The Arab Strategy Forum, in collaboration with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, today issued a report analysing five key events that could drastically shift the future of the Arab world on an economic, political, and social level in the coming decades.

It is one of many annual reports and studies published by the Arab Strategy Forum that is set to take place on 12 December 2018 in Dubai.

Launched at a panel discussion ahead of the Arab Strategy Forum 2018, the report, titled ‘Five Key Events that are Reshaping Arab Realities’, outlined multiple local and international factors that are changing the Arab world, with some too complex to be fully analysed yet.

Led by Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, and Mohamed Al Hammadi, Editor in Chief of Alroeya newspaper, the panel discussion drew the participation of prominent academics and media personalities.

The five events the report focuses on include the crisis of political Islam, the rise and fall of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the rise of pro-Iranian non-state actors, the Qatar boycott, and the socio-economic reforms in Saudi Arabia.

These events that took place in the past five years strongly impact Arab politics and societies at present, and are expected to continue doing so as they develop. Their ripples are felt on a global scale, with international decisions and factors coming into play, which also contribute to reshaping the political landscape in the Arab world.

The Sudden Collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood

One of the most significant outcomes of the Arab Spring has been the brief rise, sudden fall, and ongoing crisis of the Islamist movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Following the ousting of entrenched leaders from power, many assumed that Brotherhood parties would sweep into office and define the emerging Arab political mainstream of the early 21st century. Instead, Islamist movements now find themselves facing unprecedented turmoil.

By 2013, rather than riding the wave of power, Islamists rapidly sank into a crisis that continues to this date. The turning point was in Egypt in 2013, with dissatisfaction rising after President Mohamed Morsi bestowed dictatorial powers on himself to bypass the judicial authorities and seemed to be preparing to purge state bureaucracy for the benefit of Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Morsi’s deposition was a clear mark of failure for Islamist groups across the region. Arabs may have been willing to give Islamists a chance immediately following the uprisings, but in Egypt and other countries, they heightened people’s suspicions about their long-term intentions.

Disconnected from Reality

These organisations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, were clearly blind to the reality of who they are due to illusory self-perception. While they were among the biggest early beneficiaries of the uprisings, and presented themselves as the champions of democracy at the core of the revolutions, in fact, they did not initiate or lead the popular uprisings that overthrew the old regimes. Once the rebellions were well underway, they did jump on the bandwagon, but they did not embody the hopes and dreams of the people.

Parties that shared the mindset of the Muslim Brotherhood had a set of features in common with the earliest Muslim Brotherhood organisation in Egypt in the late 1920s, and that significantly undermined their chances of popularity and political effectiveness following the uprisings. Most of these groups were conspiratorial and rebellious with ties outside the nation.

Moreover, the agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood tends to override national identity and patriotism, placing Islamic affiliation above all else. Its fundamental intolerance threatens traditionally multicultural and multi-ethnic Arab societies, and particularly the rights and roles of various minority groups and women. Hence, scepticism about the Muslim Brotherhood is far more widespread among the elites of the Arab communities, based on decades of experience.

Notably, there is not a single Islamist party that, upon coming to power, has not sought to establish a religious dictatorship or an Islamic-led government, with disastrous consequences, presenting every reason to reject the politicisation of Islam and the Islamisation of politics.

The UAE Model

According to the report, many leading voices in the Arab world continue to stress the need for political orientations that emphasise social and national consciousness over the weaponisation of religious and sectarian sentiments. Some countries of the GCC region, including the UAE, demonstrate the potential of an Arab society that is multi-religious, culturally and ethnically diverse, and religiously and socially tolerant, as well as well-functioning and prosperous.

The largely diverse and traditionally tolerant societies of the Arab world are far better suited to a model based on citizenship and inclusive participation in the national project rather than a narrow vision of sectarian identity and religious dogmatism. They are open to embracing the outside world and successfully participating and competing in the globalised economy and society instead of walling themselves off behind a barricade of reactionary and paranoid dogma.

The Rise and Fall of ISIL

The report notes that the struggle against some of the most vicious forms of weaponised religious extremism in the past five years has focused on combating the alarming rise of ISIL as one of many iterations of the ‘jihadist’ or ‘takfiri’ militant groups that emerged in the aftermath of the 1979-89 war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Its ultra-conservative ideological roots are similar to those of the Muslim Brotherhood. Fused with other influences on the battlefields in Afghanistan, the movement ultimately gave rise to the Al Qaeda organisation in the 1990s.

