Ghassan Salamé: The Arab world is on the verge of tremendous change

Speaking to Al Majalla, the statesman warns against the ‘institutionalisation’ of regional interventions at a pivotal time for the Middle East

Diplomat and former Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghassan Salame poses for a photo session at the Palais Brongniart during the fifth edition of the Paris Peace Forum, on November 12, 2022.
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Diplomat and former Lebanese Minister of Culture Ghassan Salame poses for a photo session at the Palais Brongniart during the fifth edition of the Paris Peace Forum, on November 12, 2022.

Ghassan Salamé: The Arab world is on the verge of tremendous change

Paris: The former Lebanese Minister of Culture, professor of international relations, and the former UN envoy Ghassan Salamé tells Al Majalla about a “tremendous atmosphere of change” across the Arab world in the second part of our in-depth interview.

In it, he says “the magnitude of economic pressure and the food crisis will have very wide reverberations.”

Having pointed to economic crises, the reckless use of force and climate change as the three main causes of global concern in part one of the discussion, and describing them as the “labour pains” of a new and, as of yet, unclear world order, he now looks at the Middle East and warns: “We may see protests, chaos and people taking to the streets because of poverty and other problems.”

Below are excerpts of the conversation.

Your talk about the world, its developments and dangers, which brings us to the next topic of discussion which is how this “labour” process of the new world — the Ukrainian-Russian war, Chinese-American tension, and this European awakening in the direction of “smart power”— will affect us as Arabs in our region?

You also said that we will face an immigration movement that may continue or escalate? What do you make of this? 

There are those who believe that, in the coming months, the region will witness a tremendous tide of change. I had a conversation with an Arab official a few days ago and he told me to wait and see.

The magnitude of economic pressure and the food crisis will have a very big impact. We may see protests, chaos and people taking to the streets because of poverty and other problems.

In our world, the internal elements must be balanced and not despised, and the external elements should not be marginalised. In our daily lives in the region, there is a kind of permanent confusion between the influences of the global system and the initiatives emanating from the region.

At present, I see several strange things happening in the region.

The first of these things is that there are a number of countries in which state building has become very difficult. The absence of the state has made it difficult to build a social contract between society and the state.

Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and perhaps Yemen and Sudan, are currently countries where the existence of the state is more of an assumption than a reality — the assumption is that there is a state, but the elements of the state do not exist in reality.

I do not see miracles that change this reality in the short term, so the concern here will remain.

Secondly, looking at the problem between Russia, Europe and the West in general, there is clearly an increasing need for Arab oil and gas.

There will be targeted interventions to ensure the continuation of oil and gas in the largest possible quantities from all the producing countries in the Arab region, and we have to accept that.

Therefore, you will see countries heading towards Algeria and Libya to try to separate the oil and gas issue from the rest and try to secure it for such consuming countries.

You will see that a number of countries in the region will try to take advantage of this need for its oil and gas to obtain other things. These things may be a weapon that has not yet been given, it may be diplomatic support in a country's dispute with its neighbours.

Algeria, of course, will ask countries that want gas to stand with it in the face of Morocco, and other countries will ask for similar support.

But I think that some oil producing countries will seek to reformulate a stronger relationship with the US to secure more American protection.

I think that there are a number of countries that have begun to tell the Americans that we want a more effective cover for our military situation in return for gas and oil. 

I feel that there are calls for major countries, especially the United States, to take greater initiatives for the security and independence of these oil and gas-producing countries than in the past, and there is debate and disagreement in the US Congress about this.

In any case, I do not see any strengthening of Arab organisations in the near future.

There are those who say that this picture that we drew has prompted some Arab countries to go in the direction of expanding options and maintaining good relations with the Americans, but at the same time strengthening their relationship with China and Russia.

Do you agree with this observation, or do you see it as superficial, temporary, and shallow?

I believe that the threat to have stronger relations with Russia and China is meant to actually obtain deeper relations with America. I don’t think that Russia and China are real alternatives.

I believe that the threat of Arab nations to have stronger relations with Russia and China is meant to actually obtain deeper relations with America. I don't think that Russia and China are real alternatives.

Ghassan Salame, International Diplomat

Of course, the relationship with Russia and China has positive political and economic aspects. China is a country that does not ask for anything in return.

China is the ideal trading partner, so it is a model, and if it is possible to abandon all European and Western markets and focus only on China, perhaps all countries would prefer this because China is not a demanding country in these matters.  

But on the other hand, there is a feeling that the decline of the West is not so rapid, and that the US is still the most powerful country that has the most advanced weapons.

It is the country most capable of deploying forces abroad and spending on them because it is still the world's most advanced economy and technology developer.  

