BEIRUT— It is bizarre but telling of the modern Arab world that one of the most important meetings that could shape the future condition of hundreds of millions of Arabs and others in this region — the two-day Egyptian-Saudi Arabian summit in Riyadh — has received virtually no serious regional or global media coverage, and mostly only fawning opinion articles in the Arab media. This is unfortunate, but not unusual; it reflects the modern Arab tradition of national political leaders discussing fateful issues without any serious public discussions or inputs from their own citizens.
This tradition is one of the consistent underlying weaknesses in Arab governance systems that have brought us to the dilapidated condition we suffer today in many countries. When citizens have little or no say in how their governments function, their governments tend not to function very efficiently or equitably. That’s why hundreds of small rebellions, strikes, peaceful protests, and work stoppages take place every day now in countries like Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco, and others where power structures remain firmly in the grip of a small elite that is not held accountable in any meaningful manner.
The Egyptian-Saudi relationship has been and remains potentially pivotal for the well-being of the Arab world. We can probably trace the beginning of the modern stagnation and episodic decline of many Arab lands to the 1962-70 civil war in Yemen, where the Saudis and Egyptians supported the two main warring parties. Egypt lost about 26,000 troops in its reckless adventure, which set the stage for its poor performance in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt used to be, and can regain their roles as, the two epicenters of modern Arab power in key fields — notably culture, religion, politics, and economy. Were they to cooperate and work closely together for their bilateral interests — anchored in mechanisms that reflect their own citizens’ values, aspirations, and rights — they could drive a sustained revival of the Arab region like Japan, China, and Korea powered the development of East Asia in the past half century.
But Egypt and Saudi Arabia now pass through trying moments in their national development, for different reasons that in both cases relate to top-heavy decision-making, lack of citizen participation and accountability, exaggerated military reliance, and unsustainable, often unproductive, development policies. They both face internal security threats from Islamic State (ISIS), Al-Qaeda and other such extremist groups.
Saudi Arabia is bogged down in the unfortunate and immature decision to make war in Yemen three years ago, which will preoccupy it politically and drain it financially for decades to come. Egypt grapples unsuccessfully with the continuing opposition it faces from ISIS and other extremists, along with nonviolent expressions of political views from ordinary men and women, of whom some 40,000 or so have been jailed. The tragedy of both countries is that, like most Arab governments, many of their problems are a result of their own past policies. They also fail to see that continuing on the same track will only make their problems worse, rather than resolving them.
So now they both realize that they need each other, and seek a way to work together more efficiently for their common good. Indeed, they could create a formidable force by combining Egypt’s human, military, cultural, and market potential with Saudi Arabia’s massive financial and energy resources and the respect it still enjoys in some Arab quarters for both its religious guardianship and its history of assisting other countries. Such a combination would once again allow the Arab world to take a seat at the table where non-Arab powers (namely the United States, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Russia) have managed the regional security architecture for several decades now.
The two leaderships have recently embarked on a series of bilateral summits and other meetings to chart a new path forward, with bilateral investments, military cooperation, and other symbolic or practical steps that could address their separate weaknesses and bolster their potential to work together in the region. They both speak of creating a force of tens of thousands of troops from Arab and Islamic countries that would work to stabilize the region; this would be in everybody’s interests and should be studied very seriously, if it genuinely reflects the expressed will of Arab citizens, rather than the private discussions of isolated elites, defense contractors, and foreign consultants.
This raises a delicate question that deserves serious thought: Will relying more on joint military action achieve greater security on its own, without political, social, educational, and economic reforms? Or was an over-reliance on military security one of the reasons why so many Arab states, including these two, have faced vicious terror movements that are all the more troubling because they emerged from within their own societies? Egypt and Saudi Arabia have made enormous, constructive contributions to the development of the Arab world throughout the past century, but handfuls of their own nationals played pivotal roles in the birth and expansion of Al-Qaeda and other such extremist groups. How do we explain this?
It is healthier for all that Egypt and Saudi Arabia work together for the common good, rather than compete with or fight one another to claim the mantle of Arab leadership that is now a historical memory. They could generate enormous new energy and power to drive a human and socio-economic renaissance of the Arab region, based primarily on the human talent and economic resources they enjoy; or, they could spend tens of billions of dollars more on perpetuating their policies of recent decades, that have not provided the genuine security they seek and deserve.
How they proceed could have fateful consequences for the entire region, given their weight and impact. Let us hope they proceed more constructively to seek security and sustainable, equitable development by freeing and tapping their human and cultural talents, more than any other single factor.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 25 April 2017
Word Count: 976
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.