Disputes within the Arab world are nothing new, but the depth of animosity and the sheer number of fault lines, rivalries and profound strategic disagreements has reached an all-time high.
The “Arab nation” has never been fully unified. With more than 20 nation-states in the Arab League, competing agendas and ideologies have produced countless wars and contributed to making the Middle East the world’s most unstable region. Even before the latest wave of acrimony, recent decades brought Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, a brutal civil war in Lebanon, a Syrian invasion of Lebanon and countless other conflicts.
The Muslim division between Shi’ites and Sunnis, at the root of some of the old conflicts, is still a major source of fighting, but it overlaps and intersects with other problems.
The wave of Arab revolutions that raised the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and then brought it crashing down in some countries, has become the latest incendiary focus, adding to a cauldron of disagreements that have spilled over into battlefields, real and metaphoric.
Syria has become the arena of combat where tens of thousands are dying and where these differences are played out by armed force. Add to that the issue of Iran, the rift separating Palestinians and a host of other social and political issues. It’s not surprising the region is boiling.
Underneath it all are bitter and urgent disagreements over what to do about Iran, a non-Arab, Shi’ite power, a traditional rival and sometimes enemy of the Arabs. Saudi Arabia wants to see a US attack on Iran, thus bringing an end once and for all to its nuclear programme. Iran and its allied Lebanon-based Shiite militia Hezbollah actively support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. The opposition in Syria is backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but they back different factions of the anti-Assad forces.
In fact, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are increasingly divided. Tiny, but fabulously wealthy Qatar, a city-state on a small peninsula that juts out of the larger Arabian Peninsula, is at bitter odds with its neighbouring Emirates, which are furious at Doha (Qatar’s capital) for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt, too, which has become the Muslim Brotherhood’s most furious enemy, now also views Qatar as its enemy.
The battle over the future of the Muslim Brotherhood is playing out most dramatically in Egypt. When the Brotherhood rose to power after the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, Qatar became its principal patron. The Qatari network Al-Jazeera became a vocal cheerleader. The Egyptians turned against the Brotherhood and now Egypt is back in the hands of a very popular military-installed regime.
Egypt has gone after the Muslim Brotherhood with unrestrained force, and now Cairo is receiving strong financial backing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while Qatar refuses to distance itself from the Islamists. That prompted the Saudis and the UAE to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha last month.
Back in Syria, the anti-Assad opposition includes Islamists of all stripes, who are fighting each other and receiving backing from different capitals, becoming a proxy for some of the conflict across the region. In addition to intra-Islamist fights, there is the moderate opposition, which opposes the Islamists. All the opposition stands against the Tehran and Hezbollah-backed Assad, who relishes the ideological and political latticework cutting across the forces seeking to overthrow him.
And then there are the Palestinians. The animosity between Fatah, which dominates the West Bank-governing Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which rules Gaza, has not eased despite many premature forecasts of reconciliation. And there are several other groups inside the Palestinian territories, including al-Qaida affiliates and Iran-backed militants. Hamas, a Palestinian outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, is facing Egypt’s wrath.
Against this turbulent backdrop, the 22 members of the Arab League just met in Kuwait to hold their regular summit. They agreed about almost nothing. Almost.
There is one topic that brings the Arab Nation into warm agreement. That is Israel.
A statement on the final day of the Arab League summit announced that the nearly two dozen Arab states “express our total rejection of the call to consider Israel as a Jewish state”.
The many people who claimed Israel was at the root of all the problems of the Middle East may want to reconsider. It seems Israel is the one topic capable of producing a semblance of reconciliation among Arabs.