North Africa, West Asia

Out of the Middle East

It is time for Arab Gulf countries to stop being on the defensive and to accept their responsibility for what is happening in the region.

Amal Hamidallah
27 May 2015
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Opposition graffiti in Bahrain. Ahmed Al-Fardan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Yemen is lost, probably the same way the Arab world lost several other countries in the Middle East such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Yemen may return one day, but not in the next decade, and it will be as disfigured as Lebanon was after the civil war, after it had once been famously referred to as the pearl of the Mediterranean.

The devastation to Yemen, due to the current war, is irremediable. Societal rupture, the collapse of local communities, an abrupt end to centuries of ethnic and inter-religious coexistence—this has all happened in the blink of an eye.

Brutal ruptures with the past and new paradigms are the latest shifts in the Middle East. Local communities are collapsing as inevitable collateral damage of the ongoing regional conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, even Egypt. Lebanon was the first country to go through such a dramatic process decades ago.

The disfiguration, as a result of these raging conflicts, will shape a new Middle East that is not necessarily one we wish to see.

To avoid the nightmare scenario we—a group of human rights advocates and intellectuals—are watching with our eyes wide open, in the hopes of supporting regional reforms. 'The Gulf Foundation' was established to spread a culture of human rights.

Shia, Sunni, Ebadi, men and women, all participated, which made it a very unique experience. Local communities, mainly youth, were enthusiastic and very open to working beyond ethnic, sectarian and gender divides.

The work was not exclusive; it was a home grown process from the region for the region. Even conservative groups, quite surprisingly, were keen on learning more about the concept of human rights values and norms.

However, this all ended abruptly with the harsh crackdown in Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when the words 'human rights' became taboo.

Many professors, even ones preaching peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution, were banned from entering countries in the region. Prominent human rights lawyers and university professors were placed behind bars, websites were banned, and other individuals became persona non grata in the Gulf region for reasons nuclear, except suspicions for spreading the “culture of human rights”. The concept of the rule of law, similarly to the concept of civil society, became taboo. The Foundations’ educational endeavours and shared learning experiences ended, out of fear of the unknown.

This zero tolerance campaign that was, and still is, being promoted will not resolve the region’s most dramatic nightmare: the rise of fanaticism, sectarianism and conflict. It is also a reason for the fragility of local regimes and communities.

Disenfranchising local communities, intellectuals and thinkers created a vacuum for the raise of sectarianism, intolerance, fanatic ideologies, terrorism, internal unrest, and the regional conflicts that led to state failure and collapse.

The targeting of local civil society leaders and communities has weakened the region dramatically. The Arab world has lost Syria, Iraq, Libya and now Yemen as a result of its incapacity to embrace the natural process of change.

Yemen, similarly to Iraq, is a showcase for such blatant failure. The Arab Gulf states, with their geographical location, cultural heritage and wealth, could have paved the way to reforms in the Arab world. They could have played a leading role for the other countries: conciliating antagonists in cases of conflict and assisting in times of crisis.

This could have benefitted the region as a whole, including the GCC as a group of new nations with very young populations. Such a shift would have been strategically, politically and historically wise, as well as the best security strategy with Iran as a neighbour. 

In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, it was never only an internal matter that could have been resolved nationally. These conflicts were broader, even though they were instigated by internal unrest. Regional powers, such as KSA and Iran, share great responsibility in these conflicts, even if it is by their unwillingness to agree on a peace and security settlement.

Why did the Arab world not take the unique opportunity to pave the road to reform?

Arab countries are reluctant to change. Dire human rights situations led to calls for regime change and revolution, but Arab states buried their heads in the sand.

Iran, on the other hand, has taken this opportunity to assert itself regionally, even if that means being on the wrong side of history; Iran’s stance has not done itself or its neighbours any good.

Iran did not extend arms to Yemen Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon for the love of the region; it has strategic interest in the region, and a long term goal of becoming the key player, if not a leading power. This is the main reason why the collapse of its neighbours is believed to be in its favour.

