I am honored to speak to you at the beginning of this important conference and to thank Khalil Jahshan and his distinguished team for the invitation and for the preparation and arrangement of this third annual conference of Arab Center Washington DC entitled “The Arab World beyond Conflict.” This is a very important topic, but also one that is full of risks.
The theme of the conference and the main issues it addresses are important for exploring the horizons of development in the Arab world and promoting opportunities for peaceful resolution of the ongoing armed conflict.
Parts of the Arab world are suffering from conflict that resulted in humanitarian crises, loss of life, and destruction of homes, livelihoods, and businesses. In order to alleviate this suffering, rival forces must be encouraged, perhaps even dictated, to return to the negotiating table and search for peaceful solutions. Although there are political differences, everyone will benefit from equitable national reconciliation and transitional justice that go beyond empty words and broken promises.
It is natural that centers of international scientific research are concerned with political, economic, and social developments in the Arab world. The Middle East was the transit area for the first human migrations from Africa to Asia, Europe, and the rest of the world. It was the home of the Pharaonic, Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanite, Phoenician, Sasanid, Aramaic, and Arab civilizations. Here were born three major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As the cradle of these religions, the Middle East contains the most important holy places dear to the hearts of their followers.
The Arab world has a vast and unique material and intangible heritage that includes dozens of languages and hundreds of local dialects, traditional crafts, folklore, poetry, and literature. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated dozens of non-traditional heritage styles from more than 70 sites in the Arab world on the World Heritage List. These include the old city of Sanaa, the coastal center of medieval learning Zabid, the architectural wonder of Shibam Hadramawt, and Socotra Island in my own country, Yemen.
On the geographical side, the Arab world straddles the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. It overlooks the Atlantic and Indian oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Gulf. Located here are the vital ports for world trade and international shipping as well as critical crossing points such as the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, Bab al-Mandab, and the Strait of Hormuz. The atmosphere above the Arab world hosts lanes for international air traffic across continents. There is nothing isolated about this region, and this makes its welfare an issue that extends far outside its geographical borders.
The Arab world is rich in material resources and human resources. Arab oil and gas have global significance in terms of production and export with extensive reserves for the future. Arab funds, much of them derived from oil wealth, play an important role in the global banking system, international money markets, and worldwide investment activity. The mineral resources in the Arab world include iron, copper, potash, and aluminum, attaining a modest position in the global market. It should not be forgotten that demand for foreign goods makes this region one of the most important global consumer markets. Worldwide there are tens of thousands of migrant Arab minds working in research centers, health professions, and international companies.
It goes without saying that the Arab world is of great importance to global security and peace, especially in recent years. The map of most of the region was redrawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the eventual withdrawal of British and French colonization. The competition for control of resources and politics in the region has a long history. Resolving the conflicts formed due to local rivalry and foreign interference will not be accomplished overnight.
Despite all the resources enjoyed by the Arab world, as a whole it continues to suffer from a chronic failure to break the deadlock over past grievances. In addition, it has been unable to keep pace with the path of global development. Imagine what the region would look like today if it had embraced political reform, economic policies that benefited entire populations, and the pursuit of excellence in education and scientific research. It is not too late for an intellectual renaissance that builds on the positive elements of the region’s cultural heritage, but this requires educational systems that promote creativity and religious reform that reflects the moral values of each religion rather than blind obedience to one sect or another. Such change forward requires governance systems that provide justice for all rather than power to a few. What are the reasons for this failure?
Internal, External, and Historical Factors
Some Arab and foreign researchers focus on the internal factors of the various crisis situations in the Arab world. It is true that conflict does not erupt in a vacuum. Throughout the history of the region there has been discrimination and intolerance on all sides. Sectarian rivalry that dates back centuries too often becomes an excuse for current disagreements, most often over control of resources and maintenance of exclusive political power. Yet this is also a region that has been victimized by foreign influence, especially the ambitions of regional and international powers. One need not go back to the medieval crusades or the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols to realize that the Arab world has never been a closed system. In fact, the suffering of the Arab world is the result of pressures and influences that are both internal and external.
