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A joint Arab military force against whom?

An Article by Omair Anas, originally featured in DailySabah

An unusual announcement of a joint Arab military force came without alarm in the international media. Those who hurriedly welcomed the idea are mostly Western governments, and those who did not react much were Israel, Russia and China. Those who are suspicious are the people of the member countries of this proposed venture. Reasons cited for such a sensitive military force are not the key security challenges discussed in Arab textbooks: the asymmetrical military power of Israel, generously supported and funded by the West, or in the non-traditional threats discussed in global forums like natural disasters, human trafficking, illegal migration or the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Syria.

Historically, the Gulf region has belonged to the Western security system. Egypt, Syria and Iraq belonged to the Soviets and then the Russians, and now the Chinese are trying to get a share starting in Sudan. After recognizing Israel, Egypt does not have any immediate external threat. With greater official and unofficial interactions between Israel and Arab states, Israel is no longer perceived as a security threat for the region. In the new proposal, whether the Arabs have deliberated to evolve a common and collective security system is exceedingly doubtful. The officially-cited reason is the threat from terrorism, a euphemism to silence domestic dissent. The unofficially-cited reason is the so-called Iranian encirclement of Arab monarchies.

The idea of a united Arab army remained a dream of the revolutionary republics, not the religious monarchies. Socialist experiments failed and Gulf monarchies managed to evolve a regional security system in convergence with the international super powers. The Arab uprisings have brought down the revolutionary republics. Their new rulers, for many political and economic reasons, find the Gulf-based security mechanism more convenient. Egypt, as the largest military power of all Arab and Gulf countries, is the biggest importer of Western arms and will be the main contributor to this project. With crisis in Yemen, it was chosen as an opportune time to announce this proposal. Nevertheless, the Arab response to the Yemeni crisis can never be defined as collective security in the same way NATO is. This is mainly because neither Egypt nor the Gulf countries face any immediate external threat. Both terrorism and Iranian encirclement do not sufficiently rationalize creating a joint Arab military.

Post-uprising transformations have brought a few inconvenient truths to the Gulf countries, who see these changes as a farce and the cause of bloodshed. Any change, internally evolved or externally imposed, is unacceptable to this perspective, unless it approves the basic rules of regional politics, namely the primacy of oil politics to the political systems. In terms of political economy, the Arab world is defined as the one based on a rentier economy, which has rendered most Arab countries predominantly consuming countries rather than productive ones. By distributing huge rents among their population, they secure legitimacy by introducing populist schemes. Even the countries without much or no oil or gas are also part of this spiral rentier system in their capacity as labor-exporting countries to oil producing countries. Those who have neither oil nor an exportable labor force are better off if they support the rentier system. The Arab uprisings tried to break this exploitative chain of oil, labor, rent and authoritarianism with slogans of dignity, freedom and justice. The potential of Arab uprisings to break this chain of exploitation, both at domestic and regional levels, has bearings on national security discourses.

With the decline of Western dependency on Gulf energy, the basic assumption of the Gulf-West relationship is changing. This is most visible in the American reluctance to be part of any direct military intervention at the behest of the Gulf, the U.S.-Iran rapprochement also symbolizes this upcoming significant strategic reconfiguration. Frustrated with the Western approach to regional security, the Saudis and Egyptians have opted to assert their regional leadership, not necessarily only in military terms, but also in political terms. The Yemeni crisis provided enough grounds to manage a regional Arab alliance with international backing.

Many Muslim countries like Pakistan and Turkey do not share the Gulf perspective on Iran and are hesitant to subscribe to the Saudi Arabia-Egypt script for regional security, which is deeply embedded in an exaggerated sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis and Iranian encirclement of the region. Pakistanis are also unhappy about how the Arabs have messed up in Syria. Both Pakistan and Turkey favored Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy under its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations and are on good terms with the Iranian regime and people. In fact, Turkey has assisted Iran in finding a solution to both its nuclear crisis as well as financial sanctions.

From their perspective, Iran has long been punished by the West and its Arab allies for its revolution. Iranians were not allowed to be part of the larger Islamic community. In Yemen, too, Houthis were not accepted with dignity, though many of them are not pro-Iranian. The Turkish and Pakistani perspective is also shared by larger non-Arab Sunni communities. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are said to be easily accessible to Saudis in the case of any serious threat to its survival, purportedly from Iran. If Israel and Iran or any other external threats are not their main consideration behind the proposed joint Arab army, the only reason left is internal political problems, facilitated by the historic Arab uprisings.

Egyptian Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hijazi specifically pointed out that this joint Arab military force is not against any country, and it does not make any alliance or axis or threat. Its main target is to fight against terrorism and to maintain national security in the Arab world. In every sense, this is not an Arab NATO. With this perspective, Egypt has been helped to reverse its revolution. Libya is facing Egyptian-Emirati military interventions in order to strengthen the party of their preference. Much documentary evidence suggests that political assassinations in Tunisia have strong Gulf and Libyan links. And the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria also has strong sectarian connotations.

Terrorism is not an exceptional phenomenon. It is very much the outcome of a political economy that is based on exclusion and marginalization of people on the basis of their faith, race, ideology and even nationality. The only way a rentier economy can sustain itself is by externally derived rents and their distribution by the state. For every big economy, Western or otherwise, an unrestricted energy supply is now a matter of national security. Any immediate hindrance or long term potential change that can alter a country’s energy supply can be called terrorism. The joint Arab force is to maintain this status quo against the potential threat of uprisings. According to this perspective, any political dissent can be considered terrorism and hence, may attract a military response from the national army or from the joint Arab military force.

This proposal of a joint Arab force does not have a people-oriented security agenda, such as not intervening in internal political mobilizations as long as protesters are unarmed, and their demands do not challenge the sovereignty and integrity of the country. National armies of newly-born democracies such as those of Tunisia and Iraq, or of diverse countries like Lebanon, will find it a difficult proposal. Their people have more legal and constitutional rights to make their governments more accountable. In the absence of a clearly defined security agenda, this joint Arab force, dictated by the Gulf-Egypt alliance, may cause serious trust deficits between the people and the security forces, and may eventually strengthen pan-Arab terror networks in reaction.

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