International

The Arab World – an Arab perspective

The following is the text of a lecture delivered at the Academic Staff College, Jamia Millia Islamia on 22 Feb. 2013
The Arab region is called the “Middle East” these days though it is an incorrect term. “Middle East” and “Levant”/”Near East” are colonial terms coined by the Europeans. The British coined the term “Middle East” around 1850. Since “Middle East” does not cover the whole Arab region, they now add North Africa to it - so it becomes Middle East & North Africa - MENA for short, a term preferred by the American administration in a conscious effort to avoid using the word “Arab”. Here in India we use the term “West Asia” which, too, is inaccurate and can at best include Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and the Asian part of Turkey. The Arabs themselves call their region “Al-Watan Al-’Arabi” (The Arab Homeland) or “Al-’Alam al-’Arabi” (The Arab World).  It is a coherent region united by language, religion, culture, history and heritage.
 
The British coined the term “Middle East” around 1850. Since “Middle East” does not cover the whole Arab region, they now add North Africa to it - so it becomes Middle East & North Africa – a term preferred by the American administration in a conscious effort to avoid using the word “Arab”...  The Arabs themselves call their region “Al-Watan Al-’Arabi” (The Arab Homeland) or “Al-’Alam al-’Arabi” (The Arab World).  It is a coherent region united by language, religion, culture, history and heritage.
The British coined the term “Middle East” around 1850. Since “Middle East” does not cover the whole Arab region, they now add North Africa to it - so it becomes Middle East & North Africa – a term preferred by the American administration in a conscious effort to avoid using the word “Arab”...  The Arabs themselves call their region “Al-Watan Al-’Arabi” (The Arab Homeland) or “Al-’Alam al-’Arabi” (The Arab World).  It is a coherent region united by language, religion, culture, history and heritage.

The Arab countries occupy 14,291,469 km2 which is around 10.2% of the world’s land mass. Out of this, 72.45% is located in Africa and 27.55% is located in Asia. The distance from east to west of the Arab World is 6000 kms and 4000 kms, from north to south.

The Arab world today has a population of 338 million. Despite all the wealth and resources, 30% of them are illiterate. There are around 18 million Arabs living in the diasporas (mahajir). The majority population is Muslim following Sunni Islam with sizeable Christian minorities in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Jews are found in Yemen. Earlier, there were flourishing Jewish communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria but most of them left for Israel after its emergence in 1948.

This region comprises of two distinct parts, eastern and western, which are referred to as “Al-Sharq Al-’Arabi” (The Arab East) and “Al-Maghrib Al-’Arabi” (The Arab West).  Broadly, the Asian part of the Arab World is the Arab East while the African part is the Arab West although Egyptians commonly visualise themselves as part of the Eastern flank.

Beside the Arab hinterland countries, the Arab League embraces Somalia and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean. There are other countries which too speak Arabic but have not been invited to join the Arab League like Eritrea, Niger, Chad, Mali and Senegal.

The Arab World consists of four distinct regions which are as follows:

a. The Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

b. Fertile Crescent: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.

c. North Africa: Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania.

d. East Africa: Somalia, Djibouti and Comoro Islands.


The Arab League
The Arab World has its own UN-like organisation called the “League of Arab Countries”. It was established in 1945 with a view to further Arab unity. Today, it consists of 23 countries including Palestine which was allowed full membership of the Arab League during the League’s Rabat Summit Meeting in 1974 when PLO was recognized as the “sole representative” of the Palestinian people and PLO offices were accorded the status of full-fledged embassies. Outside the Arab World, India was the first country to recognise the PLO in 1975 and accorded it the status of a full-fledged embassy in March 1980.

After the unprecedented oil price hike as a result of the short-lived oil embargo in 1973 against countries supporting the Israeli aggression, unprecedented wealth came to the oil and gas-producing Arab countries. This wealth was squandered on building world’s biggest mosques, biggest towers and on thousands of unproductive show-pieces which run thanks to millions of imported cheap labourers from neighbouring countries. The total Arab GDP in 1999 was US$ 531.2 billion. The total Arab exports were US$ 1066 billion in 2008 while the total imports were only US$ 653 billion.