Following the overthrow of the Taliban after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, Al Qaeda appeared to be vanishing. However, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq breathed new life into Al Qaeda as well as the jihadist movement in general. ISIL emerged from the Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group in Iraq, led by the notorious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The report points out that ISIL had significant ideological and programmatical differences with Al Qaeda. This meant, in effect, that ISIL’s agenda rejected Osama bin Laden's dictum from the 1990s that was effectively the foundational principle of Al Qaeda – to primarily target the enemy far away, such as the United States and the rest of the West, in preparation for eventual victories over the enemy close to home – Arab and Muslim governments. The antithesis led ISIL to be more locally fanatical, violent, and hostile to virtually anyone who is not a member of its organisation than any previous large jihadist group.

While in Syria, all other opposition groups set their sights on overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad, ISIL concentrated instead on establishing its own rule in areas it controlled. This led to a de facto cooperation between ISIL and the Assad regime, with the regime leaving the group largely unmolested and treating it almost as a distant rival rather than an immediate existential threat.

The report also states that while almost everyone welcomes the downfall of ISIL, there is good reason to fear that the larger war against extremism continues, and it is an uphill struggle. Beginning in some of the first Sunni-majority cities in Iraq to be liberated from ISIL, such as Tikrit and Falluja, a disturbing pattern emerged. ISIL fighters were killed or fled, and the organisation apparently disappeared from those areas. However, in a relatively short period, ISIL remnants began to steadily and quietly re-emerge in these towns and cities as insurgents. The same pattern may be developing in Mosul and other parts of liberated Iraq, even as ISIL militants continue to put up a fight in some strategically significant areas of eastern Syria near the border with Iraq.

The report explains that several key factors conspire to prevent a decisive defeat and elimination of ISIL. The ongoing vulnerability and marginalisation of numerous communities in Shia-dominated Iraq and Alawite-dominated Syria, and particularly violence by Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) groups or Syrian Shabiha and other pro-Assad forces still allow ISIL to position itself as the last hope of desperate constituencies. The lack of adequate and coordinated reconstruction efforts and international aid provide further grounds for such a resurgence. Moreover, the broader underlying grievances that gave rise to ISIL in the first place, particularly as a regional phenomenon, are largely unresolved. These include state and social dysfunctionality, economic desperation, and a lack of meaningful collective narratives, which jihadist ideology purports to supply, giving adherents a supposed reason to live and die.

The report reveals that ISIL has lost its caliphate, but it has not been eliminated or even defeated as an organisation and especially as an idea. It continues to function not only in Syria and Iraq, but also in Libya, Yemen, Sinai, and many other parts of the Arab world where conflict rages and lawlessness rules.

However, the past five years suggest that although the war against extremism has not yet been won, it has not been lost either. The battle on the ground must now be augmented by a major effort to confront the belief systems of terrorism, as the jihadist ideology in its various iterations remains powerful.

The Risk of Militias

The report confirms that in addition to the jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIL, a different set of extremist non-state actors threatens the contemporary Middle East – pro-Iranian militias. A prime example of such a group is Hezbollah, assembled under Iranian guidance following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. For the subsequent 20 years, Iran and its allies in various Arab countries made multiple attempts to replicate the enormous success they had in establishing Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy. It is hard to overstate Hezbollah’s value as a strategic Iranian asset deep in the heart of the Arab world and along Israel's border, especially since it eventually established an effective state-within-a-state zone of control in Lebanon.

However, none of these efforts were fully successful until the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. The downfall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq led to a massive expansion of Iran's regional influence and strategic reach. As Iran's power within the Arab world has intensified since the Arab Spring, its reliance on non-state proxies and armed extremist groups has grown. Several Arab countries are now troubled by these powerful pro-Iranian militias that are largely, although not exclusively, under the direct control of Tehran.

