THE question so often asked, "Can the Arabs unite?", has a theoretical and unreal ring. The true problem is a quite different one: on what terms and in what relation to the outer world will Arab unity be realized? The preparatory conference on Arab unity held at Alexandria in October of last year showed that the range of possible coöperation between the Arab states was greater even than some of the participants themselves had perhaps expected. The Arab leaders wisely lost no time in consolidating the ground there gained. A second series of conferences, held in Cairo in February and March of this year, drafted and signed a covenant outlining the institutions in which the will to unity was to be expressed.

The new covenant has been well termed "a model of Dumbarton Oaks propriety." The seven signatory states -- Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, 'Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen -- bind themselves to coordinate their political action, to take common measures of defense, and to resort to arbitration and conciliation in case of conflicts. The Council which was established is charged, among other matters, with deciding the means of cooperation with future international organizations. Flexibility is safeguarded by making decisions of the Council binding only on those states which accept them, by providing for closer associations between two or more member states, and by allowing for accessions and withdrawals. Intervention in the internal régimes of member states is prohibited. Alongside these political clauses, the signatories envisage close coöperation in economic and financial matters, communications, and cultural, social and health questions; and for each of these categories a joint commission is to be set up. Of the two annexes which register the still unfulfilled aspirations of Arab nationalism, more will be said later.

Since the provision of machinery for common action is an essential step toward the achievement of Arab unity, these conferences marked a significant advance; but they do not in themselves supply a final answer to the problem. Everything depends on how the new institutions work. What are the principles which underlie them? What will be the spirit in which the organs for mutual consultation are operated? What is the capacity of this machinery to expand in response to a growing range and complexity of needs and purposes?

All of these questions, it will be observed, relate primarily to the internal evolution of the Arab movement. The answers which may be given to them will not, of course, be reached independent of external influences and pressures. But the Arab movement as a whole has its own raison d'être, its own principles, coördinates, complexes and aspirations, and is working itself out along its own lines. It is not a mere copy of western nationalist movements, still less is it a purely negative reaction, driven this way and that by the manœuvres of imperial Powers, by Fascist propaganda, or by blind hatreds. Any presentation of either long-term or short-term issues in the Arab world in such terms is superficial.


History and common sense show that the achievement of unity requires three main preconditions. In the first place, there must be natural ties, strong enough and widely enough shared to take the strain of the multiple petty conflicts of daily life and of occasional major differences. No community can be enduring if important sections of it are so obsessed by grievances or so absorbed by private interests as to destroy their sense of partnership with all the members of the community in the basic issues of social and political life.

In the case of the Arabs, the emotional loyalty evoked by those common possessions which create a sense of community is exceptionally strong and solid. The Arabic language, rich and flexible, with a great tradition of literature and thought, is a heritage of which every Arab, nomad, peasant, or townsman, is intensely proud. Even though the great majority are illiterate, in the sense that they have never learned the complicated rules of Arabic writing, their keen feeling for their language and their emotional response to its rhythms could with difficulty be paralleled in any of our literate western societies.

The common Arab tradition is equally important. The Arabs of today are the product of a fusion of races along the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and in the Near and Middle East which took place during the Middle Ages. To deny that they are Arabs because a part of their ancestry can be traced back, a thousand or more years ago, to other Asiatic stocks, is either wilful blindness or ethnographical pedantry. More important and relevant is the fact that the populations of the various Arabic-speaking countries have been exposed to different external influences down the centuries, and show in consequence many local differences which extreme enthusiasts for Arab unity are apt to underestimate. Yet these scarcely affect the deep sense of kinship engendered by the social and historical background of Arab life, with its memories of the desert, of the Arab Empire, of triumphs and humiliations shared in common.

