The Middle East

on the World Today

ARAB unity has been a catchword so long, and its peaceful attainment seemed so improbable, that the latest Arab initiatives have come as a shock. The failure of the Arab League to provide anything but a sounding board for propaganda has been an embarrassment to Arab idealists. So, until the Suez attack, have the petty quarrels between Hashemites and Saudis.

Another divisive force was the 1948 Palestine debacle, which helped to disperse rather than unify Arab leadership. This dispersal moved in two directions. Cairo, after the 1952 revolution, began to attract the active reformists, the young men in a hurry. Baghdad became the stronghold of old-fashioned nationalists, clinging to royalist symbols and tight upper-class control in the face of rising popular revolt.

This polarization has been emphasized by the widening gulf between the haves — the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf —and the have-nots of the Levant and Egypt. It has been further intensified by outside factors: Anglo-American support favoring resistance of the oil states to Cairo’s influence; the placing of substantial counters on the side of Cairo and Damascus by Russia and the satellites. It took the attack on Suez to break up this pattern.

Arab solidarity

Suez marked a turning point in Arab affairs in two significant ways: it caused a closing of ranks against the West and a revival of the old ideal of unity. Saudi Arabia cut off oil to the refinery on British-controlled Bahrain. Iraq seriously threatened to leave the Baghdad Pact. Syria cut the pipeline of the Iraq Petroleum Company, largely owned by British and French interests. Nasser’s “martyrdom” gave fresh impetus to the revolutionary tide in Baghdad, Riyadh, Damascus, and Amman. The star of the Syrian Ba’ath (Socialist Resurrection) Party began to rise. The Ba’ath program calls for erasing the mandate frontiers set up forty years ago, or, failing that, federating all the Arab states. Its structure is horizontal, embracing active branches in Iraq and Jordan.

Frustration in Jordan has caused the Ba’ath to look more and more to Cairo. A natural rapport exists between it and the Nasser government. Both believe in socialist solutions to Arab economic problems. Akram Hourani, young head of the Ba’ath, has attained political leadership after a twelve-year struggle against the Syrian landed hierarchy to improve the lot of the fellah. His influence helped to shape Syrian legislation which calls for land, labor, and tax reforms.

Neither the old-school parliamentarians nor the young militarists have been able to institute these new programs. But they remain enshrined in the documents which are now being reconciled with the new Egyptian constitution. The aims of both are similar enough to provide a common constitutional base for the United Arab Republic.

Back of the urgent Syrian appeal to Cairo for action was a threat to the entire Ba’ath-nationalist coalition. The immediate threat was that fellowtraveling Defense Minister Khalid Azm would attempt to take over the government under Communist auspices. The unmentioned strings on Soviet aid were beginning to manipulate Khalid Azm toward the Syrian presidency, and Hourani and his colleagues in the army foresaw a hopelessly rigged election.

The wooing of Syria

Political instability has been proverbial in Syria ever since it emerged as a political entity in 1945. Some of the reasons date back to the struggle against the French mandate. During that period there was no tradition of civil service to replace the habits of conspiracy acquired under Ottoman rule. Furthermore, Syria, as it appeared on the map after 1939, was a truncated state, deprived of Alexandretta because France needed to placate Turkey. This arbitrary transfer cut off normal trade between Aleppo and its port. Meanwhile, Beirut, Syria’s second historic outlet, was allotted to an independent Lebanon. This left Syria much reduced when independence was finally conferred upon it.

As a result, Syria’s short independent history has been clouded over by a sense of deprivation and suspicion. Xenophobia has been inevitable. In addition Syria is plagued by factionalism and a surplus of political prima donnas. The conservatives, based largely at Aleppo, have favored alliance with Iraq. They were supporters of the Fertile Crescent scheme of the forties. Opposed to them has been a mixture of nationalists and young reformists, many from the army.

The fortunes of these younger men were much improved by the success of the Egyptian revolution. The ideals of a neutralist and socialist welfare state seemed just what they wanted. Nasser became a popular idol, his picture appearing all over Syria. Egypt’s isolationist foreign policy was rechristened “positive neutralism.” It did not have to be changed.

It was natural, too, once Egypt had made dealing with Russia respectable, for Syrians to start their own missions to Moscow. Even solid nationalists like Shukri al Kuwatly made the pilgrimage and received the gold-plate treatment at the Kremlin. Czech and Russian aid began to flow to Syria a year ago. By this past winter its whole development program was being underwritten by a $200 million, 2.5 per cent loan from the U.S.S.R.

Khalid Azm had initiated the preliminaries to this aid last summer without authorization from Damascus. Azm is an opportunistic politician, frustrated in his determination to be President of Syria. He was defeated by Kuwatly in 1955. Last October he saw Akram Hourani elected speaker of the chamber, Syria’s second highest office. All of this has made Azm an easy mark for flattering Soviet attentions, particularly those of Parkhalid Bagdash, leader of the Communist Party in the Levant.