That said, there has been an opening up to China, India and Russia, for sure. When some Gulf countries bought Russian missiles, the Americans lost their minds.  

There are Gulf countries that might consider buying Russian warplanes or, as Turkey did, Russian S-300 or S-400 anti-aircraft systems, but there is no military production with the same level of diversity and advancement as American production.  

A Russian military cargo plane, carrying S-400 missile defence system from Russia, during its unloading at the Murted military airbase, northwest of Ankara.

Even India, which was 70 or 75 per cent dependent on Russian production, is now moving to Western military production. On the other hand, there would be no guarantee of military intervention on the side of the allies, as is the case with the US.  

There are many Arab countries that dream of having something like Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), which stipulates that any attack on an ally country is an attack on America, and the US would defend it. 

Do you think that some Arab countries want that? 

I am certain of that because they are working towards this goal and trying to persuade the Americans to give security guarantees. 

Various Arab countries are experiencing economic, food and energy crises. But as for the massive global food crisis that is driven by the Ukrainian war, the question is, to what extent will this impact the socio-economic and political fabric of Arab countries? 

The Arab political economy has passed through three stages recently. In the first stage, most countries, but not all, had a controlled economy. I, myself, lived in a number of countries such as Jordan, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, and I witnessed that first stage of controlled economy.  

Because of that, there was a kind of autonomy with regard to the people's needs, but that was accompanied by an unprecedented population explosion.

In the 1980s and 90s, there was an unprecedented Arab population explosion that had no equivalent in the world, even more than what Africa witnessed. In a country like Syria, the rate was above three per cent each year, which was very high.  

The second stage was the stage of labour market openness. After 1973, human surpluses began to accrue financial surpluses from Gulf investments, as well as the revenues from Arab immigrants to these countries.  

In this stage, there was a flowing of oil money outside institutional frameworks — especially through the absorption of millions of workers from Egypt, Syria and other countries in the oil-producing countries.  

At one time, the number of Arab workers in Libya was almost equal to its native population. These were mainly Egyptians and Tunisians, as well as Africans. 

Then came the third stage, which was kind of saying 'this is not enough'. We also want a regime change, and this is what was commonly known as the 'Arab Spring'.

I mean, you had those massive street demonstrations whose slogan was like that of 'ooh, an emirate, ooh, a business' in Jordan, and like that of 'people want to bring down the regime' in Syria or in Tunisia, or elsewhere.  

Syrian anti-government protesters hold banners calling for an end to a military siege near the southern town of Daraa, the epicentre of protests that have shaken President Bashar al-Assad's once uncontested rule, on April 28, 2011.

When the 'Arab Spring' ended nearly a decade later, it was followed by serious repression. This movement failed in practically all the countries that had anti-government protests, though in very different ways. 

We are facing a new phase in the Arab world. What does it look like? 

The first feature is the social feeling. There is a desire that poverty does not squeeze the life of the individual. Poverty in the Arab world is mostly due to the lack of investment in productive sectors due to the population explosion and the closure of the immigration door towards Europe and the Gulf.  

The feeling that you are imprisoned and unable to provide for your basic needs within your prison will increase.  

Second, we are seeing that basic services that were provided by the state such as health, education, etc., have shifted to the private sector, because the state can no longer provide them.  

However, the private sector cannot fully provide these services in struggling or failing economies. Then, we will be faced with demands for states to interfere again and provide more public services. However, states would be unable to do so, and, therefore, I do not rule out the emergence of violent social movements in cities. 

The third element is that a massive silent migration has taken place during the past 20 years from the countryside towards the cities, firstly because work in agriculture is limited in its use of labour, and secondly because there is no 'work' except in the city, and as a result of that a vast silent migration has occurred leading to a large population explosion in the cities.  

We will see more and more of that the feeling of marginalisation, and poverty will rise due to large population densities in cities in various parts of the Arab world.  

Therefore, I expect that a number of quiet cities at the moment will be less quiet in the coming period, with more 'social' implications than in the days of the 'Arab Spring', which was mainly 'political'. 

We will more feelings of marginalisation, and poverty will rise due to large population densities in cities in various parts of the Arab world. Therefore, I expect that a number of quiet cities at the moment will be less quiet in the coming period, with more 'social' implications than in the days of the 'Arab Spring'.

Ghassan Salame, International diplomat

Are we facing a new version of the 'Arab Spring', i.e. a social version of the 'waves' of the 'Arab Spring.? Or if we want to look at the Arab region in general, we can see the Arab centre of gravity has moved from the traditional countries and capitals, namely Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut to the Arabian Gulf.

Do you agree with this characterisation? 

Yes and no.  

There is some truth to that statement, in the sense that there are countries in the Gulf that have become vital to millions of Arabs and, thus, their leverage and influence on the Arabs has coalesced with the Arabs' need for them. 

