The once united Arab world is more divided today than at anytime since the implementation of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 whereby the French and British imperial governments decided to split the majority of the Arab world into spheres of influence to be shared by western Europe’s foremost colonial aggressors.
In the middle of the 20th century anti-colonial Arab Nationalist leaders including Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Libyan Revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi, the Ba’athist Revolutionaries in Iraq and Syria and the Algerian National Liberation Front helped to push the Arab world away from colonial dependency and further towards the prospect for unity.
However, even during this comparatively golden period in modern Arab political development, petty political rivalries prohibited the full re-unification of a singular Arab world. In 1961, the United Arab Republic formed between Egypt and Syria collapsed while in 1977 the looser Federation of Arab Republics consisting of Egypt, Syria and Libya also collapsed after a generally uneventful existence.
In spite of a dramatic schism between the Ba’ath parties of Iraq and Syria which fomented in 1966, in the late 1970s, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr worked to end the schism with both sides entertaining proposals for a national union between the neighbouring countries. Ultimately, al-Bakr’s deputy Saddam Hussein came to power and rejected unity proposals before accusing his own party loyalists of engaging in a pro-Syrian conspiracy against his leadership – thus ending any hope for reconciliation let alone unity.
Today, the Arab world’s disunity is so great that it is now more accurate to define the Middle East as a whole (with the inclusion of non-Arab states like Turkey and Iran) as a global region divided between northern and southern blocs. In the north, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon are increasingly embracing multipolar partnerships across the wider world, albeit each in unique ways and at times with differing strategies. The general development of a wider partnership between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and elements in Lebanon means that a war torn Syria is the only thing standing between a wider collective partnership throughout the northern bloc of the contemporary Middle East. With both Iran and Turkey working collectively with long standing Syrian partner Russia to instigate and implement a meaningful peace process in the Astana format – it is not entirely impossible that in the future, on a pragmatic basis, Syria could rekindle its erstwhile strong partnership with Turkey that had been growing ever since the early 2000s, up until the conflict that began in 2011. Finally, this northern bloc is completely united in its support for Palestine and opposition to the Israeli occupation of Arab lands.
By contrast, in the southern portion of the wider Middle East are staunch US allies and either direct or de-facto partners of Israel. This is true among the Gulf Cooperation Cooperation Council (including wayward member Qatar), while Israel, Egypt, Libya’s puppet government in Tripoli and the rest of the Maghreb (with the occasional exception of Algeria) are firmly on the US side of the geopolitical equation.
However, while the geopolitical diversity of the southern portion of the Middle East is less dynamic than that which exists in the north, in the south too, multiple countries are looking to the eastern superpowers as a means of diversifying their economic portfolios, all the while generally remaining loyal to the geo-strategic aims of Washington and Tel Aviv.
Saudi Arabia has successfully courted Russia in order to form a united front in stabilising global oil production and consequentlyoil prices in the OPEC+ format. Simultaneously, Riyadh is courting both Chinese and Russia expertise in respect of re-developing and diversifying its currently one-dimensional petro-economy as part of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 programme which includes plans for the building of a new mega-city to be called NEOM on the Gulf of Gulf of Aqaba. Likewise, the rest of the GCC is engaging with ever more positive economic relations with China, while Qatar has praised Russia’s even handed neutrality during its protected dispute with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.
In Egypt under President el-Sisi, Cairo is forming new security, energy and trading partnerships with its old Russian ally while also pivoting its increasingly stagnant economic needs closer to China in hopes of re-starting what was once the economic engine of the modern Arab world.
At the same time, China and Russia are both rapidly intensifying a partnership with Turkey while both superpowers also remain committed to the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) and the eventual reconstruction of a post-conflict Syria.
Already the China-Egypt TEDA Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, Dragon City in the UAE, the China-Oman Industrial Park, Silk City in Kuwait and China’s multiple reconstruction contracts already signed with Syria represent clear areas where China is playing a key role in the economic development and diversification of multiple Arab states that is set to accelerate in the near future.
In this sense, while the northern and southern blocs of the Middle East remain divided on overall geo-strategic goals, when it comes to economic development, both are for their unique reasons, collectively gravitating more towards the eastern superpowers of the multipolar world.
This is why the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum represents the best clear chance for the socio-economic salvation of a divided Arab world that is rife with economic inequality, political conflict and in certain places with violent terrorism.
On the 10th of July, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke before the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing where he reiterated China’s commitment to sustainable economic development throughout the Arab world. Xi told his Arab audience that “Sino-Arab future-oriented strategic partnership of comprehensive cooperation and common development” remains a clear priority for China. He further stressed a commitment to upholding Middle East peace through the prospect of increased prosperity before saying that the Arab world is a vital element of the One Belt–One Road global trading initiative.
According to the official report from Xinhua,
“In terms of helping each other realise dreams of rejuvenation, China and Arab states must stay focused on connectivity, the energy cooperation needs to be driven by both oil and gas and low-carbon energy, and financial cooperation must go in tandem with collaboration on new and high technology, Xi stressed.
Xi announced that China will set up a China-Arab states bank consortium.
Xi also proposed the two sides to achieve win-win outcomes, noting that China is committed to deepening reforms in all respects, continuing its fundamental policy of opening-up and pursuing development with its door wide open.
‘China looks forward to the participation of Arab countries in the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai this November,’ he said.
With the need to promote inclusiveness and mutual learning, Xi announced a series of policies to enhance mutual understanding between the Chinese and Arab people, and the official launch of a China-Arab press center.
As important players in the international political arena, China and Arab states should make concerted efforts to find a new path toward full rejuvenation of the Middle East, Xi said.
Xi stressed the importance to respect the different national circumstances of regional countries and their independent choices, and uphold the principles of treating each other as equals and seeking common ground while setting aside differences.
‘We must together pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,’ Xi said.
He also expressed his hope that all relevant parties could abide by international consensus and handle issues related to Palestine in an impartial way.
‘It is imperative to build on the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative, and bring the Palestine-Israel peace talks out of the impasse as soon as possible,’ Xi said.
Xi also called on the two sides to work tirelessly toward the goals of rejuvenating two great nations and building a China-Arab community with converging interests and a shared future”.
In an era where pessimism, economic stagnation, security threats and internal divides threaten the prosperity and safety of the Arab world, One Belt–One Road and other connectivity projects derived in China provide the last best chance for the much needed revitalisation of a region filled with great potential but one that remains plagued by political instability.
While the Arab world is not likely to politically reunite in the near future, New Silk Road connectivity could insure stability where there is now chaos, sustainability where there now is inequality and economic diversity where there is not stagnation.