Added to this is the unifying force of the religion of Islam and of its social culture. Not all Arabs are Mohammedans, and among the Arab Mohammedans there are sectarian schisms. But to all Arabs Islam is their own possession in a particular sense. Mohammed was an Arab, the Koran was revealed in Arabic, the immense Arab Empire was an expression of the Islamic movement. Christian Arabs too share the sentiment of pride in this achievement, and are sometimes foremost in proclaiming it. Islam, through its structure of law, knit together the fabric of Near Eastern society; confronted with racial, religious and economic differences, often of great complexity, it succeeded to a remarkable extent in coördinating them without destroying diversity. The religious bond is important for other reasons also. Moslem tradition has given a distinctive character to the national movement of the Arabs, and the strength of Moslem feeling in imparting depth and intensity to the reaction against western penetration can hardly be overestimated. Certainly no other factor has so powerfully contributed to the fulfillment of the second precondition of Arab unity -- the will to political unity.

Yet with all these ties to bind them, the Arabs have not been politically united for a thousand years. The reason is not far to seek. Common ties do not of themselves create political unity. It must first become an objective upon which the emotional loyalties can be focussed. Unlike the men of the west, the medieval Arabs gave little thought to politics. Their efforts were concentrated upon fashioning a society, and it scarcely mattered to them who ruled the state so long as society was firmly established upon the bases of law and social ethics. As the noise and dust of the early conflicts died away, the task of maintaining the supremacy of the religious law came to be accepted as the true function and significance of the Caliphate.

Of all the later Moslem states, the Ottoman Turkish Empire came nearest to realizing this principle; but after the sixteenth century, it degenerated and dragged Islam down with it. When the impact of the European Powers and western civilization created new problems in the nineteenth century, it had no solutions to offer. Its bankruptcy widened the fissures which were being forced open under the new stresses. An attempt was made to bridge them by the Pan-Islamic movement, with its doctrine of loyalty to the Sultan of Turkey as the Caliph of Islam. When this failed, the Arabs were for the first time faced with the problem of their future political status and organization.

For this reason, it was only in the present century that the ideal of political union began to emerge as a general Arab aspiration, although it had been formulated in Christian Lebanon earlier. An aspiration does not immediately become a purpose. So long as it is framed in general terms, it can scarcely gain a strong enough hold on the wills of men to overcome the force of inertia. Some irritant, some stimulus of opposition is needed to give it a hold on deep-seated feelings and instincts. In the Arab world, the first stimulants were supplied by the extension of European control, the reaction against Turkish centralization, and the new nationalist ideas that were spreading into the east.

But the whole Arab world was not affected by these stimulants at the same time, in the same way, or to the same degree. The aspiration toward Arab unity remained on a purely emotional level, and was therefore unstable and easily confused in the complex of subjective desires and personal aims. Before it could acquire the toughness necessary to overcome both internal and external obstacles, the emotional incentives needed reinforcement by a texture of reason appealing to the intellect and by a definition of its ideals and objectives in practical terms. Political maturity in the Arab national leaders was required to meet this demand; and this is the third precondition of the achievement of unity. In view of the long stagnation of political thought among the Arabs, their leaders could hardly possess sufficient grasp of social and economic realities or breadth and clearness of political vision to enable them to meet this need and to use their opportunities to the best advantage.


The program which the nationalists of Syria furnished to the leaders of the Arab revolt in 1915 was an improvised one, demanding only the independence of the Arab lands under a single government and the abolition of the capitulations. In the enthusiasm of the moment, all the inner tensions in the Arab countries seemed to have been swept away. But no sooner were the new Arab states and mandates established than these tensions began to reassert themselves and, if anything, to grow in strength.

The task faced by the Arab leaders was twofold. They not only had to find and elaborate the principles of unification but also to apply them in the midst of a social revolution. In the old Moslem structure, where the social unit was the group, Arab society had been built up as a system of interrelated groups. During the nineteenth century, both in Egypt and in the Turkish Empire, the old system gradually broke down, and with the disruption of the social groups the old society began to disintegrate. The Arab states thus inherited an incipient social anarchy, made worse by the impact of western institutions, techniques and theories. Wide social and economic differences were separating the various occupational groups -- nomads, semi-sedentaries, cultivators and tenants, landowners, artisans, and the new bourgeoisie, between whom there were many and sometimes bitter conflicts of interests, often intensified by communal and religious hostility.

