An Arab NATO: The Birth of Another Black Swan in the Middle East?

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A US fighter jet during practice maneuvers over the desert (Image credit: Master Sgt. Benjamin Bloker/US Air Force)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

An introduction to contingency

It was in the mid-1970’s. A professor who taught us the history of Communist Party (a party veteran who seemed to spend all his life being the Bolshevik, starting from his participation in the civil war of 1918-20) giving up to demands of the University leadership to introduce new methods of teaching (even in such a dogmatic subject for the Soviet Union as he taught) decided to have a role play in one of tutorials. He carefully selected the safest (in his view) topic—the intra-party discussion on the role of trade unions. In history, the proponents were two prominent figures of the time—Lenin and Trotsky, and the former’s position dominated, albeit after a dramatic stand-off.

This did not work out like that at our tutorial. The guy who performed as Trotsky was a way better prepared and perhaps was a more talented polemist than his opponent. By the time the poor professor realized what was happening, it was too late—Trotsky defeated Lenin convincingly, to the greatest delight of the audience (not because of personal sympathies—these were times of growing cynicism among the young generation about communist theory and practice and leadership—but rather because of rare opportunity of having fun with a subject considered taboo; even then, more than twenty years after Stalin’s death, you could make jokes about anything but communist party). And when he tried to intervene and smooth the effect of this disaster by some crafted concluding statement, the bell rang announcing the end of the lesson so everyone rushed away to spread this hilarious news around.

This was my first “practical” encounter with a notion known in political science as contingency. What if this happened in real life? Back in 1921, by winning the debate Trotsky would have secured the position of Lenin’s successor. Him, and not Stalin, being the party leader means the entire different history of the twentieth century. It takes the outcome of one (rather insignificant in the universal order of things) event that happens at right moment (also called a critical juncture) to have so profound consequences that they can change the course of history…

History: predestined or unpredictable?

There are different ways one may look at political processes and how decisions by various actors taken in pursuit of their own goals coincide at certain moments, to produce the higher-level outcomes. This coincidence of (supposedly) free choices made by individual actors as a creator of history has been well observed by Tolstoy: “There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance.”  However, in line with his views on philosophy of history he then goes on to conclude that consequences of all human actions are predestined and inevitable. (Actually, this is the core idea of a five-hundred-character strong work which some argue is a philosophical treatise more than a novel.)

To the contrary, contemporary political science uses the notion of contingency to explain uncertainty and unpredictability of historical processes. As a situation where outcomes are uncertain, contingency is a consequence of choice (and struggle) and an historical accident (or coincidence of choices) at a given point in time. Both are simultaneously constrained and induced by multiple contexts. And that is why it is impossible to accurately predict (let alone estimate along predefined parameters) the outcome of any process. What we frequently read are the explanations to things that already occurred, offered with the power of hindsight. That’s not as difficult. When it comes to the future (even in immediate term) the best we can do is to anticipate and (as risk managers would advise) to get ready.

Things could have been different: South Africa

Let’s take an example—the end of apartheid in South Africa. On the one hand, it was a non-contingent (predictable and inevitable) process—that is, it absolutely makes sense to assume that it was an issue of time, given the global, Africa continental processes, and the dynamics of locally-driven power struggle. But here the non-contingent view which relies solely on underlying structures and institutions ends. And it appears that whatever important, it is not enough to explain what has happened. Because for it to happen at this particular point in time (and time matters) and in the manner it occurred (also matters, greatly) there was a window of opportunity opened.

There were two sources of it. First was the agency—represented by the image and cause of Nelson Mandela and those collective actors like the African National Congress which persistently maintained the struggle and negotiations with the National Party; and equally, if not more importantly, by the unilateral decision of F.W. de Klerk to launch a fundamental reform and later on, to overcome the Afrikaner right-wing opposition and call an all-white referendum in 1992, on whether to continue negotiating an agreement with the ANC). And second, there was pure luck of this two (starting from the story of de Klerk becoming the party leader and president in 1989) coinciding at certain moment and for a period long enough to enable an effective chemistry (it has been argued in literature that history would have been different if, for example, de Klerk was assassinated early in the process).

