The New Arab Cold War

By Khashan, Hilal | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview
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The New Arab Cold War


Khashan, Hilal, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


Preoccupation with state security lies at the heart of modern Arab politics. This has caused interstate conflict to become more normal than exceptional. Yet there have been periods when the intensity of conflict assumed a large scale that pitted Arab countries in antagonisms exceeding the familiar bilateral scope. These periods have corresponded with changes in the world order: namely, following the end of World War II, and the collapse of the Soviet Union some forty-five years later.

In the late 1940s the countries of the Arab East slowly engulfed themselves in a tumultuous political rivalry that scholars now recognize as the Arab Cold War. Unlike the East-West cold war, which was essentially an ideological conflict between capitalism and communism, the main ingredient of the first Arab cold war was not ideological as much as personal grudges among Arab leaders. In 1949, King Faruq of Egypt proposed the formation of an Arab Collective Security Pact. His objective was to abort the possibility of a merger between Iraq and Syria. Tension between Iraq and Egypt built up under the new republican regime in Cairo. and developed into a personal feud between Gamal Abd An-Nasser and Nuri As-Said for power and hegemony in the Arab world. The Arab Cold War reached a high point after Iraq and Turkey signed a military pact on 24 February 1955 that formed the nucleus for the Baghdad Pact.' Nasser's Arab competitors in the 1960s became the Baa'th Party in Syria, but mainly Saudi Arabia's King Faysal who seemed motivated by the notion of Islamic cooperation, an anathema to his secular Egyptian political foe. The Arab Cold War eased up with the eruption of the Six Day War in 1967 the consequences of which battered Nasser politically, leaving his country militarily vulnerable.

Concern about the magnitude of the military defeat, and engrossment in the search for a solution to the Middle East crisis, did not deter Arab leaders from infighting - a sine qua non in the dynamics of Arab politics. Nevertheless, they laid to rest regional polarization and antagonistic bloc formation.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2nd. August 1990 ushered in a new version of the Arab Cold War. Again, this round of cold war was waged in response to personal feuds by leaders worried about internal security as well as the regional preeminence of their regimes. Unlike its predecessor, which was largely a byproduct of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the new Arab Cold War was a residual of the end of superpower rivalry. Arab scholars voice their concern about the evident increase in inter-Arab tensions. Mun'im al-'Ammar warned against burgeoning divisions in the Arab world as their leaders clash among themselves for primacy. He concludes that if the present situation continues "it would create great contradictions that may cause the resumption of the Arab Cold War and the emergence of foreign blocs and alliances."2 Al-'Ammar's fears have come true. The Arab Cold War is now in full swing.

The present paper seeks to investigate the following three fronts of the New Arab Cold War: (1) the struggle for Iraq, (2) the rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). and (3) the imbroglio between Egypt and the Sudan. Rising Islamic fundamentalism and increasing economic difficulties are the two factors that cut across these three fronts of Arab conflict. The analysis is guided by the new political arena in the Arab world which can best be understood by reference to the impact of global developments, increasing involvement of non-Arab regional actors, as well as by domestic changes in the Arab countries.

A New Political Arena

The rules of the game of Arab politics have changed considerably since the Six Day War. Globally, the Eastern Bloc already showed signs of the weakness that led to its eventual demise. Dramatic changes took place speedily, such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the rise of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the ascendancy of Perestroika, and gladnost-minded Gorbachev at the helm in the Kremlin, the fall of Ceausescu in Romania, and the abortive coup in Moscow in July 1991.

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