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Volume:7, Number:48
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Politics Among the Arabs

The Arabs are at one another again. The ruling powers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have just decided to snap diplomatic and all other ties with Qatar. They have accused the Qataris of fomenting Islamist violence through providing support to such brutal organizations as ISIS.

In their turn, the Qataris and their supporters see in the move by the four states an attempt to muzzle such news outlets as the Doha-based Al Jazeera television network. This position makes sense, for there are many among the ruling elites in the four countries and indeed all across the Middle East whose nerves are endlessly jangled by the reports that Al Jazeera carries day after day. There are some good reasons not to agree with Al Jazeera all the time, but you cannot dispute the fact that the channel does a most creditable job of keeping people posted on almost everything that goes on around the globe. That is not quite something you can say of such outlets as Sky News, BBC and CNN, all of which remain West-centric.

The move by the four Arab states against Qatar is not quite a matter of surprise, for in modern history, as also in the pre-modern phase of history, conflicts have always punctuated ties between governments in the region. As recently as the late 1970s, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat concluded a deal for peace with Israeli premier Menachem Begin, most of his fellow Arabs shunned him and pushed his country into a state of isolation. He was roundly condemned as a traitor to the Arab cause against Israel.

This history of Arab pitted against Arab was observed in the early 1960s when Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser spearheaded a coup against the ruling Imam Badr of Yemen and had him replaced by a military officer named Abdullah Salal. That was in 1962. For years thereafter, Yemen’s republicans waged war against its royalists. Cairo went out of its way toward providing arms aid to Salal, while the Imam’s cause was taken up by king Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy to befall the Middle East in our times was the six-day war in June 1967. President Nasser, given too much bluster and little recognition of reality, spoke in the weeks before the war actually broke out of how the Arabs would deal Israel a crushing blow. It was complacence that would lead to devastation. In a pre-emptive strike, Israel destroyed all Arab air force jets on the ground, swiftly moved across the Golan Heights, the Sinai and the West Bank of the River Jordan. Within a matter of six days, the Arabs had bitten the dust. Fifty years on, the humiliation continues to rankle.

Unity has been conspicuous by its absence in the Arab world. Nasser forged, with Syria, an entity he called the United Arab Republic. But soon the Syrians lost interest and went out of the UAR. Nasser continued to maintain the fiction of the UAR and projected himself as its president.

Not until Anwar Sadat took over after his death in 1970 did the term ‘Egypt’ return to the Arab political lexicon. But one man who believed in Nasser and believed that there was indeed an Arab nation that could have its own voice in the world was a young Libyan military officer named Muammar al Gaddafi. Staging a coup against king Idris in 1969, Gaddafi seized power and set Libya on the path to modernization. Along the way, his idiosyncrasies came into focus. But so did his support for such liberation causes as South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.

There have been fine Arab nationalists. You can count among them Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella, who led his country to independence from France in 1962 but was felled in a coup led by his defense minister Houari Boumeddiene in 1965. There is too the story of Morocco’s dissident politician Mehdi Ben Barka. Known for his opposition to king Hassan, Ben Barka was abducted in Paris by agents of the monarchy in 1965 and was never heard of again. Speaking of Arab nationalist leaders, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was a competent leader who kept his country unified and turned it into a truly secular state, until the warmongering team of Britain’s Tony Blair and America’s George W. Bush destroyed it.

Saddam’s fall was a tragedy, seeing that after decades-long turmoil in Iraq --- with the rise and fall of Abdel Karim Qasem and of the brothers Abdel Salam Aref and Abdel Rahman Aref --- he provided stability to the country. Saddam had his flaws, major ones. But since his fall, Iraq has disintegrated and the Arab world does not have a leader who could stand up to those who would destroy it.

Remember the speed with which the Kuwait royal family fled to Taif in Saudi Arabia when Iraqi forces rushed into Kuwait in 1990? Only a coalition led by the West restored the family to power.

That is the sadness of the Arabs. Pointlessly described as the leading voices of the Muslim Ummah, many among them have been propped up by the ‘infidel’ West. Observe the sheer happiness with which the Saudi monarch had Donald Trump lecture Arab and Muslim leaders on Islam last month in Riyadh.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Associate Editor of Asian Age

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