Three Reasons Why the Most Powerful Countries in the Middle East Are Not Arab

[01-12-2020 03:05 PM]

By Mohammad Rasoul Kailani

Let’s be honest with ourselves. When we think of the Middle East, we tend to think of the Islamic faith and the Arab people. Although the region is incredibly diverse, it makes sense that “Arab” would come to one’s mind, especially because 13 of the 17 countries (20 if you include the South Caucasian countries) in the Middle East retain Arab majorities. However, what is particularly strange is the fact that out of the four that are not part of the Arab World, three are the region’s most dominant nations. At first glance, this seems absurd; how can a people who live on such resource rich land, who belong to the second largest ethnic group on Earth (450 million members per Margaret Nydell’s “Understanding Arabs : A Guide for Modern Times”), wield such disproportionately little political power? I have compiled reasons I believe are responsible for the Arab state’s lack of prowess. This article will be looking at the Arab Middle East as a whole, but the primary scope will be on the larger Arab states and some of their shortcomings in comparison to the three countries I will mention. Before I go on, an explanation is owed for why I selected the following three nations. They are, in no specific order:

Turkey : A large country and NATO member, Turkey has a military that is ranked 11th in the World Firepower rankings. This army has a significant amount of modern weaponry since they have struck recent deals with both the United States and Russia. Additionally, Turkey has developed a domestic weapons industry, and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said that Turkey “produces 70% of its military equipment and is also a significant exporter of arms.” In regards to living conditions, Turkey maintains a HDI (Human Development Index) of .806, which is considered very high. Between 1980 and 2014, Turkey’s HDI value increased from 0.492 to 0.761, an increase of 54.7 percent or an average annual increase of about 1.29 percent. There are even regions in Turkey with a score upwards of .850 , which compares to many developed countries. Turkey also seems to have a successful economy given that in the main rankings for nominal GDP and GDP purchasing power, Turkey ranks in the top 20. Ataturk’s Republic exerts a great deal of influence in the region, evidenced by their immense role in the Syrian conflict and their pressure on Iraqi Kurdistan to not declare independence in 2017, as well as the fairly positive opinion of President Erdogan in the Middle East. Overall, Turkey is an example of a successful player on the global stage and is thus one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East.

Israel : Despite its size, Israel is an immensely strong piece on the chessboard that is the Middle East. Israel’s army is sixteenth in the Global Firepower Ranking[1], which is simply astonishing given that the country only occupies 20,770 square kilometres of land. A notable fact about Israel is that they have a highly advanced Science and Technology sector. Israel spent 4.3% of their GDP in this area in 2015, the highest ratio in the world. The Bloomberg Innovation Index has ranked it the world’s fifth most innovative country, and publishes a sweeping number of Scientific Articles compared to their share of the global population. Mossad, Israel’s well-known intelligence agency, is estimated to be the second largest intelligence agency in the world. Israel has got an HDI of .906 and is the 28th most democratic country in the world according to the 2019 Democracy Index (although it must be stressed that they are an occupying nation, and that millions of people who live under Israeli military control cannot vote in Israeli elections.) Israel has been advancing its status on the global and regional scenes through rigid diplomacy and lobbying, and all these factors make it one of the region’s most influential countries.

Iran : The world’s only Shia Theocracy is not as prosperous as the aforementioned nations, but it still holds an important position in regional affairs. Despite heavy sanctions against it, Iran maintains the fourteenth strongest military in the world. They oppose Saudi Arabia in the “Middle Eastern Cold War,” and have a crescent of unparalleled military influence that spans through Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Iran’s status as the world’s fifth largest oil producer gives it trade leverage, which lead to it having a top twenty ranking in regards to GDP. Oil makes up a considerable percentage of Iran’s state revenue (it is the worlds’ second largest exporter, after all), but it is important to note that the economy is diversifying on a massive scale. Iran is progressing in many scientific and technological fields, such as petrochemical, pharmaceutical and the aerospace industries, so it is well on its way to becoming an industrialised country. Accroding to Iran’s economic minister Ali Tayyebnia, “President Hassan Rouhani’s government managed to turn the negative economic growth of 6.8% in 2014 to a positive growth of 6.4% in 2016 and while inflation rate stood at 40% back then, it dropped down to 8% in the last Iranian year (ended March 20, 2017). For the first time in five decades, the share of oil income in government budget has taken a backseat to tax revenues, with the latter accounting for 70% of the annual budget.” Iran’s strong military and economy in the face of extreme difficulty makes it a force to be reckoned with.