Those who were called upon to meet these problems were for the most part the new intelligentsia created by the spread of western education and the introduction of western methods of administration. It was natural that they should grasp at the western liberal democratic order as a means to national emancipation and unity. As they obtained political power, they endeavored to govern in accordance with these principles; but because in so doing they implicitly accepted European ideas of sovereignty and the state, their policies inevitably tended to build up separate and self-contained national communities. The process had begun in Egypt where, especially after the British occupation in 1882, the political aspirations of the new intellectuals were centered on Egyptian independence and fostered a separate Egyptian nationalism. The same tendency showed itself later in 'Iraq and more recently in Syria and Lebanon. Although they continued to acknowledge the ideal of Arab unity, they were unable to control the drift toward separatism, which was still further strengthened by the dominant position gained by the old governing class of landowners in the national legislatures.

More immediately obvious and dangerous was their helplessness in the face of the social problems. The world was not standing still. Between the two wars the population of all of the Arab countries increased at a phenomenal rate. Their resources and revenues were expanding even more rapidly, yet economic inequalities were becoming more and more glaring and the standard of living of the poorer classes was steadily going down. Industrialization and the drift to the towns were creating an urban proletariat, for whose grievances the local governments had no remedy. Political parties were fertile in promises, but indistinguishable and commonplace in performance.

In these circumstances it would have been natural for the Arab leaders to look to the democratic Powers for guidance and, if necessary, assistance. Indeed, the two western European Powers, Great Britain and France, under mandates and treaty commitments, had assumed a legal and moral duty to guide and assist the Arab states in their reconstruction. But from the first, coöperation was hindered by misunderstandings and failures. The western Powers failed to perceive the depth and force of the Arab movement. The shortsightedness which beset the policies of all the democracies in the inter-war years governed their relations with the Arab states also. There was plenty of goodwill, but it was lamed by a cynicism and lack of vision which stood in the way of positive action except under the stimulus of an emergency.

On the Arab side, the relationship was more complex, and can hardly be summed up briefly without oversimplification. On the one hand, increasing experience and grasp of political realities made the leaders more aware of the advantages to be derived from coöperation with the western Powers. But on the other hand, a succession of political disputes embittered relations with Britain and France; and the presence of the western Powers only served to inflame nationalist feeling by stimulating jealousy of foreign tutelage, suspicions that Arab interests were being subordinated to power politics, and fear on the leaders' part of appearing to be simply the instruments of imperialist designs.

These failures and resentments, the rising tide of popular discontent and disillusion as "democracy" failed to produce the expected benefits, the self-seeking of the political parties, the growing social stresses and political tensions, all combined to alienate large sections of the public from the constitutional leaders and drive them to support the more extreme wings of the nationalist movement. The extremists were in part the heirs of the earlier Pan-Islamic movement, the place of which had been taken among the Moslem Arab masses by Pan-Arabism. The old Moslem loyalties and ideology and the old hostility to western Christianity, which constituted the driving forces of Pan-Islamism, had been carried over into the Pan-Arab movement. But the western idea of nationalism had entered into it also. Ever since the aspirations generated in the Arab revolt of 1916 to 1918 had been disappointed, this newer yeast had been infusing its own highly sensitive ferment into the popular consciousness.

The conflict and combination of these different currents gave outside observers a confused and dubious impression of Arab nationalism. Ideally it might be possible to distinguish the reactionary and revolutionary sentiment of the Pan-Arabs and the sectional interests of local nationalisms from the desire to build up a united Arab nation on western political and economic lines, but in practice they intertwined and interacted in different degrees and at different levels. More especially, the Arab leaders had to work with and through Pan-Arab sentiment, and all sections and groups were united and keyed up to a high emotional pitch by Zionist aspirations in Palestine and by French policy in Syria. These circumstances tended to maintain the Arab movement as a whole at the stage of feeling rather than of reasoning, and did much to blur the distinctions between its various elements.

In the years immediately preceding the Second World War the drift toward extremism became more marked. The first cause was the intensification of the conflicts in Palestine and Syria, the second the weaknesses which forced the political leaders to bid for popular support. German and Italian agents played their part in exploiting the bitter feelings aroused by British and French policy, but they did not (as is sometimes asserted) either create them or to any material extent exacerbate them.

