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Bahbah: Today's Arab World: Divided, Conflicted, and in Disarray

posted on: Oct 7, 2020

By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist

A look at the Arab world today makes you want to scream in agony.  Even though a League of Arab States exists consisting of 22 Arab countries, it cannot be compared, by any stretch of the imagination, to the European Union (EU) countries who have fought bloody wars against one another for centuries.  The only thing that unites the Arab world at this point is the word “Arab” which refers, in my view, to the Arabic language and not to a national entity. 

Classical Arabic is understood, read, and officially spoken in all Arab countries.  Beyond that, the Arab world is divided, conflicted, and is in disarray.  The Arab world faces numerous insurmountable challenges – some of these are of their making and some they have no control over.  For the purpose of this article, I have identified 10 challenges that face today’s Arab world.  These are:

1. Unresolved Israel-Palestine Conflict

It has been 72 years since the State of Israel has been established.  With the establishment of Israel, Palestinians lost their ancestral homeland gradually and after the 1967 war, all of historic Palestine came under Israel’s control.  Israel’s establishment engendered the oldest refugee problem of modern times in the world with the dispossession and displacement of some 850,000 Palestinian refugees.  Those refugees now number over five million scattered throughout the world especially in neighboring Arab countries.  There is no hope in sight for the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem.  And, following the occupation in 1967 of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, another five million Palestinians came under Israel’s occupation. There is no prospect, at this time, that a two-state solution is feasible. 

2. The Trump Peace Plan and the Acrimony it Generated

Unveiled in January of this year and coming on the heels of exaggerated promises by the US president to broker the “deal of the century,” the peace plan was a bust.  It was as if the “peace plan” was written by right-wing Israelis headed by Benjamin Netanyahu himself.  The plan placed near-impossible conditions for the establishment of a mini and checkered Palestinian state and allowed Israel to annex some 30 percent of the West Bank including Israeli settlements.  The plan effectively allowed the Palestinians to name whatever territory they would end up governing as a “state” but one that would be devoid of internationally known principles of sovereignty such as control of land, air, borders, natural resources, and freedom of movement.

Predictably, the Palestinians rejected the plan despite the numerous pleas by Trump and his aides that the plan was a vision and open to modifications based on proposals offered by Palestinians.  Palestinians severed all ties with the Trump administration and when Netanyahu was about to annex 30 percent of the West Bank, they severed all ties with Israel including security ties.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) even refused, beginning in May 2020, to receive the taxes that Israel collects on their behalf.  Those taxes are not inconsequential to the budget of the Palestinian Authority and its proper function as they represent over 50 percent of the PA’s monthly budget.

3. Israel’s Push to Establish Ties with the Arab World

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored an Arab initiative that became known as the Arab Peace Initiative (API) whereby all Arab countries, with the exception of Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania, who already had diplomatic ties with Israel, not to establish ties with Israel until peace is established first between Israel and Palestine.  Sensing an opportunity that some Arab countries are willing to establish ties with it, Israel managed to establish ties with the UAE and Bahrain in August 2020.  The UAE conditioned establishing those ties on Netanyahu’s “shelving” of his planned annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank on July 1, 2020. 

The Emiratis reasoned that if Israel annexed those territories then the prospects for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the future would diminish considerably.  The UAE also reiterated its continued commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.  The same reasoning applied for Bahrain.  Israel viewed the establishment of ties with the UAE and Bahrain as an opening to seek the establishment of ties with other Arab countries.  At the present time, and given certain conditions, it looks like Sudan might be the next country that might establish ties with Israel.  In short, the Arab consensus reached in 2002 has begun to crumble piece by piece.

4. Division within the Gulf Cooperation Council

On June 5, 2017, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt issued statements announcing the severing of diplomatic relations with Qatar. Saudi Arabia then shut its land border with Qatar, and together with the three other countries imposed a land, sea and air embargo on its neighbor. The four countries claimed that Qatar worked to support “terrorism”, maintained intimate relations with Iran and meddled in the internal affairs of their countries.  The GCC countries accused Qatar of fostering dissent within their Gulf countries primarily by supporting political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood movement.  Even though there has been some thawing in the relations between Qatar and the other GCC countries, relations are still frozen and tense.  And, Qatar has adamantly rejected and denied those accusations.

 5. Turkish-Qatari-Palestinian Alliance

As though the Arab world does not need any more division, once Qatar left the GCC, it turned to Turkey for economic, political and military cooperation.  Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is known to be very sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.  And, when over the past few months, Fatah and Hamas decided to attempt to bury the hatchet and work on unification and the holding of elections in Palestine, they held their talks primarily in Turkey under the tutelage of Erdogan, an ardent supporter of the Islamic movement Hamas.  This marked an important shift of alliance for the Palestinian leadership of Fatah which normally aligned itself with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  Now, both Hamas and Fatah are considered in the rival axis of Turkey and Qatar and, to some extent, Iran.

