1967 to 2017: Arab unity, a fickle beast

1967 to 2017: Arab unity, a fickle beast
Comment: Until this sudden fracturing of the GCC, it had appeared that a third phase of inter-Arab cooperation might be about to commence, writes Robert Springborg.
9 min read
09 Jun, 2017
Arab cooperation has been more a reality than Arab unity [AFP]

The June 1967 war is often characterised as having put paid to the radical phase of Arab nationalism.

While it is true that it dealt Nasserism a stunning blow, in reality, attempts at forging Arab unity under that, the Baathist, or any other banner had already foundered, as indicated by the breakup of the United Arab Republic in 1961.

Indeed, it was not Arab unity, but radical outbidding by the leaders of Egypt and Syria in verbal support of the Palestinian cause that served to legitimate Israel's pre-emptive June 5 strike.
Israel's crushing victory, made possible in part by Arab disunity, paradoxically caused the leading Arab states not to unify, but to substantially enhance practical cooperation, something which radical sloganeering about unification had failed to accomplish.

This cooperation, inspired by the perceived need to defend the Arab world against a newly triumphant, threatening Israel, was launched at the Arab Summit in Khartoum in August, 1967.

For the first time the Saudis pledged material support to the "front-line Arab states," in return for which the Egyptians agreed to terminate their efforts to impose the Republican government in Sanaa on Saudi-backed North Yemeni royalist tribes. The Saudis also turned a blind eye to Nasser's vastly increased reliance on the Soviets. It was agreed that all eyes were to be focused on Israel.

The obstacles presently facing Arab cooperation are just too numerous and complex

Another manifestation of inter-state cooperation was Nasser's final diplomatic undertaking, which was to mediate between the PLO and Jordan's King Hussein, in order to bring "Black September" to a close. This signaled the end of Egyptian efforts to attempt to use the Palestinians against other Arab states. Pragmatic compromise, in other words, supplanted radical rhetoric and behaviour by the leading Arab states in the wake of the 1967 war as they focused on the Israeli challenge.
Realisation of their common purpose took the form of the October 1973 war, launched jointly by Syria and Egypt, then supported diplomatically by the Saudi oil embargo. Interestingly, however, the potential benefits to the Arab states of their enhanced cooperation began to be squandered even during that war.

 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia (L), Gamal Abdel Nasser (C) president of Egypt, and Muhammad Ahmad Mahgoub, prime minister of Sudan meet during the summit of the Arab League in Khartoum, Sudan, 1967

Sadat, already seeking to cut a separate deal with the US and Israel through Henry Kissinger, essentially abandoned the Syrian military to its fate by halting the Egyptian advance in the Sinai after it had successfully crossed the Suez Canal.

This cessation of the planned attack through the Sinai to the Mitla and Gidi Passes enabled the Israelis to concentrate their forces on the Golan and drive the Syrians back, then to reposition them to confront the Egyptian forces confused by Sadat's interference in the order of battle.

Read more: Has Trump provoked a second wave of Arab counter-revolution?

But Sadat's treachery was not immediately apparent. The unified Arab front that had demonstrated considerable capacity to challenge Israel, although weakened, remained reasonably intact until November, 1977, when the Egyptian president embarked on his historic trip to Israel, thereby abandoning any pretense of Arab solidarity.

Presumably Sadat's calculation was that his personal interests and those of the Egyptian nation-state were better served by him cutting a side deal with Israel and the US, rather than by relying on the force of diplomatic and military pressure embodied in the "unity of purpose" of the Arab front line states, backed at a distance by those in the Gulf.

In any case this semi-successful phase of pragmatic Arab unity came to a screeching halt, as symbolised by the relocation of the Arab League headquarters from Cairo to Tunis.

This semi-successful phase of pragmatic Arab unity came to a screeching halt

But a second phase was soon to follow, again propelled by a common perceived threat to Arab states. This time it took the form of the Iranian revolution. Putting their distaste for Saddam Hussein aside, the Egyptians, Jordanians, Yemenis, as well as the Saudis and their allies in the newly formed GCC, rushed to assist him when it became evident that Iraqi forces which had invaded Iran in September, 1980, were in jeopardy of collapse.

Even Syria, led by rival Baathists, stayed clear of the fray despite drifting steadily toward Tehran. But like the first, 1967-77 unity phase, this one was also destined to persist for not more than a decade. It also ended abruptly, in this instance with Saddam's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The lesson of these two episodes seems to be that Arab states can at least coordinate their diplomatic and even military efforts when a common, sole major threat is perceived. This coordination, however, depends not on structural underpinnings of integrated sovereignties, but on the immediate political calculations of incumbent Arab leaders, left unconstrained by state or multilaeral decision making institutions.

The lesson of these two episodes seems to be that Arab states can at least coordinate their diplomatic and even military efforts when a common, sole major threat is perceived

Those leaders are, therefore, free to terminate that cooperation when they see fit, as both Sadat and Saddam Hussein did. Arab cooperation, in short, although more a reality than Arab unity, has historically also been a fragile, transitory phenomenon, as demonstrated yet again by the recent severing of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the one hand, and Qatar on the other.
Until this sudden fracturing of the GCC it had appeared that a third phase of inter-Arab cooperation might be about to commence, driven now by the renewed threats posed by Iran, Sunni jihadis, and the breakdown of order in some key Arab states and the threat of disorder spreading in others.