Communist influence has reached into the army as well. It successfully eliminated a nationalist chief of staff last summer and installed Communist Colonel Bizri in his place. Had the Communists been content with this quiet progress, Syria might well have been completely subverted by now. But Moscow felt it necessary to feature its new identification with the Arab cause last fall by launching a campaign against the Baghdad Pact. The campaign was focused on the sensitive border between Turkey and Syria, just as a reminder of chronic grievances.

The synthetic character of this affair was easily exposed at the United Nations. Also exposed was the extent of Arab anxiety over too close a union with the U.S.S.R. When Nasser sent troops into northern Syria in October, one of their assignments was to take over from the Russians the training of Syrians in the use of Czech and Russian arms.

The union of Egypt and Syria

In effect, the sudden union of Egypt and Syria has rescued Syria again. President Kuwatly’s journey to Cairo in January was perhaps the last in a long series of appeals for help. This time he had the Ba’ath with him, determined to hold its recent gains. Nasser’s price, the abolition of parties in Syria, was not too high for the group who could expect to dominate anyway from now on.

It was a bold stratagem. No one could be against it, though the silence from Moscow was thunderous. Perhaps it would cure the Syrian neurosis over encirclement. At the same time it might provide refuge for a few of Egypt’s hungry unemployed. A joint committee on agricultural policy and migration has reported favorably on this. An economic unity agreement was signed last September providing for considerable integration of the two economies.

On the surface the obstacles appear formidable. Syria, with a population of only five million, is the more prosperous partner. In the last ten years its cultivated area has been doubled; grain production has increased by 64 per cent and cotton production eight times. Syria exports nearly half a million bushels of wheat a year. Mechanized farming has transformed the northern plateau region. All of this has been done with private Syrian capital, a unique accomplishment in the Middle East. And Syria has brought about considerable industrial expansion.

As a result, there is a labor shortage and fairly general prosperity. Only the financing of public improvements, dams, railroads, and heavy industries has become a problem and led Syria to seek Russian loans when Western terms seemed politically unacceptable.

Egypt presents a darker economic picture. Its loss of trade from Western Europe has driven it further into the Soviet trading system, depriving it of much choice of economic alternatives in the future. Its central problem of poverty and overpopulation is more acute than ever. Only substantial foreign or Arab aid can therefore rescue it for economic neutralism. Integration with Syria must involve far greater disparities than those which plagued the existence of divided Pakistan.

In the short run, federation of Jordan and Iraq may reduce tension, saving Jordan from immediate and violent partition. Israel may look more favorably on an extension of the forces of the United Nations (UNEF) all around its borders. Jordan itself may now benefit from a greater flow of Iraqi capital. Its expanding potash business and new refinery will provide new payrolls to entice a few more refugees off relief. Saudi army units now in Jordan may remain there and may be joined by Iraqis in the future.

There is a definite prospect that the Yarmuk River will be partially diverted into an East Ghor canal to open up new farmlands in the Jordan valley. This plan was shelved during the Johnston negotiations. Now it is being dusted off hopefully. Syria’s rights as an upstream user of the Yarmuk were duly considered in a joint agreement with Jordan in 1953.

At that time Egyptian influence was brought to bear in favor of a generous share to Jordan, perhaps because of Egypt’s desire to establish the prior rights of a downstream user in the Middle East. In the new unifled counsels on this question the Egyptian view will probably prevail again. The present plan channels 60 per cent of the Yarmuk into the new canal. Tacit agreement by Israel to this appears likely.

U.S. aid to Jordan will continue. it is, like Lebanon, to have Western show-window treatment. The job will be easier if the haves in Iraq begin to share with their have-not cousins on a significant scale. This will give the new federation real content.

In the long run an assumption of responsibility by the rich Arab states for the poor ones may be the really important result of the latest reunions. Saudi Arabia and Iraq have been sharply challenged to justify their political existence. If they play their high cards well, and if they themselves stake the r e v o 1 u t i o n against poverty, they may gain a voice in the affairs of the Arab federation. But the token investments they have made so far in general Arab welfare will not be enough to save them from Radio Cairo’s insistent subversion.

Arab oil

Realization of this fact seems to lie behind the increasing talk on the part of the haves in favor of oilfinanced development. The Iraqi minister of finance has suggested that a proportion of oil income should be put into a general development loan fund. Iran’s Washington Ambassador Amini has urged that all Middle East oil income be pooled for common needs. It has been pointed out elsewhere that the 2.5 per cent interest paid for Russian loans is equivalent to the earnings of Kuwait’s great surpluses in London.

Arab unity on keeping the flow of oil within Arab territory is already established. It remains to be seen who will control the terms of future oil supplies to Western Europe and how an anticipated $15 billion in oil income will be shared during the next ten years. The producing countries seem at this juncture to have one more chance to insure against sabotage or a takeover by Nasser’s ambitious “cooperative” plan. That chance seems to lie in a prompt response to the genuine needs of the aroused populations still feeding chiefly on propaganda from Cairo.