One of the fascinating dimensions of political life across the Middle East region in recent generations has been the repeated Arab concern that some non-Arab power has hegemonic plans to dominate the entire region and rob the Arabs of their identity and rights. This applies mainly to the three principal non-Arab powers in the region—Israel, Turkey, and Iran. It is useful therefore to consider the past and current condition of these three, in order to determine if indeed they have the desire or capability of achieving hegemonic control over Arab societies.
The short and easy answer to that question is: No. They certainly do not have the capacity to dominate the Arab World; if they have the desire to do so, they are probably naïve. Turkey, Iran, and Israel’s relations with different parts of our region over time suggest several important realities: that these non-Arab powers have a combination of good and bad relations with Arab countries, and these ties constantly evolve over time.
Turkey enjoyed a decade of healthy and expanding trade, tourism, and political relations with most Arab states, but now it suffers problematic relations with some key countries, like Syria and Iraq. This is often due to the impact of Kurdish national aspirations, and Ankara has become militarily involved inside both Arab neighbors. In recent years Turkey suffered the ire of rich or powerful Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of its support for Muslim Brotherhood groups that were threatening to assume power in some countries through democratic elections. That has changed, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia now speak of joint military action against Syria and possible partnering with Egypt and others to form a pan-Islamic military force to fight terror threats in the region.
Israel similarly goes through cycles of sentimental and strategic desires to have good ties with Arab countries. The latest version of this is for Israel and conservative Arab governments in the Gulf Cooperation Council to normalize ties, on the assumption that they both share long-term strategic threats from such forces as “Islamic State” (ISIS), Arab popular revolutions, or shattered countries that are replaced by a patchwork of Islamist or tribal militias. Some conservative Arab states in turn might panic and feel that strategic ties to Israel could offer them the protection that they fear they might not enjoy in the long run from a fickle United States.
Most of these ideas are fanciful, but they are not new. Every few decades, Israelis imagine that they can normalize relations with Arab states on the basis of the cold calculations of national strategic interests. This idea always crashes on the realization that Arab societies are not prepared to have normal ties with Israel while Zionist policies continue to colonize Arab lands and maintain the Palestinians in a state of occupation, subjugation, refugeehood and forced exile.
Iran for its part also has erratic relations with Arab people and governments. This often reflects historical tensions between Arabs and Persians, but also is due to contemporary concerns by some Arabs that Iran meddles in their internal affairs by manipulating Shiite Arab communities. Saudi Arabia now leads a serious ideological and military effort to thwart alleged Iranian desires to control Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen through its ties to governments or Shiite communities there. Most well informed people I consult in this region and abroad see the Arab fears of Iranian hegemonic aims as wildly exaggerated. But it is also clear that many Arabs genuinely oppose and actively resist Iranian connections with various Arab government, or groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Despite these realities, we often hear expressions of Arab concerns that new conspiracies are afoot by regional and foreign powers to dominate and reconfigure the Arab world. I suspect that the real issue that matters here is not the aim in Arab lands of Turkey, Iran, Israel, the United States, Russia or anyone else. It is rather what this tells us about the weaknesses of Arab societies that generate their sense of vulnerability to more powerful foreign powers that might dominate or even control them.
The bottom line is that such fears are the imaginings of insecure and politically immature Arabs, whose vulnerabilities actually stem more from their own lack of domestic consensus and citizen-based stability than from any external danger. The real threat to all Arab regimes and governments in the past century emanates from their having relied for their “security” or “stability” more on foreign powers or oil income than on the consent, participation, and validation of their own citizens. This makes it easy for powers like Turkey, Iran, and Israel to engage with slightly panicked Arab governments that desperately seek protection from any available external source rather than from the solidarity of their own people. It also allows foreigners to exploit the fears of Arab citizens who want to challenge their own states by drawing on external assistance. We do have a security problem in the Arab region, and it mainly emanates from within us.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global