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Arab World Faces Pandemic, Turkish-Iranian Regional Intimidation

Arab World Faces Pandemic, Turkish-Iranian Regional Intimidation

Friday, 19 June, 2020 - 11:00
Ahmed Abul Gheit
Ahmed Abul Gheit is the Secretary General of the Arab League.

After nearly a decade of political turmoil and civil wars, and the accompanying economic downturn, social upheaval and growing poverty, the Arab world finds itself at the heart of a new lingering crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the pandemic is a force majeure that hit the entire world, its negative consequences and its grave effects will not be similar everywhere. There is some indication that some countries will suffer more and some societies will face more difficulties than others.

The direct impact of the coronavirus, including the numbers of victims and the great pressure on health systems, will be overcome in one way or another, God willing.

However, the deep repercussions on the stability of societies and states, economic growth and social conditions are the most serious and severe, especially for countries that were already enduring development problems or a decline in their economies, or political or social crises. (Quite a few Arab countries fall into this category.)

The global epidemic will contribute to exacerbating existing crises, as well as creating new unforeseen challenges. Governments will need to distribute their efforts, time and attention on more than one front.

The effects of the pandemic are not limited to internal challenges. Rather, its serious consequences extend to relations between countries and shake the international system itself, the distribution of powers and the rules governing its work. Initial indications hint at the decline of international cooperation and the increased tendency towards isolationist policies and unilateral action in an international environment that is more turbulent and more prone to conflicts and rivalries that may bring the world closer to the Cold War paradigm.

The pandemic, with its challenges, will prompt many countries to reconsider relying on long “supply chains” to obtain goods, especially strategic ones. They will seek to become self-sufficient, or will resort to allies and neighbors to acquire these goods. This will inevitably be reflected on the globalization system, perhaps in the interest of regional blocs and homogenous economic groups (something that calls for reflection and attention from the Arab side).

The economic recession and the decline of the system of interdependence may increase the chances of the rise of right-wing and extremist nationalist movements, which will adopt anti-immigration and xenophobic policies in more than one region around the world. It is no secret that the rise of such ideologies will lead to a more combative environment, with the erosion of international law and the dominance of the logic of force, coercion and the imposition of the fait accompli.

Faced with this state of corrosion at the international level, and the associated potential crises, especially in developing countries (which will confront the challenges of economic growth, poverty, health conditions and climate change), the Arab region finds itself in an unenviable situation, as it fights the pandemic in a very accurate moment of its contemporary history, and after a decade of suffering and turmoil that exhausted the region and drained resources and energies.

While some Arab countries are mired in civil wars that threaten their very existence as unified sovereign political entities, other countries suffer from complex political and economic crises, putting them under severe pressure that may reach the point of explosion.

The region also suffers from “regional intimidation” from immediate neighbors, who work to exploit these conditions to establish footholds and to consolidate their presence and interests at the expense of the people of the region.

This “regional intimidation” applies to Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel. The latter in particular seeks to take advantage of the coincidence of two rare events (the pandemic and the presence in the White House of a president who has the ideology of the Likud party) to commit a blatant move by further legitimizing the occupation and annexing Palestinian lands occupied in 1967 and placing them under Israeli sovereignty. This threatens to fuel national and religious sentiments not only in Palestine, but across the region. This ignition may combine with crises resulting from the epidemic to produce a “perfect storm” that Israel does not seem aware of its dimensions.

As for Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, over the recent months, they have escalated their interference in the interests of other countries, which are located in the immediate Arab neighborhood. Both Iran and Turkey are openly attacking a number of Arab countries, and each of them has a direct military presence on Arab lands and seek to make them of a long-term nature.

During the past year (2019), Iran escalated its direct attacks on navigation in the Arabian Gulf and on oil installations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as its sinister involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen, not to mention its negative role in Lebanon.

As for Turkey, in addition to fostering the Muslim Brotherhood, which is classified as a terrorist organization in a number of Arab countries, it has continued to occupy large parts of Syrian territory, and has begun its attacks on Iraqi territory.