Since Iran’s interference and meddling in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, alarm bells have started to sound amongst the neighbouring states. The Arab world suddenly woke up and realised that they badly ignored Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam’s removal. Iraq desperately needed support, particularly form its GCC neighbours, but the call was not heard, similar to the calls coming from Syrian revolutionaries that are falling on deaf ears. All the Arab street could do is take its revolution to Twitter and Facebook.

Some GCC countries actively participated in aborting the birth of a democracy in one of the leading Arab countries: Egypt. Their interference in Libya exasperated the already dire situation leading to the failure to build a state—Libya is now a country facing a civil war and may become the second Somalia of Africa. 

Divisions and conflicting approaches are behind the collapse of the transitional justice process in Yemen. The popular uprising had toppled the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, whilst Arab Gulf countries were generously and unconditionally supporting it with funds. The same regime supposedly fighting Al Qaeda and securing the southern borders of the GCC.

Magically and suddenly after his removal, Saleh turned to Iran seeking support and assistance; a clear sign that he had never left the Yemeni political spectrum. Fuelling a sectarian divide in his own country; bringing Houthi Shi'a and Sunni tribes in conflict; both groups became victims and perpetrators caught in a trap leading to the collapse of Yemen and the strengthening of Al Qaeda as well as other terror groups in the Arabian peninsula. The GCC’s worst case scenario is now closer to its borders than ever before.

We can discuss at length all the missed chances for reforms and the unfolding dramas; the GCC (with KSA having the largest border with Iraq and Yemen) now has ISIL threatening the northern border, Al Qaeda and its affiliates in the south and several neighbouring countries falling. One does not need to be a visionary to realise that it is a matter of time before this engulfs the whole GCC.

War will not achieve any tangible good for regional powers. Iran will never rule the Arab world, as history shows. Iran’s neighbours, without stability, democracy, strong civil society and rule of law will remain fragile states.

The military interventions in Yemen and elsewhere by Arab Gulf countries will not limit disasters or prevent threats of divisions and wars from reaching their lands.

Arab countries will be better off resolving regional conflicts through negotiations and peace building with neighbouring powers, such as Iran. Their wealth should also be used more efficiently and effectively regionally.

Buying arms and manpower will not prevent conflict, but investing in people, building strong nations through democratic systems, enshrined in and ruled by the law, human rights values and norms, justice and equity will.

Economically and politically supporting countries as Iraq and Yemen, and taking a joint stand on Libya and Syria, will also be a step in the right direction.

The countries that will succeed in gaining stability, peace and security are the ones that will embrace sectarian diversity, engage with legitimate political demands, open up to dissident groups (even if they are the so-called Islamists).

It is important to note that in the majority of Arab countries, and particularly in the Arab Gulf countries, political parties are banned. The only space to seek legitimacy to build popular momentum is and remains religious ideology. We should not blame local groups for using religious political affiliation and discourse to achieve political goals. We should rather blame the ones who decided to ban political parties.

Planting a garden of a thousand and one roses lies in the hands of local leadership. Local communities have had their hands tied for decades now. We can’t continue lying to ourselves and waiting for Al Khudr (Merlin the Magician) to plant full grown roses in our gardens. As days go by, we only see plagues and untamed swords demolishing the region.

What is next after decades of lamentation and tears, waiting in anticipation for the next monstrous plague, worse than Al Qaeda or ISIL?

These experiences are not only disfiguring the region but an important religion in today’s world: Islam.

It’s time for Arab Gulf countries to no longer be on the defensive and to accept their responsibility for what is happening in the region. The GCC needs to take a lead in the future they want to see: a future without conflict, where freedom is a right for all, where equality and human rights are not a luxury, where the rule of law, accountability, transparency and equity are the norm. This is what Islam is about.

Islam is about justice, equity, peace and harmony within and between Muslim communities and the world. Why have Islam’s core values been disfigured? We are all responsible for what has happened and we, as Arab and Muslim communities, are the first ones to blame for this damage.

Life is hope and without hope there is no future. We will need to continue educating our communities, and addressing local leadership and policy makers in a constructive way, in hope for a miracle of awareness.

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