Al-la nidam: an Arab view of the new world (dis)order.

AuthorSadiki, Larbi

RECOGNITION OF THE NEED FOR GLOBAL ORDER coexists with the specter of global disorder in the Post-Cold War world. A prime function of global order would be to balance the North's ever-growing scramble for profits, markets and military superiority with the demands of various peoples in the South for political, cultural, economic, spiritual, and environmental relevance and self-determination. This essay shows that the Middle East, especially its Arab component, represents a microcosm of unfolding global disorder. It identifies trends specific to that disorder and suggests options for its arrest.

Out of these troubled times...a new world order can emerge... free from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. (George Bush, speech to the US Congress, 9 September 1990)(1)


Humanity's search for order(2) - norms and structures conducive to more or less harmonious co-existence - is not new. The search for order in the Middle East is attested to by the deluge of divine revelations in the Holy Land. The Judaic, Christian and Islamic messages are all quintessential attempts and quests for universal peace, justice and order. Expounders of Christian and Islamic orthodoxies continue to be the bearers of the universalistic ideals inherent in both faiths. St. Thomas Aquinas' idea of a universal community bound together by Christianity is one example. Similar universalistic ideals are articulated in the Qur'an: "Humankind, we have created you from a single pair of a male and female and we made you into tribes and peoples (communities) that you might get to know one another."(3)

Yet for all their unrelenting and perennial search for order, Middle Easterners, perhaps more than most other peoples, have historically tended to experience more disorder than order. Even ideals and beliefs which Middle Easterners exported to Europe (via Christianity) where used against them in the Crusades and then the consecutive European colonial expeditions of the 19th Century under the guise of missions civilisatrices. The kernel of the problem is that:

(i) However sound their supporting ideologies may have been, most, if not all, past international orders have been structurally flawed owing to lingering and inveterate parochialisms - national, cultural, economic and ideological. This is also true of the post-W.W.I international order which established the sanctity of what Richard Falk calls the "Westphalian template of sovereign states"(4) (which was boosted by President Wilson's support for colonized peoples, rights for self-determination), and of the post-World War II order with its East-west ideological split. Any past order can be said to have been, by definition and by practice, nothing less than the universalization of hegemonic particularisms.

(ii) The movement toward universalistic ideals, norms, structures and codes of behavior has been vitiated by the inherently lingering and unfettered particularisms of competing nation-states. Nation-states, aided by international law and transnational agencies, have proliferated since the 1950s, a date coeval with decolonization, becoming the universalistic norm of social organization.

(iii) Whatever the outward permutations of the distribution of power ratios, consecutive international orders have also carried a degree of disorder, at least in the eyes of the dissatisfied. The imposition of a hegemonic particularistic order, usually masked by universalistic norms and structures, remains, by dint of marginalization of the powerless actors, wanting with regard to legitimacy, justice, equality, peace and universalism. In the Arab and Islamic Middle East, the crises of legitimacy, justice, equality and peace are closely associated with the notion of global disorder.

(iv) As in previous orders, power continues to be understood in a cultist sense. The guardians and guarantors of order have been those actors who dispose of quantitative and qualitative military superiority, although economic might is fast becoming a significant variable.

What are the characteristics of the unfolding global disorder or of the so-called "New World Order"? Although the notion of global disorder is generally associated with the waning and eventual collapse of the former Soviet Union, for Arabs it is coeval with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent UN-mandated, mostly Arab-funded, US-led forces' 43-day sustained and devastating bombing campaign that led to the "liberation" of Kuwait.