When he opened the Turkish parliament’s legislative session last week, Erdogan brought up the status of the city of Jerusalem and the Palestinian people.  He stated plainly that, “Jerusalem is our city.”  Erdogan was referring to the Ottoman Empire’s rule over Jerusalem, which lasted four centuries (1517-1917), to justify his claim.  The status of Jerusalem is very important to both Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  Jordan is the current custodian of Christian and Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.  Saudi Arabia is the land that witnessed the birth of Islam and is the home to Islam’s two holiest cities – Mecca and Medina.  Saudi Arabia has a keen interest in Jerusalem because of the presence of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque in the city.  For Erdogan to claim that Jerusalem is a Turkish or an Ottoman city is almost like declaring a holy war on both Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

6. Iran’s Threat to the Gulf Countries

Ever since the advent of the Khomeini regime in Iran in 1979, relations between Iran and its neighbors particularly the Arab Gulf countries and Iraq have been acrimonious.  Iran and Iraq fought a bloody multi-year war and Iran has been a constant threat to the Arab countries of the Gulf fermenting descent within those countries, claiming Bahrain as its own territory and occupying three islands that belong to the UAE.  With the passage of time, Iran grew more assertive and aggressive toward the Arab countries.  It began to develop plans to build nuclear facilities and it intervened in several other Arab countries from Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon, and to the Gaza Strip.  Beginning with the cancellation of President Trump’s US engagement in the nuclear treaty with Iran, it began a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf and directed its allies in Yemen and, possibly, Iraq to attack via missiles and drones oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.  The situation between the Arab Gulf countries and Iran remains tense and confrontational.

7. Iran’s Proxies throughout the Middle East

Iran’s disruptive role in the Arab world is well documented.  Its modus operandi is duplicitous.  When it chooses to do damage, it has opted to use the proxies that it has nurtured and developed among the Shia communities in the Arab world.  It has infiltrated Yemen through the Houthis; it has gained a major foothold in Syria through the Alawis (an offshoot of Shi’ism); it has replaced the American presence in Iraq utilizing the majority Shia population; it has used Hezbollah in Lebanon as a striking force against Israel and in the civil war in Syria; it continues to agitate in Bahrain where the majority of the population is Shia but the royal family is Sunni; and it even armed Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (both Sunni organizations) to outdo the Sunni Arabs in the fight against Israel.  For the majority of the Sunni Arabs, Iran’s activities in the Middle East are sinister and self-serving and are intended to disrupt and destabilize the Sunni regimes in the region.

8. Multiple Arab States are on the Verge of Collapse

Arab Spring

Ever since the Arab Spring, which marked the social and political revolutions that erupted in 2011, several Arab countries have become dysfunctional without strong central governments, internal security, and functioning economies.  Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya are examples of Arab countries where the rule of the jungle prevails, where poverty is rampant, where internal security is non-existent except in pockets dominated by certain factions, and where groups affiliated with certain warlords are fighting one another, usually with a foreign sponsor backing one side or the other.

 9. Number of Arab Refugees has Skyrocketed

According to a May 2020 report of the UN Refugee Agency, aside from the 5 million Palestinian refugees living in various Arab countries, there are now over 10 million internally displaced Arab refugees.  The majority of those refugees – 6.1 million are in Syria.  Those refugees are fleeing violence in Syria, Yemen, Sudan’s Darfur, and even Somalis are fleeing to Yemen!  These refugees have become a major economic burden on the host Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, among others.  Refugees were getting by with international humanitarian aid but when the COVID pandemic hit, it was a double disaster for those refugees because those who were able to work were now unable to do so because of the lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of the virus.  The plight of those refugees in the Arab world is saddening and frightening and the need to provide them with assistance is more urgent than ever.

 10. Decline in Oil Revenues

And sometimes, when it rains, it pours.  Arab Gulf countries have been very generous in helping other Arab countries in need.  They have opened their doors, coffers and checkbooks to help refugees in need and other less fortunate Arab countries.  Unfortunately, the precipitous drop in the price of oil this year, has forced many oil-producing Arab countries to cut down their budgets both at home and those earmarked for humanitarian and development aid. 

I wish I could have been able to write a cheery, buoyant and uplifting article about the state of the Arab world today.  Our state of affairs is not rosy but to every bottom, there is a top.  The day will come when conditions will improve, and level-headed Arab leaders will work more closely together for the betterment of the entire Arab region.  Our divisions are viewed as weaknesses and are quickly exploited by our enemies.  Nevertheless, it is time to harness our vast resources and utilize the immense physical and intellectual resources that we possess within the Arab world to lift us from the bottom of the ditch to the heights of our glory.


Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the 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.

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