Events in the Middle East: The Silver Lining

Understandable Despair

There is an abundance of despair in the Arab world these days. The despair is understandable, but it is also well-deserved to some extent. The Arab nations have learnt nothing from their bitter experiences since the end of the Second World War. Put plainly, unless these nations earn the right to be served by fully representative governments they will not amount to much. What of the Palestinians? Well, they have to rely on themselves and no-one else for the foreseeable future. Sue for peace and accept what you are given, or fight on as best as possible through what is described by the Washington-Tell Aviv axis as ‘terrorism’. Recent events have undoubtedly weakened the Palestinians and their leadership, as intended, and heaven knows what sort of deal they could clinch with the Israelis. Certainly considerable pressure would be put on them by neighbouring Arab countries whose regimes are in deadly fear of destabilisation to accept any deal that is put on the table.

Farce at the Summit

Things, we thought, could not get much worse than the shambles seen at the Arab leaders’ summit in Beirut. Preparations were in hand for that events for many months. When the day came the people in charge looked as though they were making things up as they went along.

There was the unseemly last minute squabbling as to who should meet and greet the Arab leaders as they arrived at the airport. Then there was the argument about whether the media should be allowed to witness the proceedings. What else, for goodness sake? And then to cap it all, there were the inexplicable decisions at the meeting as the day unfolded.

Several leaders declared from the outset that they would not attend. Others decided at the last minute not to join ‘their brothers’ at the meeting. Whatever, the reasons for that change of mind, the man and woman in the street decided that they had received their orders from the ‘usual quarters’. Other leaders packed their bags and went home after a few hours. They had had enough.

I was asked by my perplexed Western friends to explain the chaos that marked, and marred, the Summit. Sadly, the explanation is simple: Arab ‘leaders’, in all fields but especially in politics, are convinced they are better than everybody else at everything. They start from the naive notion that otherwise they would not have been leaders! Copious preparations for the Summit by armies of diplomats and specialists were promptly discarded and the meeting thrown into chaos once the proceedings were underway. That is the Arab way, it seems.

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Before and after that farce, and continuing a practice that has existed for too many decades, the Arab governments put forward spokesmen (yes, almost invariably men!) who could not speak English with ease, which is not a crime, but who could not even present their case in a rational and simple manner, which is definitely a crime. They rarely, if ever, managed to avoid the normal hyperbole associated with spoken and written Arabic.

Arabs like me who have lived and worked for many years in the West have to endure the added agony of appreciating fully the great harm done to the Arab case by these supposedly experienced spokesmen.

Again, I am often asked to explain why the Arab world lacks people who are able to handle public relations effectively. And my answer is always the same: there are thousands, but they are not allowed to do so. Hanan Ashrawi is a case in point. She was appointed by the Arab League to undertake a public information role on the international stage. No-one could do it better, I would have thought. Then news emerged that she has threatened to resign if she were not allowed to do the job she was handpicked to do. The problem is always the same: the ‘leaders’ think they are best at everything. They find it demeaning to allow specialists to do what they are trained to do.

The Arabs do not hold many cards, and if they are not able to put their case in the best light then all is lost. This is doubly critical in a global media dominated by interests that could hardly be described as being sympathetic to the Arabs and their concerns.

Impotence Laid Bare

The most recent Israeli onslaught on the Palestinians has left few illusions in the Arab world. There should have been no surprise at the turn of events either. Sharon’s beliefs about, and intentions for, the Palestinian nation are an open book. One would have thought the Arab states, and Arafat, would have been prepared for the events that unfolded at the end of March 2002. But that would have been too much to expect. Instead, they committed every sin in the international relations book to make Sharon’s task easier.

The preoccupation with Arafat’s fate is a good illustration. Sharon decided to identify him an the enemy and to isolate him. A sophisticated, and democratic, administration would have declared so after that Arafat is unable to undertake his duties and would have appointed an interim head of government in his place. That would have robbed Sharon of a bargaining chip and would have shown that, Arafat or no Arafat, acts of so-called ‘terrorism’ could not be stopped by decree. The causes have to be addressed. The Jews did not rest in pursuing their cause for two millennia and against massive odds, why should the Palestinians surrender their struggle just because one man was isolated, deported, or even assassinated?

But who could replace Arafat, even temporarily? There is no provision for that to happen in the forms of autocratic government favoured in the Arab world. The Palestinian Authority has not deviate from that tradition. Its members are now referred to as the ‘Audi mafia’ (see Sunday Times, 31 March 2002). Officials run the area, one Palestinian wrote, “as if it were their fiefdom, with power but no accountability.” There lies the fundamental weakness of the Arab countries. They are locked into outdated styles of government that are guaranteed to turn them into losers on all occasions.

The USA delayed its intervention in events long enough to underline the message that no Arab regime is safe without Washington’s blessing. The turmoil in neighbouring countries left the regimes concerned grasping at straws. Pleas to the USA to play a role came thick and fast. It is going to be difficult after this episode for any government in the area to criticise Bush for acting as the ringmaster. Baghdad is the next destination.

Where is the Silver Lining?

As I said above, the Palestinians will have to paddle their own canoe. Sink or swim, they cannot rely on help for their ‘Arab brothers’, or the UN and the ‘international community’ for that matter. Words are no substitute for action and the Arab leaders are big on rhetoric but short on delivery.

Surely the Arab states are powerless to act. That might be the case on the military front, but given willingness there are other lines of action that could be taken. For instance, we are told Egypt is beholden to the USA because of the aid it receives from the hegemonic power. Other Arab countries could step in to replace that source of funding. How could they when even oil-rich Saudi Arabia is in deep financial difficulties? These difficulties, however, are self-imposed as the Saudis are by far the largest importers of weapons, mainly from the USA. Annual arms imports are many times greater than the aid given to Egypt. Why not reduce arms purchases and pass the saving to Egypt? The practical effects of such a shift are all too obvious, particularly on domestic politics in the USA. But the Palestinians would be foolish to hold their breath while they wait for such a change in policy.

The above example was given merely as an illustration. Other courses of action could be pursued, but that is most unlikely. The only option open to the leaders of the Arab nations is to pin hopes on America’s generosity and we all know what that entails whenever Israel is involved. The price for the Palestinians will be high. That much is certain.

Nonetheless, the agonies that the Arab world is going through, and have been going through for decades, are not unknown elsewhere. Such events have determined the course of history of many countries, especially those now referred to as the ‘Western democracies’. That is how nations progress and mature.

The present Arab regimes are putting the nails in their own coffins by their determined reluctance to reform. The ‘Palestinian problem’ is just a symptom of a much bigger malady, albeit a very important one. Regardless of how the current events end, the Palestinians will not disappear off the face of the earth. Bush and Sharon may appoint a puppet regime but problems for, mainly innocent, people on both sides of the divide, will continue. Sharon and other hotheads will lose that fight. That is also certain.

But Sharon’s actions, America’s madcap policies in the Middle East, and reluctance by Arab regimes to reform radically will combine to force the Arab nations to wake up and move reluctantly into the modern era. This is not wishful thinking. Historical evidence from other countries leaves little doubt on that score. The end result is clear. However, how and when these changes will take place is unknowable, for technical reasons explained elsewhere in this website. That is the way nations move forward.

Let us hope that the inevitable transformations when they come prove to be less bloody than usual in these circumstances. Better still, let us hope the regimes now in power see the light and begin the process of radical democratisation themselves. That would be the best outcome for all concerned, but it requires wisdom that is currently not much in evidence.