In a prescient recent essay in the Financial Times, David Gardner lamented the culture of overreach in the Middle East, topped by what he concluded was “the crippling absence of mainstream and moderate Sunni leadership in the Arab world”.
Gardner tabled four devastating but specific grievances that deserved analysis.
First, he advanced that Saudi Arabia cannot possibly lead Arabs as long as the Al Saud-Al Shaikh duopoly “propagate their Wahabi interpretation of Islam”, which he mistakenly equates with ideologies espoused by terrorists within Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and Al Qaida. Second, the affable commentator affirmed that Iran cannot press ahead with its contemplated “land bridge” across Shiite-majority Iraq and through Syria all the way to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Third, he opined that Israel itched “to annex occupied Palestinian land, [and] has made clear it will not tolerate Iran and allies such as Hezbollah” to establish a permanent presence in Syria. Finally, Gardner foresaw the Kurdistan Regional Government efforts to hold “a referendum intended to move from home rule in north Iraq to outright independence” as little more than provocation.
Few will disagree that the Middle East is confronted by numerous challenges and that a century-long train of devastating developments — ranging the gamut from expert but sly British manipulations of the Arab Revolt during World War One to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that was based on impeccable lies—transformed Arab societies.
Happily, and despite the inevitable turmoil unleashed by the uprisings that started in Sidi Bu Zid on December 17, 2010 — when Mohammad Bu Azizi set himself on fire — entire nations are now on the move. Of course, and with the exception of smart political initiatives painstakingly adopted in Tunisia, Arab societies confronted numerous hazards and were not out of the woods. Still, it would be myopic to conclude that the uprisings failed so soon after they were launched, even if our instantaneous news-cycle era seldom allows for thoughtfulness. And while it is accurate to opine that large socio-political earthquakes literally destroyed Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, among others, few remember how painful and destructive the French, British, Russian and American revolutions were. Even fewer recall the utter mayhem in China and the horrendous genocides that made the 20th century the worst in human history.
It’s time to take a breath of fresh air and stop pretending that Daesh and its terrorist redeemers or its self-declared ‘caliph’ — who may or may not be dead — will prevail. These confused souls can only manage to exploit pessimists for a few years, but will hardly obliterate Arab Sunnis, whose billion-and-a-half-strong demographic presence will forge its global destiny.
Likewise, and for all the huffing and puffing emanating out of Iran, the Shiite vision to carve the Arab world or conquer Makkah and Madinah are brilliant theoretical failures. Of course, Tehran will successfully position itself to take advantage of opportunities that may arise, including alliances with the United States, Russia and Israel in such spots as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, but these will remain pyrrhic victories that the sands of Arabia will blow away. One should not even be distracted by periodic Israeli air force bombings in Syria of Iranian arms convoys intended for Hezbollah, as these pin-prick attacks are masterful pieces of theatre. Israel may not wish to see the arsenal of Iranian missiles in the hands of Hezbollah grow, but is relatively at ease with what is already available and, even more important, extremely pleased with the continuation of the wars in Syria and elsewhere as it keeps everyone busy with peripheral concerns.
All of this might be perceived as an overreach, but it is oh so convenient that strategists involved in their designs are probably generously rewarded.
Gardner’s focus on overreach skirts the real challenges that face Arab societies. Regrettably, most governments have failed to quickly adopt modernising governance mechanisms, which led to dysfunctional entities — from military dictatorships to utopian/socialist regimes. Only the monarchies fared relatively well on account of responsible tribal rule, small populations and the wealth generated by oil after the mid-1970s. Clearly, the absence of adaptable governance systems led autocracies to manufacture extremism, whose consequences are evident all around us though, it is vital to reiterate that we should not be mesmerised by violent actions because these are of the ephemeral nature and will eventually subside.
Truth be told, there is no “Saudi-led Sunni front against Shiite Iran”, but a Saudi-led opposition to Persian hegemony. Moreover, there is no overreach, but an Arab realisation that the time is long overdue to change, diversify stagnant economies, and encourage socio-cultural transformations.
Dr Kechichian is the author of The Attempt to Uproot Sunni Arab Influence: A Geo-Strategic Analysis of the Western, Israeli and Iranian Quest for Domination (Sussex: 2017).