24. Study Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


[Omitted here is the table of contents.]


In the past decade, the Arab world has seen a sharp decline in the importance of the rigid ideological dogma developed in the struggle for independence from foreign control. The pan-Arabist movement, which formerly had both a strong popular following and respectable prospects of success, has lost most of its force and potential. Nasir, its principal and charismatic spokesman, is dead. For most Arabs, the goal of liberation has been achieved and that of unification has lost its appeal.

The more important Arab countries are entering a post-revolutionary era. New rulers—and more importantly, new ruling classes—freed from the stigma of foreign collaboration are now in charge. They have become the governing “haves” who have little to gain and much to lose by further abrupt political and social change. Committed to particular, essentially local, goals of their own, their horizons have become more limited geographically and their aims more conservative. They have [Page 122]become bureaucratized; the national institutions they created have acquired a momentum of their own.

Such leaders as Asad in Syria, Boumediene in Algeria, and Sadat in Egypt appear to be not just leading, but riding, a tide of greater sobriety and more limited and practical objectives than their predecessors. This will mean a diminished importance of ideology, less chance for revolutionary social and economic change in most Arab states, less interest in revolution as a political objective, and a less important role played by specific leaders as opposed to the systems in which they work. It will mean a greater concentration on local as opposed to area-wide political issues. Intra-Arab problems will tend to focus on such matters as trade, commerce, and cultural exchanges. This trend shows promise of continuing in other Arab states and areas, even including Palestine and the Persian Gulf states. Those present Arab regimes, particularly in Libya and Iraq, which seek to pursue a messianic, disruptive approach to domestic and regional problems are outside the mainstream of Arab political life and are likely to become even more so in the 1980s.

There are, of course, several specific contingencies which could plunge the Arab world into another period of tumult, uncertainty, and volatility:

1. The Arab-Israeli dispute is the principal one. Developments strongly adverse to the Arab case—particularly a decisive, humiliating defeat—could bring on the toppling of several moderate Arab leaders or lead at least some of them to embrace more radical and extreme programs. This worst case scenario is not, however, the most likely one. The regimes of the Arab states in confrontation with Israel have already shown considerable staying power. Further, Arab achievements, whether on the battlefield or with the use of the oil weapon, are probable in the years ahead. While there can be no certainties in this volatile, emotional affair, the forces favoring an Arab-Israeli settlement on the lines pressed by the Arab moderates will grow stronger over time. Indeed the chances now seem brighter than over the past two decades that some basic easing of the situation will take place over the next several years.

2. A confrontation between the oil-producing states and the major consuming countries of the industrial, non-Communist world which culminated in military occupation of Arab oil fields by the latter would have explosive, long-range political consequences. Virtually every projection made above as to the viability of moderate and particularist trends in the Arab states would be called into question, if not negated. The region would become a volatile and uncertain one for the occupiers and the occupied alike.

3. A coup d’etat by a group which succeeded in imposing extremist policies on an important state, and particularly on Saudi Arabia or Egypt, could change the political orientation of much of the rest of the Arab world. While such specific events are unpredictable, their chances of occurring [Page 123]in the next decade seem poorer than in the past one. Inside these Arab states, revolutionary dogmas have lost much of their appeal, and the ruling forces have become more entrenched and more representative of domestic trends. Further, the continuation of moderate, particularist regimes, especially in the small, wealthy Persian Gulf oil-producing states has become so important both to other regional powers and to the non-Communist international community that their current governments can probably count on very strong outside backing in case of threat.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia will remain the two most important Arab states because of the former’s military, economic-strategic, and cultural predominance and of the latter’s status as the world’s principal oil exporter. Their cooperation has a good chance of surviving, even were the Arab-Israeli dispute defused. But Egypt, for all its size and strength, will remain comparatively impoverished and will seek some of the resources of the oil producers, principally of Saudi Arabia. It is conceivable that Egypt, under any leader, might become an unsettling force in the area, using extreme methods—which could include strident ideological appeals to the have-nots against the haves, or, more likely, open use of national military power—to get what it considers its rightful share of Arab oil money. Saudi Arabia, not unaware of this, has already invested very heavily in the military build-up and economic needs of Egypt, and Syria too. It will almost certainly be able to make its desires felt in those countries and in other less affluent Arab states as well.

Most other Arab countries will remain of less importance to the area and to the outside powers, the US included, though this will vary case by case. A change in regimes in some, e.g., Iraq and Morocco, could affect US bilateral relations with them and their own ties with immediate neighbors, but would not significantly change the political complexion of the Arab world. A major war between Iran and Iraq, however, in which peaceful trade in the Persian Gulf was jeopardized and oil facilities put out of action would pose a major threat to the world economic order.

Internationally, Saudi Arabia and the other oil producers are unlikely to exert much direct political pressure save in the case of the Arab-Israeli dispute. With their implied or actual use of the oil weapon, they will exert very strong—and perhaps decisive—influence on Israel’s friends in the West to achieve Arab aims. As alternate, non-OPEC energy sources come on stream, this Arab political influence will begin to diminish, probably at some time in the early 1980s, but will remain an important factor in world politics for the rest of the century. In this period there will always be some danger that reckless or ill-advised policies by the oil producers could produce such severe economic and financial distress as to provoke an armed confrontation. Today’s Arab leaders do not wish this, but the danger will remain.

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The more wealthy Arab states are likely, in the next decade, to determine their foreign relations more by practical considerations than by abstract dogma, even though such “radical” states as Iraq will retain a residual suspicion of the US, and Saudi Arabia will continue to be fearful of the USSR and anything associated with Communism. Indeed, the combination of internal sobriety and practicality is apt to be a dis-incentive for direct, working relationships with either superpower. The less affluent Arab countries, perhaps including Egypt, will be more prone to seek outside assistance and to accept great power involvement in their affairs.

The USSR will continue to remain attractive to the Arabs as a source of military supplies; its influence and presence will be linked to a considerable degree with the state of tensions in the Middle East. It will be less able to compete with the main non-Communist powers as a customer for oil, as a source of modern technology, or as an object of investment. Barring some major military cataclysm, or the emergence of a new dynamic pro-Soviet regime in Egypt, its area-wide leverage is likely to decline.

So, too, though probably to a lesser degree, and for different reasons, could that of the US. While the wealthy Arab states will be interested in expanded commercial and economic relations with the West, they will seek to avoid ties which might lead to enhanced outside political influence, particularly from a superpower. In these circumstances, they are likely to opt for closer ties with the West European states and Japan than with the US. The poorer Arab states, however, possibly including Egypt, will continue to seek political economic, and military support both from the richer Mideast nations and from the major powers of the Communist and non-Communist worlds.

[Omitted here are the discussion, annexes, and tables.]

  1. Summary: The CIA projected the state of the Middle East in the 1980s.

    Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DI/OCI, Job 79T01022A, Box 1, Folder 40. Confidential. OPR prepared the study.