Egypt needs Gulf financing, and the Lebanese need to find work in Qatar or the UAE. Therefore, there is a need for the Gulf — the money and stability it provides — for millions of Arab families, and, therefore, this is a source of leverage. 

Another issue is that the West only cares about markets and money.  

When I was in Libya, I always said that the outside world cares about Libya but not about the Libyans. It cares about Libya — its riches, access to oil and gas, and hegemony over the Libyan market — but it does not care about the Libyans or their aspirations.

If the West today, along with Russia and China, are so interested in the Gulf, what does this mean for the other Arabs? There has been a shift in interest of the major countries towards the Gulf.  

There is also an Arab transition catching up with the Americans. The Americans and the Russians are interested in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait. Half of the Russian elite after the start of the Ukrainian war fled to Dubai.  

Undoubtedly, there is a Gulf moment in Arab politics. This region managed to remain stable during the rocky stage of the 'Arab Spring' and was able to give sanctuary to a number of elites in the region. But does this mean that this transition is irreversible? I do not think so.  

First and foremost, while the influence of the Gulf has grown, the influence of Iran and Turkey in the region has also grown. 

How do you see the rise of the regional powers, namely Iran, Turkey and Israel? 

Israel has normalised its relations with a number of Arab countries. There is a problem, then, because the influence of the Gulf coincided with more Turkish influence, and more Iranian influence and interference, and it also coincided with the Israeli flow into the Arab community of nations.  

Having said that, the Arab idea is completely left for the trial of destruction. The Arab idea can only be revived with the return of the Gulf to the rest of the Arabs, and, simultaneously, the Arabs' recognition that there is a distinct role for these stable and rich countries.  

However, there is no salvation for the Arab community as a whole, except by restoring a considerable amount of communication and understanding among these Arab countries, which has been completely missing for the past 20 or 30 years. 

Are you worried about the rise of non-Arab regional states? 

There has been a definite rise, and I am worried that this will turn into fixed and institutionalised arrangements.  

I am also worried that new alliances could replace the Arab League and the joint Arab agreement, and this is what is happening before our eyes. When we see that these rising powers have established fixed military bases on Arab land, then their intervention somehow becomes normalised.  

This might finally lead the Arab idea to perish without our noticing. But the rise of these forces within Arab territory has already taken place.  

When an Iranian official says that when he speaks, he is also speaking on behalf of four Arab capitals, which are Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana'a, this is not an exaggeration.  

And when we see the Turkish influence in northern Iraq, northern Syria, northern Lebanon, Somalia and Libya, we see that it is a decisive influence.

Are we still talking about the rise of non-Arab regional powers? It already happened! We see its manifestations every day. 

You are Lebanese and have worked in Iraq and Libya, and you are also interested in Syria and Yemen. How do you feel about what is happening in these countries? 

I think that there is a strong clash between the traditional community and civil society in these countries. It is a violent struggle. The traditional community is based on your belonging to a group by birth, religion, sect, linguistic group, etc.  

Civil society is based on the idea that you are a citizen like other citizens, you have the same rights and duties, you are able to agree with any person based on a certain framework that is operating within the borders of the country in which you live, and, finally, you can forge a social contract with the existing state.  

Now, we have lived through the stage of Arab modernisation led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Baath party and others, which was a stage of a forced construction of civil society.

The 'Arab Spring' destroyed that civil society and the traditional community re-emerged. It revitalised the previous loyalties to nation building. 

We are now facing three scenarios in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon: either we go backwards and sustain the old traditional community of sects, tribes, doctrines, regional affiliations, etc., or we reject them and forge a new and modern movement based on the idea of ​​civil society, which is quite the opposite of traditional community.  

Otherwise, and this is more likely, we will stay in limbo.  

Supporters of Yemen's Houthi rebels brandishing weapons raise portraits of their leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi during a rally in the capital Sanaa on June 3, 2022.

One day we say that we are Houthis, Maronites, Sunnis, Shiites or Alawites, and the next day we say that we are 'citizens' and we want our needs of hospitalisation, medicine, freedom of expression and democratic choice of our leaders.  

Either we institutionalise the decline that occurred in the past 10 years towards the direction of traditional community, or we rise up and return to a building process, but in a non-coercive way other than the one we were accustomed to by the Baath Party, Abdel Nasser and others and in a way that is more open to civil society and the role of civil society in nation building. 

If this doesn't happen, then we will stay in limbo. When you speak, I do not know if you speak as a Maronite or as a Lebanese, as a Zaidi or as a Yemeni, as a Shiite or as an Iraqi, as a Kurd or as an Arab, I do not know.  

If we don't choose one or the other, we will hit the wall. We have to make a decision. 

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