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Arab politics and the Gulf war: political opinion and political culture.

THIS ARTICLE REFLECTS OUR EFFORTS TO UNDERSTAND the Gulf war in the way we are accustomed as social scientists to metabolize reality. Thus, it reflects two inter-connected though distinct dimensions of our enterprise: empirical and theoretical. These two dimensions were manifested simultaneously as separate projects, but they are compellingly inter-connected for us for at least two reasons. First, they had a cathartic effect on the anger, frustration and sense of utter futility the war triggered in us. Second, and perhaps more importantly from the perspective of social science, they helped us to make sense of the reality that confronts us, giving us a new prism through which to view our world and pointing to new directions in the social scientific enterprise.

The text is divided into two parts. The first reports the findings of our survey of the opinions of Arab academics and professionals on the Gulf war. The second part examines the dynamics of change in the Arab World from the perspective of chaos theory, and in essence constitutes the framework for interpreting the survey.


There has been a strong tendency in the West to view the Arabs as incidental or accidental participants in the Gulf calamity. During the crisis and war phases of this episode, the media gave the distinct impression that Arabs coincidentally happened to be there. Usually passive, sometimes reactive, their presence was nonetheless incidental. The nature of this orientation to the Arabs--indeed, to the so-called "other"--has already been critically examined; and the role of the media in the Gulf crisis is under critical review. These are not our subjects. Rather, we wanted to examine Arab opinion on events in the Arab World since the beginning of the crisis in August 1990. Contrary to the general presentation of the Arabs in the literature (popular and otherwise), we assumed that what the Arabs think and feel about what happened is politically significant, even if that significance is not manifest in the short term. Many do not share this assumption.


In August 1990, just after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, we initiated a 2-year residency in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Upon arriving there, we began sampling the opinions of professionals and academics in the Gulf. In addition, through participation in conferences in Amman and Tunis, we sampled opinions outside the Gulf as well. Our sample constituted a cross section of Arabs from different countries, and with differing ideological orientations. The sample was purposeful, focusing on professionals and academics.

We had a total sample of 264; of this, 60 percent were interviewed once, and the remaining 40 percent more than once. Re-interviews were based upon random samples drawn from the total sample at regular intervals after the war (February-March, May-June, August-September 1991). A total of three such reinterviews were conducted. In this way, we hoped to track changing attitudes among our population of respondents. A total of 264 interviews were conducted over the period September 1990-March 1991; and 105 re-interviews from February-September 1991.

Interviews were informal and open-ended. They were in the form of probes rather than specific questions and focused on the following topics:

1. Nature of Arab society: probes in this area focused on three dimensions: -- what the respondents considered the significant characteristics of Arab society--cultural, institutional, demographic. -- what were considered the major challenges facing Arab society as it approached the 21st century. -- what were considered the major dynamics of change shaping the Arab World as it approached the 21st century.

2. Diagnosis of the crisis: probes in this area focused on: -- what the respondents considered the immediate or direct causes of the crisis, and what was considered the long-term or indirect causes. -- what were considered the immediate or direct effects of the crisis, and what was considered long-term or indirect effects. -- what were considered the most critical events in the crisis.

3. Prescriptions for change, for improving the condition or situation of the Arab World in the 21st century.


Our preliminary results indicate several trends in opinion. The first relates to cause. Before the initiation of war on 17 January 1991, the majority of respondents--about 86 percent--placed primary responsibility for the crisis on Saddam Hussein, citing his invasion of Kuwait as the precipitating event. Ideological orientation (classified as Arab nationalist, Islamic revivalist or Marxist-based on questions related to the nature of the state and the nature of society) did not directly affect the assignment of primary responsibility. However, there was an association between ideological orientation and the assignment of secondary responsibility. Arab nationalists and Marxists held imperialism responsible for escalating the crisis into a military confrontation with the West; Islamic revivalists held Saudi Arabia and Egypt responsible for allowing the West to interfere. In addition, about 78 percent of the respondents felt that a resolution of the crisis should be based on an Arab solution and international economic sanctions.

After the war, opinion began to shift. By May 1991, almost 64 percent of the respondents considered that the war was a result of an externally hateched conspiracy. Ideological orientation played a secondary role in terms of the nature of the conspiracy. The outcomes of the war, particularly Saddam Hussein's political and military survival, were the primary evidence used to substantiate this; and the increasing intransigence of Israel over the Occupied Territories the most commonly cited evidence.

