Pan-Arabism refers to the nationalist ideology that all Arab people from around the world constitute one nation, and the pan-Arab movement sought to unite them all. Pan-Arabism climaxed in the 1960s, but has since lost momentum.
The idea first gained a following during the later years of the Ottoman Empire. The Sharif of Mecca wanted to form an Arab state, independent of Ottoman rule. The British encouraged this rising Arab nationalism, in hopes of gaining an ally against the German-Turkish alliance. However, the initial discussions never materialized into anything substantial, as the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the envisioned Arab nation, and then the Balfour Declaration of 1917 upset the plan even further, placing the Jewish state right in the middle of the Arab lands. However, the Balfour Declaration did give pan-Arabism a boost, as anti-Zionism became a rallying point for the Arab people of the world.
Pan-Arabism was never espoused religion; quite the opposite, it was founded as a secular, nationalist movement. In fact, many of its most prominent leaders were not Muslim, such as Tariq Aziz, a Chaldean Christian who would become Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister under Saddam Hussein. However, the lack of a religious focus turned off many Arabs, as did the movement’s exclusion of non-Arab peoples, such as Turks and Kurds. After World War II, in 1945, the Arab League was founded to give the Arab nations a unified political voice.
Another effort to create a greater Arab nation was spearheaded by King Abdullah of Jordan. He planned to unite Syria, Palestine, and Jordan under “Greater Syria.” The idea never gained much support from the British, who controlled Palestine at the time, nor from the Arab world, as many Arabs were suspicious of Abdullah’s motives. When he was assassinated in 1951, “Greater Syria” died with him.
The United Arab Republic was a union between Egypt and Syria, founded in 1958. It was on shaky ground nearly from its inception, due to the overwhelming influence of Nasser, the Egyptian president, to the near exclusion of a Syrian voice. In 1971, the UAR was dissolved, as the two countries could not reach a workable agreement.
The Federation of Arab Republics and the Arab Islamic Republics were later attempts at unification by Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, though they never materialized. North and South Yemen, however, were able to unite successfully, and the United Arab Emirates, consisting of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Ras al-Kahimah, and Fujairah, is another example of a successful unity between Arab nations. The Ba’ath Party, founded in the 1960s by a Syrian intellectual, Michel Aflaq, is rooted in the idea of pan-Arabism and Arab unification. Today, the Ba’ath Party is the ruling party in Syria; it was the government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Saddam Hussein, until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent banning of the Ba’ath Party.
The pan-Arab alliances reached their peak in the 1960s, but declined due to a number of factors, including the stunning Israeli victory in the Six Day War, the inability of the united Arab governments to generate an income, and the death of Nasser, a powerful pan-Arab figure. The tactic of using the Arab countries’ major oil reserves as a political weapon unified many of the Arab countries after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel put an end to that, too. Soon, Islamic fundamentalism took over as the reigning Arabic ideology.
Today, the Arab League, which was founded in part in the desire to prevent a Jewish state, is still functional. Its original six members from 1945 have blossomed into twenty-two, and its stated goal is to coordinate policy and collaboration between the member states. The League has also at times mediated disputes among Arab nations. Israel, of course, though it has an Arab population of 20%, is not a member, and Egypt’s membership was temporarily suspended after it signed a peace treaty with Israel. Palestine has been admitted to the group, comprised of Arabs living within the Palestinian territories. The League extended a peace treaty with Israel, offering “normalization” of relations in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank, recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, and a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel has not accepted those conditions.