While the Middle East is being reordered today, Arab nations have a relatively small part in it. But how can this be? Why can’t they manage to build a leading regional power that can compete with Turkey and Iran? To answer this question, it makes sense to look at the individual nations of the Arab people in two parts and to consider their situation.
A royal house seeks a future
One of the first candidates that comes to mind for an Arab power is Saudi Arabia. The country has immense wealth from the oil business and has been able to provide a comfortable life for most of its inhabitants. However, this model is coming to an end and the country must look for new ways to maintain prosperity and stability in the future.
The country was founded in 1932 after the Saud dynasty had conquered large parts of the Arabian Peninsula in several wars. Before that, it had entered into an alliance with the Wahhabis, a deeply conservative current within Islam. To this day, the core of the country consists of this alliance. Shortly after the country’s founding, oil production began, which enabled the economy to be built, so in a sense it can be seen as the third link in the Saudi chain. The close ties with the United States of America also proved to be elementary, an aspect that has caused great controversy in the land of Mecca and Medina. In 1979, for example, the Great Mosque of Mecca was occupied by Islamic holy warriors, and Saudis also played a leading role in the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Today, these pillars are under greater pressure than ever before. The very fact that a country is founded on the alliance of a single family with a relatively obscure sect suggests a certain instability. Add to this the decline of the oil business. In a few decades, it will hardly be able to play a dominant role in the Saudi economy. Whether the country will manage to carry out this upheaval reasonably successfully will be a decisive factor in determining the state’s ability to survive. To make matters worse, increasing alienation can now also be observed in the USA, by far the most important ally of the royal house. Whether the Democrats will remain a supporter of the regime in the decades to come is unlikely at the moment. These inherent weaknesses, coupled with difficult developments outside the country and a relatively small population, mean that no leadership role for Riyadh is likely.
The old power stagnates
Viewed purely in terms of framework conditions, Egypt usually represents the biggest contender for the position of leading power in the Middle East. With probably more than 100 million inhabitants and its still large population growth, it represents the demographic centre of the Arab world as well as of the entire Middle East. As a cradle of human civilisation, it created great cities and powerful empires thousands of years ago. Under the Fatimids and the Ayyubids, and to some extent still under the Mamluks, Cairo was the centre of power in the Islamic world. It also has the most prestigious institute for Islamic studies in the world, Azhar University, even if its reputation is somewhat tarnished today. Also significant is the fact that Egypt, together with Morocco, is the only country in the Arab world that can look back on a long history as a state in its own right and also views it with pride.
Nevertheless, Egypt does not seem to be in a position today to regain a prominent position. After Nasser was the forerunner of the Arab nationalist movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the country could no longer arouse enthusiasm abroad or at home after the peace treaty with Israel, for many Arabs and Muslims the arch-enemy. Under Mubarak, the country was ruled technocratically for 30 years. Since his ouster, the deep divisions that exist within Egyptian society have become clear. In the 2011 elections, the Muslim Brother Mursi was elected president, with his party receiving 45% of the vote. Even more radical Islamists received about 25%. The powerful military could not allow this to happen, and in 2013, they staged a coup against Mursi, with General al-Sisi becoming the new president.
Under al-Sisi, the country is now governed more restrictively than at any other time in recent decades. The lack of ability to bring the Sinai under reasonable control, as well as the war in Libya, make the security environment look dangerous. In addition, there will be major disputes in the foreseeable future over the water of the Nile, which is used massively for agriculture in Sudan and Ethiopia. The economy is also poorly developed, although there has been progress here recently. And further progress will be needed in this field if the country wants to become a major player again. Egypt’s new capital, which is currently being built to the east of Cairo, is intended to radiate modernity and will also be a symbol of the country’s turn towards the East and China in particular, which is playing a major role in the construction of the new metropolis. If this new concept works out, the country will also be able to exploit its strategic location as a crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic as well as Asia and Africa. However, there is still a very long way to go, and at present one must remain sceptical as to whether it can succeed.