The Arab League Summit in Jeddah was likely one of the most serious occasions for the historically dysfunctional pan-Arab organization. Saudi Arabia used it as a platform to launch its regional vision in a rapidly transforming world and to cement its role as the regional Arab leader. Those who remember the Arab summits of the past, with their hours-long Gaddafi speeches and yelling matches, find the quick, practical, and matter-of-fact approach refreshing. In addition, the median age of the attendees was likely one of the lowest in the history of the Arab League. All of this encapsulates the new political, bureaucratic, and administrative spirit which is being pushed on the region by the Gulf powers. Saudi state media pushed the line of starting a “New Middle East,” but with the resurfacing of the platitudes of Palestine, Arabism, and nonalignment, we should wonder if the Middle East is still struggling with the dead weight of Arabism.
The Jeddah Summit comes on the heels of a period of rapid transformations both globally and regionally. The Russian War in Ukraine signaled a new era of world power competition in which the United States, while still the most powerful nation in the world, can not claim unquestioned dominance. Historical world divisions between the first, second, and third worlds are reemerging today in an international environment polarized around those who stand on the side of the West in its holiest crusade in decades and those who are ambivalent toward it. Moreover, the legacy of Third Worldism and rampant international anti-Americanism is merging today into anti-Woke polemics, which are being capitalized on by Russia, China, Syria, Iran, and others. This new bifurcation offers most states a choice of either falling into the orbit of Western elites with their new ESG economic models, net-zero emissions gospel, anti-fossil fuel crusade, and gender ideology but with the perks of superior financial, military, and technological support. Or, the China-Russia block, which does not make ideological or political demands, offers access to large developing markets but without comparable military, financial, or political power to the West. Every day, Chinese military technology is decreasing the qualitative gap with American technology, yet the gap is still present and wide. Russia is able to withstand the might of a Western assault yet at a huge cost to its economy and its strength.
For the Middle East, this new international challenge could not have come at a worse time. Following a decade of civil wars, terrorism, regional conflicts, political instability, and state collapse, a new generation of Arab leaders is seeking to protect its power, stability, and future from the juggernaut of Middle Eastern dramas. Its grand vision can be described as four concentric circles; at the outer level is a strong international cooperation with world powers guaranteeing security and free trade; the second circle is that of regional cooperation and deconfliction focusing on ending, or containing, the primary regional conflicts with Iran, Israel, and Turkey; the third circle is of combating Islamic extremism and social liberalization; the fourth and most central circle is of economic development and wealth accumulation which is ultimately the primary objective of such a vision.
A polarized international environment constitutes a major challenge for such a vision making it significantly more difficult to force as many regional actors as possible to bind themselves to a new regional structure. Ideally, this would not be the case had the United States not undermined its own reliability in the region. Concretely, the United States is the most optimal choice for most of the Arab Gulf leaders as the first political and security partner. Yet the United States’ recent record on Iran and Saudi Arabia leaves most Arabs convinced that the era in which they could depend on America for international and regional support is over. The United States, busy with pivots and turns to all kinds of places, has shown to lack any cohesive strategy or political will to protect its own interests in the region, let alone Arab interests, and allowing Iran to amass the most extensive power projection capabilities of any country in the Middle East at the expense of both Arabs and Israel. In the most brutal and consequential regional war in years, it was the support of Russia and Iran that determined the ultimate victory of Bashar Assad in Syria against Amerian-supported forces. Moreover, the rise of American elite hostility to fossil fuel, which is seen by most Gulf officials as hypocritical, threatens Arab development plans, which still must rely on large oil revenue for its economic transformation plans. If one combines both the Arab vision of the four concentric circles and the recent American record in the region, one can easily see that the US policy is orienting itself to be counterproductive nearly on every level.
These conditions are what pushed Saudi Arabia, protective of its own ambitious economic plans, to take charge of regional efforts to find an operative formula that could help achieve its objectives. This includes a comprehensive realignment of all regional relations to try to bring under control all the drivers of regional conflict and stability within an Arab effort to maintain a balance of relations between the United States, Russia, and China which is being called a policy of international nonalignment. In short, Saudi Arabia wants to lead Arab states in outmaneuvering the elites in Washington, Moscow, and Bejing, and regionally Tehran, Doha, and Ankara, to stay out of international polarization, protect its fossil fuel trade, and freeze regional conflicts in a way that guarantees Saudi domestic objectives of economic development and diversification.
The Jeddah Summit was Saudi Arabia’s formal launch of this effort and seemed to have the support of many Arab states. At the summit, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meaningfully remarked that Saudi Arabia was not going to let the region become the theater of outside conflict. Notably, he invited both Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russia’s ally and America’s foe, as well as his antithesis, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky. Assad’s readmission into the Arab League after 12 years signals the major pivot taken by Saudi Arabia into its new role as the potential leader of an independent Arab block that can have a near-peer relationship with the great world powers. His invitation to Zelensky to be present in the same room signals the will for international nonalignment. In short, Saudi Arabia is bidding on neo-Arabism.
Will this neo-Arabism succeed, or will it have the same fate as the old Arabism? Only time will tell. But there are many signs of concern. The platitudes of Palestine as “the cause of the Arabs,” which was still notably present, begs a major question of how possible it is for a new pragmatic, quick-moving, and light Arabism could escape the self-destructive populism of the old Arabism. Syrian President Assad, a man who oversaw the killing of half a million of his own people within a decade, had the audacity to use the 5 minutes designated for his speech to offer his “seasoned” advice as a veteran Arab statesman about the need to resist American woke-ism. Will a Saudi regional leadership be able to put such populism in check, or will it fall into the seduction of symbolic power? Moreover, the end of the era of American dominance in the region is more of a cause for mourning than a celebration. The United States was always a flawed friend, but it was a friend nevertheless, and a very powerful and resourceful one at that. Will Arab diplomatic and political shrewdness be able to compensate for the absence of American security guarantees and military might? The one promising sign is that the Saudis themselves seem to be reluctant about their new role. They would have preferred an American presence that allowed them to focus on themselves in a deeply troubled region, but Washington left them no choice, which ironically was what President Obama always wanted. The challenges facing the region are monumental, and if Saudi Arabia is to succeed in surmounting them, it can only do so with a close friendship with Israel. If the Saudis are to continue exploring the possibility of neo-Arabism, it must be built not on doctrines of eternal conflict but on the final acceptance and friendship of the state of Israel.
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