The colonial era administration helped deepen the stagnation of political structures by denying legitimate opposition. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and other agreements that drew the borders of Arab countries after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire caused many border disputes between Arab countries and between them and foreign countries. Economic resources in the region were exploited by colonial powers, local cultural practices were considered inferior, and little was done to alleviate widespread poverty in the region.
The Cold War era turned the Arab world into a region of rivalry between the two global giants: the West, led by the United States, and the Eastern bloc, led by the former Soviet Union. The Arab-Israeli conflict has contributed to fueling tension and instability in the Middle East since the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. In recent decades, the Arab world has become the primary area for the work of the International Coalition Against Terrorism.
Globalization and the achievements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution played a significant role in exacerbating the internal crises faced by the Arab world. These contributed to weakening the central state and deepening its inability to meet minimum internal obligations toward its citizens. Such a reality stirred public discontent against state authorities and helped revive regional, tribal, and sectarian differences in Arab societies.
In sum, the internal causes for this chronic failure are due to the deep defects and problems of economic structures, which benefited elites, educational systems that did not train people to think for themselves, the weak role of the judiciary, tyranny and corruption, rhetoric that heightens regional and sectarian tendencies, and the narrow social base of some ruling elites.
Although reformists and thinkers such as Rifaa al-Tahtawi, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, and others emerged, their voices had little lasting impact. Reformist calls have emerged in Egypt, Iraq, the Arab Maghreb, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, but these were silenced.
It is not surprising that after the First World War, liberal, socialist, and nationalist ideas were very popular in Arab countries. The elites who espoused such theories did not succeed in mixing them with local cultural principles and were unable to carry out urgently needed historical reforms. Few Arab reformist thinkers had the charisma of such figures as Gandhi, Nehru, Nelson Mandela, and Mahathir Mohamad. Nor were they prophets of peace.
In the past century, there have arisen several streams of Islamic groups including ultra-conservative groups, but these currents have stifled genuine religious reform. It is important to remember that so-called “fundamentalist” religious groups have not been unique to the Arab region or Islam. Religious faith has always been an integral part of cultures in the Arab world and will continue to be so in the future. The problem is a lack of tolerance for opposing views, assuming that one’s own religion or sect is the only true one. When this leads to persecution or criminal prosecution on the basis of religious views, the essential message of peace is denied. Genuine reform looks forward, not toward what is imagined to have been the case in the past. Religion must be allowed to play a positive role in promoting justice, sound governance, equality of citizenship, women’s rights, civil rights, and peaceful political participation.
The so-called Islamic Awakening has echoes of the devastating conflict between Catholics and Protestants that plagued Europe after the 15th century. In both cases there has been a catalyst for armed violence, terrorism, and civil wars. Countless thousands of innocent people have been killed due to intolerance. This is not just between religions, as in the medieval Crusades, but also between sects within religions. The rupture started after the Rightly Guided Caliphs, but the bottom line is invariably political. The current negative rhetoric between different regional powers, for example, is about who gets to dominate. It serves as a political battle, not a theological disagreement. The inability to tolerate religious differences and moderate behavior blocks the religious spirit that is needed at this critical time.
Before the Islamic Awakening, great hope was placed in Arab nationalism, the opportunity for Arab states to rise up out of their colonial past. The Arab League was formed in 1945 in Cairo, the same year as the founding of the United Nations. What started out as six nations, most of which were still under mandate administration, the League now comprises 22 members, although Syria was suspended in 2011. Disagreements between members have greatly affected the ability of the Arab League to institute meaningful cooperation and change. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), created in 1981, is impacted by the recent blockade of Qatar. The Arab Maghreb Union was finalized in 1989 as a trade agreement, but internal differences have largely sidelined it. My point is that part of the failure of reform in the Arab world is reflected in the inability to work together and overcome political differences.
The Arab Spring was heralded in the West as a kind of democratic awakening fueled by popular uprisings. It is true that regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were toppled, but seven years later it is clear that, as the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Libya, Syria, and Yemen are torn apart by conflict, creating a devastating humanitarian crisis and a refugee problem that has polarized European politics. Iraq still has not recovered from the American invasion, which started in 2003. Even though the Islamic State has lost virtually all of the territory it once controlled, the threat of terrorist attacks continues. It is safe to say that statecraft, not just certain individual states, is failing in much of the region.