Hezbollah is no longer primarily a Lebanese phenomenon, since much of its primary activities take place in Syria and beyond. The organisation has lost at least 1,500 of its most elite fighters in the Syrian conflict, where they have led the fighting on the ground in many of the strategically crucial battles on behalf of the regime. It has been widely reported that the Russian military regards Hezbollah commanders and fighters as uniquely competent among the pro-Assad ground forces with which they have partnered in the conflict. Hezbollah now controls several key areas of Syria, as far from Lebanon as the crucial Al Bukamal region that is adjacent to the Iraqi border.

Moreover, the report reveals that Hezbollah now serves as the vanguard and chief expeditionary training force for a growing network of pro-Iranian militias, terrorist groups, and other non-state actors from destabilised Arab countries. Along with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah has been significantly active in Iraq and Yemen, and according to many reports, increasingly in Bahrain as well.

The report warns that the state-within-a-state model that Hezbollah has pioneered in Lebanon is in great danger of being replicated, at least to some extent, in Iraq. The PMF militia groups, formed with the encouragement of the Iraqi government after June 2014 to battle ISIL and other extremist organisations, could develop into an Iraqi analogue. Moves by the then Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in early 2018 to reorganise PMF groups and incorporate them into the Iraqi military could place this organisation under the control of the Baghdad government. However, there is also danger that groups such as the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Kata’ib Hezbollah, many of which have extensive histories of sectarian violence and terrorist attacks, will be free to exercise state prerogatives and authority, either alongside or in the place of the actual government.

According to the report, one of the most problematic elements in the network of Iranian-backed extremist and non-state actors is the Houthi rebels in Yemen. While Iran’s contact with the Zaydis dates back to the 1980s, the country does not appear to have played a major role in the founding of the Houthi movement in the 1990s. However, during the recent conflict in Yemen, and particularly since the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition following the Houthi seizure of Sanaa in 2014, Iran has significantly stepped up its support for, and interaction with, the Houthis, thereby making itself part of a conflict in which it had been previously only marginally involved.

Furthermore, the report notes that although Iran and Hezbollah categorically deny arming, advising, and training the Houthis, a strong body of evidence suggests otherwise, specifically showing that Hezbollah has lost fighters in Yemen. Particularly, Saudi Arabia and the United States have accused Iran of supplying the Houthis with rockets and missiles, which the group used to target a range of Saudi cities since 2017. The United States presented evidence to the United Nations that links Iran to these munitions, and the United Nations has confirmed that point while passing no definitive judgment on how the Houthis came to possess them.

The boast by an Iranian politician that Tehran now controls four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa – is greatly overblown. On the other hand, Iran has certainly acquired a level of influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen through sectarian non-state actors, militias, and extremist groups that are working to destabilise its Arab neighbours.

This problem has been escalating over the past five years, and there is little reason to believe that this strategy will either be abandoned or become less effective, unless Iran suffers serious strategic setbacks. Several particularly destabilising conflicts in the Arab world seem to be subsiding, but some, such as the war in Syria, appear to be doing so largely on Iran's terms. Other opportunities for such subversive activities are evident, and Tehran has shown an ability and willingness to manufacture crises when necessary. For years, Iran has attempted to seduce Hamas into becoming a Palestinian version of Hezbollah, and while the organisation’s orientation towards the Muslim Brotherhood has greatly complicated such efforts, Iran has not given up. Tehran's influence in Bahrain is reportedly slowly metastasising, and the potential for urban terrorism in the island country remains very real. Moreover, Morocco suspended diplomatic relations with Iran, accusing Tehran and Hezbollah of directly supporting the Polisario Front rebels in Western Sahara.

The report suggests that Iran intends to deepen sectarian divisions in Arab societies through exploiting existing crises, allowing Iran and its proxies to pose as champions of besieged or threatened Shia communities. The strategy has worked so well in recent years that traditional Shia political narratives in the Arab world have in many cases gone from emphasising persecution and victimhood to reflecting a triumphalist sense of power and authority over others. That dynamic, in turn, opens the door for jihadist groups, such as Al Qaeda or ISIL, to position themselves as protectors of existentially threatened communities in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

The Qatar Boycott

The report stresses that leadership in the Arab world has shifted significantly in recent years, particularly since the Arab Spring, away from more traditional centres of power, such as Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, towards countries of the GCC region. Thus, disputes among these countries and, most significantly, the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt that began in early June 2017 resonated on a regional and global level.