Here are some of the main reasons I believe that the Arab states, specifically the ones that are capable of imposing more significance due to size, population and location, are lagging behind these non-Arab nations(again, in no particular order)

#1 : Artificial Borders
What must be taken into consideration when discussing the Arab Middle East is that almost all of their states are artificial creations. Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were all created via the Sykes-Picot agreement, which was a secret deal signed in 1915 between Britain and France to divide the Arab world for colonisation after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. There was little to no consideration for the cultural, ethnic, religious and social settings of the Fertile Crescent when these arbitrary lines were drawn, which is why you have these countries being an awkward mishmash (read : mismatch) of different demographics that struggle to cooperate.
An almost equal percentage of Iraqis identify more with their faith than their nation, and vice versa. This is also a noteworthy (though not as large) phenomenon in Syria and Yemen. It is exceptionally difficult to build a successful state in these circumstances. It is understandable that many people in these countries would feel this way given that Sunni and Shia Islam are around 1400 years old, while, for example, the modern state of Iraq has been around for less than 100. Therefore, the ties to religion will be stronger than the ties to a state your ancestors just happened to be drawn into when European diplomats you have nothing to do with decided so. In contrast, Turkey was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as a homeland for the Turkish ethnicity. Therefore, a sense of national identity, commitment and belonging is stronger in Turkey, because Turkey is built upon the strong concept of an ancient ethnic group. Similarly, Israel was explicitly founded as a homeland for all the Jews around the world (this is written in the Israeli constitution,) and Persia (Iran) has existed for thousands of years. These strong foundations allow for more patriotic excitement and less political cleavaging.

The country with the highest percentage of people who say they would fight for their homeland is Morocco. It is an Arab country, but it is not in the Middle East. Part of why Moroccans feel so overwhelmingly patriotic is because the Moroccan state has existed since the Idrisid dynasty in the 8th century, and has existed under various dynasties since then. Compare this with the other two Arab states, Lebanon and Palestine. They have a big percentage of people willing to fight, but nowhere close to Morocco’s. There just isn’t a historical foundation for “Lebanon” and “Palestine” in the context of a culturally separate and independent state, so the incentive to fight is not as high. Turkey, Israel, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan are the other nations within this general area of the world, and all of them rank higher than Lebanon and Palestine. They are built upon the concepts of their dominant ethnicity and not random borders, and their nations are far older, leading to more patriotism. Suppose there was one Levantine or Arab state; a bigger commitment to statehood would exist because there would be a more sufficient context, emotion or idea for which to fight. If these artificial borders affect how many people would take up arms for Lebanon and Palestine, it surely affects how many people participate in Civil Society in Lebanon and Palestine, how many people vote in Lebanon and Palestine and do their best to better Lebanon and Palestine.

#2 : Tribalism/Sectarianism/Regionalism
I am a bit hesitant to bring this up because many Orientalists use this issue to basically state that Arabs are such a tribal or war-like group that they could never run a state. The idea that “they’re better off in tents, herding camels around the nearest oasis!” has been peddled far too many times. Obviously, this notion could not be farther from the truth. The Umayyad Caliphate spanned from Portugal to Central Asia and occupied more than 11 million squared kilometres of land. Despite this, its rule only lasted for ninety one years. This absolute colossus of an entity collapsed because asides from the ruling Tribal Arabs, everyone was discriminated against, Muslim or Non-Muslim. All of these oppressed people rallied around the Abbasid family, who overthrew the Umayyads and formed a state that lasted from 750 to 1258. The state with cooperation between all ethnicities and sects lasted five times as long as the one that pracitced tribalism and discrimination. Notes should be taken from this era, the Arab and Islamic Golden Age, in todays’ era and conditions.
Putting your relatives and “paisan” in positions of power has become as Arab as Falafel and Fairouz. Many of those who write about the Middle East shoulder the blame for this phenomenon on the Bedouin way of life, but in reality, this is just adapting to circumstances. The Arab World has been riddled with coup d’etats, meaning that putting people in power with closer societal ties to you is a safer thing to do than someone who has barely any connection to you. This is probably why Saddam Hussein appointed around a dozen of his relatives to prominent posts when he ruled Iraq. Saddam himself was forced to flee Iraq after he helped to lead a failed assasination attempt on then incumbent president Abdul Karim Qassim in 1959, and became a leading government figure with the 1968 Baathist coup. Thus, he knew better than most to be wary of a violent attempt to change government. People from his family that he put in major roles included, but were not limited to

Ali Hassan Abdul Majid Al-Tikriti : Former Iraqi Minister of Defense, better known as “Chemical Ali”, was merely a motorcycle driver for the military until his elder cousin Saddam Hussein achieved prominence. Because of that, he was able to enter the military academy and become an officer in the infantry.

