Greater Arab integration has long been a dream of the Arab people. Wherever one travels in the Middle East, the romantic idea of Arab unity and brotherhood pervades conversations, and it is not uncommon to hear Arabs speaking positively about the idea of forging closer bonds with their fellow Arabs in other countries.
Therefore, when news emerges of summits being held and planned by two historically important Arab powers such as Iraq and Egypt, there are always murmurs of “what could be?” should these summits bear fruit.
However, considering recent Arab history, the chances of anything fruitful emerging from these talks to establish greater Arab interdependency should be taken with a fistful of salt.
The Egypt-Jordan-Iraq land bridge
Alongside Jordan acting as a nexus between the two, the leaders of the three countries have hatched preliminary agreements to create land corridors between Iraq and Egypt, allowing for cross-border trade, investments, and the transfer of manpower and energy between the three nations.
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The idea is that, for $130 dollars per ticket. Egyptian passengers could board a ferry at Nuweiba, cross over to Jordan’s Aqaba, and then use the Jordanian road network to access Iraq and even Syria when the security situation permits. This would facilitate a two-way exchange of goods, expertise, labour, and energy, providing a tripartite economic partnership that benefits all.
Iraq currently cannot support its own energy needs, despite its rich oil wealth and natural gas deposits.
By utilizing Egypt’s vast human resources to enhance the labour force in Iraq in particular, and by exploiting Iraq’s substantial fossil fuel reserves to provide energy to its energy starved neighbors, it appears like a win-win for all involved. In fact, an agreement between Egypt and Iraq at the end of last year has already paved the way for Egyptian contractors to redevelop dilapidated and bombed out Iraqi cities in exchange for oil.
But this plan is poor from the outset. Iraq currently cannot support its own energy needs, despite its rich oil wealth and natural gas deposits. Indeed, Baghdad currently imports most of its energy needs from neighboring Iran, which has a disproportionate level of influence over Iraqi affairs and has infiltrated most of its political, economic, and security institutions leaving Iraq as a rump state servicing the needs of Tehran rather than the Iraqi people.
Further, Iraq’s inherent instability and insecurity means that Egyptian workers will be ripe targets for terrorist organizations, whether groups like Daesh or even state-sanctioned groups like Kataeb Hezbollah, Badr Organization, and countless other Shia jihadist groups loyal to Iran. These armed Shia groups are also known to be involved in corruption and extortion, such that the prospects of successful Egyptian enterprise are likely to be vanishingly small.
A history of failure
If it flounders, the imperiled tripartite agreement will not be the first to fail in the Arab world. Arab unity and cooperation has been tried many times throughout the modern Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the first attempt at uniting the Arab world was the Arab Revolt that was supported by the British Empire in a successful attempt to undermine the Ottomans and divide their lands.
However, rather than live up to their end of the bargain by allowing their client Sharif Hussein bin Ali to become king of the Arabs, the British divided up Arab lands between themselves and the French, beginning decades of brutal and exploitative colonial rule.
In the post-colonial era, nominally independent yet weak and incompetent Arab rulers again made a cosmetic attempt at uniting their forces in 1948, this time in a military alliance to defeat the nascent Israeli state and expel the Jewish occupation of Palestinian Arab lands. That campaign ended in monumental failure, as did the wars of 1967 and 1973.
But before the wars of the 1960s and the 1970s, the secular nationalist Arab rulers of Egypt and Syria attempted a political union under the leadership of Egyptian independence icon Gamal Abdel Nasser. The United Arab Republic, as it was known, brought together Egypt and Syria in a political union in 1958 that had the potential to be as effective as the united territories of the same lands under Sultan Salahuddin al-Ayoubi who, in 1187, reconquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
However, Nasser’s undeniable charisma could not plug the shortfalls caused by his incompetence, poor planning, and institutionally poor governance. Eventually, the Syrian military forced themselves into the equation and restored the pre-UAR Syrian republic, re-establishing their independence in 1961. This paved the way for the Syrian coups of 1963, 1966, and 1971 that established Hafez al-Assad as the sole dictator of a Ba’athist regime. We all know the results of those events, as Hafez’s son, Bashar, is currently in the process of butchering his own people.
This long history of failure by greedy, weak, and self-interested Arab rulers places into doubt any enterprise that they engage in or appear to be making moves towards agreeing. After all, the Saudi-Egypt Causeway that has been in development since the mid-2000s has yet to see the light of day, in large part because Israel has opposed it.
The stark reality is that any plan that may appear to benefit the Arab people will either be scuppered by Arab leaders or else will be vetoed by more powerful interlocutors such as Israel or the United States.
It is therefore highly doubtful that these states, who suffer from so much internal instability as aptly demonstrated by an attempted coup in Jordan earlier this month, will be able to make anything substantial work.