The Magazine

Twilight of the Arabs

The contest for leadership in the Muslim world.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By HILLEL FRADKIN and LEWIS LIBBY
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For nearly a century, the West has seen the Muslim world primarily through the prism of the Arab states that stretch from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Born of decaying empires, these states still carry echoes of desert war and ancient calls to glory. Yet for more than a thousand years after the founding period of Islam, Arabs did not lead the Muslim world, or even the Middle East. For that millennium, non-Arab Muslim rulers to the east and north marked the course of these Islamic lands. 

Then, the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought both the “Arab Awakening” and Western European ambitions to control Arab lands. Ottoman weakness abetted these developments. World War I ended four centuries of Ottoman rule in the Middle East, and, in the aftermath of World War II, the brief period of Western colonial dominance passed. Arab rule at last returned to Arab lands, as did Arab claims to leadership of the Muslim world.

The newly independent Arab states, all under Sunni control, wore a youthful vigor. They laid claim to being modern enterprises, suitably equipped with modern theories—principally nationalism and socialism—and practices. They called for unity, formed a league, dabbled in unions. They cheered champions of their cause—most prominently, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Constant crises, from the nationalization of the Suez Canal through the wars surrounding the Arab-Israeli dispute and the rise of terrorism, put the Arab lands clustered around the eastern Mediterranean at the center of world attention. The Cold War rivalry and growing world demand for oil further heightened Arab importance. Arab issues rose rapidly to be of great consequence for the wider world. 

But the Arab armies failed; nationalism and socialism proved false gods; and the Cold War ended. The new Arab states’ vitality faded, drained away by authoritarian governments and resistance to modernity. The North Africans turned back toward Europe. The Arab countries of the eastern Mediterranean bickered, ossified, and, stifled under repression and weakened through intra-Arab and intra-Muslim wars, lost their leading role. 

Although the fate of the Arab world is not written, the trends are increasingly apparent. The Arabs find themselves in the weakest position since the return of Arab rule to determine the outcome of events in the region. The decades have not been kind to the hopes once invested in the Arab world or to those who have suffered by their failures. It need not have been so, and certainly, questions remain. Of the old Sunni Arab states, only Saudi Arabia holds a plausible, if weakened, claim to a leading role in the Muslim world. Ironically, its strength draws from progress elsewhere, especially the growing energy demands of the developing states of Asia. We could wake to a Saudi Arabia that has purchased nuclear weapons, but we are less likely to wake to sudden progress in other areas. For the House of Saud reforms slowly. It may placate, but cannot summon its people; its self-indulgence is resented in Islamic lands. As a measure of its weakness—and a sign of its great imprudence—some of the Saudi elite funded a radical Islamism that would devour it.

Arab renewal stirs in Iraq. But it will take time and progress, both there and elsewhere, for a representative Iraq—dominated electorally by the Shia and Kurds—to be acknowledged by and be a model for the rest of the Arab world. Such a virtuous spiral of change might drastically reshape Arab attitudes towards both their own future and the West. But it will meet well-entrenched foes. Still, in this lies the promise of a third Arab era, of an era of long-awaited freedom and prosperity. 

Even for the Arab-led Sunni radical groups like al Qaeda, the era has turned sour. Rejected by the tribes of Anbar and scattered by the powers in Riyadh, al Qaeda has suffered in the heart of the homeland it would rule. Some Arabs may rejoice in the harm al Qaeda inflicts on the West, but as a whole they do not long welcome its cruel and stultifying brand of Islam. So al Qaeda recedes into other lairs, and its leadership hides in non-Arab regions.

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