Pan-Arab unity not evident at this week’s Kuwait City summit

Nationalism still seen as trumping political ideology; On almost every issue, the Arab states are divided on how to proceed, whether it be on Syria, Iraq, Egypt or on how to deal with Iran.

March 26, 2014 06:24
3 minute read.
arab league

Foreign ministers of the Arab League countries meet in Cairo March, 9, 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Pan-Arabists claim that Arabs belong to one nation, and Arab summits tend to play lip service to such lofty ideological rhetoric, though it mostly rings hollow.

Presenting this line, Kuwait’s emir and the host of this week’s Arab League summit, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said Tuesday, “The dangers around us are enormous and we will not move towards joint Arab action without our unity and without casting aside our differences.”

However, on almost every issue, the Arab states are divided on how to proceed, whether it be on Syria, Iraq, Egypt or on how to deal with Iran.

For example, Qatar signaled its irritation on Tuesday with Iraq’s accusation that it backed insurgents fighting Baghdad’s rule.

“It is about time for Iraq to get out of the cycle of rifts and violence, which cannot be achieved by sidelining segments of the population, or accusing it of terrorism, if they demanded equality and participation,” said Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Because of the divisions among the Gulf states, the US canceled a meeting scheduled for later this week between President Barack Obama and Gulf leaders, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Pan-Arabism, Arab unity and Arab nationalism are terms that have been used to describe the modern Middle East, but perhaps the latter is the most accurate lens among them to view events.

In the early 20th century, the majority of Arabs still defined themselves according to their tribe or religious group, despite borrowing from Europe the notion of language as a basis for national identity.

According to Prof. C. Ernest Dawn, Arab nationalism arose as a result of an inter-Arab elite conflict.

And since the 1920s, “one of the outstanding features of Arab political life” has been the struggle between state nationalism (wataniyya) and pan-Arab nationalism (qawmiyya), Middle East scholar Bruce Maddy-Weitzman said in his book The Crystallization of the Arab State System, 1945- 1954.

“Since their creation, individual Arab states had never hesitated to give priority to their separate interests,” explained Middle East scholar and president of Shalem College Martin Kramer in his article, “Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity.”

“Yet they had been persuaded by their perceived lack of legitimacy to pledge formal fidelity to the Arab nation, and thus risked being dragged into crises generated by other Arab states, or being accused of breaking Arab ranks for staying out,” said Kramer.

Eran Segal, an associate researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa, told The Jerusalem Post that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates did not even bother to send their rulers to the Arab summit and that the Kuwaiti effort to mediate among discordant Arab states was doomed to fail.

The leaders of Kuwait and Qatar were the only Gulf state leaders to attend.

Segal added that Qatar is standing strong against Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, which made the unusually strong move of recalling their ambassadors from Qatar earlier this month.

“Qatar is not buckling under the pressure,” said Segal.

Asked if the Gulf Cooperation Council group was an alliance in name only, with little real unity, Segal responded that until the Arab uprisings, the GCC “was the most stable and functional body in the Arab world.”

It made real progress in some areas such as in economic cooperation, he said, though he noted that “all are monarchies relying on oil and building a bridge in other matters would be difficult.”

There are limits to how far unity can go and the Saudis seem to be frustrated by the GCC, he said.

Hence, we are witness to yet another Arab summit of bickering where the states’ narrow interests supersede those of Arab unity.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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