After all, these threats may be even more existential than those posed by Israel from 1967 and Iran after 1980. 

  Read more: The second Nakba: Marking 50 years of Israeli occupation

The Saudis were seeking to orchestrate renewed Arab cooperation, in turn backed by the US, thus replicating the previous pro-Iraq, anti-Iran phase. Only in this instance cooperation seemed intended to take a more structural, formal, public form, and to include Israel, at least at a tactical level. So the Saudis were significantly raising the ambitions and the stakes of the proposed third round of Arab cooperation.
Initial signs were that they were enjoying some success, at least in Trump's Washington and even in Jerusalem, where the Netanyahu government was watching carefully to see what material and strategic benefits it might derive from playing along with Riyadh, balanced against the costs of concessions it would have to make to the Palestinians.

Second, the broad coalition the Saudis were seeking to cobble together contained potential internal contradictions

Cairo had been bought off, at least for the time being, and had visibly distanced itself from Tehran while embracing the Saudis.

Despite these encouraging signs, the level of Arab cooperation achieved in the 67-77 episode and during the decade of the 1980s, was unlikely to be replicated, as last week's dramatic Saudi-Qatari clash proved. The obstacles presently facing Arab cooperation are just too numerous and complex.

First, Arab states confront not one dominant threat, but multiple ones, ranging from Iran as a nation state, to its allies in various Arab countries, to jihadis of various types, as well as to a host of domestic economic and political challenges. Naturally the Arab states, including even those linked together in the GCC, have different rankings of the importance of these challenges, to say nothing of contrasting views on how best to meet them.

Qatar and Oman, for example, have long advocated reducing tensions with Iran, while the Saudis are seeking to found the alliance they hope to forge and lead primarily on an aggressive anti-Iranian posture. 

Second, the broad coalition the Saudis were seeking to cobble together contained potential internal contradictions.

Squaring the circle of Trump's Islamophobia with US military and diplomatic support is but one example. Another is inviting Israel into the anti-Iranian coalition prior to an acceptable solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. A third is the ambition of Egypt to play a more important regional role, possibly with Russian backing. Yet another contradiction was the straw that broke the camel's back, this contradiction being Qatar's policy of reconciliation with both Iran and Islamism, versus Saudi Arabia's implacable hostility to both.
Finally, Iran's threat is both complicated by various of the other issues just mentioned and of such a magnitude that instead of spurring cooperation it will undermine it.

With Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa virtually in its pocket, Tehran has plenty of cards to play

With Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus and Sanaa virtually in its pocket, Tehran has plenty of cards to play. All but its most dedicated opponents - so even GCC members including Qatar and Oman and possibly also Kuwait - may well be more interested in cutting side deals with Iran than in having to pay the heavy price of opposition.

Confidence in Riyadh's leadership in a stand-up fight with Tehran is also doubtful, especially in geographically exposed Qatar whose shared gas field with Iran is a principal source of its revenues. Even Israel would have second thoughts about participating in direct challenges to Tehran given potential retaliation by Hizballah. 
Although Arab cooperation in its two major manifestations in the second half of the 20th century achieved some success despite or maybe even because of its limited nature, at least as compared to the lofty objectives of Arab unity, even that level of inter-Arab cooperation is unlikely now to be repeated, as the new fracturing of the GCC suggests.

If Arab cooperation and yet more elusive Arab unity were to be achieved, they would be driven primarily by economic objectives to be realised by closer integration, rather than by political-military concerns.

The stakes of the latter are paradoxically too high now and the fissures among participants too great for institutionalised cooperation to be achieved, especially since the self-declared leader of that cooperation, Saudi Arabia, lacks the power to play the Prussian role.
By contrast, gradual, lower key economic cooperation leading to some forms of integration stands a better chance of bringing the Arab states together. Since the economic threat presently posed to most of them is now profound, even existential, it may in any case make more sense to concentrate on cooperation to meet it, rather than geo-political and ideological threats, which are more diffuse and complex than in the previous episodes.

Not amenable to solution through cooperation between numerous states, these threats are probably best dealt with on an ad hoc, tactical basis.

Indeed, the visible failure to attempt but fail to achieve cooperation could exacerbate the threat. It is for this reason that the Saudis are desperate to impose their will on Qatar. But even if Qatar submits, the structural weaknesses of a Saudi-led, structured cooperation are too great for it to achieve the objectives set for it by that country's over-ambitious leaders.
The best lesson from the 1967 Khartoum Arab summit may be that overtly seeking structured inter-state cooperation to face a more or less common enemy is only a good idea if you are sure you can achieve it.

Robert Springborg is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

He has innumerable publications, including Mubarak's Egypt: Fragmentation of the Political Order; Family Power and Politics in Egypt; Legislative Politics in the Arab World (co-authored with Abdo Baaklini and Guilain Denoeux), Oil and Democracy in Iraq; Development Models in Muslim Contexts: Chinese, ‘Islamic’ and Neo-Liberal Alternatives, among others.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff