Arab countries suffer from education systems weakened and burdened by rapid population growth, dwindling natural resources, especially in densely populated countries, and continuous failures in developing political institutions capable of representing the aspirations of youth anxious for results, while realistically and responsibly interacting with their environments.
All these serious problems prohibit the development of proper political strategies. Furthermore, there are both urgent and long-term dangers surrounding the Arab world in addition to the Israeli threat at its heart.
The conflict with Israel is now in its seventh decade and yet I believe that the Arabs — as well as the Israelis — are no closer to any realistic vision for any form of co-existence. From the days of the first PLO chief Ahmad Shukeiri to the current chief Mahmoud Abbas, through the “historic” era of Yasser Arafat, there has been obvious and deep distrust on both sides.
This makes any talk of peace useless, since the Israelis talk peace while continuing their settlement and military plans, thus pushing the Palestinians to oppose it; and even when Palestinians show a willingness to discuss peace, some Arabs and non-Arabs hijack their cause and accuse them of selling out.
The quality of leaders in the world’s major capitals is far below what is required to cope with the serious challenges threatening the Middle East.
Eyad Abu Shakra
On the other hand, when the Palestinians make an offer of peace and co-existence, there are, on the Israeli side, those who not only murder the “peacemakers” — as Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s killer, did — but also try every trick in the book to blackmail and ruin the credibility of moderate Palestinians and Arabs, as we have seen time and time again.
When one looks at the map of what is left of Arab Palestine today, Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinian children, and its demonizing of an entire people, one discovers the political ideas that sustain this tragic situation. Then the more one hears about a “Two-State Solution,” the clearer it becomes that it is a non-starter. This is the case not only because successive Likud governments have incessantly strived to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, but also because no Israeli political party has any chance of being elected if it commits itself to genuine peace and agrees to discuss the issue of Jerusalem as a part of the promised final agreement.
Apart from the challenge posed by Israel, and the Arab — including Palestinian — failures in dealing with it, there is another de facto “occupation” in southern Syria and southern Lebanon to the north of Israeli borders: The Iranian one. Some prefer to “diplomatically” describe it as an “Iranian armed presence.” But it is now more ingrained, and stronger, than the Israeli one. And it may prove to last longer, since it enjoys the acceptance of supportive sectarian environments, which are benefiting from it even in other parts of the Arab world.
I am talking specifically of four Arab countries: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. It is obvious that Iran already wields huge influence, and this may soon be legitimized through the upcoming elections in Iraq and Lebanon. Unfortunately, this weird situation does not seem to bother major world powers. In fact, it appears they approve.
The contradictory messages received by the Tehran regime since reopening negotiations with Washington, which led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA — the nuclear agreement), have made it more hawkish, expansionist and dismissive of its neighbors. Even today, despite the apparent change of Washington’s approach, European powers — including Russia, obviously — seem to be firmly on Iran’s side. Such positions hardly encourage moderation, whether in Arab countries or in the wider Muslim world.
Then there is Turkey. Here the “Neo-Ottoman” Ankara leadership is quite different from either Ataturk’s or NATO’s.
Like Iran, Turkey is receiving ambiguous messages from world powers, especially from the US, its major NATO ally. As a result, the Turkish leadership has been getting its priorities and alternatives mixed up, mainly due to the following reasons:
• The EU’s refusal to approve Turkey’s membership application.
• America’s apparent disregard of Ankara’s Kurdish fears.
• Russia’s opposition to Ankara playing an effective role in its former “Ottoman” and “Turkic” domains, extending from the Arab Middle East to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
It is to be expected that European powers would never welcome a populous Muslim country linked to “Islamic/Islamist” tentacles deep inside the continent. Washington, in turn, seems unconcerned by Ankara’s worries that an independent — or at least autonomous — Kurdish entity could soon become a time bomb that could ruin the Turkish state.
On the other hand, Washington’s continual gamble that the Kurds can play a role in northern Syria — despite their lost gamble in northern Iraq — has provided an interesting common cause for Ankara and Tehran; simply because any American support for the notion of a “Greater Kurdistan” would surely irritate the two capitals, since Tehran too has its own old Kurdish fears.
The new Turkish-Iranian “common denominators” are currently being opportunistically sponsored by Russia, at the expense of the Arab populations of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. However, what is new, is the political Iranian-Turkish expansion in the southern part of the Red Sea and Yemen. The Houthi takeover in northern Yemen has created a dangerous situation that should have alerted the world powers to the true dimensions of Iran’s expansionist project, and now some other countries are worried that Turkey may be flexing its own muscles in former African parts of the Ottoman Empire.
To conclude, one may regard Arab confusions, Kurdish aspirations, as well as Turkish and Iranian ambitions, as natural results of the present vacuum in global leadership. The quality of leaders in the world’s major capitals is far below what is required to cope with the serious challenges threatening the Middle East, indeed, the whole world.
Do not fear. Ask us, the people of the Middle East!
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.