The fourth wave of Arab nationalism: opportunities and threats

Recently, a new wave of Arab nationalism has spread in the Persian Gulf countries, which is specific, introverted, inspiring, and popularly accepted. Before I address the characteristics of the fourth wave of Arab nationalism and enumerate its opportunities and threats for the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is necessary to briefly overview three experiences of nationalism in the Arab world.
10 September 2023
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Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini

Recently, a new wave of Arab nationalism has spread in the Persian Gulf countries, which is specific, introverted, inspiring, and popularly accepted. Before I address the characteristics of the fourth wave of Arab nationalism and enumerate its opportunities and threats for the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is necessary to briefly overview three experiences of nationalism in the Arab world.

The first wave of nationalism in the Arab world happened after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 was the concrete manifestation of the first wave of Arab (and Turkish) nationalism, which led to the formation of the Arab states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan in the Shamat region and Mesopotamia. Of course, the theoretical roots of the weakening of the caliphate in the Ottoman Empire and the strengthening of the modern idea should be sought in the reforms of Sultan Abdul Hamid after the Crimean War of 1856-1853 (imperial decree), which intentionally or unintentionally weakened the foundations of Sharia-based governance and strengthened the foundations of modern governance. The characteristic of the first wave of Arab nationalism was the formation of a native state with relatively defined geographical boundaries and leaving the Ottoman Empire or the direct colonial control of England and France. Therefore, this wave led to Saudi Arabia in 1937, to Yemen in 1962, and after England left the Persian Gulf in 1969, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Oman were formed.

The second wave of Arab nationalism, with socialist, left-wing characteristics and based on common enmity with Israel, started in Egypt in the 1950s. After the defeat of the Arab countries in the war with Israel in 1948-1949, the Free Officers Movement in Egypt in 1952 led to the fall of the monarchy and the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser had taken power with the slogans of socialism and fighting against imperialism, which were very attractive in those years, especially after the defeat of Egypt by Israel, and formed the Arab army to liberate Palestine. The second wave in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, after Egypt, led to the rise of the military with the slogan of socialism at home and fighting against imperialism abroad. What put these countries in a coalition was their common enmity with Israel. The defeat of the Arabs against Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the war of 1973 and corruption, dictatorship, and economic inefficiency in the domestic dimension caused the defeat of the second wave of nationalism in the Arab world. Although the time of the fall of the military governments arising from the second wave was different, this wave of nationalism quickly lost its dynamism. Egypt and Jordan underwent a substantial change; the Iraqi Baath party fell, and Syria became a bankrupt government after the war.

The third wave of Arab nationalism was inspired by Atatürk's Turkey and Pahlavi- dynasty of Iran. Secularism, Westernism, and pseudo-modernism were the characteristics of the Republic of Turkey and Iran during the Pahlavi era, which sought domestic development and increased international status by being in the Western bloc. The third wave of Arab nationalism began in earnest in Egypt during the Anwar el-Sadat era. With the Camp David Accords, Egypt entered the reconciliation process with Israel and the West. He gave his security lead to America and officially placed the most important frontline country in the war with Israel in the US-Israel alliance. The third wave, which had gained popularity in other Arab countries at the same time as the Islamic revolution in Iran, instead of enmity with Israel, promoted enmity with revolutionary Iran. Arab countries also gradually promoted this face of nationalism. The characteristic of this face of nationalism was secularism, dependence on the West, especially America, and hostility towards Iran. The third wave of Arab nationalism is still alive, but in many cases, it has become ineffective. Security dependence on the West and America for Arab countries has faced serious uncertainty, especially after the Arab Spring (Mubarak's stay behind the door in the White House). Israel's territorial expansionism has increased the fear of Arab countries, and Arab unity based on opposition to Iran has also faced new uncertainties and challenges after the Syrian war and the rise of ISIS. America and Israel are pursuing the project of normalizing Israel's relations with the Arab countries in order to maintain the third wave of Arab nationalism so that both the security dependence of the Arab countries remains on the Western bloc and Iran is placed in a weak position and the possibility of increasing Israel's strategic depth in the Arab countries under the pretext of common confrontation with Iran increase.

A look at the political, social, and economic practices of Arab countries in the last decade shows that the fourth wave of Arab nationalism is coming. As we will say below, this wave is accompanied by opportunities and threats for Iran. What are the characteristics of the fourth wave of Arab nationalism?

  1. The fourth wave of Arab nationalism, unlike the third wave, which was characterized by extroversion, is introverted and seeks good governance with the special task of creating security, prosperity, and international dignity.
  2. The fourth wave does not seek to promote popular sovereignty and democracy; increasing life expectancy, strengthening national identity, and attracting extensive foreign investment and domestic development are the axes of modern Arab nationalism.
  3. The fourth wave is secular and against ideology in domestic and foreign politics. The mutual coexistence of followers of religions is based on mutual respect, legalism, and religious formalization, the strategy of modern Arab nationalism towards religion and ideology. For example, we can mention the isolation of the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism in Arab countries.
  4. Modern Arab nationalism seeks to reduce security dependence on the Western bloc and America in foreign policy and pursues diversification in relation to great powers and balanced foreign policy (balancing in foreign policy). The expansion of relations with China, Russia, and Türkiye is explained in the framework of this strategy.
  5. Instead of antagonizing Israel and Iran, modern Arab nationalism seeks to control Israel and Iran. The process of normalization with Israel and de-escalation of Arab tensions with Iran is also explained in the framework of this strategy. Arab countries' long-term view of Iran is the model of North Korea in East Asia. They want Iran's military power to be controlled, and at the same time, Iran will change from a regional power to a country caught in domestic and international crises.

The opportunities and threats of modern Arab nationalism for the Islamic Republic are placed in the above five cases. The need for stability and diversification in foreign relations is one of the opportunities for modern Arab nationalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran. De-ideology, normalization with Israel, becoming a model of the Arab governance model for public opinion inside Iran, controlling Iran's military power, and isolating Iran in the long term will also be among the serious threats of modern Arab nationalism for the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, a senior expert at the IPIS

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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