The Arab political order is a term that has been used for decades to describe an unofficial political system by which the region’s ‘big picture’ affairs are managed. Such affairs include the long-term strategic alliances with western powers, for example, but also includes the Middle East peace process and the pan-Arab security order.
For decades, this political order is centred around the region’s big players such as the Gulf, historically represented by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Algeria. For some time in the 1908s, Morocco and Kuwait were part of that group.
To understand the importance of the order, one could look back at the efforts to end the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). The Arab mediation was spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Syria and Kuwait. Eventually, Saudi Arabia hosted the Tayef Conference which brought together Lebanon’s warring factions and ended in the 1990 agreement on a new power-sharing deal to end the war in that country.
Also, the Arab political order, historically, moved in sync over the Palestinian issue. All Arab initiatives to reach peace in the Middle East were usually agreed upon by all the key Arab states, including the landmark 2002 initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah at the Arab summit in Beirut.
Liberation of Kuwait
Another example is the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990. It was the decision of the kingdom, Egypt and Syria to rally an international coalition, led by the United States, that made the liberation of Kuwait possible and swift.
The trouble with the Arab political order is that it is somewhat cyclical. Its impact depends on the strength of its main pillars. For instance, the order has been at its lowest point due to the so-called Arab Spring, which saw the spread of popular protests in several Arab countries including Egypt, Syria and Algeria.
Thus, the burden of the Arab national security fell on other players, mostly Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE became a crucial player that worked in partnership with the kingdom to preserve the region’s stability and protect its interests in the face of unprecedented onslaught from outside powers, especially Iran and Turkey.
Those two countries seemingly smelt blood; they saw a crack in the Arab wall because of the Arab Spring (and the ensuing civil war in Syria, an important part of the Arab order) and the US invasion of Iraq earlier (another important part of the order) and tried to expand their influence in the Arab world through their proxy groups and militias.
Saudi Arabia, not only the centre of the Arab world, but also of the Islamic world due to its religious and geopolitical importance, has had to shoulder that burden, with the help of other Gulf states, mainly the UAE, for the past 10 years. The war in Yemen was part of that effort, so is its continuing engagement with Lebanon’s main parties, aimed at fending off the Iranian influence in that country via Hezbollah.
Few days ago, another Saudi move captured the attention of those interested in the region’s affairs — a video call between King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi. The call “stressed the importance of expanding and strengthening cooperation in political, security, trade, investment and tourism, to complement efforts from recent visits by officials between the two countries,” a joint statement said.
Most importantly, the King invited Al Kadhimi to visit the Kingdom in the near future to meet with Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman to discuss ways to strengthen relations. The Iraqi premier accepted the invitation, said the statement.
Iraq has, since the US invasion 18 years ago, been under a firm grip of Iran, which enjoys the support and loyalty of many leading parties in the Arab country. Terrorism also has had its share in prolonging the Iraqi crisis.
Al Kadhimi’s game plan
For many, today’s Iraq is merely a ghost of the once regional power that was a crucial player in the Arab political order. And for the past few years, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states have been trying to change that. Their efforts, however, were frustrated by the subsequent Iraqi governments that continued to circle in Iran’s orbit. Al Kadhimi, who came to power in May last year seems to think, and more recently act, differently.
Born in Baghdad in 1967, Al Kadhimi, who holds a law degree, came to the premier office following the resignation of Haidar Al Abadi amid widespread protests in 2019. He was for years responsible for Iraq’s national security and intelligence departments. He also holds a UK citizenship where he lived for long years after leaving Iraq in 1985 because of his opposition to Saddam Hussain’s rule.
In 2017, while accompanying Al Abdai on a visit to Saudi Arabia, he was seen embracing Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The photo made headlines in Iraq at the time. Iran and its allied parties in Iraq opposed his appointment.
One of Iran’s proxy armed militias, Kata’ib Hezbollah, issued a statement in April 2020 in which it accused Al Kadhimi of collaborating with the US in the killing of its leader Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis and Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in the drone attack in January last year. In June 2020, militiamen belonging to the group in pickup trucks surrounded Al Kadhimi’s residence after he moved to arrest some of its members suspected of killing protesters, during the 2019 anticorruption demonstrations.
While Iran attempts to bolster its influence in Iraq, “Al Kadhimi is not playing ball,” said the weekly magazine the Economist last week. Unlike most of his predecessors, he has taken bold steps to end Tehran’s control — he has enforced American sanctions, preventing Iran from repatriating the billions of dollars it earns from exports to Iraq.
He has also annoyed the militias by restoring state control at some border crossings and removing their men from security posts. He asked Nato to send thousands of troops to strengthen the country’s security.
It is clear that the man seeks to bring Iraq back into the Arab fold. And he realises that Saudi Arabia is the natural gate to the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, which has been shouldering the burden of reorganising and reviving the Arab political order to ensure regional stability, has taken it upon itself to bring Iraq back to its natural place.
These efforts may seem in reality as another bilateral relation move between two Arab countries, but it means a lot more for the region. It is the beginning of a rehabilitation of the Arab political order that has been on the decline for at least 10 years.