The current crisis is not confined to the countries covered by the Arab Spring. The impact extends to other countries that ignore deep reforms, fail to expand opportunities for political participation, or guide governance and ways of managing natural and human resources in these countries. Complicating resolution of conflict in the region is the ongoing issue over Palestinian rights as Israel, with American support, continues to expand its settlements in occupied territory and brutalizes the population in Gaza. The war in Syria involves Turkey to its north and Iran to its east. Syrian refugees have flooded into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe. As a result, European politics has taken an anti-immigrant shift to the right.
Trends in the Arab World
Arab countries have witnessed a number of internal armed conflicts, civil wars, and wars with their neighbors that have resulted in millions of human casualties and massive material losses. Half a million people were killed during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. As many as 100,000 Kurds were killed in the Iraqi Anfal campaign of 1988. The Kuwait invasion by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had its devastating consequences that are still felt until now. Between 1945 and 1995, there were at least 92,000 casualties in the Arab-Israeli wars, not counting recent deaths in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. Over 120,000 were victims in the Lebanese Civil War. Sudan suffered roughly two million deaths by war, famine, and disease.
Half a million Syrians have died in the recent conflict and at least 50,000 Yemenis have died due to the war that began over three years ago. It is important not to forget the one million cholera cases and the dependency on humanitarian aid of nearly 80 percent of the entire Yemeni population. These figures do not include the large numbers of children who died from malnutrition, destruction of infrastructure, and other deprivations in war time. No country in the region has been immune from civilian casualties, whether through war or by its own government.
Conflict after the Cold War has heated up in recent years. In the past the various blocs, west and east, used Middle Eastern countries as proxies. Both global powers armed the region to its teeth, thus guaranteeing that conflict would reach far into the future. One noticeable shift is the reluctance of western powers, especially the United States, to remain the police force of the Middle East. American involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq has demonstrated that foreign military action does not lead to political stability. Although there are still American troops stationed in the region, the current policy of the Trump Administration is one of arming certain nations to defend themselves—an approach that has an economic and not simply a strategic benefit. There is still a focus on the “War on Terror,” but that is being fought with drones rather than tanks and soldiers on the ground.
Modern weaponry allows bombing missions without exposing soldiers to armed conflict. External technical support makes it possible for poorly trained personnel in the region to operate sophisticated military hardware. Political differences are overlaid with religious rhetoric, creating sectarian polarization.
The Disease of Violence
How shall I characterize this disease of violence? There is no single causal factor but a complex of local, regional, and international interests that lead to the following symptoms:
- Undermining the structure of the state and dismantling it.
- Internationalization of conflicts.
- Participation of a large number of armed militias in conflicts, often with their military operations concealed and evidence of their atrocities suppressed.
- Imposition of de facto authority by violent coercion with the absence of government services.
- Use of sectarian religious slogans to foment local and regional conflicts.
- Genocide, identity killing, child soldiers, and forced displacement, and the abduction and forced labor of women, such as sexual slavery.
- Dumping all types of weapons into conflict zones, alongside excessive use of violence.
- Continuing undermining of negotiations and peace opportunities.
This catastrophic qualitative shift in Arab conflicts is due to the heavy legacy of internal conflicts in these countries, the diminishing legitimacy of regimes, and the lack of confidence in nationalist, socialist, and liberal theories and ideologies that prevailed in these countries after the post-World War I era. The imbalance in the current international order has also contributed to deepening and prolonged conflict, the diminished role and importance of regional alliances, and the lack of respect for the values of human rights and international law.
Can the situation get worse? Yes, if the superpowers and regional players do not realize the danger of these imbalances for the security and peace of the world. Serious efforts must be renewed to cooperate in drawing the parameters of an international order that respects human rights.
