A Pan-Arabian Nation: A fantasy or a possibility?

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Throughout the last century there have been numerous attempts to create a union of Arab states. Most people will have heard the story of Lawrence of Arabia who won over the Arabs to the Allies’ war effort during the First World War and persuaded them to launch a bloody insurgency against the Ottoman Empire in return for independence. In reality what happened, and what would lead to the basis of modern Arab scepticism with the Western world, was that the Arab world was cut up into territories belonging to European powers or vassals of European powers.

The idea of a single pan-Arabian nation has always been a dream that will likely never occur. There are a multitude of political and religious issues that make it unlikely that they will in the foreseeable future be able to bridge these divisions. It is not as if there has been a lack of effort to create a pan-Arabian state. In the late 1950s Colonel Nasser would spearhead the political union between Egypt and Syria that would last three years (1958-1961). It ended with the uprising of dissatisfied Syrian soldiers unhappy at having to take orders from Egyptians and would result in them declaring themselves an independent nation. In the 1970s the Confederation of Arab Republics was formed, spearheaded by Colonel Gadhafi in Libya, and united the nations of Libya, Egypt and Syria. The idea was massively popular among each nations population but the individual governments couldn’t agree how to implement the union.

It appears unlikely that they will be able to try to implement another attempt at union, especially considering the consequences of the Arab Spring. Political destabilisation has struck the nations of Syria, Libya and Egypt in particular and they will focus on restoring their own civil governments before attempting to form another political union. That is not to say that it could not be on the cards in the future. After all, it was the political elites in the past that opposed union rather than the people who were massively in favour of it. In referendums held in 1971 on the Federation of Arab Republics the yes votes were 97.1% and 94.6% respectively in Egypt and Libya. This is making the assumption however that these elections were not rigged.

Another body that is another potential body to form a pan-Arabian state is the Arab League. In essence the Arab league is a body that represents 22 Arab states – 21 currently with the current suspension of Syria – and seeks to promote and facilitate Arab political, economic, cultural, scientific and social programmes that are in the interests of the Arab World. A comparison to the European Union is relatively applicable, though the European Union isn’t racked by the same difficulties that the Arab League is currently.

The Arab League is unlikely to become the foundation block for a united Arab state because of the deeply divided nature of the Arab world. Religious differences matter and also competing power struggles between three regional powers. Those three powers being Saudi Arabia and Syria (and their close allies Iran, though they are not Arabs). The Arab League has been vocal in their support of Arab Spring protests in places such as Egypt, Libya and Syria but fall silent when it comes to the oppression of similar minded protesters in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

This political divide within the Arab League has been made stronger by a shift in policy by Saudi Arabia. In the past it has always been the project of Egypt or Libya to lead the way on creating Pan-Arab states but this has shifted within the last few years. In the past year Saudi Arabia has pushed its neighbours towards a political union in an EU style model. This potential alliance of predominantly Sunni states, possibility in opposition to other Shia states, is a clear sign that pan-Arabism is highly unlikely to succeed and that a single pan-Arabian state only existed in the dreams of T.E Lawrence and other pan-Arabian romantics.

With recent attempts at pan-Arabian states instead appearing to consolidate states of similar political and religious leanings is the fantasy of a pan-Arabian state completely impossible? Though there is so much that divides the Arab world and a history of strongmen, dictators and religious fanatics, who have ruled with the support of religious or Western powers, there is still a possibility for the dream to come to fruition in the future. After all the most blood soaked and divisive continent in the world, Europe, has overcome many of its differences and have formed the European Union. If Europe can manage it, admittedly following the most destructive and wide ranging war so far in human history, then perhaps the Arab Spring will provide the spark to reignite a pan-Arabian ideal. For now, however, pan-Arabism remains an elusive possibility.

Article by Huw Wales. Edited by David Jeffery.

Notes

Details on Saudi attempts at union: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-seeks-union-of-monarchies-in-region.html?_r=0

Nassar and Pan-Arabism: http://www.mideastweb.org/Middle-East-Encyclopedia/pan-arabism.htm

Arab Spring and Pan-Arabism: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/02/201121115231647934.html