Two mutually reinforcing factors are at the core of the unfolding global disorder. Firstly, the former Soviet Union's disintegration has left a power vacuum, the corollary of which has been a movement from bipolarity to unipolarity. In other words, the asymmetries resulting from the absence of the former Soviet Union's balancing role can be said to have, inter alia, spawned a situation akin to a terror of imbalance. If bipolarity found equality in power balance and, later on, in its balance of terror variant (MAD), the post-Cold War world is lacking in such a balance. Not only is unipolarity undesirable, but also continuous blind faith in military means to maintain a modicum of world peace defeats the very purpose of peace. Secondly, the dissolution of the former Soviet Union has led to a greater US preponderance in world affairs, giving her a freer hand to meddle in the South and within the United Nations.


From the outset George Bush's proclamation of a "New World Order" has, in the eyes of many Arabs, portended adversity. The historical divide following the second Gulf War could not have been wider. What is hailed in the West as a victory is by most Arab accounts a defeat, or what Mohamed Hasanayn Heikal calls "illusions of triumph".(5) The US has finally cast aside the "Vietnain syndrome", and since the Soviet Union's dissolution the American Right has declared "the end of history"(6) and the triumph of capitalism and liberalism. While many Arabs find consolation in Kuwait's restored sovereignty, they are still pained by the devastation, the divisiveness, and the moral, material and environmental(7) defeat brought about by the war. Arab-American scholar, Naseer Aruri, sees the war effort leading to the Coalition's victory in terms of a "recolonization of the Arab world".(8) Hence,

The justification for the Gulf war was self-evident to most Americans and Britons, but less so to Arabs, including many in countries which supported the Coalition. President Bush emerged with his image enhanced, but most Arabs found it hard to share the West's euphoria.(9)

In the same vein, for many Arabs, the West's notion of world order leaves much to be desired. Disorder, akin to a kind of ordered chaos, is the order as far as they are concerned. The Arab term al-la nidam(10) conveys absence of order and imparts the idea of al-fawda (disorder, chaos). The Arab perspective tends toward disowning the "New World Order" for two interconnected reasons. Firstly, Arabs, like many other peoples, yet again find themselves on the periphery of such an order. As such the "New Order", being like its predecessors designed in Westem chancelleries and presidential palaces, is not expected to be more favorable. Former Arab League observer at the UN, Clovis Maksoud notes:

This new global order was basically an order defined and determined by the Western part of the globe. The Southern part of the globe, whose input, aspirations and rights are not yet factored into this new order ... began to sense that perhaps the globe is solely defined as the North. But the South, which represents the majority of mankind . . . began to sense its disenfranchisement and potential dispossession.(11)

Secondly, disorder is associated with unpredictability, paralysis and inefficiency. Thus little or no confidence is held in the existing global system, especially with regard to solving unresolved Arab problems:

In the light of this disorder, it is impossible to forecast either the future of world peace or of the global system. By disorder it is meant the explosion of problems that the institutional and organizational apparatuses of the existing international system are unable to solve.(12)

It is generally accepted that George Bush's proclaimed New World Order is little more than a reincarnation of the old order. What is new in Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank? What is new in the regional imbalance of power where nuclear Israel conquers and rules? Even with such historical developments started by the Madrid Peace talks, through to the Oslo-Cairo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty, and the Israeli-Syrian negotiations over the Golan Heights, much remains unchanged. What about the imbalances associated with wealth and deprivation? Arabs cannot understand how a New World Order can be prefaced by the disorder unleashed by high-tech violence on an ancient Arab center of civilization (Babylonian and Abbasid). The promised "principles of justice and fair play"(13) of the New World Order are yet to materialize. Accordingly, Arab contempt and suspicion persist.


If balanced is a correlate of order, then imbalance and contradiction are correlates of disorder. The second Gulf War has not only heralded a new stage of uncertainty in the Middle East, but has also acted as a harbinger of trends antithetical to the highly-principled proclamations associated with the New World Order, and to international trends of democratization and disarmament. In this section four major contradictory trends are examined.

Contradiction 1: The persistence of Western direct and indirect support of authoritarianism in the Arab Middle East betrays the democratic claims and practices of the guardians of the New World Order.

The Gulf War was not fought under the...

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