By September, the external conspiracy perspective deepended--in the sense that the percentage adhering to it increased to 76 percent, and the nature of the conspiracy was both more complex and expressed with greater conviction. The argument generally took the form that the objectives of the war were both the destruction of Iraq as an Arab military power in the Middle East, and as a civil society in the Arab World. Saddam Hussei's invasion of Kuwait was merely the pretext legitimating the military destruction (and in connection with this, credibility is given to the argument that Saddam Hussein was enticed into the invasion); and his remaining in power served to legitimate the annihilation of Iraqi civil society, as well as boost arms sales to the region (which is viewed as part of a strategy for the destabilization of Arab civil society--a strategy already used against Cambodia, Lebanon, and Mozambique).

This is not a radical or fringe opinion, let us emphasize, but the dominant perspective. It is even evident in the Gulf newspapers, all more or less conservative, and not prone to tread on official sentiments. An example is an editorial that appeared in a leading U.A.E. newspaper, Khaleej (Sharjah), on 14 October 1991:

The absolute quarantine imposed by the Security Council on Iraq changed the political situation completely. It is not reasonable or convincing to talk about penalties, quarantine or monitoring because of the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power. When everything related to technology and industrialization in Iraq is being effectively locked up, all claims of fighting dictatorship are discredited, and the nature of all claims (of international law) that single out one specific Arab state in the Middle East are revealed.

Today they are ... completely erasing Iraq's civil, industrial and technological future before erasing its military (capacity) through the steps of an international quarantine. That means a decision to freeze Iraq in the pre-industrial stage .... That means the transformation of 18 million Iraqis into intermediate and long-range time bombs. This dangerous action will strongly shake any sense of security among all Arabs, particularly when Israel is able to monopolize nuclear, chemical and ballistic weapons in the region. The Security Council decision changed the political scene. The continuation of the spirit of revenge against an entire people and closing all windows of development and democracy in its face will sow new seeds of instability in the area.

A second trend we observed was in the area of effects of the crisis. Before the initiation of war on 17 January 1991, ideological orientation more or less accounted for perspectives on effects. Arab nationalist orientations stressed the end of the normative order of Arab unity as a legitimating goal in Arab politics; demise of the role of Arab nationalist regimes in regional politics, and the ascendance of the conservative bloc led by Saudi Arabia; weakening of the common Arab front against Israel and of support for the Intifada. Marxist orientations cited the penetration of the region by foreign powers, destabilization of the Arab World, and militarization of the region as primary effects. Islamic revivalists stressed the penetration of the region by foreign powers, the weakening of Islamic unity, and the loss of political legitimacy of regimes throughout the Arab World.

After the war, a shift in opinion on effects was also indicated, and by May 1991 this shift was consolidated, with 72 percent of the sample citing militarization of the region and destabilization of the Arab World as the primary effects. Ideology assumed little role in the assignment of primary effects, but did play a role in the assignment of secondary effects. In other words, just as opinion on causes consolidated around a particular causal interpretation, so too opinion on effects reached a consensus behind a particular interpretation.

We noted a deepening sense of hopelessness and resignation over the future of the Arab World under existing circumstances. Existing circumstances refers to regional and international political arrangements, and which sphere was emphasized was associated with ideological orientation, while the feeling of doom and gloom appeared across ideological orientations. Before the initiation of the war in January, only 47 percent of the sample expressed an attitude of doom and gloom when addressing the prospects of the Arab World as it approached the 21st century. By May, about 64 percent of the respondents thought things would not get better for the Arab World under the existing circumstances. Specifically, they felt war, oppression, and poverty would increase under the existing political regimes. The political leadership of the Arab World was held responsible. And by September, this had increased to 73 percent.

A final trend we observed in our preliminary results related to prescriptions for improving the prospects of the Arab World in the 2lst century. Before the war, prescriptions for change generally reflected ideological orientation. After the war, however, this association weakened; and by May, answers to questions of strategies for change reflected ideological disarray, and a deepening distrust of all ideological orientations. By September, this disenchantment with existing ideological prescriptions for change seemed to be coalescing around a new consensus of what was necessary to improve future prospects. It is too early to identify more than some of its general principles. These include democratization, demilitarization and respect for human rights as prescriptions for redressing national and regional abuses of power; Arab and Islamic unity as prescriptions for redressing international abuses of power.