Barzan Ibrahim Al-Tikriti : Saddam’s half brother was a leading figure in the Iraqi Intelligence Agency (Colloquially known as “Mukahabarat”) and was appointed to serve as Iraq’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This proved to be ironic since he was executed on War Crimes charges in 2007.

Watban Ibrahim Al-Tikriti : Full brother to Barzan and half brother to Saddam. He occupied the position of Interior Minister from 1991–1995, which essentially made him the second most important man in Iraq. Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam and militia leader, shot Watban in the lower body nine times in an argument. Saddam then moved him to an irrelevant position in Tikrit.

It is unlikely that the Bu Nasir clan (Saddam’s family, “Tikriti” indicates the town they were from) were just magician politicians and officers who were somehow more capable than the rest of Iraq. What Saddam did was good for making sure he was always on good terms with his officials, but truth be told, it was only good for that. Firstly, a concentration of power in the hands of a minority was probably the reason that an uprising that almost ended Saddam’s rule after the Gulf War started in the Shia parts of Southern Iraq. The majority of Iraqis identify as Shia Muslims [26] and they consisted 52% of Baath Party membership when the Baath briefly controlled the county in 1963. The Shia were eventually shunned out of party positions as Sunni politicians and officers like Saddam rose through the ranks, so much so that they were only 6% of the party membership five years later. Saddam had numerous close shaves relating to Shia discontent because of this policy.
By contrast, Turkey’s current cabinet consists of an array of backgrounds, fields of expertise and political standings. There are members who have no political affiliation (I would assume technocrats), and members of the ruling AK Parti. In addition to this, there are ministers from the rural green mountains of Konya Province to the bustling and cosmopolitan city of Istanbul. This cabinet executing its goals better than Saddam’s is bound to happen.
The other reason for the failure of nepotism is simply logical; placing relatives in such positions because of their relation to you and not because of merit or competence is unwise, if not criminal (Don’t take my word for it, take ancient philosophy’s). So much expertise in the fields Saddam appointed his relatives to may have existed in Iraq, but since he put his relatives in place of this expertise, it was not taken advantage of. Imagine all the opportunities that hard-working Iraqis lost to a member of the Bu Nasir clan. This concept is a thorn in the side of productivity and a cause for unrest in the state.

#2.5 : Tribalism/Sectarianism/Regionalism in Arab Militaries
This is a continuation of reason #2, but in a more specific topic pertaining to the Arab World. A strong military is essential for a strong country and it is true that Arab armies in the Middle East rank relatively high. Out of 138 countries, Egypt ranked ninth, Saudi Arabia ranked 17th, The U.A.E ranked 45th, Iraq ranked 50th and Syria came in 55th. The Global Firepower Rankings takes factors like manpower, number of ports and amounts of military equipment into account, but does not consider the competence of commanders and officers. This is a weak point in many of the Arab Middle East’s armies, as they practice favouritism, just like other institutions.
The Syrian Arab Army is the epitome of this concept. It is run by the Alawite minority, the religious sect of the Assad family that constitutes around 10% of Syria’s population. When Hafez Al Assad took control of Syria, he pushed members of his sect and tribe up into positions of dominance in the military and intelligence. This trend has continued under Bashar Al Assad, so much so that all top forty officers in the Syrian Military are Alawites. Eight of those officers are from Al Qardaha, the town where the Assad Family originates. That town has a population of 8,671, meaning the disproportionality here is insane. Qardahawis make up a basically non-existent percentage of Syria’s people, yet have such a profound role in the military as a result of favouritism.

