Bahbah: 2018--A Dismal Year in Arab History
By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist
2018 has proven to be another momentous year in the tragic history of the Middle East, particularly the Arab world. Like previous years, it proved to be one where peace, progress, prosperity, and democracy have eluded the region. From the Palestine-Israel conflict to the Arab Gulf region to North Africa and Yemen, the Middle East has been plagued by the resurgence of violence and the dashed dreams of ordinary citizens for economic and physical security, let alone prosperity, and the continued absence of democracy.
The only “bright” spot, if one can call the Syrian tragedy as such, appears to have been the winding down of the civil war in Syria. The relative calm in Syria has come at an excruciating price that saw the butchering of hundreds of thousands of civilians coupled with the largest wave of refugees since the Zionist expulsion of Palestinians from historic Palestine in 1948. The stabilization in Syria coincided with the defeat, albeit with few remaining pockets of resistance, of the terrorist group ISIS. The latter had succeeded in the span of two years, from 2013 to 2015, to create the so-called Islamic State which at one point held territory stretching from the Tigris River in Iraq to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Unfortunately, today’s Syria is fragmented and weak. It is either being propped or threatened by Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah, Kurdish, Israeli, and Turkish troops along with about two thousand US troops which have been recently ordered to leave by US President Donald Trump.
On the flip side, other developments in the Middle East in 2018, have been even more painful and intolerable.
In Palestine, we are farther from a peace agreement than ever before. It appears that the status quo between Israel and Palestine will be the only “non-deal” deal for the foreseeable future. Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which was supposed to have been unveiled in 2018 has yet to see the light of day. And, if it does, it will be stillborn like previous failed attempts at brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians’ demands for a state based on pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital will not be accepted by Israel.
And, why should Israel offer the Palestinians anything? For Israel, peace has never been grounded on the universally accepted principles of justice or historic rights for Palestinians. It has always been dependent on Israel’s military might and whatever it could usurp. In the meantime, Israel has become a politically right-wing, pro-settler theocracy favoring Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens as demonstrated by the Knesset’s passing in 2018 of the “Nation-State Law.”
The United States completely abandoned the illusion or semblance of being an “honest” peace broker. In December 2017, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and, in 2018, moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. He cut off all aid to the Palestinians, including UNRWA, the UN agency which cares for some 5 million Palestinian refugees. The only US aid being offered to the Palestinians are funds provided to the Palestinian security services which, shamefully, act as the enforcers of Israel’s policies in the West Bank.
To further compound the predicament of the Palestinians, they are stuck with a so-called Palestinian Authority that has hung to power like any other despotic dictatorship in the world. Gaza, with its two million inhabitants, has been left to fend for itself under another form of Islamic dictatorship, that of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
The Gulf States
Alas, the Gulf states have been squandering their wealth much like Iraq squandered its wealth on futile wars with Iran and a homicidal and self-destructive invasion of another Arab country, Kuwait. To be fair, I am in no position to tell other countries how to spend their resources. If people of the Gulf are happy, then it is between them and their rulers. However, the unprecedented swings in the price of oil, the mainstay of the wealth of these countries, have wrought havoc on these countries’ economies. Coupled with paying for a costly and, in my view, the unnecessary war in Yemen, the Gulf countries need to re-engineer their economies to withstand large fluctuations in the price of oil. They need to wean themselves from their dependence on oil as the major source of their income. In addition, the Jamal Kashoggi affair has added to the tension in the region; especially Saudi Arabia.
As far as Qatar is concerned, the attempt of its allienation and rupture of its alliance with the Gulf states is a counter-productive episode in the recurring inter-Arab rivalries. Qatar has been blessed with a small population and unimaginable wealth along with significant regional ambitions. Family members often differ on issues and sometimes have diverging views and interests. Nevertheless, reconciliation is imperative for the overall interests of the Arab world and the challenging times that Arabs are confronting.
Truthfully, despite Saddam Hussein’s ironclad rule of the people of Iraq, that country would have been better off under a despot such as Saddam in comparison to what happened after the fall of Saddam – the death of a million Iraqis in the US-led invasion of Iraq and the utter destruction of the country. The current regime in Iraq is well-known to be more corrupt than Saddam Hussein ever was. They, too, are squandering the wealth of a country sitting on huge underground oil and gas reserves – estimated to be the second largest in the world.
The War in Yemen
Some Arab countries, especially the Gulf countries and Egypt, view Iran’s involvement in the Middle East as a threat to their stability and security. The Yemen war has led to a devastating human tragedy and a costly war in the most impoverished Arab country. For the Arab countries neighboring Yemen, Iran’s involvement is an existential threat that had to be confronted. It put them in a position of damned if you act and damned if you don’t. However, no Arab country can sit idly by while being threatened by outside powers.
Libya, after the fall of its dictator Muammar Qaddafi, is still in shambles. The country has broken apart on a tribal basis. The central government cannot muster the sufficient resources to impose its control over the country and over the tribal factions which are armed to the teeth.
Egypt seems to be stable on the surface but a democracy, it is not! The level of inefficiency in running the country is staggering. The land of great civilizations cannot utilize its human and material resources to, once again, emerge as a leader among countries.
Fortunately, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco have weathered the brunt of the instability that has engulfed the Arab world.
Looking to the Future
Much of the pain and suffering in the Arab world is woefully self-induced. As long as the Arabs don’t think of themselves as – at the very least – an Arab coalition in political, economic, and military terms, outside powers – Israel, the United States, Russia, and Iran (among others) – will do whatever they please to further their interests in a fragmented Arab world. Neither Palestine (the beating heart of the Arabs), nor Arab nationalism (which embodies the Arabs political aspirations), nor Islam (the predominant religion in the Arab world) seem to be strong enough motivators for Arab countries to set aside their differences and focus on building Arab unity with a vision of greatness and strength.
2018 has been an agonizing letdown for Arabs. But, without hope, humans cannot survive. I am forever hopeful that the future of the Arab world – enshrined with peace, progress, prosperity, and democracy – will be part of the Arab world’s future if not in 2019, at the very least, in the not too distant future,
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.