In the light of these facts, it is even surprising that the opportunity offered by the outbreak of the war was not more widely seized by the extremists. The political tensions were naturally increased by the war, especially when the Arab lands came within the zone of military operations. In Egypt there were underground movements of opposition to Great Britain, and a rising hostility to all forms of western enterprise. But it was only in 'Iraq that matters were forced to a head. There the inner conflicts had proved too much for the civil governments, and ever since 1936 the effective power had been passing into the hands of army officers, whose ambition was to build up a militant organization for the achievement of Pan-Arab union by force. After two years of intensive propaganda, seconded by the Mufti of Jerusalem and encouraged by hopes of German support, they thought in the spring of 1941 that the moment had come. The officers struck their blow, only to find that they had totally misjudged both the situation and the temper of the people. The other Arab countries remained passive or actively hostile, and even in 'Iraq itself the response was limited to relatively small extremist circles. After a brief resistance, the leaders of the revolt fled or were captured, and the movement collapsed.

It seems strange that the 'Iraqi officers should have fallen into the same delusion as those westerners of all nations who rely upon the power of propaganda. The Arab peoples, although liable like all other peoples to gusts of emotional feeling, are in the mass exceedingly shrewd and keen-eyed in perceiving where their own interests lie. No people can more quickly or unerringly detect humbug or more cynically discount fervent protestations. Whether, if they had been put to it, they would have preferred German to British or French control is a question whose answer anyone may guess but nobody will ever know for certain. What is sure is that the 'Iraqi rising administered a shock which for the moment tilted the balance against extremism and gave a new chance to the constitutional leaders.

But the situation confronting the parliamentary leaders in both 'Iraq and Egypt, and after 1943 in Syria and Lebanon as well, was difficult from the start and became more and more so. In the immediate outlook, political problems were overshadowed by social and economic perplexities. War scarcities and increased dependence upon local produce brought new wealth to landowners and even to small proprietors. War contracts and the huge expenditure of the troops filled the pockets of the merchants. Prices skyrocketed. The townsmen, both workers and fixed-income classes, suffered severely from the shortages and price inflations; the living standards of the rural population (other than proprietors) were depressed even below the former marginal levels. The already grave social unbalance was still further accentuated, and at the same time industrial development was injecting a new source of unrest.

In most western countries the natural consequence of such social grievances would be the growth of Socialism or Communism. In the Arab countries these, like the other western "isms," appeal only to small and unrepresentative sections of society, and social unrest goes to swell the forces of Pan-Arab extremism. It seemed clear on the face of things to the Arabs that all their troubles were due to Europe: to the war between the European nations, to the closing of export outlets, to the restriction of imports, to their dependence upon European shipping. The conclusion seemed as plain. Why should not the Arab countries assert their independence, keep clear of European entanglements, organize their own life and exploit their own resources in their own interests?

Inevitably, the sense of grievance was focussed on the Middle East Supply Center, originally a British and later an Anglo-American organization to control and allocate imports and supplies to all Middle Eastern countries. That the Middle East Supply Center had narrowly averted actual famine in more than one country on more than one occasion was an argument that carried little weight in face of the daily struggle to get the necessities of life and to make ends meet. Yet all the time the Middle East Supply Center had been setting a practical example and inculcating valuable lessons which were not lost on the political leaders. By organizing the whole of the Middle East as a single economic unit and by fostering and coördinating industrial expansion, it had not only taught them to view their own economic problems in a wider regional setting and shown them the possibilities of regional collaboration. It had also brought into the open the resistance of private interests and the need for educating public opinion. And, most important of all, it had carried forward the educational process by bringing the local governments together in agricultural and financial conferences and setting before them the advantages of large-scale planning, investment schemes and exploitation.

Both of these wartime developments stimulated the movement toward Arab union. The climax came with the Franco-Lebanese crisis in November 1943 and the removal of all fears of direct involvement in the war in consequence of the Allies' successes in the Mediterranean theater. There were indications that the emotional currents of mass feeling might at a critical moment override all reasoned considerations of issues and policies. The political leaders, fully sharing the national aspirations to complete independence and conscious that they could not hold public support without a new and more broadly conceived program, finally committed themselves to holding a conference on inter-Arab relations. The preparatory conference at Alexandria, spurred on by the pressure of public opinion, produced results which exceeded almost all expectations. It remained to translate these into a formal agreement, and although four out of the seven original signatory governments had in the meantime been changed, the unanimity of feeling was such that the second conference at Cairo carried on from the point at which the preparatory conference left off.