The impact of the Gulf war on the Arab political system may be represented in one concept: chaos. The popular notion of chaos as catastrophic disorganization and unpredictable change driven by random forces is encapsulated in the scientific theory of chaos as sensitive dependence on initial conditions. It is a situation in which past patterns offer little predictive insight into future trends. In conditions of chaos, minor changes in initial conditions--the kinds of fluctuations considered marginal and inconsequential, and rounded off in calibrations--assume a disproportionate influence on events, unexpectedly displacing established patterns and driving systems in unpredictable directions.(1)

We maintain that the conditions of chaos reflect the emerging state of affairs in the Arab political system. In other words, the political situation is volatile and unpredictable. In systems terminology, small fluctuations in input will produce large and turbulent changes in output, driving Arab politics in unexpected directions. This is called the butterfly effect in chaos theory.(2)

In this situation, policy at all levels--international, regional, local--will be increasingly reactive to emerging situations; and like fire-fighters battling a blaze in a wind-storm, each spark is a potential maelstrom. This has already happened, and was reflected in American policy in the transition from the proactive strategy of Operation Desert Shield to the pragmatic response of Operation Provide Comfort, to the reactive strategy of Operation Gallant Provider. It can be similarly demonstrated at any level that the policies of political actors are increasingly reactive, stamping out campfires as it were. But that only produces more sparks.

We will argue that the main effect of the Gulf war is the destabilization of the Arab political system, moving it to a state of chaos. Admittedly, this is an image of Arab politics based on inferential and analogical reasoning. Because of time and space limitations, we have substituted the campfire metaphor for theoretical elaboration. Nevertheless, as it is based on an emerging paradigm, the chaos image is scientifically grounded and compelling.(3)


According to chaos theorists, the appearance of random and disorganized turbulence masks the existence of the real patterns underlying chaos. These patterns, driven by the dynamics of process rather than the dynamics of structure, are based upon nonlinear models of change rather than the linear models which have dominated scientific theory since Newton. The tenets of chaos theory, then, suggest that the patterns can be discerned from the dynamics of process rather than structure. Referring to Arab politics as process and the Arab political system as structure, we will use this insight of chaos theory in an attempt to identify the dynamics underlying Arab politics in order to examine the effects of the Gulf war on the Arab political system.

The Arab political system that was founded in the aftermath of the two world wars evolved around the dynamics of three inter-related structural properties:(4)

1. The state system--the states set up in the Middle East by political settlements among allied victors after the world wars had at best very fragile legitimacy and authority in their own constituencies. While the degree of instability from this varied from state to state, nevertheless, the overall regional factor was considerable. This is because the state system in the region was an international fabrication, not a product of political process among the region's peoples. The popular appeal of Arab nationalist doctrines and the instability of political regimes throughout the second half of the 20th century reflect the underlying tension between the state system and the dynamics of regional politics.

In this fabricated state system, political actors were empowered by the symbols of state sovereignty rather than by institutionalized political processes. In their efforts to institutionalize the state, politicians increasingly relied on coercion to enforce their authority internally, and dependence on external powers to maintain authority regionally. The Arab-Israeli conflict, itself a manifestation of the externally imposed nature of states in the region, intensified and accelerated this dynamic.

The dependence of the region's states on coercion and external powers reflects their failure to institutionalize, that is, to take root in the region's political culture. While the intensity of this varied across the various states, nevertheless, a central dynamic of political development in the framework of the state system has relied on empowerment of political actors who rely on coercion and foreign support to enhance state legitimacy and authority, and the marginalization of political actors who represent other visions of political development in the area.

2. Inequality--the Arab states set up in the post-Ottoman era invested anti-Ottoman intellectual and economic elites with political authority mediated by external powers. Closely related to this, the central dynamic of economic development in these states has relied on Western economic aid, in effect empowering elites oriented to the international market, while marginalizing regionally oriented and non-market oriented economic constituencies. Thus, in the economic and political spheres, elites oriented toward Western economic and political institutions displaced the old-guard elite of the Ottoman era. In the social sphere, modern education displaced traditional patterns of socialization, marginalizing the cultural foundations of economics and politics. In effect, this bifurcated the social world between traditional patterns of stratification and modern patterns of power, privilege and influence.

The emergence of oil-rich states in the second half of the century intensified inequalities within and between states. There emerged huge concentrations of wealth in sparsely populated states, states that are essentially the private domain of tribally constituted ruling families protected by Western powers; and comparatively large concentrations of population economically disenfranchised by unemployment (and in the case of Palestinians, politically disenfranchised as well), in states that are essentilly mortgaged to Western financial institutions by unstable regimes protected by elaborate security/military establishments. Patterns of employment/unemployment and labor migration reflect the increasing disarticulation between the region's political economy and the state system over the post-World War II period.

