international analysis and commentary

The Arab world that never was: lessons from history


“The edifice that has not firm foundations make not lofty; and if thou dost, tremble for it.”

                                                                                               Saadi (Persian poet)

Introduction: An explanation from the past
When writing my last book, To Begin The World Over Again, an intellectual biography of T.E. Lawrence, one vignette came to haunt me. Gertrude Bell, the most fascinating woman of her age and the single person most responsible for the creation of the modern state of Iraq, had an argument with her long-time friend, John Van Ess, an American missionary and old Mesopotamian hand. Warning his formidable if wholly unreflective friend, Van Ess said, “But Gertrude you are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity…They have never been an independent country.” Her response to this reasonable warning? “Oh, they will come around.”

Nine decades on, they still have not.

The British-imposed King – Feisal I, Lawrence’s old comrade from the glamorous Arab Revolt of World War I – had no specific knowledge of Iraq and its people. As Bell’s biographer, Janet Wallach, puts it,

“(Feisal) had never before set foot in Iraq; he knew little of the people he would rule, of the land over which he would reign, of the history he would inherit. He had no knowledge of Iraqi tribes, no friendships with their sheikhs, no familiarity with the terrain – the marshes in the south, the mountains in the north, the grain fields, the river life – and no sense of connection with its ancient past. He even spoke a different dialect of Arabic.”

Lost in the romantic haze hovering over the Hashemite era in Iraq is the incontrovertible fact that there were 30-plus coup attempts in the 30-plus years the Hashemites sat on the Iraqi throne, an average of more than one a year. To put it mildly, this was not a secure political system. Frankly, it is a wonder the whole creaking edifice of the Kingdom of Iraq lasted until 1958, then to be quickly superseded by the Baathists and Saddam Hussein.

The British almost wholly ignored or worked against local Iraqi culture and the politics that flowed from it. Fatally, the British ignored the local ethno-religious units of Iraqi politics – centered on the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities – instead vainly trying to forge a unitary, centralized state.

As a result, the Mesopotamian locals were not stakeholders in the new monarchy, which never acquired the vital asset of local legitimacy. In ignoring the former provincial system of the Ottomans, which correctly recognized that the Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis made up different units of politics in the Mesopotamian region, the British announced the creation of a unitary and centralized Iraq despite the fact that such a political construct had never before existed.

At the time of Feisal’s ascension to the throne, predictably the three main political units in Iraq wanted very different things: The Sunni nationalists wanted Iraq to emerge as an Arab kingdom, the Shia wanted it to evolve into an Islamic religious state, and the Kurds in the north sought independence. After all that has happened, this bedrock reality sounds frighteningly like today.

The decisive failure of British nation-building efforts in 1920s Iraq is a far from academic example, because the same ham-fisted modus operandi was repeated time and again across the entire region, and does much to explain why the “Arab world” as such simply does not exist. States not held together by the sinews of a common language, religion, geography, culture, ethnicity, and history, have not, with a few exceptions, fared well across the sands of time.

Iraqis, with differing ethnicities, practicing different forms of Islam, and with very different histories, were certainly far from a homogenous group. Given the differing units of politics in Iraq, only a far more confederal political model – one corresponding with the facts on the ground there – might have led to political stability. But for the British and French neo-colonial powers in the Middle East, it was bureaucratically far easier to tactically manage things from one outpost, rather than in this case, from three. Hence the proliferation of overly centralized, politically fragile Arab states throughout the Middle East – from Iraq to Syria – following the diabolical Sykes-Picot secret treaty of February 1916, which carved the region up for the satisfaction of the British and the French.

Thus was the heart-rending pattern of Arab disunity established. The Iraqi model of government under the Hashemites came to be characterized by international weakness and domestic centralized control, as premiership after premiership futilely tried to overcome the basic fact that Iraq was not a cohesive nation. In the absence of political legitimacy, Nuri Said – Lawrence’s old wartime comrade and the dominant figure running the Hashemite state over three decades – held Iraq together in the self-defeating manner common in the Middle East, through repression. Nuri’s government employed over 20,000 domestic secret agents, or one for every Iaqi who could then read.

This basic political pattern, dolefully repeated across the region in the Middle East following on from World War I, is the single greatest reason there is no “Arab world.” Paradoxically, by ignoring the region’s actual heterogeneity, any hope of a broader Arab construct has been shattered, as the individual and largely unrepresentative Arab states have become trapped in a cycle of division, with weak regimes glued together primarily by the short-term glue of repression.

The failure of the Arab Spring just makes this ongoing, underlying reality glaringly obvious. Libya’s basic tribal fragmentation has been revealed for all to see in the wake of the demise of the dictator Gheddafi, Syria (always the most complicated political mosaic of them all, stretching back to the time of Lawrence) has utterly shattered, Egypt seems only able to hold its many fissures together though a continued, unimaginative military dictatorship, and Iraq remains a mess.

Presently there is no Arab world, but nor has there been such an animal in modern times; instead such an idea is a lazy Western construct, dangerously designed to simplify the complicated, as time and again international relations analysts the world over amalgamate what is going on in the region, rather than making sense of it and disaggregating things. The great intellectual danger in the Middle East is to give the region a coherence it simply has not had, certainly since the time of Lawrence and the post-World War I settlement.

What the mirage of the Arab world means for today
Until this key question of the unit of politics within Arab states corresponding to their specific cultural and historical realities is mastered, they will remain doomed to be fragile, reactive, and inherently weak, always lacking the magic elixir of political legitimacy that makes more coherent states strong.

But the more coherent states at their periphery are not waiting for the present day Arab world to finally get its act together. Given the power vacuum created by the implosion of the Arab world (or at least the recognition of this until-now obscured reality), the power structure of the region has begun to congeal, leaving non-Arab states with strong, relatively homogenous national identities in the driver’s seat. It is little wonder that Turkey, Israel, and Iran, all in their very different ways at the periphery of the Middle East, have gained in strength, just as the most powerful states in the “Arab World’” – Egypt, Syria, Iraq – have been decisively shown to be weak. For the outliers it is the strength that comes from within that makes them powerful, just as for the Arab world it is this vital deficiency that keeps them increasingly and everlastingly weak.

At the end of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s historically inaccurate but somehow still pitch-perfect take on outsiders and the Arab world, a fascinating exchange takes place. Two friends of Lawrence – the old tribalist Auda Abu Tayyi (rollickingly played by Anthony Quinn) and the young, liberal romantic Sheikh Ali (rendered by the perfect Omar Sharif) – briefly argue about the future of the Middle East after World War I. Ali wants to help create a new Arab world; Auda does not believe such a thing is possible. As they part, Auda to go back to the desert and Ali to stay in Damascus to learn about politics, Auda quips, “Being an Arab will be thornier than you suppose.” Up to the present day, there is little doubt that Auda has had the best of the argument.