Embracing contingency therefore calls for accepting the possibility of (numerous, at times) alternatives. It means that (to borrow from political theorist Andreas Schedler), “Things could be different. Things could be otherwise in the present. They could have been different in the past. They could change in the future.”

The origins of modern jihadism

As it is clear, those critical junctures and windows of opportunity do not seat and wait for us to grab them. These are our persistent actions that, with the help of luck, converge to create certain ciphers that enable them. How it works? In pursuit of power (that is the essence of any political game) the individual and collective actors have to position (and re-position) themselves strategically, vis-à-vis their real and perceived rivals. For that they continuously assess (better even, interpret) the environment, in order to find (or create) the room for maneuvering and then act upon it. Given that all the actors are in this kind of activity simultaneously, there is a chance of congregation that goes much beyond the cumulative effect.

There is one interesting feature which deserves good consideration. This congregation works in many ways as a chemical reaction and can produce an unintended direct results or side products. Sometimes, this will be known almost immediately and in other cases we would learn about it years later. In any case, it is irreversible. Let’s follow this on one of my favorite examples—how jihad became a transnational movement.

It somehow happened that by pure coincidence three otherwise not directly related events occurred in a span of one year, 1979. The events were: the Islamic revolution in Iran, the seizure of Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman al-Otaybi, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The first event directly challenged the Saudi rulers’ authority in the Muslim world (as contrary to the Kingdom where the ruling House had to rely on sheikhs for various religious matters, here the clerics themselves were running the country; moreover these were Shi’a clerics). Second event, driven by religious zeal of the Kingdom’s Salafist youth (some, as al-Otaybi himself, from well-known families) cast doubt on the House of Saud’s legitimacy due to allegations in corruption and perceived openness towards the West. These two events combined were too big a test of the Saudi regime’s ambition and resilience; they needed a room for maneuvering, in order to win time to restore the image and to regroup the capabilities.

And this is at the time when the Soviet Union, by invading Afghanistan, offered them (inadvertently) something that Saudi rulers interpreted as a window of opportunity. Directing the religious enthusiasm of radically-minded young Saudis towards fighting a holy war against the invaders of Muslim lands would serve, they thought, a two-fold objective of showing the global leadership and getting rid of extremists at home. Moreover, this move was much welcomed by the United States who was seeking an ally (in addition to Pakistan already in game) on the ground in Afghanistan, to counter the Soviets. The rest (including tens of billions of government and private funds, training, weapons, propaganda campaigns and global recruitment of mujahedeen) was technical detail.

What is not technicality is that by transferring the traditionally localized discourse of jihad into transnational enterprise the Saudi Kingdom and its allies set in motion an irreversible process (that also went out of their control once the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan ended) which brought personalities like Osama bin Laden to prominence and resulted in the creation of al-Qaeda and the modern religion-inspired global terrorism and militancy as we know them. The present and future history might have been much different if these three events did not coincide by accident, interpreted in way they were by key agents, and played as catalysts to the process in making.

One important note here. Did you notice the emphasis on the agents’ interpretation of realities and windows of opportunity? It is critical. Our assessment as external analysts does not matter in this situations (unless we are in position to advise the decision makers, and even then it is not necessarily the dominant, even if informed professional, opinion—just look how political leadership ignores the advice coming from their own intelligence community); what matters is how the agents themselves interpret the reality and how do they see the threats posed and the opportunities these realities offer to them. Only then we can understand why they act in certain situations as they do.

The idea of Arab NATO

In the weeks leading to Donald Trump’s visit to Riyadh and its aftermath, there has been an idea of establishing an Arab NATO floating around. It was not aired in formal speeches during the summit and bilateral meetings, though. But, as frequently the case, it might have been discussed behind the closed doors elsewhere and just thrown into the social media space as a trial balloon, to gauge the reactions (especially those in Iran).

That is an interesting development. The Middle East is in turmoil; perhaps in the worst stretch of instability, in decades. Collapsed states, civil violence, proxy wars, terrorist groups and religious militancy married with poor economic performance, demographic pressures and deep societal and political, ideological divisions (frequently along ethnic and religious/sectarian lines)—all mixed up with political interests of local, regional and global state and non-state actors. The region urgently needs some effective security mechanism. Now, the question is whether the idea of an Arab military alliance offers an opportunity to establish lasting peace and order in the region or it will be counterproductive, and instead of leading to stability will result in an interstate war?

This will depend on a host of factors but primarily on how the key actors will interpret the concept in terms of threats and opportunities to their national interests. For now, the prime proponent of the military alliance is Saudi Arabia (with the backing from the US and most probably, the consent of Israel). The Saudis seem to interpret the developments as posing yet another existential threat and see the militarization as an opportunity to address a number of problems in one move. At the same time they see a window of opportunity in the new US administration’s Mideast policy (such as focusing only on terrorism and encouraging the region’s actors take care of their own security without the American deep involvement, and hostility towards Iran).

What they would like to achieve is to face down their arch-rival Iran, to regain a leadership role among the Arab states and broader in the Muslim world, to eliminate the extremist and militant movements threatening the Kingdom’s security, and to win the time and support necessary to translate the ambitious economic reform plans (Vision 2030) into reality. Almost everything sounds familiar, does it not? There are differences though, between the present day and the situation four decades ago.

Back then in the end of 1970’s-80’s it took only Saudis and the Americans (and Pakistan, by extension) to decide on a joint endeavor; the playground was somewhere else; Iran was locked in the war with Saddam’s Iraq; there was plenty of money available, from both government coffers and private sources.

This time around the cause is not as straightforward. The theater is not far away but in your backyard. The threat of home-grown extremists is much higher and it is direct. Iran is much stronger militarily and on ascending line in terms of economy and international support (thanks to the nuclear deal). Also, this time there are more interests involved from external actors—it is not only usual suspects the US and Russia, but also Turkey, China, the EU, and Pakistan (involved indirectly but very much interested).

At the top of it, there is a need for an Arab (even limited, not an idealistic pan-Arab) consensus at least among key players, like the Emiratis, Egyptians, Qataris, Jordanians who don’t seem to be on the same page about security priorities. Moreover, the row in the wake of Donald Trump’s Middle East trip between Qatar and the rest of the Gulf States (mostly, Saudi Arabia) accusing each other in the state support to terrorism (involving old and new grievances and allegations, from Qatar’s relations with Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian “rebel” groups to Al Jazeera’s alleged links to al-Qaeda, to name a few) shows that they are far from being united even on basic issues.

The major opponent (and if to follow the rhetoric of the summit in Riyadh, the main target) of the move, Iran, watches the developments closely. How they interpret the concept and the enabling reality is equally important. We do not know much about it. What we see and hear (public statements, newspaper articles, addresses, etc.) are the tip of the iceberg. From these, the Iranians do not seem to be very concerned. Beyond the surface there is for sure an intensive work in multiple directions. I won’t speculate on that, but one window of opportunity for them is offered by the same actor who supports their rival—the United States. By implementing an isolationist foreign policy and even alienating its traditional allies and partners, the US gives a chance to Iran to explore those divides and to build reinforcing relations with the European Union and NATO members that may prove very important in its strategic game. But it is equally possible that the conservative factions in Tehran would prevail and drive the country in an opposite direction, towards military confrontation…

*                  *                  *

The Middle East is a complex system. As such, it is more than a mere collection of states and territories. How those units interact as a whole matters more than anything else, including the individual properties of those units or their bilateral relations and interfaces. This implies that in order to understand the Middle East one has to understand it in its entirety. And it is my humble opinion that if there is a solution to security problems of this region, it should be the one that takes the Middle East as one whole, without dividing it in parts or viewing it through the prism of some individual relationship or self-interest. As we have seen in this piece, the past and present of the region could have been different. We say it with regret, as we see the missed opportunities while the products of past mistakes have produced Black Swans terrifying the region and the entire world.

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