What Is Wrong with the Arab World?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mohammed Ayoob

University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and author most recently of Will the Middle East Implode? (Polity, 2014)

The mayhem and anarchy currently dominating the political scene in the Fertile Crescent is often attributed to the horrible crimes committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and to the growth both of Islamist radicalism and Sunni-Shia sectarianism. But terrorism, extremism and sectarianism are epiphenomena that are products of underlying factors. They are not independent variables that can explain the anarchy pervading Iraq and Syria and threatening to embroil their neighbors, primarily Lebanon and Jordan.

It is, therefore, necessary to probe further in order to discover the causal factors responsible for the current sorry state of affairs in the Arab East. One has to go back about 100 years to identify what can be termed the primary factor responsible for the conflicts in the Middle East today: the arbitrary boundaries that created the modern states of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine/Israel. These Sykes-Picot boundaries were drawn by the British and French to divide the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire largely for imperial convenience. The British wanted Iraq for its oil, Palestine in order to implement the Balfour Declaration that promised a homeland for the Jews, and Trans-Jordan, to compensate the Hashemite prince Abdullah ibn Hussein for the loss of Hijaz to the Saudis — and to show their gratitude to the Hashemite clan for leading the so-called Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

The French obtained Syria, out of which they created Lebanon as a gift to their Maronite wards, little realizing that their minority status in multi-confessional Lebanon would inevitably lead to civil war and state failure. In Syria itself the French favored the Alawi minority over the restive Sunni majority, creating enormous resentment among the traditional Sunni Arab elite and laying the foundations for today’s bitter Alawite-Sunni rift. The British protectorate of Iraq brought together in one state a substantial Kurdish population in the Mosul vilayet (which, had Iraqi Kurdistan not been rich in oil, would have become a part of the post-Ottoman Turkish Republic) with Sunni and Shia Arabs that came to be ruled by a predominantly Sunni elite resented both by the Kurds and the Shia. The immigration of European Jews into Palestine as part of the British plan to create a Jewish homeland transformed the mandated area demographically and laid the foundation for a century of Zionist-Palestinian conflict.1

The implementation of the Sykes-Picot agreement as modified by the Balfour Declaration created weak states lacking the political and social cohesion that only an autonomous process of state-making could create. The legitimacy of these states’ borders has been constantly challenged since their inception, particularly during the heyday of Arab nationalism under the leadership of President Nasser of Egypt in the 1950s and ‘60s, when various abortive plans for the unification of Egypt, Syria and Iraq were attempted.

However, from the 1970s through the 1990s the challenge subsided. Nasser’s defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967 took much of the wind out of Pan-Arabism’s sails. This coincided with the coming to power of strong men in the two most important states of the Fertile Cresent — Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Their heavy-handed rule not only crushed regime opponents; the states over which they presided began to exude a sense of permanence that had eluded them until the 1970s. The situation changed drastically in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent decimation of the country’s military and civilian state apparatus. This resulted from a deliberate policy of de-Baathification. Iraq’s descent into chaos led many analysts to believe that it was merely a matter of time before the country would disintegrate into a minimum of three parts — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shia Arab.

The upheavals of 2011, collectively known as the Arab Spring, let loose forces that made a bad situation even worse. Libya, Yemen, and, above all, Syria, began to totter on the verge of collapse as their strong men either fell or were seriously challenged. Iraq’s situation was compounded by the Maliki government’s shortsighted and overtly sectarian policies, which alienated Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds almost to a point of no return. The Iraqi state, like its Syrian counterpart, began to unravel as well.

Into the void created by state failure in Iraq and Syria moved the extremist jihadi elements symbolized by ISIL. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had done something similar during the early years of the American occupation, when the Iraqi state had lost control of vast areas of the country, especially in the north and west. These events were almost a re-run of what had happened in Afghanistan when al-Qaeda emerged to fill the void left by the collapse of the state in the 1990s.

What this demonstrates is that it was not the rise of extremism or radicalism that created anarchy and state failure in the Middle East. It was state failure and the anarchy surrounding it that provided the opportunity for such groups to flourish. Therefore, jihadism and extremism are not the independent variables that many imagine them to be, but merely the products of anarchy and chaos that normally accompany state failure. It also demonstrates that artificially created states are more vulnerable to state failure than those, such as Turkey and Iran, which are products of a largely autonomous historical process of state formation and consolidation.

The Republic of Turkey was created by a hard-fought war of independence in the teeth of opposition by the victorious powers of World War I. It owes its existence not merely to the rump of the Ottoman forces led by Mustafa Kemal that spearheaded the war but even more by the enormous sacrifices of the Anatolian peasantry, both Turks and Kurds, during four years of incessant fighting. Iran has remained a distinct political entity since the sixteenth century. Despite the loss of territory in Central Asia and the Caucasus, principally to the Russian Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Persian and Azeri center has continued to hold for five centuries.

Sectarianism, like extremism, is also a byproduct of state debility and collapse rather than its cause. The rise of both religious sectarianism (Sunni-Shia) and ethnic (Kurds-Arabs-Turkmens) is directly related to the failure of the state to provide security to its population. The state provides other services as well, but citizens repay it with revenue and loyalty primarily because it guarantees their security and ensures societal predictability. When the state is unable or unwilling to provide security to individuals, groups or communities, they turn to other sources, usually those that have been part of the citizen’s primordial identity. Individuals and groups transfer both their loyalty and revenues to these alternative providers of security once the state abjures its primary role.

