Arab family Emirati
Middle East remains burdened by history and religion Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/Gulf News

As soon as you enter the main Opportunity District at Expo2020, you will surely feel like you have just been teleported into the future. Is isn’t just the futuristic-looking structures that give that feeling. The innovations showcased in those pavilions and the conversations with the young men and women taking care of the different pavilions are mainly about the future.

The Expo2020 coverage has dominated the media scene in the UAE since its opening on October 1. And for a good reason. When you add the unescapable news reports of the United Nations’ climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland which started on few days ago, I for one felt somehow relieved. Humanity has finally shifted its attention to the present’s most important question — the question of the future.

A few years ago, the leading American Scientific magazine asked leading scientists about ‘the Big Questions about the Future of Humanity’. They listed 20 — such as does humanity have a future beyond Earth; will the entire world one day have adequate health care; what is the chance humans will survive for the next 500 years; can we feed the planet without destroying it, in addition to the more complex issues of genetic engineering, space exploration and robotics vs humans.

In most of the Arab world, these questions don’t seem too relevant. We are still shackled by the past, by our collective history, which continues to define our present. (The UAE and few other Arab countries have been trying for years to move beyond those shackles to embrace the future and contribute to the world’s pursuit of viable solutions to the humanity’s future challenges.)

But in the wider Arab world, politics that are still defined by the past continue to be the main interest, henceforth, conflicts, wars and domestic trouble are the dominant characteristics. I asked myself why, as I strolled in the futuristic — looking pathways of Expo2020 few days ago.

Middle East politics are uniquely complex for both historic and contemporary reasons. As the cradle of heavenly religions, the region has for thousands of years been the target of conquerors, invaders and kings who attempted, some successfully and many others tragically failed, to take control parts of this barren land in the name of their Gods.

From the days of the Crusaders to the Ottomans and in later periods the British and French mandates, this unbearable historic burden overwhelmed the Middle East with unending conflicts. In recent decades, that burden has been weighed by the discovery of oil, which added one more reason, and costly one at that, for world powers to impose their influence on the people of the Middle East.

One can trace the more dynamic politics of the Middle East to the birth of Islam, in 670AD. With the message of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) established and developed in a short period of time a state that continues to influence regional politics more than 1,400 years after the Prophet’s (PBUH) death. This state evolved into successive kingdoms and empires under the Caliphs and Sultans, who inherited vast lands conquered in the name of Islam during a period of 50 years after its birth.

With the establishment of the Ottoman State 800 years ago, the Middle East became irrelevant for hundreds of years as the centre of power moved accordingly to Istanbul. The major urban centres of the Middle East, such as Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo among others — once the centres of learning and beacons of progress — sank into oblivion until the defeat of the Ottomans in the Great War of 1914-1918.

The victors, mainly Britain and France, considered those major regions as spoils of war. Ignoring the demands of the Arab people to be reunited, they decided to divide the region among them, in the process creating a number of frail states ruled by foreign powers. Not long after, national movements managed to secure some sort of independence.

However, a new breed of rulers emerged as the British and French left — the military rulers. That era began with the first coup d’état in Syria in 1949, when an officer named Hosni Al Zaim overthrew the elected government to establish the first military-led regime in the Arab world. It was the opening act of a long trail of military coups that followed in his footsteps for decades by other strong men of the military in other Arab states, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1952, Abdel Kareem Qassim in Iraq in 1958, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya in 1969. Sudan, Yemen, Algeria followed suit.

As those ancient rulers who conquered the region in the name of God, the new rulers, the soldiers, conquered their respective countries in the name of Palestine.

The Palestinian question is another reason for the uniqueness and complexity of the politics in this region. The establishment of Israel in 1948 shook the political and social foundation of Middle East. The sudden emergence of a totally ‘alien’ state in the heart of the region, in a particularly sensitive area revered by all religions, rattled the political and military establishment in the region.

They were not prepared to react rationally to the challenge amid an overwhelming public rage. The viability of any Arab government, and the popularity of the leaders, depended on how passionate and active they are towards the Arab ‘central’ cause, Palestine.

And for the past 70 years, Palestine has defined the Middle East politics. It has become the differentiating factor between the patriots and the traitors. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 mainly because of the Camp David agreement with Israel, signed in 1979.

Today, Palestine has become a second or perhaps even a third-tier issue as most states are occupied with a more urgent question, the question of the future. As the so-called Arab Spring showed, the new generation of Arabs are more concerned with employment, services and of course the freedoms lacked in many Middle East societies. Some governments in the region today use their political and economic resources to offer solutions to those burning questions.

Nevertheless, the Middle East will remain burdened by history, religion and Palestine even as it attempts to move ahead in an increasingly globalised world. Not sure for how long. But eventually we have to start focusing on those questions of the future.