Farewell to multilateralism in the Middle East

The death of Arab unity

The collapse of traditional multilateralism in the Arab world has been accompanied by a significant shift in American Middle East policy under President Donald Trump, writes Jasmine M. El-Gamal in her essay

Historically, the task of promoting multilateralism in the Middle East has rested with two institutions: the League of Arab States, a broad alliance for collaboration on political, economic, and cultural issues, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which deals mainly with economic matters.

Despite the differences in their history, focus and membership, both bodies were intended to serve as vehicles for ensuring Arab unity on crucial issues – such as opposing Israel – and avoiding conflict among member states.

For decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rallied Arab countries around the common cause of supporting Palestinian statehood. But since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, three far more divisive issues have come to the fore: the perceived threat posed by Iran, the spread of regional terrorism, and the rise of political Islam (or Islamism).

These developments have ruptured traditional alliances and created much more fluid patterns of multilateral co-operation in the region. And current Western policy toward the Middle East – in particular that of the United States – is likely to reinforce this trend.

Iran viewed as fundamental threat to Arab interests

First, Sunni Arab governments regard Iran’s regional influence and activities as a fundamental threat to their interests. The increasingly hostile rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand, and Iran on the other has thus eclipsed these countries’ traditional shared opposition toward Israel. Indeed, a number of Arab governments are working on an unprecedentedly close basis with Israel to address the Iranian threat.

This co-operation, which had largely taken place behind the scenes, burst into the open in February 2019 at the U.S.-led "anti-Iran" conference in Warsaw, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed as a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations.

Photomontage: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: Reuters/A. Levy & A. Cohen)
The enemy of my enemy is my friend: in order to counter the Iranian threat, a number of Arab governments are working on an unprecedentedly close basis with Israel to address the Iranian threat. This co-operation, which had largely taken place behind the scenes, burst into the open in February 2019 at the U.S.-led "anti-Iran" conference in Warsaw, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed as a breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations

These ties will likely grow stronger as Saudi Arabia and Iran continue their strategic competition and proxy confrontation in the region.

Second, the threat of jihadist terrorism throughout the Middle East has aggravated by the violent conflicts in Syria and Libya and has since manifested itself in multiple attacks in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and other countries, straining the Arab League and turning its member states against one another.

Regional divisions following the Arabellion

After Libya’s then-ruler Muammar Gaddafi violently quelled a popular uprising in his country in early 2011, for example, the League suspended Libya from the organisation and actively supported Qaddafi’s ousting by NATO and Libyan rebel forces later that year.

Soon after, Arab League members denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for enabling terrorism in the region, and expelled Syria from the body.

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