It has been well over a year since the Arab Spring began sweeping through the Middle East like a stack of dominos. While some states have found a new beginning, many are still struggling to find their identity, let alone stability. Amidst the ongoing turmoil, there has been a lack of political unity and leadership amongst the Arab states. During this commotion, the region’s non-Arab states have been strengthening their claims of regional leadership, leaving the majority Arabs to become mere spectators. If and when the dust settles on the Arab Spring, will the Arabs find themselves to be pawns in a larger regional competition; one that hasn’t seen a decent Arab contender since the first Gulf War. So, the question arises; who will lead the Arab world? Turkey? Iran? America? Or will we see an Arab leader/nation spring forth?
Kings of Arabia
Since the fall of Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Arab world, with all its varying customs and cultures, has strived to forge a united voice. Once at the gates of Tours, the Arabs had ceased to be a political force for hundreds of years. Prior to the Great War, they were subjugated by the Ottoman Turks for four hundred years. However, once the “sick man of Europe” allied with the Central Powers in World War I, the Allied powers went about weakening its hold on the Middle East by forming alliances with the subjected indigenous people. The prize for some was not merely independence and self-determination (as it was for the Kurds in Northern Iraq), it was kingship over all of Arabia.
Here was one of the first modern manifestations of a greater Arabian kingdom and it was a tempting offer for Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, who became an important ally to the British. The “King of Arabia” was an ambiguous term that could have included all of the Mashriq, Maghreb, Mesopotamia and the Levant. Unfortunately for Hussein, the bride was promised to more than one suitor, which resulted in region breaking to pieces ruled by feuding tribes and families. Hussein bin Ali was ousted from his native homeland by another British ally, Abdul Aziz al Saud (who would go onto form Saudi Arabia). Hussein’s sons were given kingdoms in the Transjordan and Syria (and later Iraq) but neither of them would go onto claim the promise their father received in the deserts of Arabia.
Pioneers and Pretenders
An important step towards Arab unity and leadership came through the establishment of Israel in 1948. The Arabs states in the region voted against the United Nation’s resolution to partition Palestine and later declared war on the Jewish state’s declaration of independence. The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a powerful beacon for Arab unity on both sides. In fact, the push for Arab unity to counter Israel caused alarm amongst other non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey, particular the rhetoric of its greatest proponent, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Nasser came to power through a 1952 coup in Egypt that overthrew King Farouk. He would challenge European influence in the region by seizing and nationalizing the Suez Canal, which lead to a joint attack by British, French and Israeli forces in 1956. Nasser’s stand against the former colonial states and their outpost was well received in the Arab world. He was also a gifted orator and millions across the region would tune into his speeches calling for Arab unity, the creation of a pan Arab state, indigenous revolutions and the destruction of Israel. He was undoubtedly the most influential leader in the Arab world but his vision for a regional entity was never fulfilled. The Arab defeat in 1967 was a shock to Nasser and it broke him to the point that the Egyptian people had to beg Nasser to stay in office. Nasser recanted on his decision to step down but he would never be the same Nasser. His predecessor, Anwar Sadat accomplished a near victory against Israel in 1973 and restored some Arab pride. However, his attempts to make peace with Israel caused Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League. Years of regional isolation followed and Egypt’s leadership status has never been quite fully recovered.
The next contender came from Iraq, again through a military coup conducted by the Ba’athist party in 1963. Saddam Hussein’s rise to prominence was gradual but at its height, he commanded the largest military in the region. However, Hussein’s thirst for power lead him to invade Kuwait over an oil/territorial dispute, which put him at odds with his former allies in the Gulf as well as the United States. Two devastating wars later, Saddam was overthrown and Iraq was weakened and disjointed, becoming a proxy battleground for states and ideologies. Apart from Egypt and Iraq, the “mad dog” of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, also staked a claim to Arabian leadership but it was short-lived and flatly rejected, leaving him to contend for the kingship of Africa.
To lord over them
The United States remains the hegemonic power in the Middle East and while it has forged alliances with all but a few key states, national interests are often conflicting. The Arab Spring has allowed Turkey to take center stage as an influential regional player. Having thrown away their old secular guard, Turkey has taken the mantle of moderate Islam and forged a state model that is looked upon with awe and respect amongst their Arab neighbours. Then there is the Islamic Republic, a theocratic model that has survived decades of crippling sanctions to reinstate itself as an important player. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iran has expanded its influence across Mesopotamia and raised fears of a dominant Shiite Crescent in the Arab world.
With revolutions still raging across the Middle East, most analysts are busy trying to predict the final form and nature of the transformed states. However, as regional power is gathering at the periphery, will the new Arab world remain pawns to greater regional forces like the old Arab world? Might there be a rebirth of pan Arabism or the ascension of an Arab option for regional hegemony? A quick look of the usual suspects doesn’t help formulate any concrete conclusion.
Firstly, there is the beating heart of the region, the trend setter; Egypt. It has been over a year since Egyptians deposed President Hosni Mubarak at Tahrir Square but the struggle for her identity is still rampant. Will the military council let go of power or will the Islamists transform Egypt into a religious state resembling Iran, Turkey or something in between? Egypt still holds a special place in Arab culture and its international standing and military power makes it the most likely candidate to lead the Arab world.
While Iraq’s regional rehabilitation is helping it move on from Saddam Hussein, their candidacy for regional leadership is clouded by Iran’s growing influence inside Baghdad. However, Iraq’s progress could hold the key to resolving deep seated mistrust between Sunnis and Shiites. On the international front, Baghdad will hug the limelight when they host the world’s great powers to help resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis at the end of May (also held a conference on the Syrian crisis). If domestic stability and religious harmony can be accomplished, Iraq’s rich history and wealth of natural resources could unshackle this ancient state (from Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States) and help forge a path for itself and the region.
Fourteen hundred years ago, the Arabs of Mecca and Medina changed the Middle East; even the world. Today, Saudi Arabia, the keeper of Islam’s holy places, is one of the world’s largest oil producers and leader of the Gulf principalities. In fact, the Gulf Cooperation Council, for all its faults, is probably the closest model resembling Arab unity. Could Saudi Arabia leverage its riches, regional leadership, religious significance and advance military to lead the Sunni Arab states? Could the Saudi royal family fulfill the British promise given to its progenitor?
Then there is the wildcard, the birth place of Arab nationalism and the ancient spring of Arabic wisdom. With each passing day, Syria’s future seems to get bleaker, the healing process alone will be a challenge for its future leaders. Syria’s fate will not be confined to its borders; it has already become the center piece of the struggle between the Arabs, Turks and Iranians. And while a Greater Syria reincarnate seems dubious, its death and rebirth could tip the hand of the successor to the Arab throne.
Amidst all this contemplation, perhaps the most likely outcome is an empty throne.