It is still possible, even likely, that history will take note of the remarkable events of late 1973 and early 1974: Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and penetrated the supposedly impregnable Bar Lev line in a matter of hours; the kings and presidents of the Arab oil producing states, led by Faysal of Saudi Arabia, decreed a boycott of the world’s most powerful state; the major Third World oil producers, grouped in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), doubled the price of crude oil in a single afternoon and, a few weeks later, doubled it again. The grievances and frustrations of many generations, it seemed, had finally overturned the old and accustomed hierarchies in cumulative bursts of political energy. Algeria’s President Houari Boumedienne, addressing an extraordinary United Nations session on development in April 1974, captured the euphoria of the moment when the Third World, with OPEC at its head, could set at the top of the global agenda “a profound restructuring of economic relations between the rich and poor countries, with the effect of redistributing of the benefits of growth and progress.” Also on the agenda was Palestine, writ larger than ever: From the same podium PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat offered the world the choice of gun or olive branch. In Tehran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi announced that Iran would soon be an industrial power in a league with Germany and Japan. Egypt’s President Anwar al-Sadat boasted frequently that the “victory” of October 1973 had compelled the United States to distance itself from Israel and adopt policies more favorable to the “Arab cause.”

Today, what is left of these ambitions? Sadat and Faysal have been assassinated by their countrymen; Reza Shah Pahlavi lies buried in exile. Boumedienne, too, is dead, and Algeria has retreated from Arab as well as global involvements. Iran and Iraq are in the fourth year of a war that has already consumed perhaps as many as 300,000 lives and has cost directly and indirectly hundreds of billions of dollars. In March 1983, OPEC implemented the first price reduction in its 23-year history, and the entire oil-based economy of the region faces a period of contraction. For many Egyptians, the separate peace negotiated at Camp David represents a betrayal rather than a fulfillment of October 1973. Israel has traded its occupation of Sinai for a more costly occupation of southern Lebanon, while Arafat continues the Palestinian quest for a state with even fewer means at his disposal. And the United States, ten years after the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, has some 14,000 US combat and naval troops on or offshore Lebanon; US fighter-bombers have engaged in their first combat attacks since the end of the war in Indochina, and 300,000 troops under a new Central Command are earmarked for rapid deployment to the Middle East.

Spectacular Disarray

The paradoxes of this decade are, at first glance, extraordinary. There have been dramatic outbursts of political violence — the plot against Sadat within the Egyptian military, the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, massive riots in Cairo and Casablanca, the urban insurrection in Hama and the subsequent leveling of much of that city by the Syrian regime, and the civil war and invasions that have practically destroyed Lebanon. But except for Lebanon, these incidents have been absorbed and repressed with remarkable equanimity. Except for Lebanon, the regimes of the Arab world have displayed impressive continuity. At the same time, the tactical unity of the major Arab states which allowed for the initiatives of 1973-1974 have broken down precipitously. The primary characteristic of Arab politics in this period has been neither unity nor polarization, but fragmentation and disintegration. Where many predicted after 1973 a shift in the Arab world’s political center of gravity from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, there has instead been a disappearance of any political center. The survival of the regimes coincided with spectacular disarray in the relations between individual states, while the distinction between “radical” and “conservative” regimes now has less meaning than ever: People in the Arab world refer mockingly to “the single Arab state.”

If most of the Arab political establishments have remained intact, the same cannot be said of the states on the periphery of the Arab world. Iran was indisputably the most significant political transformation of the decade: It was an urban upheaval rather than a protracted guerrilla insurgency mounted from the country side, and involved the largest mass demonstrations in history; it brought down the regime whose mission was to guard Western economic interests in the Gulf; it was partly fueled by social dislocations stemming from increased oil revenues; the regime it brought to power was animated by an intense, visceral hatred of the United States. Iran was not the only country to change. The 1978 Khalq Party takeover in Afghanistan, followed by Soviet military intervention in December 1979, heightened the specter of superpower confrontation in the area. In Turkey, working class militancy and political violence initiated by the right wing provoked a military takeover and a draconian purge of Turkish institutions and political ranks. In Ethiopia, a military directorate proclaiming fidelity to “Marxism-Leninism” replaced the dissolute empire of Haile Selassie. For the geostrategists of NATO, the end of right-wing dictatorships in Portugal, Spain and Greece, and the rise of “Eurocommunism” in Italy and France, compounded the problems of devising military and political strategies toward the Middle East. The proximity of all these real or threatened changes to the capitalist world’s largest oil reserves, and the coincidence of this wave of revolutions with the OPEC price hikes, made Middle East developments central to the revival of interventionist policies and sentiments in the United States following the Indochina debacle.