The Arab countries possess enormous human, material and natural resources. But there is no strong economic cooperation between them despite umpteen agreements and covenants. Railway lines do not connect one Arab country with another. There is no common electrical grid. There is no agricultural cooperation although the fertile lands of only one country, Sudan, are sufficient to feed all the Arabs and more. A programme for common arms production with Egypt and Saudi Arabia as main partners could not take off. There is a customs union between the Arab countries although it exists on paper as still there are no agreed customs rules.

Apart from the petrochemical industry, which is totally established and manned by foreigners, there is no serious industry in the Arab countries.  There is no Arab university in the world’s top 500 universities, although there are a number of Israeli universities and research institutes in that list.

Almost the whole Arab World, from east to west, was part of the powerful Ottoman Caliphate for over four centuries (since 1570 CE). This is why the Arab countries, though very close to Europe, could be colonised only towards the second half of the nineteenth century when the Ottoman State became weak and unable to defend its far-flung frontiers. France occupied Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881 and turned Morocco into a protectorate in March 1912. The British occupied Egypt and Sudan in 1882. Italy occupied Libya in 1912. From 1763 until 1971, the British Empire maintained varying degrees of political control over some of the Persian Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates (originally called the “Trucial Coast States”) and at various times Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar through the British Residency of the Persian Gulf (earlier through the British administration in Bombay). Aden (or South Yemen) was occupied in 1839. Other Arab countries like Palestine, Syria, including what it now Lebanon, and Iraq could be colonised only in 1918 after the Turkish defeat in the First World War, largely as a result of the Arab treachery known as the “Arab Revolt” led by Lawrence (of Arabia), a British officer.

The Arabs remained under the colonial yoke for a relatively short period compared to other African and Asian countries. Egypt became independent in 1922 and Iraq in 1932. Lebanon was carved out of Syria by the French as a Christian state and given freedom in 1943. Syria and Jordan because independent in 1946, Libya in 1951, Morocco and Tunisia in 1956, Kuwait in 1961, Algeria in 1962, and UAE in 1971. Saudi Arabia emerged as a “Kingdom” in 1932 after occupying Hijaz while it existed earlier as the Sultanate of Najd & Its Dependencies which included Al-Ahsa (the present Eastern Region of Saudi Arabia) since early twentieth century. Hejaz and Najd were never occupied. Yemen ceded from the Ottomon State in 1918. Aden, or South Yemen, became independent in 1967 and later united with the Arab Republic of Yemen in 1990. Oman had been independent since the eighteenth century but was occupied briefly by the Iranians (967-1154) and the Portuguese (1507-1650).

There are parts of the Arab World which are still occupied like Palestine (occupied in 1948-49 and 1967), Syrian Golan Heights (occupied in 1967), and a small tract of Lebanon known as “Sheb’a Farms” occupied by Israel in 1982. Iskandarun and parts of north Syria, which were ceded by France to Turkey in 1937. In the west, Spain continues to occupy parts of Morocco, viz., Canary Islands, Sabta (Ceuta) Malila (Melilla) and Al-Hosaima (Al Hoceima). In the east, Iran occupies the small islands of Abu Musa, Tunb Al-Kubra and Tunb Al-Sughra in the Persian Gulf since 1971 immediately after the British withdrawal. These islands are claimed by UAE. The most serious of these was the emergence of Israel which stunted the Arab march to progress and continues to suck resources and energies ever since.


Arab Nationalism and Arab Unity
The formation of the Arab League in 1945 was an affirmation by the Arab leaders that they want to achieve a kind of unity. Unity was and remains a popular demand but it remained a mere slogan as the Arab leaders never wanted to dilute their absolute and sovereign powers.