3. Dependency--the political elites of the post-Ottoman Middle East achieved political power through overt and/or covert cooperation with Western powers in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. Economically dependent on Western aid to finance their regimes, and strategically dependent on Western technology to modernize them, these elites tied regional political development to the global economy of the industrial world. A central dynamic of this dependency has been the transformation of regional politics into an arena for competition between global powers. Thus, U.S.-British competition for hegemony over the post-colonial world in the inter-World War period was manifested in the aborted Palestinian struggle for national survival; U.S.-U.S.S.R. competition for hegemony in the industrial world after World War II was manifested in the nationalist struggles of the 1950s and 1960s; U.S.-European Community-Japanese competition for hegemony of the post-industrial world has been manifested in the shift of regional political hegemony from the nationalist states of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent to the Gulf states throughout the 1970s and 1980s.


The impact of these structural dynamics on Arab political development produced antagonism between Arab politics (the process of interest articulation and aggregation) and the political culture of Arab society (the process of value determination and articulation). If we draw a distinction here between popular political culture, represented as the political values, norms and interests manifested in a nation, and public political culture, represented as the political values, norms and interests of the state, we may establish that the contemporary Arab political system reflects only public political culture, and has essentially marginalized popular political culture. The Arab political system, in other words, encompasses the political culture as well as the political actors and processes of the Arab state system. It is the only legitimate sphere of politics in the Arab World, but actually represents a narrow spectrum of political activity. The antagonism between politics and popular political culture has several dimensions:

1. Because the contemporary Arab state system was essentially culturally alien to Arab society, Arab political actors sought cultural legitimacy to institutionalize Arab politics. Thus, the discourse of Arab politics revolved around the symbols of Arab culture--history, religion, language, customs and traditions. However, the state increasingly relied on the instruments of social control to impose its authority on society. As a consequence, the praxis of Arab politics revolved around the symbols of political power--control of state military and security establishments. The dynamic between political discourse and political praxis in Arab politics in effect imposed culturally mediated limitations on the behavior of Arab states. By the early 1970s, this dynamic ceased to function in the internal politics of most Arab states, essentially extinguished by the state's reliance on the instruments of oppression and suppression to establish hegemonic control. At the regional level, however, the dynamic functioned among states to limit their behavior to the bounds of culturally legitimate patterns of interaction. In effect, this bifurcated Arab politics into internal spheres where struggles for power were unmitigated by cultural norms, and an external sphere where struggles for power were bounded by cultural norms. While the normative foundation of inter-Arab relations, manifested in the Arab League (organized in 1945) and Arab summit conferences (initiated in 1964), exercised only symbolic control, the significant degree of conflict management and cooperation operant among Arab states throughout the post-World War II era reflects the influence this exercised in inter-Arab affairs.

2. Because of state dominance of the modern instruments of cultural articulation, in the internal political sphere modern avenues for the expression of popular political culture were cut off. As a result, the development of popular political culture has been distorted, confined to traditional religious channels and modes of articulation. The effective result is that by the 1980s Islamic revivalism was the dominant manifestation of popular political culture throughout the Arab World.(5)

3. In addition, because of state suppression of political dissension, active political opposition, mediated through popular political culture, is channelled into Islamic revivalism and manifested as Islamic activism.


The Arab political system proved sufficiently viable to sustain itself through more than four decades, autonomously adapting to turbulence in the system produced by international, regional and internal instabilities. The Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973; the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war, 1975-1990; Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982; the eight- year Iraq-Iran war, 1980-1988; Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights since 1967, and occupation of southern Lebanon since 1982; and the Palestinian Intifada, initiated in 1987, all reflect this turbulence in the system, but this was by-and-large absorbed by the system through realignments among states and among political actors via the channels and processes of the Arab political system.(6)

The major impact of the Gulf war is the destruction of the dynamic between political discourse and political praxis in regional politics; and with it the destruction of the Arab state system's ability to sustain itself autonomously. In other words, like the internal sphere, Arab politics in the regional sphere will be a struggle for power unmitigated by normative considerations. The direct collusion of key Arab political actors with external actors to precipitate massive external military interference in the Arab political system to resolve an inter-Arab problem broke the most fundamental cultural norm of Arab politics, essentially discrediting key political actors and shattering the legitimacy of the Arab political system among participants at all levels--internal, regional and international. The effective result is that the agencies of conflict management and cooperation that evolved in the Arab political system have been emasculated of their normative authority.(7)

Under these circumstances, we postulate that the Arab state system will be marked by a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, with random turbulence unfolding spontaneously along predictable trajectories:

1. The amount of turbulence in the Arab state system emanating from the structural instabilities will increase, manifesting itself as conflicts between rich and poor states in the alliance against Iraq and between states that participated in the alliance and those that did not. The containment of such conflict will rely on external interference, in effect producing more turbulence in the system.