Given the fact that these officers have had years of training as well as actual combat experience, they are probably competent. However, there is no doubt that if favouritism did not exist in the Syrian regime, the makeup of officers would be more diverse, and more talent could be seeked out. However, there is another reason that this is a poorly thought out practice, and that is because it’s one of the main contributing factors of the uprising and defections that have crippled the Syrian Arab Army. When Assad brutally repressed peaceful protests against him in 2011, defections from the Syrain Army occurred. They increased in number, and a vast majority of these defections were Sunni. A Sunni defector had this to say: “The Sunnis are cannon fodder and morale has been sapped. There are 75 men left in my brigade out of 250. The rest were killed, injured or deserted. As soon as the chance came, I made a run for it.”. He was referencing the fact that the officers are all Alawite and expend the mostly Sunni troops.
Iran, on the other hand, permits those from all ethnicities and regional backgrounds to obtain a high rank in their Armed Forces. Here, you will learn that there are Azeris, Arabs, Persians, and Bakhtiaris that form the brain of Iran’s military. Generals come from Ahvaz in the West, Mashad in the East, Gilan in the North and Yazd in the centre. Specific mention of Iran is made because their diverse military has exponentially aided Syria’s homogeneously led army in the war. Despite a tough embargo, they have built a mighty army, which proves that armies that pick their officers based on merit and not origin prove to be the most effective.
We can accept that this demographic situation helped fracture the Syrian state, and this practice of Hafez continued by Bashar exacerbated sectarianism. The Arab countries of the Fertile Crescent are a cocktail of religions; to prioritize some over others can function as the nail in the coffin of an already fragile state. For the Arab countries to move forward, every group in the Arab world has to be made to feel like they are a part of their entity in order for everyone to coalesce under one banner. Be it Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world, favouritism leads to failure.

#3 : Income Inequality
Most of the developing world is plagued with deep income inequality, and the Arab states are no different. Take Egypt, the Arab World’s most populous country as an exemplar of this major issue. 70% of Egyptians make less than $5.50 a day (up around eight percent from 61.9% in 2015), but Egypt’s top one percent control 19.1% of the nation’s economy. Iraq, another large country that is resource-abdundant has 57% of its residents making less than the aforementioned amount on a daily basis[38], but has an even higher share of the economy under the grip of the 1%, a grand 22%. The gap between the workers and the wealthy in the much of the Arab World is as wide as a valley.

Let’s compare Egypt to its neighbour, Israel. When you adjust the Human Development Index of Israel for Income Inequality, it drops from 0.906 to .809, which is 10.8%. In contrast, Egypt’s drops by more than twice as much: 0.700 to 0.492, an astonishing 29.7% loss. This is a problem for a multitude of reasons, but a major one is that a healthy democratic society cannot take place within these conditions. In short, lands with inequality are breeding grounds for authoritarianism.
Another index we must use to compare Egypt and Israel is the democracy index. As pointed out earlier, Israel has a fairly good position in that ranking, 28th, which makes it a “flawed democracy” but a democracy nonetheless, whereas Egypt is 137th, an “authoritarian regime”[44]. There is a correlation here. In a country with a rich minority and a poor majority, the wealthy are likely to use repressive and extreme measures to protect their assets, which customarily results in a dictatorship. As a result of this, the working classes may feel the need to violently overthrow the regime, but this does not always usher in complete political freedom. In 1952, the Free Officers group led by a certain Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew an Egyptian monarchy that concentrated the country’s wealth in the hands of a small minority; less than 6% of the population owned six percent of the land, while at the top, 0.5% owned a third of fertile land. Abdel Nasser possessed a modest background, and probably due to Egypt’s enormous inequality, he resented the wealthy. The arguably spoiled King was overthrown by the Free Officers, who were more representative of the “common man.” To Nasser’s credit, his policies had Egypt’s GDP going up by an average of 9% a year, and he heavily industrialised his country. Despite this, Abdel Nasser’s military-led socialist movement and cult of personality resulted in the formation of a police state, and its structure has dominated Egypt long after his death. Regimes that come about violently can become the very thing they swore to destroy.
A middle class is essential to a democratic and functioning society. Think of a middle class as affluent enough to influence the government’s decision making, but not having so much wealth to the point where they can corruptly horde a colossal amount of money and land. If you’d take a look at the two indexes that have been mentioned in this section, you’ll notice that the countries with the most established middle classes are the most democratic, and it truly is not a coincidence.

The Arabs have made a mark on history. Various inventions have been invented, numerous areas have been conquered, countless ideas have been thought of, and a large faith has been spread by one nation, the nation of the Arabs. Petra, one of the wonders of the world, and Baghdad, the centre of knowledge and learning in the world for centuries, were built and esteemed by the hands of the Arabs. If Arabs were at the forefront of the world, why are they now behind it? What has been written about in this article are some of the main reasons for the upsetting state of the Arab Middle East. If the Arab Middle East can overcome these obstacles, the Arabs can see prosperity and power once more.

Mohammad Rasoul Kailani

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