It’s time for an Arabian Union? - Dr Muzaffar Iqbal - Friday, March 04, 2011

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The proverbial cat is out. No one can put it back in the bag, but where would it go? Those who orchestrated change in the Middle East were unaware of the consequences of “liberating” Iraq, but they pretended to know it all. They bombed Iraq into submission, had its dictator hanged, pretended to have no responsibility for the intra-Muslim blood baths that ensued. But they certainly had no idea where this change will lead and what would emerge from the fires.

Surely, the Western world cannot be blamed for the centuries-old Shia-Sunni divide, which has never been so full of rage in modern history as it is now in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, even Syria. But even though the West has little to do with the historical divide between Shias and Sunnis, its modern-day reincarnation is certainly dependent, to a large extent, on how the Western world has played out the old historical divisions. That, however, is a footnote to the great possibility that lies beyond the present state of affairs. To be sure, the Sunnis and Shias have to work out a modality of coexistence if further bloodshed is to be avoided in Iraq and other countries of the region, as there are no easy solutions to their theological disagreements, and there are no corrective measures to curtail the damage caused by uninformed mass-circulating false historical narratives which generate hatred and, ultimately, violence.

Furthermore, let us also note that, regardless of how one looks at the invasion of Iraq – the starting point of the current process of change – there is no denying the fact that it was an illegal invasion and that it was orchestrated by the United States of America and the UK on false claims. But what is important is the fact that this invasion has led to a wave of change in the Arab world—the first real and significant change since the reconfiguration of the Arab world by the European powers in the first quarter of the 20th century when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and its large Arab territories were carved out in different states under different political influences.

This change has now unleashed its logical consequence in the form of a new generation rising up to dictators with whom the West has comfortably worked for decades. The change has been sudden and swift and, though both Europe and America seem to have quickly adapted to it, they are still not in a position to control it. Yet, this slow adaptation is apparent. For instance, the Swiss authorities keep the accounts of these dictators in fluid state for decades, even though they know that the large sums of money which flow into these accounts are illegal. And now as soon as the first signs of uprising appear on the horizon, they freeze the accounts, claiming the high moral ground that the money is illegal. Well, I suppose, they have their cake and can eat it too; after all, the money was illegal when it was fluid and they had it, and now that they see the danger of its going out, they freeze it so that it does not leave! That is some Darwinian adaptation!

These are, however, passing situations. Of more permanence is the fact that the Arab world is going through a complex process of change in which a new generation of Arabs is playing the leading role. This new generation is rather inexperienced in the ways of the world. The old dictators had received a well-formed state machinery modelled by the colonial powers for their own good. All that they did was appropriate the profits from that setup and rename certain companies and banks. They kept the Western interests in place, and this involved very large sums of money spent on arms, oil exploration and export rights, concessions for building railroads and telecommunication systems and development of real state, and in some cases a profitable hotel and resort business. All of this was shared by these dictators and their cronies with the Western companies and with the Western corporate world.

The new generation does not have the practical skills and experience of governing modern states and it cannot depend on the old system without making the word “change” meaningless. Thus, Arabs need to form a new structure and the most logical one is an Arabian Union. They have to learn to rely on each other in matters of governance and they have to forge a polity that is greater than their own nations. This is the only way to move forward in a world that has changed so much since the last reconfiguration of their part of the world three quarters of a century ago. This means that any real change has to be slow. It has to be well-grounded in new trans-national institutions which can cope with the new political realities of these nations, as well as with the new and emerging political, military, and economic tactics of the Western world. They need to bring benefits of national resources to the masses, rather than to a handpicked elite working hand-in-glove with the rulers who, in turn, work as surrogates for the Western world. This also requires visionary leadership that can see the process of change beyond national frontiers in the form of an Arabian Union which will economically and socially unite this resource-rich region into one single entity in the not too-distant a future.

The idea of an Arabian Union, perhaps initially modelled on the European Union, is not a far-fetched idea, if Arabs can overcome the Shia-Sunni divide, and this may be far easier for the new generation of young men and women who have come out on the streets of Egypt, Tunis, Libya and other countries, for they can hope to forge a new polity in which these age-old conflicts can finally come to rest, even if no theological solutions can be found for them.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:

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