After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the gradual withdrawal of Britain and France from the Middle East, the Gulf came to be governed by a new, monarchical political order. This trend was accompanied by a series of military revolutions and the rise of new ideologies and their representatives in the broader region. As such, a new Middle Eastern order based on revolutions, ideologies and political figures came into being. That ideology was called Arab national socialism.
The Arab Baath Party, which promoted Arab national socialism, was founded by the French-educated philosopher Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar in 1947. Later, the party was renamed the Arab Socialist Baath Party and attracted a large number of Arab intellectuals from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. In 1952, King Faruq of Egypt was overthrown by a group of officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose Free Officers Movement seized control of the Egyptian state. Nasser's party, the Arab Socialist Party, was later renamed the Baath Party and carried out military coups in Syria and Iraq to put people like Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein in charge. Later, Muammar Gadhafi came to power in Libya through the same methods.
New regimes in new region
All of the newly established regimes identified themselves as Arab socialist republics. Having been founded as a result of military coups, those states were notably pro-military and relied on a combination of Arab nationalism and socialism to promote one-party rule. As such, there was no room for political opposition. The Arab national socialists adopted anti-imperialist language, promoted social justice and were openly anti-Israel. To some extent, socialism, Arab nationalism and militarism were mixed with oil. In places like Iraq and Libya, oil revenues were used to purchase weapons and military technology.
Typically, such regimes did not outlive the military officers that came to power through force. As such, the death of those leaders tended to create an existential crisis in those countries. In the wake of globalization and the rise of open societies, they attempted to remain in power by consolidating their power and strengthening the ties between their members. As such, the regimes in Syria and elsewhere took harsh measures when their opponents tried to create a new order by riding the wave of the Arab Spring. In countries like Egypt, the establishment refused to give the transition to a new political situation, renewal and democracy a chance and instead reinstated the representatives of the ancien regimes. However, it is now quite difficult for Arab national socialism, its single-party regimes and military orders to survive in the Middle East where societies are rapidly changing. As a matter of fact, it is safe to assume that they have lost all of their credibility in the eyes of people across the region.
Sadly enough, rebel movements that seek to undermine the old regimes by carrying out terrorist attacks are not capable of creating a new order. Likewise, Islamist movements have largely ceased to serve as a viable alternative by suffering setbacks and being targeted by military coups. Under the circumstances, a new alternative has emerged for the post-rebellion period in the form of Arab national capitalism.
In recent months, this new ideology has been promoted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Arab national capitalism combines three elements: Arab nationalism, moderate Islam and capitalism. In other words, it is a combination of ideology, religion and an economic model. The Middle East today is expected to buy into this new utopia.
NEOM, a $500 billion city of robots and renewables, represents the economic dimension. It seeks to address the serious economic problems experienced in Middle Eastern societies through economic revival. Let us recall that the Arab Spring began when a street vendor, who was a college graduate, self-immolated. In other words, the whole movement was a reaction to economic problems and injustice. As such, there is an effort by Saudi Arabia to change people's economic conditions in places like Jordan and Egypt. It seeks to integrate Arab economies into capitalism and promote the free market. An advertisement shot after Saudi Arabia lifted a controversial ban on women driving brings together all the symbols of capitalism: A fast-moving car in the middle of the desert, an attractive woman and Coca-Cola – the symbols that conquered the desert. At the same time, the new project is a response to the risk that the Middle East will soon run out of oil. In other words, Arab national capitalism is an investment in the post-oil period when the economy will be dominated by tourism and shopping malls. Clearly, the rigid form of Wahhabism, i.e., the Wahhabism of the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot rise to that challenge, as a new approach to religion is needed to facilitate the practice of capitalism, which is where Muhammad bin Salman's moderate Islam comes in.
The moderate Islam project represents the religious dimension of Arab national capitalism. It seeks to weaken Wahhabism as interpreted by the Muslim Brotherhood and the late King Faisal and replace it with a type of conformist Wahhabism, which was originally manufactured in the 1950s by Saudi Aramco, and promote it across the Middle East. The pioneers of the new project, however, prefer to refer to this religious doctrine as moderate Islam. The term seeks to clearly distance itself from the conflict-driven, rebellion-prone brand of Wahhabism. Instead, Islam is expected to facilitate the survival of capitalism in the desert. Women are allowed to drive to ensure that they become part of the new economy. Soon, the country is expected to open more than 2,000 movie theaters, which will presumably make billions of dollars.
The advocates of moderate Islam have taken certain capitalist cultural steps, including the opening of a $1.3 billion branch of the Louvre Museum in the United Arab Emirates. French President Emmanuel Macron recently called it a "temple for beauty." The Gulf was never able to produce culture due to Wahhabism's total rejection of historic Islamic heritage. Now, it rushes to borrow from the culture of capitalists to integrate into the capitalist system.
Finally, Arab national capitalism has ties to Arab nationalism. Essentially, Saudi Arabia's opposition to the steps Iran has taken motivates this brand of neo-Arabism. In the past, pan-Arabism was primarily about the Israeli threat. Neo-Arabism, by contrast, seeks to form a united front against another Muslim country. It feeds off anti-Iran and anti-Shiite sentiments. As such, neo-Arab nationalism is an effort to address the concerns of certain countries about Iran's Persian and Shiite expansionism. At the same time, the advocates of Arab national capitalism hope that this neo-Arab identity will make it impossible for Islamist movements to represent a viable alternative to the existing order.
Arab national capitalism represents a new Middle Eastern utopia that seeks to end the wave of rebellions, conflicts and chaos in the region. However, the main problem is that this utopia was made in the United States and therefore does not reflect the demands of people in the Middle East. Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge that Arab national capitalism is unlikely to survive.
* Professor, Marmara University