Another manifestation of the political turbulence afflicting the region is the long list of armed conflicts within and between the states there. The scope of these conflicts reflect more than local grievances, real or imagined. They express the vast proliferation of force throughout the region funded largely by oil revenues and encouraged by the competing interests of outside powers. [1] The Iran-Iraq war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon have been the most costly in blood and treasure, but there have also been confrontations between the armies of Egypt and Libya, North and South Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia, and Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus. Iraq and Syria, and Syria and Jordan, have engaged in fierce campaigns of sabotage and assassination, while Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia have blamed much of their domestic opposition on Libyan intervention. Eritrea, Sahara, Kurdistan and Baluchistan all were torn by armed struggles for national liberation (or secession, according to their opponents). Military occupation and martial law conditions prevailed in the occupied Palestinian territories, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Oman, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while almost every other major country — Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia — has experienced significant bouts of popular insurrection and government repression. In Lebanon, these categories of conflict and repression have fed upon one another in a particularly intense and concentrated way. There and throughout the region we have witnessed destruction and human suffering on a scale that can scarcely be comprehended.

Oil and the State

An unmistakable feature of this era has been the enhanced role of the states with access to oil revenues. This has enabled the regimes to expand the cooptative and repressive apparatuses while minimizing the accountability these governments would confront if their revenues were based largely on taxation. The institutions and resources of the states have grown, but the political institutions of civil society have succumbed to atrophy or suppression: Witness the dismissal of the parliaments in Kuwait and Bahrain, or the marginalization of the Baath and other parties in formulating policy in Syria or Iraq. Universities and research institutes have proliferated, their intelligentsia groomed to tender praise in the guise of advice to the princes and presidents. Even in Beirut, outside the direct scrutiny of authoritarian states, writers and intellectuals had largely been incorporated into their service before the Israelis practically ended that city’s status as the center of a feeble autonomous Arab political culture. Today, critical Arab journals, organizations and individuals must function, for the most part, outside of the Middle East altogether, in Europe and North America. This reflects less the strength of the regimes than the weakness of the opposition, the failure of left and revolutionary forces to pose alternatives in terms of programs or movements. The political homogenization cum fragmentation that characterizes Arab politics at the state level has encountered a deep and abiding alienation and cynicism at the popular level. For the Palestinians and the Lebanese, the ferocity of the struggle for existence has sustained a high level of mobilization, but here too the popular movements have been gravely weakened and divided over this period.

The enhancement of the state and the marginalization of the opposition forces and currents have shown up in the ascendance of religion as a political medium. Religious opposition movements in the various countries are separate manifestations, not linked to each other or any single leader or organization. What they share is an environment where the secular opposition forces have been severely repressed or eliminated, and where the mosque has maintained a unique degree of immunity from the encroaching state. In each society, the dynamics of religious opposition are specific, and cannot be generalized to the region as a whole. In Lebanon (where Christianity as well as Islam provides the ideological props) as well as in Syria and Iraq, this religious politics has taken primarily a sectarian cast. In Tunisia and Algeria, it is anti-secular. In Saudi Arabia, it is anti-monarchist and revivalist. In countries where actual or potential secular opposition is significant, such as Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan, the regime tolerates or encourages the religious forces as a counterweight. [2] Iran’s regime has assumed the mantle of Islam, and in Israel the government of Menachem Begin promoted zealotry at home and sectarianism among Israel’s neighbors.

In political terms, the October war was not the turning point that many claimed at the time. It seems to have accelerated rather than reversed basic trends set in motion by the Israeli victory of June 1967. The 1973 war was a political initiative launched by Egypt and financed by Saudi Arabia to consolidate the hegemony of pro-Western ruling forces in the region. In many respects, the contrasting spectacles of October 1973 and the summer of 1982 delimit an era where the regimes survived but the Arab nationalist ethos, and the allegiance it provided both to states and oppositions, disintegrated.

