Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

Is the Region on the Cusp of a New Phase?

The month of March appears to be a consequential month for the Arab world. Over the past decades a number of events with far-reaching consequences for the region have taken place during this month.

Amongst these events is the US invasion of Iraq. This month we commemorated the 20th anniversary of this tragic event. An event that not only brought untold misery to the people of Iraq but had far reaching implications for the Arab world as well as the international system at large.

While the month of March up until this year evoked tragic memories for the Arabs, March 2023 holds the promise of positive change.

Two important developments have taken place that could have the potential to break the cycle of wars and destruction as we will explain later in the article.

Many Iraqis were convinced that freedom and human dignity can only be attained with the overthrow of the ruling autocratic regime. For some the only way to achieve this objective was with the help of foreign military intervention.

The invasion of Iraq may have brought an end to a brutal dictatorship but in the process dismantled a proud nation without replacing it with a system that provides the freedom, security, the respect for human dignity and prosperity that the Iraqis aspired to achieve.

Many Iraqis are asking themselves the question: are we better off today than we were 2003?

Some 300,000 Iraqis lost their lives and according to former Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi since 2003, more than $600 billion has been siphoned off to away from the development of the country to enrich few individuals. Is it not ironic that Iraq an oil rich country lacks sufficient funds to finance its economic development and imports energy from Iran. Moreover, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that a functioning democratic system that delivers on the aspirations of the Iraqi people remains elusive.

So maybe it is time to contemplate the lessons learned from the bitter experience the Iraqi people have had to endure over the past 20 years.

First, while Iraqis had - and continue to have - legitimate grievances, it is obvious that seeking support from foreign quarters does not produce the desired results. Quite the contrary, outside intervention has unleashed a cycle of violence, terrorism, sectarian conflict and corruption.

This is not surprising given the historical precedents of foreign military interventions: US invasion of Cuba in 1898 and Haiti in 1915, and the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. All these interventions undermined the independence of these countries and shunted their political development. But more than anything else the people paid - and continue to this day - pay a heavy price.

Second, the US military intervention has weakened the nation state in Iraq. First by dismantling state institutions that - in spite of their deficiencies- were able to manage the diverse interests of the people in a manner that most Iraqis tolerated. Second, by introducing a constitution based on sectarianism. The result was that sectarianism came to dominate politics in Iraq, pitting Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds against one another. But also, and probably more dangerously, it cast its sinister shadow over the politics of other parts of the region.

Third, the excessive dependency on the diaspora to bring about the change has proved to be misplaced. Although the Iraqi diaspora were well-versed in democratic practices, most were detached from the prevailing realities in the country and therefore, have been unable to spearhead political change.

Fourth, the lack of an active Arab role has been a complicating factor. Without Arab support, Iraq has been unable to effectively deal with the interventions of the US, Iran and Türkiye.

In short, the lessons derived from the US invasion of Iraq can be summarized in positive political change can only come from within a country, that foreign military interventions have long-term catastrophic consequences, and the lack of an Arab role in the search for political settlements exacerbates conflicts and opens the door to even more foreign interventions in Arab affairs and thereby undermines Arab interests in the long-term.

Now fast forward to March 2023 where two events have taken place that have the potential to reserve the catastrophic consequences of the US invasion of Iraq and to reshape the future region.

Since the invasion of Iraq, the concept of the nation state in the Middle East has come under severe stress. Today we are witnessing a newly discovered attachment to the concept of the nation state by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is adopting a new narrative about the Saudi state that stretches into prehistory. The Kingdom similar to all nation states is a product of a combination of different factors: people, territory, layers of history and culture, as well as Islam as the foundational principle of the modern nation state. The commemoration of the Flag Day for the first time on March 11 stands testimony to this important development.

The second is the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This could have far-reaching consequences for not only the region, but also the relationship of the region with the outside world. But probably more importantly it could very well put an end to the sectarianism that has plagued the region for so long.

This development in the Saudi attitude should be viewed within the context of Riyadh’s astute handling of its relations with the US, China and Russia, as well as managing both its oil policy and its international financial policy as we have seen lately with the crisis with Credit Suisse.

Although sectarianism has long been a feature of the Middle East, the governance systems over centuries and particularly since the advent of the nation state in the 20th century have been able to manage sectarianism. What we have witnessed lately is the transformation of the phenomenon into persistent armed conflicts not among countries, but more dangerously within countries.

Sectarianism took its new devastating form over the past 40 years. The 1979 Iranian revolution opened the door to the revival of the schism between Shiite and Sunni Islam and gave it a modern political form as witnessed in the Iran-Iraq war.

The US invasion of Iraq exploited this rivalry to create an Arab front against Iran, but more dangerously transplanted/ encouraged sectarian politics in a combustible local environment, pitting Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds against one another.

Now with the process of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran, hopefully a reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Islam will take place opening the door to achieving political solutions to the complex situations in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.

Could the Arab world be at the cusp of an important change? After a period of disarray, largely due to lack of leadership, excessive dependency on the outside powers, corrosive sectarianism, but now with the renewed attractiveness of the concept of the nation state and an awareness of the dangers of foreign interventions, could the Arab countries rediscover that their strength is in their cooperation?

Time will tell if the Arab countries are able to depend on themselves to help Iraq to overcome its problems, take the initiative in finding political solutions to the crisis in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, in articulating a common vision for a regional security architecture and shaping intra-Arab relations on tangible common economic and political interests, not on emotions and slogans.