Arab Wars and Enduring Disarray

by Emile Nakhleh

Arab intra-and inter-state wars in the past century have damaged the Arab world, led to entrenched dictatorships and deeper repression. These conflicts have stifled freedoms of thought, innovation, and creativity. They have alienated youth and created a pervasive atmosphere of political and economic malaise. Deliberate regime policies over the years kept their peoples under control and created political and economic backwardness, which cannot and should not be blamed on outside actors or conspiracies.

The rise of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s created a larger-than-life self-image but failed to produce commensurate literary, scientific, and technological achievements that would give meaning and substance to the glory of the Arab peoples.

When the nationalist slogan proved empty, due largely to ill-conceived and losing wars, large and mini-states embarked on transforming nationalism (qawmiyya) into local patriotism (wataniyya). To gain supporters and legitimacy, these wataniyyas began to manufacture conflicts within and across their borders. For most of the past 60 years, many of these states or emirates frequently were either engaged in war or on the verge of war with their neighbors.

Arab presidents, kings, and tribal potentates offered many reasons to justify their resorting to war, including religious sectarianism, ethnic differences, power struggle, ideological threats, water rights, oil and gas fields, navigation, territorial spaces, political parties and movements, religious rites and ceremonies, anti-state dissent, and terrorism. The reasons have been “secular” and religious, Shia and Sunni, Muslim and non-Muslim, Arab and Persian, and Palestinian and Israeli. Illegitimate leaders, who ruled by force or tribal traditions, needed these excuses to justify demonizing the “other,” regardless of who this “other” was.

Aside from these tensions, many Arab countries were engaged in a cold war that disrupted relations, undercut regional economies, and stifled all forms of creativity. This cold war was waged between presidential republics and monarchies, single-party regimes and multi-party systems, and “secularists” and “Islamists.” Most Arab regimes cynically used Islam in one way or another to further their cause, lend legitimacy to their illegitimate rule, and justify their repression and denial of human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights.

Arab regimes have demanded legitimacy and total obedience from their peoples and tolerated no dissent, no matter how banal. In the process of stifling their societies through pervasive securitization of the state, these regimes have succeeded in killing all semblance of intellectual curiosity and innovation. The Arab world, “from the rebellious Gulf to the roaring ocean” as Gamal Abdul Nasser used to say, has produced only one Nobel laureate and published and translated fewer books, magazines, plays, and movies than many countries of much smaller size. The intellectually barren Arab landscape has been devoid of technological, scientific, and medical discoveries. Only a meager number of private sector entrepreneurial start-ups have resulted in significant job creation. Arab scholars who achieved the Nobel prizes did so while living in foreign lands.

The Arab Human Development Reports, written by Arab intellectuals under the auspices of the United Nations between 2002-2016, have bemoaned the deficits in liberty, education, and human development that have plagued the Arab world for decades. Although the 2016 report identified a few bright and promising achievements by Arab youth, the “New Arab” remains highly constrained by the state without much freedom to innovate, dream, or even make mistakes.

Young creative Arab minds are forced inside a straitjacket decreed by autocratic regimes. The regimes quickly brand those who dare to unshackle themselves as “enemies of the state” and deal with them harshly.

War and Autocracy

The famed Egyptian-American war crimes jurist and human rights advocate M. Cherif Bassiouni, who passed away recently, argued that wars have consequences, which often include crimes against humanity and massive human rights violations, forced population transfers, and ethnic and religious cleansing. Warring parties must be held accountable for such consequences according to internationally acceptable legal precepts.

The more wars Arab leaders waged in the past half-century, the more they lost, the more repressive their regimes became, and the more subservient they have become. As Bassiouni foresaw, losing wars has meant for the Arab world a loss of resources, increased poverty, a massive refugee crisis, lawlessness and a serious assault on human dignity, and the rise of unaccountable autocratic leaders.

In most Arab countries, leaders have ruled mostly by fiat while maintaining sycophantic parliaments, pliant judiciaries, and muted press. Since 9/11, many of them have learned that by promulgating so-called terrorism laws, they can forbid dissent and hold any citizen incommunicado for months. While muzzling the media, they granted their security services unbridled power to persecute and torture even the most law-abiding and peaceful pro-democracy protesters. Riyadh, Manama, and Cairo have excelled at this black art.

Although the decades-old social compact between rulers and ruled has broken down and governments can no longer deliver for their citizens, leaders continue to deny their aspiring entrepreneurs the freedom to create and innovate. A young entrepreneur, for example, must jump through all kinds of bureaucratic and security hoops before he or she can get a license to start an economic initiative. The regime frowns upon or even declares illegal any funding from overseas to assist with such start-ups.