The distinguishing feature of the decade is the great wealth that permeated the region in the form of oil revenues. The most basic material conditions of life improved for millions of people. Within the oil producing states themselves, the dispersal of this wealth took the form of direct and indirect government subsidies and welfare programs, largely restricted to nationals and typically affecting the poorest and richest strata. Jobs in construction, services and manufacturing absorbed literally millions of workers from the rest of the Arab world and beyond. The changes in social structure which characterize this period did not begin in 1973, but this period has seen the accelerated development of a commercial bourgeoisie, a growing wage labor force in services, manufacturing and agriculture, and expanding middle sectors of professionals, bureaucrats and service workers mostly affiliated with state enterprises. The amelioration of material conditions for the lower classes, and the mobility and opportunities for individual enrichment available to the better off classes, is one factor explaining the absence in the Arab world of any sustained class-based revolutionary movements or currents over the last ten years. This, at least, is the view of many Arab thinkers and activists, who argue that this wealth (tharwa) is chiefly responsible for the corruption and defeat of revolutionary forces (thawra).

Limits of Development

It is quite another question whether the Arab ruling classes have used this moment to strengthen permanently the political status quo. Economists like Atif Kubursi insist that the last decade has seen essentially a conversion of wealth (from oil in the ground to money in the treasury) rather than the production of new wealth in the form of goods and services. Impressive figures on capital investment reflect mainly the construction of infrastructure, such as roads and ports. With regard to industrial and manufacturing facilities, virtually every one of the large plants in the Gulf is geared to export markets, but is in an industry with significant excess capacity worldwide. [3] Their markets, and therefore their futures, are far from assured. Trade between the countries of the region has grown over the decade, but the individual countries have strengthened their economic ties more with the developed capitalist countries than each other. Yusif Sayigh estimates that trade among the Arab countries represents no more than one tenth of their total trade, in contrast with Europe, for instance, where intra-regional trade currently runs at more than 53 percent of the total. [4] Direct investment within the region is even more miniscule, “probably much less than five percent of total foreign investment” of the Arab oil exporters. [5]

Many of the most important economic changes over the decade do not reveal themselves in the few available statistics. Aggregate per capita income data, for instance, do not measure the extent to which inflation in the costs of food, housing and other necessities may have exceeded income gains, a dynamic which was at work in Iran before 1979. Neither do such data reflect income distribution. For the Arab world, a crude calculation separating high income oil exporters from the other states supports the common observation that income disparities have grown markedly over the decade. In 1970, 8.2 percent of the population of the Arab states accounted for 30 percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) of those states, while 72.5 percent of the people shared 50 percent of the GDP. In 1979, 9.7 percent of the population shared 55 percent of the GDP while 71 percent of the people had access to only 25 percent of the product. In 1981, 11.8 percent of the population shared 72.8 percent of the wealth, and 88.2 percent shared 27.2 percent. [6]

Washington’s Decade

One of the outstanding paradoxes of the decade concerns the role of the United States in the Middle East. The October war was launched against Israel, the major US ally in the region, and the oil embargo was chiefly aimed at the United States. Yet the sharp rise in oil prices favored the US in its global economic competition with the developed capitalist countries of Europe and Japan, and in its political competition with the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Economically the region assumed much greater importance for the United States — as a source of energy, as a market for US manufactures, foodstuffs and services, and as a source of petrodollar investments and repatriated profits. The course of the decade clearly showed the limits of economic nationalism as embodied in formations like OPEC. US oil imports from the region increased sharply through 1980, but by 1982 had fallen off to the level of 1976. This practically limited the potential impact of any future “oil weapon.” US commodity exports to the Middle East increased about ten times in the 1972-1982 period, from just over $2 billion to nearly $22 billion, with additional billions of dollars worth of “services” adding to the total. In 1982, the Middle East took more than ten percent of total US exports for the first time, and Saudi Arabia was poised to supplant West Germany as the fifth-largest market in the world for US goods. The Middle East region also continued to provide US multinational corporations with their highest rate of return by a wide margin — 44.1 percent in 1982, compared with 22.5 percent for Asia, 9.2 percent for Europe and 8.6 percent for Latin America. [7]

In many respects, this was Washington’s decade in the Middle East. A major objective of Sadat and Faysal in 1973 was to diminish the political and military role of the Soviet Union in the region in favor of the United States. Beginning with the expulsion of Soviet military advisers in July 1972 and culminating with his trip to Jerusalem in November 1977, Sadat essentially transferred to Washington all responsibility for Arab objectives, on the assumption that these would become Washington’s objectives. He then justified this approach by observing that “the US held 99 percent of the cards.” As US economic and strategic interests in the region multiplied, Washington eagerly took the opportunity to diversify its military and political alliances. Thousands of military personnel were dispatched to construct viable military infrastructures in key states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Washington slowly but persistently developed a military supply relationship with Egypt as well as Israel.