The agreed Covenant of the League was such that to take any action, consensus is required. Thus, Arab unity remains a charade to this day because there is no consensus on almost anything. The Unified Arab Military Command and the Arab Supreme Court, unified Arab currency etc. never saw the light of the day.

A unilateral pact of unity was signed between Egypt and Syria in 1958 but it soon fell apart in 1961. Likewise, a union of sorts between Egypt and Yemen did not survive long -- 1962-1967 to be exact. For years, Libya’s Col. Mu’ammar Gaddafi tried in vain to convince Egypt, Tunisia etc. to unite with his country.

Russia was able to penetrate the Arab world since the Czech arms delivery to Egypt in September 1955, exploiting the Western embargo of arms imposed on the Arabs in a bid to ensure Israeli military superiority. Slowly Russia emerged as the ally and protector of Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. But the West, especially the U.S., regained its previous position after the Arab defeat in June 1967.

Bilateral problems
By early 1960s, the Arab World was roughly divided into “reactionary” and “progressive” blocs led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt respectively. This mostly ended after 1967 as a result of the strong Saudi support to Egypt and Syria vis-à-vis the Israeli aggression and occupation of Arab lands. The post-1967 period witnessed a gradual slump in Arab solidarity, e.g., Jordan’s attack on the Palestinian freedom fighters in what is known as “Black September” (1970), Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, dispute over the Western Sahara between Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco, and the dispute between Sudan and Egypt over borders.

Recognition of Israel
The Israeli “pre-emptive” aggression in June 1967, during which it occupied lands of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in addition to the remaining 22 percent of Palestine known as “West Bank” (of the River Jordan) and Gaza Strip. This new situation paved the way for the eventual Arab recognition of Israel. Historical Palestine, 78 percent of which was occupied by Jews during 1948-49, was now forgotten and the issue since is limited to the demand the withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967. But Israel, with American and western blind support, has continued to reject umpteen Arab and other peace proposals. 

The idea of a single Arab Nation and Arab Unity effectively died after the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat concluded a unilateral peace with Israel. It was signed at Camp David in the US on 17 Sept., 1978. Egypt was temporarily suspended from the Arab League and the League’s headquarter was moved from Cairo to Tunis in 1979 where it remained until 1989, when all was forgiven, Egypt was welcomed back into the Arab fold without changing its policies and the Arab League moved back to its headquarters overlooking the now famous Tahrir Square. In protest against his pro-Israeli policies, President Sadat was killed by his own soldiers on 6 October 1981.

Narrow country-based nationalisms, like the Egyptian nationalism, prospered during this period side by side with Arab nationalism which was championed by Iraq’s Saddam Husain and Libya’s Mu’ammar Gaddafi.

During this period of schism and uncertainty, a regional Arab bloc called "Gulf Cooperation Council" was founded in 1981. It includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, which shared tribal and political affinity. Interestingly, their immediate neighbour, Yemen, was not invited to join GCC while Jordan and Morocco were invited though both chose not to join this new regional bloc.

With the Egyptian unilateral peace with Israel, the Arab commitment to Palestine was weakened. The consensus till then was that no Arab country will recognize Israel until the Palestinian issue was solved and this put pressure on Israel and its western backers. Soon, in 1994, Jordan too made peace with Israel while some other countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Qatar and UAE started a kind of backdoor relationship with Israel. Post-"Arab Spring," both Egypt and Tunisia have toned down ties with Israel to the bare minimum. Isreal's future, as a militarist Western checkpost in an Arab and Muslim ocean, is once again in doubt. Commentators in the West are now openly saying that Israel may not survive beyond 2025.

The PLO was already marginalized since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and dispersal of PLO forces to a number of countries away from Lebanon and Jordan. The new situation after the Egyptian and Jordanian peace with Israel forced the PLO under Yasir Arafat to start secret negotiations withAs a result, the Palestinian Authority was established in West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1993 with an Israeli commitment to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state within five years. Contentious issues like borders, status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and exploitation of resources within the proposed Palestinian state like water, were to be decided by negotiations during this period.  Israel which led to the conclusion of the Oslo Accords in 1992. 

