European firepower for Arab muscle-power?

by D. R. HAFEZ – 9th April 2015


As the 26th meeting of the members of the Arab league ended last week in the popular resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the organization certainly went out guns blazing. Indeed, it was announced, with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a military unveiling, that the venerable organization was intent on creating “a unified Arab force” in order to tackle the region’s increasingly visible conflicts. The announcement certainly wetted the appetite of the international community and interested observers. Unfortunately, criticism seems rife right from the start. However, quite apart from the understandable scepticism of a “united” military force in a part of the world that is cursed with a myriad of potential factors for division, where does this leave Europe?

Marvel at the newly-created Arab Avengers

The creation of a unified Arab force, a sort of real-life Arab Avengers, capable of righting wrongs and correcting injustices and bringing much-needed peace in the region is laudable. For one, it forces a more localized or regionalized approach to the plethora of conflicts and tensions that plague the region. Indeed, as has been highlighted by the recent events in Libya, Iraq and Syria, western intervention is at best punctual (if a little heavy-handed) and at worst resented by the local populations as a modern-day version of imperialism.

Moreover, the question of the transition from a situation of civil unrest or war to a democratic and sufficiently strong government cannot be dealt with by western external actors – only a local, or at most, regional response is possible. Secondly, by creating the cutting edge of the diplomatic sword à la NATO, such an organization forces the member states to review their regional foreign policies with regards to their neighbours and even their own national policies with regards to religion and economics. In other words, if one is contributing to a regional peace-keeping task force, one is probably less inclined in supporting intransigent religious or political views, simply because it hinders any attempt at stabilizing an already volatile situation.

Beyond the drawing board, the plan is not yet off the ground

Yet beyond these praiseworthy intentions lies the harsh realities of the Middle East. To read the political events in that region along solely religious, economic, ethnic or political lines is to obtain only a fragment of the total picture. The Middle East remains very easily divisible along all the fault-lines mentioned above and more. To create a unified task force is to belittle such rivalries. Moreover, as the Arab League’s own history shows, individual rivalries between long-established regimes and “hardmen” (to put it diplomatically) can scuttle the best plans.

Practical questions remain: where will the headquarters of the force be, in which country and under which commander. What nationality will that military leader be? How will the troops be chosen? Who will contribute more, and how will he be compensated? Finally, the elephant in the room: politics. In a region that is currently experiencing a violent political arm-wrestle between the Saudi-sphere and the Iranian-sphere, how will the force be neutral enough to include all Arabs – will the Iraqi or Lebanese Shi’a be included in the command structure? Without even venturing into the Palestinian and Israeli quagmire, such doubts over the feasibility of the “united Arab force” need to be addressed. Throwing money at the problem will not suffice.

Europe take note, Arab league take heed

The European Union itself has tried over the last few decades to create a European defence roadmap, with very limited success. Yes a franco-german brigade was created in 1987, the embryo of what was supposed to be a pooled cluster of defence resources. However, far from the aspirations of committed Europhiles, the European take on its defence is rather timid, some might call it below par. No wonder that Europe’s external defence policies are either taken up by a handful of recurrent countries or by NATO. Apply the same reasoning to the Arab league and the risk that only a few countries enthusiastically endorse the idea of an Arab force is grave indeed – at best, those countries could be considered as trying to establish a pan-Arab sentiment of solidarity. At worse the countries will be seen as extending their own agendas or embarking on sectarian law enforcement. The Arab league must therefore not take example on its northern counterpart, for fear of merely stoking and already all-engulfing fire. However, the European Union must pay attention to the development of such a force, should it succeed.

Rejoice, for if there are some things that money can’t buy, for everything else there’s MasterCard

As has been argued several times previously on this website, Europe’s current strength lies not in the veneer of political unity that it grasps at like wisps of hair, but rather in the very real economic strength and export potential it currently possesses. A unified Arab force means common training modules and even common weaponry. Europe possesses an excellent military industry with solid ties to the region – both Sandhurst and St Cyr train the cream of the Gulf crop, and the French, German, Austrian, Belgian, British and Italian arms manufacturers are firmly imbedded in the region. To train a unified Arab force is to influence it and to imbue it with shared military and security visions. To provide a unified Arab force with weaponry is to provide jobs for Europe’s unemployed that will be renewed as the equipment is renewed itself. It is now up to the European leaders to seize the economic opportunities and give the Arab League a military-hardware VIP membership card.

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