1979 represents a turning point in terms of overt military intervention and the strategic priorities which would influence how Washington played its cards. The groundwork for the militarization of US policy in the region was already laid, but the elimination of Iran as a military tool exposed the brittleness of those regimes which Washington depended upon to protect Western interests. This development ensured that Washington’s perceived military needs in the region would be adequately expressed in the arms “package” attached to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Secondly, the fall of the Shah placed an even higher premium on Israel’s standing as a “strategic asset,” and this in turn enhanced Israel’s already considerable leverage in influencing US policy. Washington might have most of the cards, but Israel still had the deal. Subsequent developments — the mosque takeover in Saudi Arabia, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the murder of Sadat — only reinforced this interplay of influence and inclination.

As the calendar turns to 1984, it is possible to discern some features of the decade past which have made the region very different from the 1973-1974 period, and also very different from what most people expected to see today. In Iran, the oil windfall helped to fuel a revolution. For the Arab states, the same bounty did not prove sufficient to construct modern productive societies. The decade has clarified the opportunities and dilemmas of economic nationalism, and the defects of the cartel strategy that underlay OPEC’s initial success.

The decade lacked a corresponding political definition. The Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon, the Syrian-sponsored assault on the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the complicit impotence of the Arab regimes in confronting both, do seem to mark the end of an era, but one which began in June 1967 rather than October 1973. The fall of the Pahlavi regime illustrated that no state could rest for long solely on the machinery of repression and cooptation. The survival of the Arab regimes, on the other hand, demonstrates that political bankruptcy is no sufficient condition for reform or revolution, and that even the most discredited state can survive in the absence of a popular and determined opposition.

Clearly, though, the incoherence that characterizes politics in the Arab world today is no permanent deformation. For one thing, Israel’s ability to enforce a pro-Western hegemony in the region is impaired by the contradictions growing out of its outstanding success to date in playing the role of “neighborhood bully.” US arms and aid have helped foster a military sector which the Israeli economy cannot support. We can expect further military adventures and exploits from the successors of Menachem Begin, but the Lebanon war has thrown into sharp relief the real political limits and encumbrances to future Israeli interventions. In the Arab states, the significant socioeconomic changes of the past decade and more have not yet found their political expression. The Arab regimes have bought time, but they have not bought the future.

For the United States, it has been a decade of heightened diplomatic activity, much of which functioned as a cover for deeper military involvement and commitments. Peace treaties and peacekeeping missions have brought the region, and the United States, closer to war. In a period of continuing political and economic difficulties in the US and the world at large, the crises that will undoubtedly erupt in the Middle East, unscheduled and unannounced, in the months and years ahead pose an extremely grave danger of US military intervention on a much wider scale and armed confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Author’s Note: Many of the ideas in this article developed out of conversations with various individuals. Among the most helpful have been Ghassane Salameh and Samih Farsoun, though neither are responsible for my formulation of their insights.


[1] For data on arms sales and other military indicators, and discussion of these issues, see Jim Paul and Joe Stork, “Arms Sales and the Militarization of the Middle East,” MERIP Reports 112 (February 1983).
[2] This typology borrows from Ghassane Salameh, “From Morocco to Pakistan: The Islamic Fault Line,” in the annual report of the French Institute for International Relations published in English as The State of the World Economy, 1982 (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing, 1982).
[3] Atif Kubursi, “Arab Economic Prospects in the 1980s,” Institute for Palestine Studies Papers 8 (Beirut, 1980).
[4] Yusif Sayigh, “A New Framework for Complementarity among the Arab Economies,” in Ibrahim Ibrahim, ed., Arab Resources (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1983), p. 149. The figure for the EC is from Morgan Guaranty Trust, World Financial Markets (December 1983).
[5] George T. Abed, “Arab Financial Resources: An Analysis and Critique of Present Deployment Policies,” in Ibrahim, op cit, p. 65.
[6] The figures for 1970 and 1979 are from Kubursi, “Arab Economic Prospects.” The estimates for 1981 are calculated from data provided in the World Bank, World Development Report 1983 (Washington, 1983).
[7] Multinational Monitor (January 1984), p. 11.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Ten Years After," Middle East Report 120 (January/February 1984).

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