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The Arab World and Colonialism

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Beirut, Lebanon on 11/16/2016 © Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock

January 23, 2019 11:21 EDT

Sovereignty and unity are much desired but rarely achieved goals, as the history of the Arab League demonstrates.

In the ever evolving complexity of relationships in the Middle East, Al Jazeera published an interview in March 2018 with Middle East scholar Sean Yom that focuses on the changing role of the Arab League. Not so long ago, the league represented a salient example of regional organization, which was nevertheless fraught with ambiguity from the start. Yom identifies the historical factors that have seriously compromised its initial ambitions.

In particular Yom describes, the “intra-League rivalries and disagreements, buttressed by the fact that a good number of these countries are struggling with internal sovereignty or unity since the Arab Spring.”

Here is today’s 3D definition: 


The ability of a nation to maintain its identity and its government’s authority within its borders when confronted with other nations whose sense of their own sovereignty somehow extends well beyond their borders

Contextual note

Yom puts his finger on the central problem that has handicapped not just Arab nations, but nearly every former colony of the European powers: “These are post-colonial countries that have to act, behave and project like long-standing sovereign states.”

The word “sovereign” suggests not just the formal capacity to pass and enforce the laws of the nation’s government, but also the presence of a complex set of reflexes, values and assumptions about the world connected to a shared awareness of the naturally evolving cultural reality of its people: its traditions, its language — or languages and dialects — and its environment.

In some cases, because of the way boundaries were arbitrarily drawn, establishing that shared understanding proves impossible and, in some cases, sows the seeds for civil war or permanent mutiny. In others, the artificial nature of the newly-created national institutions betray an incompatibility with traditional culture. And more often than not, both sources of permanent dysfunction are at play.

Yom effectively describes what we might call the postcolonial hyperreality of colonized peoples, contrasting with the more professionally staged and orchestrated hyperreality of neo-colonial powers. The formerly colonized, as he mentions, are required “to act, behave and project like long-standing sovereign states.”

In other words, it’s a scripted play. What they do is nothing more than acting, surface effect, simulation, designed to please neo-colonial profiteers, who were perfectly aware that it would appear as a form of pantomime. Their sovereignty exists in appearance only, as they respond to the force represented by three types of constraint: the geopolitics of their powerful allies (especially western allies, but China is also a prominent player in the game today); international bodies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization; and the major private actors in global markets, especially in banking and commodities.

This configuration of forces and influences means that attempts at regional organizational will always be challenged. The recent ordeals of the European Union — certainly the most successful and consequential attempt at regional organization — testify to the degree of difficulty.

Historical note

Yom hints at the ambiguous role — alternating between control and abject failure — that the United States has played in the history of the Arab League and its recent decline. He mentions “the 2000s, when the region was under the definitive shadow of American hegemony and the rules of the game were clear.”

American interference inspired a desire for and a feeling of unity among Arab nations. But when conditions changed and the US showed signs of both decline and diminished interest in subduing the Arab world after George W. Bush inaugurated a heroic period of waging wars that seemed intended to justify Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” opposition to the American Satan no longer enabled Arabs to feel united.

“As American hegemony has faded since then, due to a resurgent Iran, the Arab Spring, and increasingly Asia-oriented foreign policy in Washington, the League has not filled the regional void with a renewed sense of unity and purpose,” Yom says.

When asked to explain why the Arab League still exists even after failing to achieve any of its initial promises, Yom offers us a final insight on the underlying meaning of the driving force behind international organizations. He cites “a romantic notion among Arab intellectuals and elites that regional unity is attainable, that Arabness can still be a force for change.”

This is a cultural phenomenon whose force we shouldn’t underestimate in an age of purely pragmatic and opportunistic reasoning. Romantic notions may not influence short-term political and geopolitical change, but they can influence long-term change. Whether we are speaking of the European Union, the Arab League or the African Union, a certain romantic belief or hope plays a role in their evolution.

As we look at ongoing changes in Europe, the Arab world, Africa and South Asia, we should bear this in mind. It may not help us forecast how power in each region will be organized in 10 years’ time, but it will help us to understand historical shifts that take place over a much longer period. And that is something politicians with a concern for the perception of their role in history would be wise to pay attention to.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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