Why Arab regimes don’t do more

By BARRY RUBIN
July 25, 2010 22:57

If the Arab world feels so threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran, shouldn’t it cooperate more closely with the West to seek a solution?




King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

abdullah 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

Readers often ask why it is that threatened by Iran, Syria, terrorist violence and revolutionary Islamists, Arab regimes don’t cooperate more with the West or actively seek to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Sure, they do some things – Jordan and Egypt made peace with Israel, there is some real work with the West, as in the rescue of Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in 1991. But why not much more, on the level that could achieve more stability in the region?

One reader wrote: These despots don’t seem cunning to me at all.

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But that’s flat wrong. They are very cunning and if you understand how, you can begin to comprehend the Middle East.

These rulers’ most important priority is regime survival. The people’s well-being and country’s interest is secondary at best. To stay in power, a dictatorship needs to generate foreign enemies, reduce freedom and monopolize economic wealth. This is, in many ways, the opposite of the Western democratic view that a government which provides freedom and material benefits for its citizens is the one most likely to stay in power.

To ensure regime survival, the dictatorship must protect its Muslim and Arab credentials. Using these two pillars in various combinations, rulers mobilize the people. A key way to do this is anti- Western and anti-Israel demagoguery: The government portrays itself as a champion of Islam and Arabism against demonic foes.

What the West does in response is unimportant to a populace that already views it as an enemy and whose information about the outside world is filtered through regime and ideological propaganda.

Suppose the US distances itself from Israel. How do Arab populaces know or interpret this step? They are told nothing has happened, that it is a trick or far from sufficient. Rather than prove the West is “nice,” these developments are interpreted as merely proving it is weak and frightened, or at best being won over to the Arab regimes’ position. This leads to more demands, not more gratitude.

In these dictatorships, the army’s main purpose is to support the regime rather than win wars. The main purpose of the educational system and media is to glorify the regime, not tell the truth and help fix its problems. The economy’s main purpose is to provide the regime with assets for rewarding friends and punishing enemies, not to create prosperity or raise living standards.

This approach provides neither rapid progress nor better lives for the people. But if you start with the original premise – keeping the regime in power comes first – everything makes sense.

NOW LET’S move to a more advanced stage. Here’s a paraphrase of a letter from another reader which parallels the first one: “Given that Israel is not the only country in the Middle East that feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and that Israel is likely to be the only country that has the political will to do anything about the situation, doesn’t this give Israel a considerable strategic advantage? It strikes me that a number of demands could be made upon Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in exchange for Israeli action against Iran.”

This is a very good question. But the answer is no. Why? Because there is little or no give and take. If Arab regimes get something from Israel, they will not give anything in return (I’ll qualify that point in a second). If they don’t get anything from Israel, they will not give to get an advantage. They will let events go as they may.

The same point, by the way, applies to US-Arab state relations. Of course, the US saved Kuwait in 1991 and Kuwait likes having US military forces around. But there has been no effort to promote pro-US feeling or to help out much on such issues as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the efforts to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Two years later when Washington begged for assistance in the Oslo process, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia did nothing.

Why? Are the regimes stupid or irrational? No, they are following their interests as they perceive them. True, one day they may pay a high cost for their policies, but so far they’ve survived pretty well. The exception is Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who miscalculated and just kept going too far.

Of course, they can hope that Israel or the US will attack Iran for their own reasons, or at least US policy will contain Teheran without their having to do much. They watch a West apparently desperate to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If the West fails, the regimes win by complaining how much they are suffering and demand compensation; if the West succeeds, their passivity worked.

And they have still another reason for acting this way: The West lets them get away with it. When they choose between fearing the US or defusing radical threats at home and abroad, the decision is easy. It is usually more risky to be moderate or work with the West than to defy it.

If you tell them they would be better off if they went to a more Western-style system, they would reply that this is not their culture; their masses might not like it; and their rivals at home and abroad would portray them as traitors. Arab elites watched what happened in the Soviet bloc in the 1980s. The West cheered a peaceful change for freedom; Arab regimes shivered at the thought of anarchy and their own downfall.

So, is this system pragmatic? Yes and no. It is not pragmatic in terms of keeping people happy through freedom and high living standards. It is pragmatic in judging that demagoguery and control are alternative means of securing passivity or even outright support for the regime. It is pragmatic in achieving the main goal: stability and regime maintenance.

Homework: Apply this model to Palestinian politics. In this framework, why isn’t the Palestinian Authority as eager for a complete peace settlement and an independent state through compromise as one would expect using a Western model of politics?

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. He blogs at www.rubinreports.blogspot.com


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