Improving Stability in the Arab World

By Anthony H. Cordesman

There is no simple single path to stability in any part of the world, and any comments and suggestion from outside a given region or culture can easily reflect the prejudices of a different culture or seem patronizing and unfair. The fact is, however, that virtually all regions, cultures, and nations are in a constant process of change and evolution and have at least the seeds of serious instability and conflict. Even the world's most developed states have their own stability problems, and every region dominated by developing states faces critical challenges.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is no exception – even if the analysis is confined to the Arab states. Depending on how the MENA region is defined, six states are in a state of serious internal conflict: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sudan. More states are deeply divided and dealing with serious internal problems and tensions: Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain. Internal tensions and/or low-level conflicts divide Morocco and Algeria, and divide Qatar from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Outside forces like the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Hezbollah have a major impact on the Levant and the Gulf.

Various forms of violent extremism, particularly Sunni and Shi'ite sectarian extremism, pose a threat to every Arab state, and many states face serious tribal, ethnic, and sectarian divisions and discrimination. At the same time, many Arab states lag badly in economic development and effective governance at a time when they are under serious population pressure, face a major youth "bulge", employment problems, and have failed to create fair and balanced patterns of income distribution to meet the needs of their peoples. Many states have failed to fund the needed expansion of their infrastructure, their educational, medical, and other services.

A few states with high levels of petroleum export income are partial exceptions to these economic failures, but these exceptions are generally more apparent than real. Algeria, Libya, Iraq, and Iran are anything but "wealthy" in terms of per capita export income. Marginal exporters like Egypt, Syria, and Yemen have never had large enough exports to qualify as wealthy. Major exporters like Iran, Iraq, Oman and Saudi Arabia have too large a population to rely on petroleum export income, and Bahrain and Kuwait have stability problems despite comparatively high per capita earnings.

As is the case throughout OPEC and most non-OPEC exporters in the world, state control over the petroleum sector and its earning power has led to distorted over-dependence on the petroleum sector, poor distribution of income, over-expansion of the state sector, and corruption. Even small states with exceptional per capita earnings, like Qatar and the UAE, are caught up in other stability problems and every petroleum dependent economy is affected by massive episodic swings in oil prices and export revenues.

Limiting the Impact of the Myth of the "Arab Nation" and Regional Solutions

Most MENA governments have approached the causes of such instability in a state of near denial for decades. Even today, they blame outside or other regional states for their security problems, they ignore or understate internal divisions, and they make little effort to measure the aspect of instability they can quantify.

They largely ignore the work of nearly two decades of UN Arab Development Reports. They lack coherent and meaningful development plans, and are slow to reform or modernize their governance and state sectors and let the pressures for stability grow and accumulate over time. One clear example is the failure of most governments to even try to react effectively to the lessons of the political upheavals that took began in 2011. So far only one MENA state – Saudi Arabia – has attempted to develop and implement a national reform program on the scale it needs.

The Arab world is also still imprisoned by the myth of the "Arab nation." There is a real cultural affinity among Arab states – in cultural, linguistic and to some extent religious terms. At the same time, the causes of instability and development needs vary sharply by nation even among close neighbors. Annex A to this report provides a summary "scorecard" illustrating just how serious these differences are, and it makes it brutally clear that there is no Arab nation – or common basis for dealing with instability in the Arab world. It is equally clear that trying to export the responsibility for instability to other countries, or explain failures with conspiracy theories has done the Arab world immense damage and represents a series of major failures in leadership.

Nations – their leaders, military, technocrats, and intellectuals – must take responsibility for themselves. Organizations like the Arab League are decades away from being able to effectively address the relatively few common causes of instability that do lend themselves to collective action, and that have been successful addressed in other regions by outside organizations like the EU and NATO. No mass of donors or mythical body like the International Community is going to solve any MENA country's problems from the outside, fund and manage the effort required, or work around the failures in national leadership and governance.

Even far more narrow definitions of common interest like the Gulf Cooperation Council have never moved beyond a few relatively narrow areas of economic and military cooperation, and national differences has long nearly paralyzed progress in creating standardized military forces, integrated operations and systems, and common training facilities. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Oman have limited security cooperation since the GCC's founding, and tensions between royal families have create problems like the current isolation of Qatar. The GCC may be far more real in terms of addressing internal stability than the Arab League, but it is a long way from being effective and its security cooperation – to the extent it exists – is heavily dependent on outside support from USCENTCOM and the U.S. military.

As for even broader searches for unity – like reform of the United Nations, such reforms may or may not be desirable. The Security Council's long history of doing too little may or may not be worse for Arab states than allowing the General Assembly to do too much. It does allow Arab states to give the Palestinians a kind of ineffective support at a time that Israel is more and more forceful on the ground. At the same time, it disguises the lack of any effective Palestinian leadership and movement, and prospects for effective Arab unity in supporting the Palestinians and a move towards a credible peace progress.