These negotiations, euphemistically called "Peace Process," continue even today without any hope whatsoever of a settlement acceptable to the Palestinians in the near or distant future while Israel continues chipping away at Palestinian lands in West Bank and continues building totally illegal Jewish settlement on them. It continues changing the demography of Jerusalem, confiscating Arab land there on a regular basis and has already expelled around 30 percent of Jerusalem's Arab population.

Back in 1980, the Israeli parliament, Knesset, had passed a law proclaiming that Jerusalem is the "eternal capital" of Israel. An apt commentary at the time in Crescent International of Toronto (Canada) described it as an "eternal capital" for a temporary state.


"Arab Spring"
Dictatorships ruled all Arab countries without exception backed by a huge security and secret police apparatus. The stifling police state was omnipresent everywhere in the Arab World. There was no difference between monarchies and republican regimes in suppression of civil and political rights. Arab governments seriously cooperated only in one field: security. The annual conferences of the Arab interior ministers have been punctual and security has been the only field where Arab regimes seriously cooperated with each other. The Freedom Index of 2010 shows Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority as "Hybrid Regimes", while all other Arab regimes have been classified as "dictatorships". Freedom House's survey of 2011 described Comoro Islands and Mauritania as "electoral democracies", Lebanon and Kuwait as "partially free" and all others as "not free". This is slowly changing after the Arab Spring.

Israel and West's rejection of the Hamas victory in the elections of January 2006, blockade of Gaza Strip since June 2007, the 22-day Israeli War on defenceless Gaza Strip during 27 December 2008-18 January 2009, coupled with total Arab silence, rather collaboration with Israel, added to the popular anger and unrest in all the Arab countries. The Arab rulers were utterly out of sync with their masses. Earlier the American attack on Iraq in March 2003 had exposed the Arab rulers' collaboration and complicity with the American and western powers. The stagnating economic conditions were directly caused by systematic loot of resources by the ruling elites.

The Arab street was now ready for a popular revolution. The Tunisian uprising, which started on 18 December 2010 and led to the ousting of long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, was the starting point. Egypt followed suit on 25 January 2011, soon to be followed by Yemen, Libya and Syria. A similar movement in Bahrain has been contained for the moment as a result of GCC military intervention. Tremors have been felt in Sudan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. As a result of this popular uprising, a number of well-entrenched Presidents, each ruling for over three decades, fell like a pack of cards - viz., Zainul Abedin Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ali Abdallah Saleh of Yemen and Mu'amar Gaddafi of Libya. Incidentally, all of them were former army officers who came to power pledging a free and fair government.

The most important and meaningful gain was in Egypt where free and fair elections ushered in an Islamic government and a President from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. A new democratic constitution has been passed. President Muhammad Mursi has been able to neutralise the overbearing Army and omnipresent Mukhabarat (Intelligence) but remnants of the fallen regime and political forces rejected by the voters have united to defeat the new government. Subtle foreign help to the rejectionists is discernible. Similar attempts are being made to destablise the Islamic government in Tunisia. Chaos still prevails in Libya while Syria is facing a protracted civil war since March 2011, where the ruthless Baathist regime, with Russian and Chinese support, continues to murder its own civilians. The death toll in Syria has crossed 70,000 and there is no end in sight. Clearly the "Arab Spring" - again a foreign, rather western, term - is still in progress. But it is clear that the spark which started in Tunisia will not stop before Arab people regain their rightful freedom and democratic rights.


The author spent seven years in Egypt as a student (1966-73), worked with the Libyan foreign ministry for six years (1973-1978) and received his PhD from Manchester University in 1987. His published works include Palestine Documents (1998).

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 March 2013 on page no. 16

We hope you liked this report/article. The Milli Gazette is a free and independent readers-supported media organisation. To support it, please contribute generously. Click here or email us at sales@milligazette.com

blog comments powered by Disqus