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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 17 July 2018

A vision for the Arab world that promotes progress and civic rights must be at the heart of reforms in the region

Alliances of key countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are important in setting a vision for the type of Arab world that rejects extremism and builds on the role of young people to shape the future, writes Mina Al-Oraibi

A Palestinian woman confronts an Israeli settler celebrating Jerusalem Day in the Old City on Sunday. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
A Palestinian woman confronts an Israeli settler celebrating Jerusalem Day in the Old City on Sunday. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

"Major organ failure." With these three words, the assistant secretary general of the Arab League Housam Zaki described the state of the Arab world. It was a stark diagnosis, with conflict-ridden countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia in dire straits.

Speaking at Beirut Institute’s summit in Abu Dhabi, Mr Zaki took the analogy further, stating that Palestine is the heart of the Arab world, whose body lies in the intensive care unit, with multiple organ failure. Even if you could save the liver and kidneys, the patient is dead if the heart fails.

Mr Zaki’s statement came as many across the Arab world are watching developments unfold in Palestine, with the anticipated move of the American embassy to Jerusalem today and a new reality created on the ground for Palestinians. Whether the two-state solution has in effect died as a result of American abandonment of the principles that have driven decades of "the peace process" or not, we are witnessing a watershed.

Palestinians are faced with the reality that the capital for their future state could be lost, with the state itself in question. United Nations resolutions that continue to be ignored and an ongoing occupation of Palestine forge realities that are unlikely to change any time soon.

The move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the various news stories of Arab-Israeli co-operation to face Iranian expansionist ambitions in the Arab world (many unfounded), have led to increased discussion on whether the developments in Palestine are of monumental significance.

There are two arguments. One, which I adhere to, is that Palestine remains essential to stabilising the region. Refugees, land rights, statehood, among other core issues in the region, are all related to Palestine. Without resolving them in Palestine, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so in other states. Even more so, the dignity of Palestinians being violated does in effect lead to a sense of helplessness among a segment of the Arab population.

The second argument is that along with so many problems facing the region, Palestine is no longer the focal point. Syria’s ongoing war is one that is often named as the primary issue that must be dealt with to start stabilising the region.

Moreover, some argue that most young Arabs are concerned about their own countries’ problems more than those of Palestine. After seven decades of losses, some will argue that history needs to be laid to rest. And yet, the ongoing violations in Palestine are not in the past but very much in the present.

The reality is that there doesn’t need to be a competition. One crisis cannot be ignored to resolve the other. Perhaps some policymakers in faraway capitals struggle to focus on more than one issue at a time; those living in the region don’t have a choice. The complexity of the region requires looking at all the intricately connected issues and adhering to a vision on how to deal with them.

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With ongoing fears around security in various Arab countries – whether in terms of national security or job security – it can be easy to write off the region as being in disarray. And yet there are 17 other countries in the region, with varying levels of progress, reform, challenges and opportunities. Attempts to weigh up "solutions" for the Arab world invariably fail because each country is at a different stage. Tactical moves to stabilise one country, or even one city, at a time fit into a wider strategy that needs to be rooted in a vision for the region.

Non-Arab players are trying to dominate the future. However, Arabs themselves also bear a responsibility for how that future will be written. As Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel pursue their own interests in the region, Arab countries cannot be idle bystanders.

A vision for the Arab world that promotes progress, civic rights and citizenship must be at the heart of reforms in the region. Alliances of key countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are important in setting a vision for the type of Arab world that rejects extremism and builds on the role of young people to shape the future.

Identities are being forged by demographic changes, rival competitions, outside influences and the rise of a generation of Arabs who want to shake off the shackles of the past. And yet, the past cannot be written off without either a resolution of grievances or a settlement that is accepted by the majority of those impacted by it.

That is the challenge for Palestine and those countries involved in the Palestinian issue. Rather than ignoring history and historic rights, courage and immediate intervention is needed to save the heart of the Arab world and avoid "major organ failure".