Four Arab Worlds Meet in Baghdad this Week

DUBAI - I have been following the deliberations of Arab summit meetings for my entire adult life, and still remain dubious about the value of such gatherings. The summit taking place this week in Baghdad seems no different -- but the Arab world itself is very different. The gathering reminds us that historic transformations are taking place across the region -- while some countries remain static.
Writing from Dubai this week, I am reminded that there is no such thing as “the Arab world” whose leaders now meet in Baghdad. We have four Arab worlds that operate at different levels of legitimacy and efficacy, so evident when one travels between the Levant, Egypt and the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. The four Arab worlds also share three principal issues that are being contested or are in the midst of change.
The four different groups of Arab states comprise those that have removed their autocratic regimes and are in the process of creating new systems of legitimate governance (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and, sort of, Yemen); those still in the throes of domestic challenges to the regime (Syria and Bahrain); those that experience persistent but low-level internal complaints and demands for constitutional reforms (Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon); and those whose oil and gas wealth allow them to satisfy most citizen needs, other than very small groups of people who demand more freedoms or inputs into decision-making (Saudi Arabia and the other five Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] states).
The very different conditions in these four Arab worlds make it impossible for the entire region to agree on controversial issues such as the revolts in Syria and Bahrain or how to manage relations with Israel or Iran. This is confounded by the three principal phenomena that are in flux across the region at state level: populist legitimacy of governance (Tunisia and Egypt vs. Sudan and Syria, for example), integrity of statehood (Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, for example) and dynamism in foreign intervention (GCC or Arab League interventions in Libya, Bahrain and Syria, most notably to date).
A Rubik cube-like complex matrix comprising these three phenomena across the four different Arab worlds captures the reality of our region these days, but it is impossible to avoid this sort of complexity and nuance in discussing the Arab world or its summit this week. (In fact, the reality is even more complicated, if we factor in the influence of non-Arab powers who continue to meddle in the region, including most notably Iran, Israel, Turkey, the United States, Russia and China).
This complexity is due to the fact that we are at the beginning of simultaneous corrections to the structural distortions that have defined much of the Arab region for the past half a century at least, when most Arab countries developed without any credible consultation of their own citizens, and power was held in the hands of families that were disguised as state-building nationalists, protected by private militias camouflaged as national armies.
So it is no surprise that some countries may reconfigure themselves (Sudan) or radically decentralize their power structures (Libya, Yemen, Iraq), and others may democratically, religiously or tribally legitimize their political leaderships and governance systems (Libya, Egypt, Tunisia). Others yet simply are becoming more active in throwing their weight around and acting like normal countries, regardless of their size (Saudi Arabia, Qatar). Regional groupings like the Arab League or the GCC states are also playing more prominent roles, but only as a reflection of the changes in the sovereign condition and policies of individual states mentioned above.
This is not a good time to expect any significant collective action from the Arab League summit in Baghdad. Ironically, and sadly, Iraq still reflects all the negative trends that have plagued the entire Arab world for decades, and that finally led to the current wave of populist uprisings (which were foreshadowed by several unsuccessful uprisings by Iraqis against the former Baathist regime). Iraq is plagued by chronic violence, deep internal mistrust, a weak and sputtering federal system, large refugee outflows, lingering terrorism, widespread corruption and inefficiency, lingering aftershocks from foreign invasion and occupation, and other attributes of modern Arab statehood that may or may not be overcome in the coming years.
The most interesting things in Baghdad this week are the diversity and changing nature of the gathered Arab summiteers, who accurately capture this transformational moment in – indeed, the very birth of – modern Arab history. The assembled leaders represent states that are struggling in new terrain to achieve and manage their own sovereignty, legitimacy and efficacy. This is an unfamiliar sight, but a welcome one to 360 million Arabs who seek only a life of normalcy, rather than the demeaning absurdity, insults and indignities that they have endured for so long. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global