The importance of the new pact needs no stressing, but perhaps its chief significance lies in its proof that the Arab nationalist movement has at length attained to political maturity. Its political aspirations still stand in the foreground, and are made more explicit by the two annexes to the covenant. In the first, the signatories asserted the juridical right of Palestine to independence, and provided for its temporary representation in the union; by the second, they bound themselves to strive for the realization of the aspirations of all Arab countries which could not yet qualify for membership. But it is in the economic and social clauses that the real crux of unity lies.

For the covenant is still only a program. The Arab nations have still to meet and to solve two sets of problems: their relations to the outer world and the pull of opposing forces within. In contrast to the extremist dream of cutting the Arab world clean off from the western world, the present political leaders are aware that the Arab countries are enmeshed in world politics and unable to hold themselves aloof. Their more limited and realistic aim is to find a substitute for the system by which separate and individually weak countries are tied to foreign political structures. By forming a political bloc and building up its economic strength, they hope to reach a point at which they can stand on their own feet in a world at peace, co-equal and co-sovereign with other national states; and they will strive for such strength that, if war comes again, they can determine their own policy and protect their own interests. At the same time, though they are aware that this program cannot be accomplished except by coöperation with friendly and democratic Powers, they are perhaps less conscious of the necessity of foreign coöperation in the solution of their internal problems. Political rivalries still smolder beneath the surface and may wreck the pact if they are exploited by competing foreign interests. Moreover, skilled advice and capital are indispensable to assist in overcoming the three main economic weaknesses of the Arab countries -- the unbalanced social structure, the retarded economic development caused by lack of capital and skills, and the backwardness of administrative technique.

But there are two reasons which make the Arab leaders hesitate to look to foreign help in meeting their internal difficulties. One is obvious: the natural pride which resents any suggestion of tutelage, combined with a suspicion that foreign help is seldom given without ulterior motives. The other is more obscure, but still more fundamental. The Arabs do not wish to become pseudo-westerners, dressed up in the second-hand garments of our civilization. Some of the ardent defenders of the Arabs in western countries, by their efforts to present a picture of an up-to-date liberal Islam and a bourgeois Arab nation, are involuntarily doing the Arabs as much injury as those opponents who present them as a nation of raw bedouins and grasping pashas. Islam is not just a different kind of Christianity nor a perversion of Judaism. It stands -- and the Arabs stand -- for a view of the universe and a social ethic which differ from those of Judaism and Christianity and which, in a democratic world system to which each nation brings its special contribution, have their own place and proper function.

In the final resort, the movement for political and economic unity in the Arab world cannot succeed unless it is based upon stable moral foundations; and in the Arab world the only moral foundations which can possess any stability are those cemented by the faith and ethic of Islam. The duty laid upon the Arab leaders is, in its essence, closely parallel to that laid upon the leaders of the United Nations. In their respective spheres both must stimulate and mobilize the moral forces which will transform a negative and defensive union into a creative enterprise. Both have to surmount similar obstacles to moral unity set up by forces from within and without, and to meet and overcome attempts from different quarters to exploit the existing causes of disagreement and conflict. And in both cases the penalty of failure will be the same. The ideal will not be destroyed, but the hope of attaining it by peaceful means will be weakened. Failure means for the Arabs that the leaders of the constitutional forces will be discredited in favor of extremists who will lie in wait to pay off old scores against the west.

It is likely enough that the new Arab League will from time to time meet with reverses in handling some of its internal or international problems. The failures will not mean that there is no reality behind the sentiment of Arab unity, but only that the leaders still have much to learn from experience. The spirit in which the western nations assist or hinder them in learning from their experience will in large measure determine whether Arab national unity will be achieved on rational, constructive and cooperative bases, or by the irrational and destructive pan-Arab method of violent revolution.

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  • H. A. R. GIBB, Professor of Arabic, Oxford University; author of "The Arab Conquest in Central Asia" and other works
  • More By H. A. R. Gibb