The first Middle East leader to comment on the newly-signed nuclear deal in Vienna on July 14 was one of the regional wars’ oldest survivors, Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who said it all in one sentence: “That’s the end of the Arab Ummah (nation).”
Many Arab leaders, including Saudi King Salman, see a straight light connecting the US-backed “Arab Spring” that swept the Arab world in 2011 and Iran’s rise to top Middle East power and Washington’s senior regional ally in 2015. The interim years saw the Arab world increasingly engulfed in bloody wars and sinking on the world stage.
Libya has fallen apart and is mired in domestic warfare, part tribal and part infighting between moderates and extremist militias, more of which join the Islamic State week by week.
Egypt, the most populous Sunni Arab nation with a population of 90 million, is plagued by accelerating aggression, waged by the Muslim Brotherhood opposition, on the one hand, and the Islamic State, on the other. This week, the leader of a Brotherhood clandestine cell called on the movement to join hands with ISIS to topple President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi and the military regime.
Running conflicts outnumber the Arab nations involved
Syria remains mired in endless civil warfare after more than four years, with the Assad regime having lost 30 percent of its territory to the Islamic State terrorists. Fighting alongside the Syria army is a multinational legion led by Iran and consisting of the Lebanese Hizballah and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Lebanon is poised on a knife’s edge from the spillover of the Syrian war. The only efficiently functioning branch of government remaining in Beirut is the Lebanese army. Since 60 percent of its troops are Shiite and its commanders are Christian and Sunni, it is hard to say how long before the rot of discord sets in.
Jordan is ostensibly a stable enclave among Arab nations. But smoldering beneath the surface are domestic dissent and external menace. The Bedouin tribes’ traditional loyalty to the crown is being undermined and Iran, Syria, Hizballah and ISIS are each poised to move in on Amman.
Iraq is in a full-fledged war with the Islamic State, whose conquests have forced the country into breaking up into three entities between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Yemen is in the throes of a fierce civil war, in which Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf Cooperation Council Emirates have intervened to combat the Iranian-backed insurgency. This battle is exploited by two Al Qaeda wings – AQAP (Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIS – to seize large swathes of land.
Two pro-Tehran standouts: Oman and the UAE
Saudi Arabia is caught up in three wars – Yemen, Iraq and Syria – and also faces grave domestic challenges: one comes from the large Shiite minority populating the eastern oil regions, which Iran is inciting to greater hostility to the Saudi throne; and its own 16-19-year olds, nearly a third of whom are without jobs and have set up clandestine cells across the kingdom dedicated to toppling the House of Saud.
Two Gulf emirates, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, have lined up behind the nuclear deal with Iran. Oman has always maintained good relations with Iran and provided a bridge between Tehran and Washington – and Tehran and the rest of the GCC. When Hillary Clinton was still Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, Muscat became the first venue for back-door diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that culminated in the nuclear accord signed this month.
The UAE had a vested interest in the six powers and Iran concluding a deal: It is the ambition of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to restore Dubai as the biggest free port in the Gulf and the main hub for Iran’s post-sanctions import and export trade.
Arab rulers need new regional structure to counteract their deep gloom
Some influential Arabs in the region’s capitals quietly concede that President Obama may have had a point when he turned his back on the strife-ridden Arab nations, whose wars get more ghastly as time goes by. From his standpoint, it made sense for the US to shun inter-Arab turmoil and seek out the only stable Muslim entity in the region.
These officials don’t reject US proposals to compensate the Arab nations for the deal with Iran by approving arms transactions to upgrade their military capabilties. But they point out that the disadvantages pertaining to such transactions appear to outweigh the benefits.
Most Arab armies are in no state to absorb top-scale American weaponry. By purchasing US arms, therefore, the emirates would be giving US arms industries a useful injection of funds, without benefiting their own armies.
In conclusion, it may be said that, overall, the key Sunni Arab rulers need to pull themselves out of their deep depression over the catastrophe which overtook them, and create a new Arab regional structure better suited to their new circumstances than the outdated, ponderous Arab League and more capable of looking ahead. Any such positive action might salvage something from the shock of their demotion in favor of Iran. It would also win respect in Washington.
But for now, Arab governments are still reeling from the blow Barack Obama landed on the region and in no condition for rational consideration of their next steps.