Impact of Wars

The three Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973 have led to Arab defeat, the loss of Palestinian, Egyptian, and Syrian territory, and a huge wave of Palestinian refugees. Refugee camps still dot the landscape in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. Arab regimes could not thwart the emergence of the Israeli state, which over the years has surpassed all Arab countries combined in scientific, technological, medical, and literary achievements. Its military—army, navy, and air force—is superior to all Arab militaries, better trained, and more professional.

Arab dictatorial regimes did not pay a price for losing their wars against Israel and were not deposed by their peoples. On the contrary, Arab autocracy prospered and became more entrenched. In Egypt, Nasser was followed by Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led a military coup in toppling Muhammad Morsi, who was elected president fairly and freely for the first time in modern Egyptian history, and then replaced him as president less than two years later.

In Syria, the autocratic single-party Baathist regime under Hafez al-Assad and now under his son Bashar used vicious methods to retain control of power. The current Assad regime has practically destroyed the entire country to stay in power.

In Iraq, the horrendous losses in men and treasure resulting from the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 failed to dislodge the dictatorial Baathist regime from power. Saddam was finally toppled in the early months of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Saudi Arabia came to the aid of the monarchical Houthi regime in Yemen in the 1960s against Nasser and now is battling the Houthis in a war with no end in sight. In fact, the Saudi war in Yemen, which was started by the rash Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has no clear objectives either for Yemen or for Arab-Persian long-term relations in the Gulf. Nasser was forced to withdraw from Yemen, and the Saudis will ultimately face a similar fate in their ill-advised war.

The Saudi-engineered diplomatic, economic, and media feud with Qatar has failed to achieve whatever manufactured bogus objectives the Saudis had in mind. They have not cowed Qatar’s emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani into submission, nor have they been successful in replacing him with a pliant Al Thani emir. Riyadh has already learned that regime change beyond its borders, whether in Yemen or Qatar, is not a “game of thrones” they can play at whim without cost.

Riyadh is lashing out at Teheran without any coherent strategy that could chart a sensible future for the two states to live peacefully in the Gulf and the wider Middle East. Riyadh’s, Abu Dhabi’s, and Manama’s well-oiled lobbying effort in Washington—through think tanks, Congress, and armies of consultants made up of retired diplomats, oil industry executives, and senior military officers—cannot in the long run substitute for a coherent policy in the Gulf. Nor should Riyadh bet on the mercurial and ever-changing pronouncements from the Trump administration on their Yemen war or the feud with Qatar.

Even the few wars of aggression waged against some Arab countries—Egypt in 1956, Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, Iraq in 2003, and Gaza in 2009, 2012, and 2014—which engendered sympathy for the attacked countries did not alter the nature of their political leadership. Egypt continued its authoritarian rule under Nasser. In Lebanon, a lightly governed country with minimal authority from the center, real power is exercised by religious, tribal, and family factions and militias with Hezbollah being the only influential political party in the country. Hamas continued to rule Gaza, and the perennial presidency of Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah remains in place.

What Have Arab Wars Wrought?

After a half-century of Arab wars, political and economic malaise pervades the Arab world. Arab defeats have inadvertently allowed three non-Arab regional powers to emerge as key players—Iran, Israel, and Turkey. Major foreign powers, namely Russia and the United States, have also penetrated the region to fill the resulting vacuum and ostensibly to provide for the security of the inviting countries—the Soviet military in Egypt and Syria and the American military in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

The United States became more heavily involved in the region through its aggressive “war on terror.” Many autocratic regimes in the region adopted much of the American counterterrorism legislation to justify their draconian repressive policies against their own citizens. Many Arab countries today—including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and others—readily invoke the “terror laws” against all forms of peaceful, pro-democracy dissent. As a result, the Arab world is less democratic and more authoritarian than it was a generation ago.

To harness Arab human capabilities, Arab regimes must empower the youth, or the “demographic dividend” in the words of the 2016 AHDR, to be creative and innovative. If regimes are truly interested in pushing the Arab world into the 21st century, they must open the public space for a functioning partnership with their peoples. This is the only way forward. Otherwise, the Arab world will continue to slide backwards. Bassiouni’s injunctions should be a reminder that the rule of law and the respect for human dignity are the only guarantee to help the Arab world break out of autocracy, corruption, repression, and backwardness.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior U.S. Intelligence Officer, Director of the Global and National Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World. Photo: M. Cherif Bassiouni (UN)

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Very interesting and informative. I have to disagree on couple points; (1) Iran is not as strong as many believe and in scientific area is not that far ahead from Arab countries and (2) the war in Syria was imposed on that country and Assad could not give Syria to ISIS without a fight.

  2. “… political and economic backwardness, which cannot and should not be blamed on outside actors or conspiracies.”
    I disagree. The US has purposely sought to create divisions in the Arab world as a [part of its divide-and-conquer strategy. The most notable action was in Iraq with the 2006 mosque attack which greatly exacerbated the Shia-Sunni schism.

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