The Challenges of Natural Resources
These imbalances coincide with the increased risk to life on our planet due to climate change, global warming, and overuse of vital natural resources. The Middle East and North Africa region is the most water-scarce in the world. Three decades ago Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was then Egypt’s foreign minister and later secretary-general of the UN, predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be fought over water. Other factors have led to the recent conflicts, but the water shortage is a fire waiting to be lit. Yemen, with its population of some 28 million, is literally running out of water due to overuse of its aquifers and growing demands for urban needs. Jordan does not have enough water for its own population, let alone the influx of several hundred thousand Syrian refugees. Iraq is furious with Turkey and Iran for limiting flow into the Tigris River; Egypt and Sudan are angry at Ethiopia for damming the Nile. People can survive if certain resources run out, but not without water to drink or grow their food.
These imbalances can only be addressed by humanizing the international system, curbing the arms race, promoting confidence and constructive cooperation among nations at all levels, and renewing the spirit of international organizations and freeing them from bureaucratic complacency and corruption. The major powers and the member states of the Security Council have a responsibility to exert greater effort to transform the rivalry in the Arab world into a constructive and balanced competition that serves everyone’s interests and lessens the danger of regional and local conflicts with their humanitarian catastrophes.
Despite the extremely complex conflicts in Arab countries, these will not be difficult to deal with if there is a serious international and regional will to make positive change and put past differences behind. Consider the lesson from the aftermath of World War II, when Germany and Japan were able to redefine themselves as productive and peaceful partners in the international order. The success of the peace processes in the Arab countries depends on unifying the efforts of the regional and international countries to provide material and moral support for peace negotiation. The Security Council has adopted explicit resolutions requiring the cessation of military operations in areas of conflict, the provision of safekeeping and humanitarian assistance to parties in conflict, and an end to the export of banned weapons such as cluster bombs as well as arms smuggling in these areas. Support is needed for practical policies and field-ready plans to oversee the cease-fire, withdraw fighters from areas of confrontation, and intervene quickly to stop cease-fire violations. It is necessary to safeguard the human rights of victims, the wounded, and combatants and assist them for rehabilitation into civilian life.
What should be done now? There are ongoing initiatives by the United Nations and concerned leaders in the region to bring warring parties together at the negotiating table. None of the current conflicts will be resolved by armed conflict. Only by aiming words rather than bombs at each other can progress be made in sorting out differences.
In parts of the Arab world children are dying, pregnant women are not able to get proper health care, people are starving, victims are trying to survive after the deaths of loved ones or cope with injuries, and far too many families have been forced out of their homes or had their livelihoods destroyed. If we cannot recognize their needs, the conflicts will never be resolved.
As I close, let me be specific about my home country, Yemen. I believe the fundamental wish of the Yemeni people is for a resolution of this conflict, a chance to rebuild their lives in safety and with dignity. As a member of Yemen’s National Dialogue, I participated in an effort to propose a national framework that would work for all parts of the society rather than favor a few. This effort, unfortunately, has yet to be acted upon by the Yemeni people. It is necessary to ensure that all the parties to the conflict abide by a comprehensive Peace Agreement, that a functional government of unity or consensus be created to restore services to its people, that reconstruction be directed first at the most vulnerable, and that human rights be the primary pillar for future growth. Resolving outstanding problems with neighboring countries is critical, but Yemen must be allowed to chart its own course.
The problems I have covered are many and the proposed solutions are not going to be easy. No single country, no single alliance, no superpower can resolve the issues that have led to the current conflicts in the Arab world. A first important step is for Arabs to recognize that it is in their best interest to make peace among themselves, not to fight over ethnic or religious differences. Following this, it is necessary to stop the blame game of current rhetoric.
Such efforts at reconstructing and restoring confidence will cost a lot of money, but not nearly as much as is spent on preparing and executing wars. Imagine if the millions upon millions of dollars spent on weapons and bombs in the current conflicts in the Arab world had instead been used to build schools, hospitals, bridges, and recreational parks. Imagine if youth of the region were given hope for meaningful jobs, safe neighborhoods, and the best education possible. Imagine if elites stopped filling their own pockets and did everything in their power to eliminate poverty and discrimination. My question is: why do we have to imagine, when we need to act and make all this possible?