Recently, Turkey became involved in the Libyan civil war by direct military intervention in favor of one of its parties, in a manner that fuels the conflict and further complicates it, threatens to plunder Libyan natural resources and risks to ignite a wider conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Finally, by insisting on moving forward in operating the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile without a comprehensive agreement with the downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan), Ethiopia is exercising an unprecedented hegemony over the river’s resources, and threatens the survival of the two countries that depend on the water of the river as a major lifeline. This comes despite various efforts from Egypt and Sudan to consolidate a cooperative framework in the Nile Basin that allows the construction and operation of the dam, taking into account the interests and rights of all concerned sides.

These global and regional conditions impose on the Arab region new challenges that are more severe and more impactful, especially since the synergy between these factors may create multiple and unexpected crises. International erosion may encourage “regional intimidation” and give it more space. Poor economic conditions may increase political tension that already exist in some countries.

Confronted with these serious problems, the Arabs have no choice but to activate joint action as quickly as possible, because no country - whatever the size of its resources and capabilities - will be able to deal with crises individually, in addition to the fact that those challenges will surpass internal borders and will require a collective Arab approach.

Finally, “regional intimidation”, including serious Israeli plans to legalize its occupation, needs more collective Arab stances than ever before. The call to promote joint Arab action is not just a hollow slogan that we launch or a broad title without substance. The reality makes it imperative to engage in wider programs of interdependence in the future.

The economic crises produced by the pandemic will reshuffle many papers, while intra-regional trade, economic cooperation programs and joint regional projects to resettle strategic industries will gain increasing importance. There is an open horizon for activating what already exists, and what has been achieved, towards the establishment of the Greater Arab Free Trade Area, so that all restrictions to intra-regional trade are abolished. The total Arab trade does not exceed 10 percent, which is a meager percentage that makes the Arab region one of the weakest in the world in terms of economic integration.

The pandemic will undoubtedly open new areas for integration between Arab countries in the health or pharmaceutical industries, or even in other areas that may witness a renaissance and upward movement, such as electronic commerce.

In the face of global and regional situations and the various threats they entail, the Arab system will be required to assume an active and influential role in settling disputes and civil wars that spread like malignant tumors in the Arab body. These conflicts have caused loopholes that regional powers have exploited to extend their influence and achieve their own agendas. With a quick look at the “theaters of conflict” in the Arab world, we immediately realize that every stage of civil war provides an opportunity for regional powers to enter in different forms, either directly or through proxies.

Settling these conflicts closes open wounds that lurking regional powers are employing in their favor. Unfortunately, the keys to settling these disputes were handed over to foreign powers and international parties, with a limited and declining role given to the Arab parties.

Without unifying the Arab will and allowing the regional organization sponsoring collective Arab interests (the Arab League) to play a fundamental role in settling the disputes, the League’s hands would remain tied in the face of foreign powers that would tighten their grip over the region.

Confronting the unprecedented regional bullying facing the Arab world also depends on taking collective positions and coordinating policies at the Arab level that go beyond mere verbal solidarity to practical action. While acknowledging that regional threats do not come from one source and not all Arab countries face them to the same extent, yet effective action to address these threats necessarily requires a collective national security agenda within the Arab League, so that no country or group of countries face such threats alone.

There are existing mechanisms that meet this direction, such as the Arab Ministerial Committee to address Iranian interference in Arab affairs, which has been operating under the League since 2016. Rather than issuing mere periodic statements, the Committee’s work must be activated to coordinate actual policies to limit the Iranian meddling. Similar work committees are required to be established to address the Turkish interventions, which have had the same malicious and devastating effect on Arab national security.

The Palestinian Cause remains crucial for its known historical considerations. Its importance also derives from the level of Arab solidarity and the ability to work together and coordinate policies. The Palestinian Cause is currently going through one of its most dangerous phases: the occupation is seeking to obtain legitimacy after it acquired the land. This issue is being emptied of any legal or moral substance and faces an accelerating decline at the international level, reinforced by the global preoccupation in dealing with crises arising from the pandemic and others.

The most immediate threat is confronting the so-called annexation plans adopted by the current government in Israel, with the support of the United States. It goes without saying that the Arab consensus rejects these Israeli plans, without reservation or exception. However, this rejection has not yet been translated into effective political action at the international level, at the United Nations and various forums. A powerful political-media-legal campaign is required to raise awareness among the global public opinion and various political stakeholders about the imminent danger these Israeli plans pose to stability in the region and to world peace.

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