Even before former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain committed his cardinal sin, invading, occupying and attempting to wipe Kuwait off the map, 26 years ago this month, Arabs have been the ‘sick man of the Middle East’ — even though Arabs constitute the largest, the most populous and richest components of all the regional players, including Iran, Israel and Turkey.
Nevertheless, Arabs have failed to stand up and be counted. The other non-Arab players in the Middle East, and beyond, have been calling the shots and exacting a major toll on Arabs’ interests, security and well-being for far too long. Fragmented Arab leaderships could do little to mitigate this alarming trend. The question that has been on everyone’s mind for too long is that why have Arabs been the least effective players on the global political stage? Why have Arabs, with their 22 states and combined population of close to 400 million people, been relegated to bystanders?
In the last quarter of a century, two cataclysmic events have shaken the Arab order to its core and caused a major festering of the Arab malaise. The first was the wanton and devastating invasion and occupation of Kuwait by Hussain on August 2, 1990, giving an unprecedented jolt to the regional order and shaking the Arab order to such an extent that it appeared to be snapping at the seams. The Arab split over dealings with this back-stabbing was shameful and embarrassing. How could Arabs diverge over a clear and wanton act of aggression and occupation of a large Arab country? This is all the more shocking since Kuwait has been a major player when it comes to regional reconciliation efforts, playing a mediating role in intra-Arab disputes and even pioneering the region’s financial cause through its Kuwait Funds for Arab Economic Development, which has provided grants and soft loans to three-quarters of Arab states. Later on, the scope of the fund was expanded to 105 countries across all continents to help develop their infrastructures. Many countries in the region later followed this Kuwaiti initiative.
Fragmentation of states
Twenty six years later, the concomitant consequences of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, more than two decades ago, still linger on. Iraq today, according to many Kuwaitis, still represents an existential threat. The threat is no longer from the Iraqi regime itself, but from Iraq as a failed state, gradually falling into Iran’s lap, which has been calling the shots for too long. Iraq is a classic example of a post-Arab Spring failed state. Today, we are also witnessing the fragmentation, before our eyes, of Syria, Libya and Yemen.
What is really alarming is the free fall of the Arab political and security order from within and without. The fallout from the so-called wave of the Arab Spring has shaken the Arab political order, not only in Arab republics from Tunisia to Yemen — including Egypt, Syria and Libya — but also in Arab states and societies as a whole.
The Arab republics, which have gone through the waves of Arab Spring, have seen their ranking sink even further and are faring much worse in the annual Fragile State index — an annual index published by the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine. It uses 12 indicators in social, political and economic categories.
What is even more alarming is the split within the states over sectarian and ethnic fissures, fanned by the sectarian policy of Iran and its proxies in Arab republics that have been through the Arab Spring. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, non-state actors have become more powerful today, as the central governments are decimated. Clearly, the central governments of these states are facing a major meltdown. In Iraq, the Hashid Al Shaabi — the Popular Mobilisation militias — is more powerful than the Iraqi government, which is increasingly unpopular, owing to its ineptitude, corruption and nepotism. In Syria, the regime of President Bashar Al Assad owes its very survival to Iran and its sectarian militias imported from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. In Lebanon, an ally of Iran, Hezbollah is holding the whole country to ransom, preventing the election of a president for more than two years now and has even become a regional power, whereby its military advisers and fighters are actively involved in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and training and arming terrorist cells in Kuwait. Doing Iraq’s bidding to advance Iran’s hegemonic project not only undermines the security and stability of many Arab states, but also stokes sectarian tensions. A clear case in point is the way Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is using the bitter resentment among many Sunnis as a tool to bolster its existence.
Such ominous developments are unprecedented in scope and impact and add fuel to the pent-up frustrations associated with lack of good governance, unemployment, lack of dignity in public life and inability to secure the futures of children. Today, Syria, Yemen and Libya are dismal examples of the Arab malaise. Syria is no longer a country, Yemen has been suffering at the hands of Al Houthis — Iran-backed militias — forcing the legitimate government into exile for almost two years. Libya too has ceased to exist as a state!
All these failed states are a haven for Daesh, which has been fomenting both sectarian tensions and pushing the Arab and Muslim worlds into what is being termed as a ‘clash of civilisations’, as evident from the spate of terrorist attacks over the last few months in major European capitals and in the United States.
Unfortunately, the dashed hopes, the weakening of Arab states, the competing projects coercing Arabs into a reactionary mode — rather than developing a counter-project to deter and contain these malicious projects — and burning domestic issues in different countries, have all contributed to the current Arab malaise, which will not be fading away in the near future.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is a professor of Political Science and the former chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@docshayji