Biden-Putin, colonial legacies, and the Middle East's three great divides

Biden-Putin, colonial legacies, and the Middle East's three great divides
6 min read
01 Aug, 2022
Across the Arab world, where people suffer from poverty, authoritarian rule, and subjugation to the games of international powers and regional autocrats, the dynamics of the modern Middle East can be defined by three divisions, writes Rami G. Khouri.
A Tunisian man looks on next to graffiti as protestors demonstrate outside then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's offices in Government Square Tunis on January 25, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia. [Getty]

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s simultaneous visits to the Middle East last month dramatically remind us that little has changed here since Alexander the Great marched his armies to the east in the 4th Century BC. Foreign and regional powers still  compete for strategic advantage in the region to re-configure the political landscape in their own image and interests.

No wonder so many people are confused by what foreign and regional powers actually seek. Global and regional partnerships and confrontations evolve almost seasonally: are Turkey and Israel friends or adversaries? What about Egypt and Qatar, the UAE and Iran?

Various powers scurry around mending old disputes and concocting bizarre new alliances for fresh confrontations – all the while sending arms and troops around the region with abandon.

Leaders of smaller, vulnerable countries desperately seek a regional or global power – any power will do – to protect and finance them. They preach freedom, equality, and economic development, but support authoritarian dictators, pervasive waste and corruption, and massive arms sales.

"This colonial legacy of self-serving foreign interventions that disregard the rights and aspirations of the indigenous inhabitants has now mutated into a more sinister local variant"

When two world powers visit in the same week, it amplifies the contradictions and confusion. It also clarifies and perpetuates old colonial traditions that view Arab- and Muslim-majority societies as tools for more powerful states to manipulate at will, with full complicity of local elites that are ever more eager for money and protection to survive.

This is not new. The United Kingdom in the Balfour Declaration promised Palestine to the Jewish people in 1917, when London had no legal claim to that land. A century later, Trump, and now Biden, have effectively given Jerusalem to Israel, when Washington has no legal claim to East Jerusalem.

This colonial legacy of self-serving foreign interventions that disregard the rights and aspirations of the indigenous inhabitants has now mutated into a more sinister local variant: established regional powers, from Turkey to Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia, intervene unilaterally in nominally sovereign Arab states to gain strategic advantages. They use muscle and money to thwart any popular democratic transitions and to reinforce authoritarian regimes.

The simultaneous Biden and Putin visits occurred at a moment when around 70 percent of Arabs are poor or vulnerable to lifelong poverty, and very few enjoy any power to reform their mostly moribund national policies, either through peaceful popular rebellion or democratic elections.

Governments now also monitor their thoughts and movements, usually with the technical or financial assistance of the same regional and international powers interfering in their domestic affairs.

This Biden-Putin moment highlights old colonial practices and clarifies three great divides that define today’s Middle East – divides that also explain much of the area’s violence, instability, and nonstop military and political interventions.

The first is the divide between most Arabs, their leaders, and the institutions of governance. Trust in Arab government performance has declined in recent decades, outside the small wealthy oil producing states, according to regular polling evidence.

Voices

These polls also show that most populations see corruption as rampant and the rule of law as not applied or favouring certain groups; unsurprisingly, nearly 50 percent of young Arabs wish to emigrate. The erratic but ongoing uprisings in several countries - Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, most prominently - also reveal public discontent with the state’s performance, and the demand for a democratic system.

The second is the long-standing divide between Arab people and the apartheid state of Israel, which polling evidence consistently reaffirms. Even in states that signed normalisation agreements, most Arab citizens shun close ties with Israelis, as was confirmed again this month.

The third is the divide between most Arabs, Iranians, and Turks against Western and Israeli colonial arrogance and direct interventions, including military action and economic sanctions. Polls remind us year after year that a majority of Arabs see Israel and the US as their main security threats, reaching 66 percent of respondents in the latest regional surveys. 

"Almost all Middle Easterners know in their hearts – more importantly from their lived experiences – that over the past century their torments have come from the three main (linked) forces of Western colonial manipulation, Zionist-Israeli apartheid, and home-grown Arab autocracy"

American and a few Arab leaders ignore this overwhelming evidence and continue to force-feed us normalisation with Israel as if we were a herd of goats – which is exactly how colonial powers view their powerless local subjects.

The US has now expanded this into an attempt to form a coalition of Arab states with Israel and the US to curtail Iranian, Russian, and Chinese influence in the region. This runs against the grain of all three of these profound divides that have been among the most consistent characteristics of the modern Arab world.

American recurring dreams to create such Arab-Israeli-US coalitions have repeatedly failed to account for what drives Arab people’s identities, self-interest, and dignity. Almost all Middle Easterners know in their hearts – more importantly from their lived experiences – that over the past century their torments have come from the three main (linked) forces of Western colonial manipulation, Zionist-Israeli apartheid, and home-grown Arab autocracy.

Not only have these combined to leave most of the region the wreck it is today – mostly poor, vulnerable, and subjugated by regional and world powers - but these powers now also cooperate more closely to tighten their authoritarian grip on the lands, people, and resources of the region.

Perspectives

The lives, values, rights, and sentiments of nearly 700 million Arabs, Iranians, and Turks are totally absent from the minds of foreign and regional leaders who meet routinely to determine our fate. The colonial and authoritarian eye does not see these people. They are invisible, inconsequential. They do not exist.

What matters at the Biden or Putin meetings are Israel’s security and technology exports, American politicians’ incumbency, the self-preservation of regional autocrats, US war merchants’ income, and carving up the region into spheres of influence – just the way the British and French did a century ago.

No wonder a majority of Arabs feel more and more alienated from their own leaders and have tried to overthrow them, while fearing the motives of Israel, the US, and other powers.

Colonial predators must open their eyes and see the rotten fruits of their legacies – not celebrate them by trying again to rearrange the region for their own domestic purposes.

Rami G. Khouri is Director of Global Engagement and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.