The emergence of sectarian, ethnic and regional militias as alternative providers of security following state collapse is best explained by the incapacity of the state to perform its basic functions. Explanations based on conflict of identities or skewed distribution of resources among different segments of the population, while important, are secondary to the variable of state failure. Sunnis and Shias took refuge in their sectarian identities in Iraq Lebanon, and elsewhere when the state ceased to be a functioning entity. The story was repeated in Syria as well.

Weak states are easily permeable entities. Lebanon was traditionally the classic example of this phenomenon, providing the opportunity for external powers from the region and outside to engage in proxy wars with their adversaries through local surrogates. Maronite militias acted as proxies for Israel and the United States, Sunni groups as proxies for the Arab nationalist regimes of Egypt and Syria. These proxy wars helped tear the Lebanese social fabric apart.

Currently, Iraq and Syria are the primary theaters of proxy wars pitting Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iran. The Saudi-Iranian cold war for primacy in the Persian Gulf is being largely played out in the Fertile Crescent. This proxy conflict has contributed heavily to the surge of sectarianism in both Iraq and Syria. This is related to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a fundamentalist, Sunni state that is viscerally anti-Shia while Iran is the leading Shia state in the Middle East. Both have stoked the fires of Sunni-Shia conflict to serve their own ends although the Saudi contribution is far greater than that of Iran. The Shia are a minority in the Arab Middle East, even if they are a majority in Iraq and a plurality in Lebanon, and Iran is a non-Arab state. Tehran, therefore, has to be much more discrete in how it plays the Shia card if it is to retain influence in the predominantly Sunni Arab world.

Another and related proxy war is raging in Syria with the United States and its allies pitted against the Assad regime supported by Russia. The naval base at Tartus in Syria is of great symbolic importance for Russia, as it is its only military base outside the former Soviet space and thus augments its image as a global power. The Assad regime guarantees the existence of this base and has also been a loyal ally of Russia since the Soviet days. For the United States, its desire to bring down the Assad regime is driven by its commitment to its Saudi ally, its desire to weaken Iran, and its concern for the security of Israel. The involvement of Russia and the United States in the region has added to the population’s insecurity and further circumscribed state autonomy.

The emergence in the Arab East of Sunni Islamist radicalism, often identified as an independent variable affecting the security situation in the region, is not an autonomous factor. The various jihadi groups, from al-Qaeda and the al-Nusra Front to ISIL, are all inspired by an ideology nurtured in Saudi Arabia and exported by the Saudi regime around the greater Middle East to shore up and expand its influence in the region, especially against the growing influence of Shia Iran, the Saudis’ primary regional competitor.

All these groups are offshoots of Wahhabi version of salafism, the dominant Saudi religio-political ideology. They differ from the original version in that they combine the political radicalism of Syed Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologue in the 1950s and 1960s, with the ultra-conservative social and cultural ethos of Wahhabism. Furthermore, huge doses of violence have been added to this ideology, a product of the state-free context in which they operate. Consequently, they now pose a threat to Saudi interests in the region and even to the Saudi regime itself. The Saudi government now considers them anathema.

The Saudi and allied connection with these jihadi groups is not merely ideological but also financial. These countries have been the primary source of funding for the proxy war with Iran and the Syrian and Iraqi regimes allied with it. While the Saudi regime may have stopped funding these groups directly, wealthy individuals in the country and in the Gulf sheikhdoms continue to finance multiple jihadi groups especially in Syria. Much of the money goes through Kuwait, which, according to a recent Brooking’s report, has become the hub for financial transfers to extremist jihadi Sunni groups in the region.2

Another factor that has contributed to the growth of radical Islamism is the failure of moderate Islamism to retain power after the Arab uprisings. This outcome had been foreshadowed by the refusal of outside powers, especially the United States and the Israeli occupier to accept Hamas’s takeover of power in occupied Palestine after its victory in the elections of 2006. However, the lesson from this episode was blurred; Palestine was occupied territory, and the occupation generated its own dynamic that observers thought could not be repeated in other countries of the Middle East.

Events after the Arab Spring have dispelled this notion. While Ennahda in Tunisia faced enormous difficulties even after it attained a plurality in free and fair elections, the most dramatic case where moderate Islamists were ousted from office by force was Egypt. The overthrow of President Morsi by a military coup, the killing of 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the outlawing of the Brotherhood by the Sisi regime, and the incarceration of the Brotherhood’s top leadership sent the clear message that remnants of ousted regimes and their foreign backers — in this case, Saudi Arabia and the United States — will not countenance rule by an Islamist party, even if it is committed to constitutionalism and democracy.

In one fell swoop, the moderates lost the debate to the extremist Islamists who had condemned the Brotherhood for making ideological compromises and had argued that Islamists could only hold power in the Middle East through the barrel of a gun. The events in Egypt have been grist for the extremist mill, bringing fresh recruits to their cause, some of them former moderate and constitutionalist Islamists. Groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliates have benefited immensely from the forcible overthrow of the Morsi government in Egypt, which discredited the constitutionalist road to power in the eyes of many political activists with Islamist sympathies. As the popularity of the jihadist elements has soared, so have anarchy and conflict in Iraq and Syria.


1 According to Lord Balfour, “The Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” Quoted in Walid Khalidi, “One Century After World War I: Palestine and Palestine Studies”, Open Democracy, April 2, 2014, accessed at https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/walid-khalidi/one-century-after-world-war-i-and-balfour-declaration-palestine-and-pal.

2 http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/12/06-private-gulf-financing-syria-extremist-rebels-sectarian-conflict-dickinson?utm_campaign=Saban+Center+for+Middle+East+Policy&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=14171475.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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