Like the over-ambitious and unrealistic calls for regional cooperation in virtually every other part of the world – and the even sillier search for universal benefits through "globalism" – the "Arab nation," and efforts like unifying incompatible states or developing some form of Arab socialism may be political unavoidable. Taking them seriously, however, does far more harm than good. Arab states, and the entire MENA region, would benefit from far more most effects at focusing on realm world options for cooperation. Pretending to make a myth a reality at best distracts from the actions that offer serious progress.

Coping with the Broader Causes of Instability

There are many areas – like trade agreements, labor mobility, sharing of counterterrorism data, transportation and pipeline systems, water and power, sharing of educational standards and materials, border security and customs, communications and Internet systems where Arab and MENA states can reach productive regional and sub-regional agreements, but there are four additional areas where a focus on the wrong or inadequate forms of regional cooperation can also do more harm than good.

The current approach to the Palestinian issue now does both the Palestinians and Arab states more harm than good. It is brutally clear that the Palestinian issue is not the chief or even a key cause of instability in the MENA region. Religious extremism is far more divisive and destabilizing. North Africa focuses on internal and local causes of instability. The Levant faces both far more serious internal national causes of instability and must now deal with a divided Syria and uncertain Lebanon. The Gulf states– as well as Jordan, Syria, and Iraq – face far more serious outside pressure from Iran as well as separate internal causes of divisiveness. Many Arab Gulf states provide rhetorical support and aid to the Palestinians but tacitly work with Israel to deal with the threat posed by Iran.

The real-world situation is that Arab rhetoric does nothing to prevent Israeli hardliners from steadily creating new facts on the ground while a divided Palestinian movement with two "sub-states" in Gaza and the West Bank, and weak and ineffective leadership is incapable of making a convincing case that it is a credible partner for a two-state solution. The lack of Arab pressure on Israel is directly tied to the lack of a unified and credible Palestinian option, and the credibility of a two-state solution is steadily moving towards the vanishing point. Only far more unified Arab efforts to forge a credible Palestinian option as a peace partner could change this situation, and the prospects for such an effort seem negligible.

Denial of the reality that Islamic extremism is a key regional threat limits cooperation in counterterrorism and reduces efforts to meet the challenge to largely national efforts. A number of Arab states have made real progress in cooperating in some aspects of counterterrorism, but mostly more sweeping efforts are largely hollow political facades. Far too many states also are unwilling to openly come to grips with the threats posed by Sunni and Shi'ite extremism, and the need to modernize their social structure and economies to deal with the realities of a modern global economy.

Meeting the threat of religious extremism requires labeling that extremism as a threat to development and progress, and as much unity as possible in ensuring that the legitimate character of Islam is clearly identified, and extremism is openly identified and rejected. This does not mean rejecting legitimate moderate Islamic political movements, but it does mean openly confronting ideological extremism as a threat, creating tolerance of different Islamic sects, and focusing on future development needs. Here, Saudi Arabia has recently led in making the kind of social changes that are needed in a given country.

The creation of grossly overambitious regional security alliances or the hollow shell of more functional sub-regional security agreements – coupled to the role of outside powers – undermines Arab security at both the regional and national level. Trying to create hollow alliances with the maximum possible number of members does little more than discredit Arab unity and create something closer to "farce" than "force." The recent Saudi efforts of this kind are examples of such efforts.

There are many areas where security agreements between Arab states at a local or sub-regional level could have real merit: An Algerian-Morocco or Egypt-Libya agreement are cases in point. The Gulf Cooperation Council reflects a real need for collective security – both in dealing with Iran and terrorism/extremism – but it cannot work if the key elements like integration, interoperability, standardization, and common facilities and training are at best half implemented. Turning the GCC into a face that disguises major differences between Saudi Arabia and Oman, the isolation and embargo of Qatar, and inadequate links to Kuwait helps undercut the one rea- world Arab movement towards effective sub-regional cooperation.

Overdependence on outside powers and a confusion of the volume of arms imports with military effectiveness make Arab states far more vulnerable than they should be. At present, the Arab North African states are far too divided to have any meaningful form of security cooperation or work with Europe and the United States to gain meaningful outside support. The Levant is equally divided and now split into dependence on the United States or Russia with Iran and Turkey playing an increasing role. As noted above, the GCC has increasingly become a Saudi-UAE alliance, with Qatar isolated, Oman on the margins, Bahrain dependent on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait partly isolated, and key potential partners like Iraq and Jordan left outside the alliance.

The MENA region is scarcely the only such case, but building facades almost inevitably means never building the real thing.

Instability Must Be Dealt with One Nation at a Time

The sharp difference in the causes of instability between individual MENA states in virtually every area is one of the most striking single aspects of instability in the MENA region. As noted earlier, Annex A to this report provides a summary "scorecard" illustrating just how serious these differences are. Four other studies that address these differences in even more depth include:

Many of the causes of instability are political and ideological or involve other aspects of instability that cannot be quantified. It is clear from Annex A and the other reports referenced above, however, that the differences between nation states are so great in every aspect of instability that they must be addressed primarily on a national level. Talking about an "Arab nation" and regional solutions does have merit in specific areas, but in most parameters, it is simply analytically absurd.

