Leader of the Arab world: A role in search of a hero

Leader of the Arab world: A role in search of a hero
Comment: The Arab world seems destined to continue to offer a leadership role in search of its hero, writes Robert Springborg.
7 min read
01 Dec, 2017
Egyptians protest in 2013 with a portrait of former Egyptian president Nasser [Getty]
In his 1955 book, "The Philosophy of the Revolution", Gamal Abdel Nasser, drawing upon Luigi Pirandello's "Six Personalities in Search of an Author", implied that he should fill the vacant Arab leadership role. 

And indeed a year later, in the wake of his diplomatic triumph over the tripartite invaders - Israel, France and Britain - he set about trying to do so.

Ultimately, however, he ran up against the limits of Egypt's powers and the unwillingness of regional and global actors to bend to his will.

But for about a decade, in what in retrospect was the golden era for hopes of Arab unity, it appeared that this Holy Grail might indeed be found. That era now seems aeons ago, as the Arab world dissolves into civil war within and between its states, with no viable candidate emerging to fill the leadership role wandering in search of its hero.

Of the four Arab republics most severely afflicted by internal strife - Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen - the first three under previous leaders had serious pretensions at and some actual accomplishments of Arab leadership.

Now they are all struggling just to survive as nation states, much less project power beyond their borders.

The other Arab republics are not as threatened by collapse, but nor are they in any state to assume even a portion of the mantle of Arab leadership. Egypt is battling insolvency and an insurgency, so consumed with its own affairs.

Tunisia's economy has yet to regain ground lost since 2011, while its polity remains sharply divided between secular and Islamist forces identified with the overthrow of President Ben Ali, to say nothing of residual elements of his regime who presently serve as the fulcrum between the other two competitors.

Algeria is consumed with what seems a never ending leadership transition crisis, steadily drawing down its financial reserves while so doing.

Lebanon has just witnessed the resignation of its prime minister, which although he looks set to remain - laid bare the stark divisions within the country and the possibility that it could slide back into civil war.

The Palestine National Authority has been torn apart by the Fatah-Hamas struggle, to say nothing of Israeli intransigence and Arab neglect. So even the Palestinian rallying point for Arab unity can no longer serve that function, even passively.

The non-GCC monarchies of Morocco and Jordan are comparatively politically united, but both are hedged in by geography, limited resources, and by the very fact that their monarchs could not possibly have any popular appeal beyond their borders. Being realists and survivors, neither of those monarchs even entertains such ambitions.

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This leaves the GCC and its member states as potential heroes to fill the leadership role. As for the GCC as a whole, the intensifying dispute between Qatar, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, on the other, threatens to destroy what remains of that organisation.

Kuwait remains as politically narcissist as ever, focused on its own never-ending soap opera of internal Sabah family feuds punctuated by parliamentary demands for more side payments to non-royals. Oman steadfastly downplays its Arab character, preferring to present itself as a distinctive ethno-religious nation state of the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean.

The al-Khalifa rulers of Bahrain are too caught up in trying to hold their divided kingdom together to project any power beyond the confines of their archipelago.

The Arab leadership pretenders by default then are Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Even acting in concert, which they most definitely are not, collectively they would not have the muscle to keep even the other GCC members in line, to say nothing of the rest of the Arab world.

The Palestine National Authority has been torn apart by the Fatah-Hamas struggle

The Saudi-Emirati alliance has spawned a series of misadventures, including a disastrous war in Yemen in which the respective proxies of the two are working to undermine, not support one another; ill-fated support for the Syrian opposition; an as yet unsuccessful attempt to impose Khalifa Haftar on his fellow Libyans, to say nothing of the UN, the US and various European countries; and a half hearted effort to stand up to Iran in Lebanon, which is now in shambles.

So working together in the region these two monarchies have achieved next to nothing, and certainly insufficient to lay any claim to broader Arab leadership.

Individually the constraints on Saudi and Emirati pretentions to Arab leadership are just as daunting.

Muhammed bin Salman has yet to consolidate power in Riyadh, so will be caught up in that exercise for the foreseeable future, rendered yet more challenging by the need to implement Vision 2030 and the Herculian task it embodies in shifting the country's political economy from being a rentier to a productive one.

Even were he to succeed in both endeavours he would still confront the problem of convincing the broader Arab world that a Saudi prince is a real reformer at heart, rather than just an intriguer bent on consolidating his personal power within that family dynasty.

Within the Emirates there are both soft and hard power centers. Dubai is the former, Abu Dhabi the latter. Far and away the most preferred place of residence for Arabs, Dubai's appeal is because it is seen not as the capital of an Arab statelet, but because it is a cosmopolitan, international success story in which they would like to partake, hence more or less escape the Arab world.

Dubai's appeal is not a recipe for Arab leadership or even Arab emulation, as it is hard to imagine a second Gulf entrepot achieving its status, much as in Beirut's heyday from the mid-1950s to mid-1970s it was the only Arab entrepot.

Muhammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, hence the architect of the UAE's foreign policy, appears to be trying to emulate his father's commanding role in the formation and leadership of the UAE, only within the Arab world more broadly.

Whether Sheikh Zayed would approve of his son's ambitious attempt to generalise power projection in a little area of the Arabian Peninsula to the entire Arab world is a relevant question. Like Muhammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, Muhammed bin Zayed seems to have thrown caution to the wind, enamored of projecting his and his Emirate's power and influence in Arab capitals, in Washington through his Ambassador Yusef al-Otaiba, and elsewhere.

This is a stretch too far, given the limits on Abu Dhabi's hard and even its financial powers, as evidenced by events in Yemen, Syria, and Libya and by the sheer impossibility of continually bailing out Sisi's economically threatened Egypt.

Finally, Qatar, one the smallest Arab states, offers a "softly softly" model of Arab leadership, whereby accommodation of conflicting actors and trends supplants attempts to confront and oppose them. This approach has led Doha to try to embrace any number of seemingly competitive players, including the US, Israel, Turkey, Hamas, Iran, the Muslim Brothers, as well as fellow states of the GCC.

But as the Arab world polarises and conflicts intensify, this balancing act is in grave danger of being upended, thus destroying the model of leadership by accommodation.

The Saudi-Emirati alliance has spawned a series of misadventures, including a disastrous war in Yemen

As for non-state actors seeking to assert themselves on the Arab stage, just as with the Arab states, they too seem not to be up to the task. The Muslim Brothers in their various national forms and as a regional force have been dealt serious blows in Egypt and elsewhere, from which their recovery seems unlikely for years to come.

In sum, the Arab world seems destined to continue to offer a leadership role in search of its hero. No state or conceivable coalition of them is presently fit to occupy that role.

Each instead then seeks outside support to enhance its position, thereby inviting in extra-regional actors whose very presence further undermines the coherence and collective power of the Arab world.

In the absence of effective leadership, weaker Arab actors such as the Palestinians are rendered yet more vulnerable to their antagonists, while the poor and marginalised that comprise an ever-greater proportion of Arab populations are offered little, if any hope.

Were Nasser alive today he would not be pleased to see what had become of his once dreamed for united Arab world.

Robert Springborg is the 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. 

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