According to the report, the standoff, which is now well into its second year, influences relations not only between these countries, but also between their friends and allies within the region and beyond, and even affects the decisions of great powers, such as the United States.

The report emphasises that the announcement of the boycott seemed sudden and unexpected, but was essentially a continuation and intensification of a long-standing dispute between Qatar and several of its neighbours. The quartet disapproves of Qatar’s financial, political, and media support for various extremist and opposition groups throughout the Arab world, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE has long objected to Qatar serving as a hub, financier, and media promoter of Islamist extremists, mainly through its Al Jazeera television network. This view has become increasingly shared by Saudi Arabia and is also strongly embraced by the government of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt. All four of the boycotting countries firmly believe that Al Jazeera was attempting to destabilise Egypt following Morsi’s ouster, which they regard as a direct and significant threat to regional stability. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and the UAE accuse Qatar of providing extensive support to Islamists and other opposition groups from their own societies, including funding and harbouring them, as well as issuing them passports and other essential documents. Its neighbours insist that Qatar had promised to amend its conduct in agreements signed in 2013 and 2014, but has not lived up to those commitments.

The report suggests that the ideological argument essentially boils down to the question of what can be considered legitimate and tolerable manifestations of politicised Islam in mainstream or normative Arab political life, and conversely, what must be rejected as inadmissible. The view long championed by the UAE holds that radical Islamists, in effect, form a unified ideological continuum that features differences in degrees but not in kind. While there are obvious distinctions between Brotherhood parties and Al Qaeda or ISIL, and the groups may consider each other rivals or even enemies, they are essentially manifestations of the same basic political ideology of radical Islamism. Therefore, even though Brotherhood parties focus on political and ideological efforts rather than violence, they share most of the core behaviours of the violent extremist groups, and crucially, most of their long-term aims, such as the eventual unification of the Islamic world under a new religious caliphate.

The report also notes that the imbalance of alarm – the boycott being Qatar’s most important foreign policy concern, whereas for the quartet, it is a relatively minor national security matter – is reflective of broader asymmetries of power, which, in the long run, are most likely to shape the nature of the outcome. However, what is at stake is not merely the balance of power among countries of the GCC region, but the spectrum of normative, mainstream Arab political culture in coming decades, and particularly the role and character of Islamist movements. Two visions are at odds – one sees all versions of radical Islamism as inherently problematic and a threat to regional stability, whereas the other views some of its forms as not only legitimate but essential. In the near future, neither side may prevail in this ideological battle, but if either does, that may be decisive in defining the spectrum of mainstream Arab political culture in the coming decades.

A Fourth Saudi State?

The report explains that the final factor that is significantly reshaping the Arab political landscape might, at first glance, appear to be merely the internal economic, social, and political dynamics at play within one sovereign Arab country – Saudi Arabia. However, the dramatic transformation of Saudi society has broader regional resonance and significance. Saudi Arabia has emerged as a decisive regional power with the UAE as its strongest regional partner. Therefore, the reforms will not be contained within Saudi borders but are likely to create an enormous ripple of influence across the rest of the region.

The report states it is no exaggeration to describe the current developments as the emergence of a fourth Saudi state. If it succeeds, at the end of this process, Saudi Arabia will bear little resemblance in terms of economy, social norms, and governance structures to the third Saudi state that was established in 1932. While structural and administrative political changes may appear modest by such sweeping historical standards, the Saudi way of life is changing rapidly, and in many ways dramatically.

The report also advises against underestimating the scope and scale of the transformation that is underway in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Vision 2030 seeks to fundamentally alter the essential characteristics of Saudi economy, diversifying it away from a near-total reliance on oil. The Saudi government plans to leverage the Public Investment Fund to execute at least 80 major new projects across a range of public services and other sectors. Another key goal is to strengthen the private sector and attract massive foreign investment to the country.

The report points out that encouraging Saudi citizens to think and act as an empowered workforce with a productive dynamic also means recognising that half of the potential national workforce is female. The decision to allow women to drive is a necessary, but in many ways preliminary, step in that direction. In addition, restrictions against gender mixing in public, educational, and work spaces are already being lifted, and that process is likely to continue.

 

Source: APCO Worldwide