for the resulting outfit created competition between two main factions. First, there were the traditionally instituted nations that mostly consisted of monarchs such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This group of countries was more likely to gravitate toward leaders who put Islam first. On the other hand, there were the Arab nations that appeared friendlier towards Western concepts and systems such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.
During this underlying struggle for ideological leadership, Nasser of Egypt continued to exercise his Arabic dominance through economical and military developments. Nevertheless, Nasser’s ideologies were not readily welcome within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) where age-old traditions and religion were the main motivators for unity (Owen 2002). It was an open secret that Nasser felt that he was the rightful leader for a united Arab nation.
The underlying ideological differences have prevailed to date where some Arab nations continue to operate under different ideological nuances. Furthermore, the stakeholders within the GCC felt that because their region had the most resources they would be the ‘natural’ leaders of the region (Ajami 1978). This argument was borrowed from the notion that leadership and wealth go hand-in-hand. All these differences in ideologies when it comes to leadership have served as a major obstacle to Arab unity.
The Six Day War of 1967 serves as a pivot point in the push for Arab unity. According to some historians, after the Six Day War, there emerged three groups of nations throughout the Arab world (Halliday 2005). The first group of nations was comprised of nations such as Sudan, Iraq, and Jordan. These countries felt that there was need to recapture the territories that were under Israel after 1947. Another group of Arab nations consisted of countries such as Kuwait, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.
These Arab-world players were mainly concerned with the protection of their important oil resources through the maintenance of cordial relationships with the Western powers. Consequently, most of these countries were interested in remaining neutral in the aftermath of the Six Day War. A third force in the aftermath of the war was made up of countries like Syria, Algeria, and Iraq. These countries were mainly concerned with the situation that the war created throughout Palestine. The aftershocks of the war also led to unrelated events such as the Baathist Coup.
The Six Day War was responsible for creating disagreements as to what was the main priority as far as the Arab world agendas were concerned. The unexpected victory of Israel also served to diminish the Arab pride that Nasser and other main personalities had created among citizens. Yasser Arafat, one of the main Arab leaders at the time of the war famously pointed out that “Palestine is the cement that holds the Arab world together, or it is the explosive that blows it apart” (Halpern 2015).
The war also created problems for Abdel Nasser, the de-facto Arab leader at the time of the Six Day War. The Egyptian president was forced to abandon his notable push for Arab unity so that he could attend to the growing political-opposition in his backyard. For instance, “the Israeli Forces were only a three-hour drive from Cairo when in 1969 a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) spokesman accused Nasser of using the Palestinian cause as an ‘instrument for tactical pressure’ against Israel” (Jabber 1973).
The Jordanian leader also felt the effects of the war when the number of refugees who had sought shelter in Jordan proved too big for his country’s security outfits. Consequently, King Hussein of Jordan had to call for air strikes against the Palestinian settlements thereby eliciting condemnation from the Arab nation. In line with the statements of President Arafat, the Six Day War served to destabilize any unity prospects of the Arab world. In addition, some of the divisions that were created during this war have remained visible up to now thereby scuttling the prospects of Arab unity.
Another obstacle to Arab unity is the tribal identities that characterize the union of people and nations within this region. Although various aspects of modernism have caught up with the Arab way-of-life, tribes have survived and they still dictate affairs in the Arab world (Khoury 2014). In some regions, leadership is reserved for a few tribes only. Countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia have strong tribal divisions that sometimes affect the affairs of other countries such as Oman and Afghanistan.
The concept of Arab unity was expected to align nationalism with the concept of pan-Arab states. Eventually, most countries within the Arab world were pursuing national goals with the view of standing out from their neighbors. The war between Iraq and Kuwait was a direct consequence of the intertribal and inter-nation competition. The result of the war was that “after the Kuwait conflict Saddam turned to the enduring reservoir of tribal values, thereby elevating tribalism to the very forefront of Iraq’s political arena” (Lockman 2009). Internal disputes and inter-Arab conflicts became commonplace in the Arab world culminating in assassinations, sabotage, kidnappings, and military interventions. For example, the King of Saudi Arabia was part of a 1958 conspiracy that conspired to assassinate the Egyptian President Abdel Nasser.
Incidentally, Egypt was busy conspiring against Jordan at the same time. Other examples of inter-Arab conflicts include the Syria invasion of Jordan in 1970 and the coalition between Iraq and Jordan against Syria’s government. Nevertheless, the culmination of mistrust among Arab nations was the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1977. Soon after, the Camp David Accords were started with the view of stabilizing the Middle East at the expense of Arab unity (Dawisha 2003). This move served as a major obstacle to Arab unity whereby Egypt was banned from the Arab League of Nations.
The changing face of Islam is also an obstacle to the concept of Arab unity. The rising oil prices brought unprecedented comforts among the Muslim population and this weakened their hold on religion. On the other hand, technology ventured into the Arab world and made people scared of the return of Western influence (Milton-Edwards 2006). Consequently, people sought refuge in Islam and this gave rise to religion-based radicalization.
On the other hand, the radical elements waged a war against progressive change within the Arab world. Over time, various radicalized religious organizations have changed the face of the Arab world and destabilized the entire region in the process. This religion factor created “sectarian division that managed to be a major obstacle to unity” (Mellon 2002). For example, the Shiites are often discredited by Sunnis in their attempts to use Arab unity as a ploy for domination of the Arab world.
In any set of circumstances, unity is only made possible by the commonality of the participants who seek to unite. Consequently, Arab unity can only be possible through a wide consideration of its obstacles. The calls for unity originated from the need to rid the region off foreign influence and create an environment of pan-Arab nationalism. After Western imperialism was eliminated within the Arab world, the motivation to unite turned to the drive for division. Soon after, internal conflicts and religious radicalization diminished the calls for unity even further. Eventually, the outside political and economical influences have made the vision for Arab unity a complex one.
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