2. The turbulence in Arab politics will cause increasing friction between Arab and non-Arab states in the region. The effort to contain conflict will result in external involvement, in effect producing more turbulence in the region.

3. The turbulence in the region will result in increasing friction between the region and the external actors involved in regional political issues. Incompatible demands from different regional constituencies will result in turbulence between regional actors and external allies. The containment of conflict from this source will rely on international mediation, in effect producing turbulence in international relations.

We can already interpret events of the post-war period in this framework--in particular, the ignition of the Kurdish rebellion, and the intransigence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But this begs the question of whether these are manifestations of short-term turbulence or long-term chaos. We are, of course, arguing that this is the state of a destabilized system, a system rendered dependent on initial conditions. Although there is no way to substantiate predictions of this nature except in hindsight, we did suggest from the perspective of chaos theory that patterns can be discerned from process. What we have addressed here is the break-up of old patterns. Essentially, we are arguing that the Arab state system cannot be sustained any longer. It can only be shored up for a time through coercion, but this will really only produce more violent turbulence, requiring greater coercion. This is already apparent in the strategic posturing of regional and external actors--particularly in the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance.


The interaction between political discourse and political praxis has been the most fundamental dynamic underlying Arab politics since the advent of Islam. Arab nationalism was only the contemporary symbolic manifestation of this dynamic, and the Arab political system was the form it took in the post-World War II international environment. In other words, as a representation of the political values, norms and interests dominant within Arab society throughout most of the twentieth century, Arab nationalism was a cultural expression of the interaction between political discourse and political praxis; and the Arab political system its institutional limits in the post-World War II political environment. Based on the tenets of chaos theory, we must deduce that Arab politics, driven by this dynamic, will transform itself into a new order. It would be simplistic to conclude that Islamic fundamentalism--of so much concern in the West--is a harbinger of this new order. Islamic fundamentalism is as much a product of the contemporary Arab political system as Saddam Hussein, and like other forms of praxis emergent in that system, likely to suffer the same fate of normative discreditation. The opinion survey outlines the direction of change which is marked not so much by an alteration in values but by a search for authenticity.


(1.)See James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (London: Cardinal Books, 1988) for a history of chaos theory.

(2.)The butterfly effect is described in Gleick, p. 8, as "the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York." For a full elaboration of this, see Gleick, pp. 11-31.

(3.)Chaos, conceived of as a science of process rather than state, has been elaborated primarily in mathematics and physics, but is being applied broadly in the physical sciences. See Ilya Prigogine, From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co., 1980).

(4.)The state system, inequality and dependency have been consistently identified in the scholarly literature on Middle East politics as characteristics of the Arab political system causally related to the region's most serious social and political problems. For a recent survey of this literature, see Dan Tschirgi and Bassam Tibi, Perspectives on the Gulf Crisis (Cairo: Cairo Papers in Social Science), vol. 14, no. 1, Spring 1991.

(5.)See Tareq Y. Ismael, The Arab Left (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1976).

(6.)See Tareq Y. Ismael, The International Relations of the Contemporary Middle East, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986).

(7.)Reflecting the concern over the fundamental changes in Arab politics in the wake of the Gulf war, Arab intellectuals have held a number of conferences on the future of the Arab World. Central themes have been the break-down of inter-Arab conflict management, political legitimacy, inequality and dependency. Among the major meetings were: the Symposium on the Gulf War: Historic Roots and Future Expectations, 2-3 March 1991, Tunis; The Gulf Crisis and its Ramifications for the Arab World, Beirut Center for Arab Unity Studies, Cairo, 21-22 April 1991;Symposium on the Gulf Crisis and the Future of the Arab World, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Cairo, 28-30 April 1991; and Second Pan-Arab National Conference, 27-29 May 1991, Amman.

(8.)See Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, Government and Politics in Islam (London: Frances Pinter Press, 1984).

(9.)For the role of Islam in the emergence of contemporary Arab political thought, see Malcolm H. Kerr, Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966). The debate generated in contemporary Arabic literature on culture and politics is succinctly summarized in Issa J. Boullata, Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).
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Author:Ismael, Jacqueline S.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Next Article:The Arab bourgeoisie: a revisionist interpretation.

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