Accordingly, any effort to address the problems involved must focus on the mix of problems, priorities, and available solutions in given Arab states. It is also clear that there is no one priority area. All the major sets of causes interact and attempts to deal with them individually and without concern for other causes will inevitably fail to meet all of the key risks and pressures in every country in the MENA region.

Focusing on the Positive

These are easy issues for an outsider to raise. The practical problem for any organization or government that attempts to deal with the national causes of instability, however, is that exposing national issues and weaknesses is politically embarrassing, can be used by extremist and hardline opposition movements, and may trigger hostile ideological reactions. Few MENA governments are transparent or encourage transparency, and some actively discourage it.

There are several possible ways to avoid or minimize such reasons:

Commission outside studies and reports. It is far easier to deal with an on outside report and set of negative comments or data. Such reports or plans do not commit a government or organization and can be used far more easily. This requires some kind of "firewall" so it is clear that the report is not a product of the sponsor. Contracting with an outside group or working with an international organization like UNDP or the World Bank offers a way of preserving such a distance.

Providing a wide range of comparisons that do not highlight any given, country's problems. Reports, studies, and plans that make it clear that all countries have problems, that highlight recent progress where it has actually occurred, provide comparisons with other regions to show that the Arab world is not unique, and keep criticism in perspective, allow a focus on the national issues that are key problems, analysis of the areas where broader regional cooperation might actually help, and avoid "spotlighting" a given country. At the same time, countries that are broadly recognized as problem countries – like the Assad regime in Syria –can be addressed more directly.

Focus on the solution and not the problem. The purpose of such exercises is not to high light the problem but show there are credible solutions. Making it clear that governments have good, credible options, and can take an evolutionary approach is a key way to defuse the critical aspects of an analysis.

Where possible, highlight cases where a given approach affects several countries: showing that a given problem and/or solution affects several countries. Most plans and solutions become more politically palatable when they are shown to affect many countries.

Bring in government and opposition voices from the start or as soon as possible. The best-case option is working directly with a given government where this is possible, and the government involved is willing to face its problems and accept reasonable levels of criticism. In general, however, it will often be best to bring in government and opposition voices on an ex-officio basis. This will help make it clear that the effort is not an attack on a given government and does not ignore internal divisions and can often be a source of real world expertise that outsiders lack.

Bring in a range of Arab expertise. Outside or foreign experts can help, but the key to success will be showing that calls for change and reform are supported by Arab experts with Arab cultural backgrounds. Once again, the Arab Development reports provide illustrations of such efforts, international organizations like UNDP and the World Bank, and individual Arab experts and consultants are all a way of providing such expertise.

All these steps do involve some form of compromise with a purely academic or objective effort. They also, however, reflect the reality that the goal is to actually solve problems and not simply highlight them. It is also clear that simply offering criticism almost never works.

Goals Are Not Plans, and Only Plans and Actual Implementation Really Count

Another key way to accentuate the positive aspects of efforts to reduce instability – and make real progress – is to develop actual plans that can credibly be implemented. There is little or no purpose in setting forth yet another wish list of goals. Study after study has ended with such efforts and in being largely ignored or in setting unrealistic or poorly prioritized objectives. A real-world effort must:

Actually present a plan, not simply goals. No one in any region needs more statements of goals that do not provide credible plans with credible actions, resources, budgets, timelines, and measures of effectiveness to implement them. It is important to set the right goals, but far too many past efforts have set goals without ever showing how they can actually be met.

Concentrate on near term objectives as well as longer term goals. Focusing on near term actions and progress, and the art of the possible also reduces the tendency to create impossible expectations and demands for resources or outside aid.

Avoid efforts that focus on a small part of a problem. Fixing a given narrow problem effectively dodges the real issue. Narrowly focused project aid, military assistance, and humanitarian aids tend to focus on band aids rather than meaningful solutions. No nation can do everything at once, but efforts that only address narrow parts of key national needs effectively defer meaningful efforts rather than make real progress.

Avoid seeking unrealistic, support, aid and solutions from the outside. Far too many assessments of solutions to reducing instability seek impossible levels of security and economic aid from the outside. Such aid is almost never actually forthcoming, and appealing to an international community with no known address, aid conferences where nations pledge without making real commitments, and/or placing unrealistic demands on neighboring or outside state does not help. It is far better to focus on real world options – most of which will ultimately have to be large self-financed – and make actual progress.

Don't make best case assumptions: Far too many efforts lay the groundwork for rejection or failure by making best case, rather than real-world assumptions.

Reflect key national needs for political compromise and stability. Stability does not come from setting national goals that do not address key ethnic, sectarian, tribal, regional, and other differences, or key parts of the population that are seriously disadvantaged. One key – and often critical – failure of the IMF, UNDP, World Bank, and of national plans as well – is the failure to address the need to provide solutions and compromises that recognize the key divisions in a given country rather call for national actions that key factions cannot support.

Avoid extreme or adversarial solutions. Hardline solutions to problems like terrorism that do not address the causes or that label significant amounts of the population as enemies – or that attack outside or foreign states without offering some path towards diplomacy do more to sustain instability than reduce it.

Once again, the goal should be to create real-world and achievable progress where government can accept the reality of the problem, and the credibility of the solution.