Over the past decade, Middle Eastern countries have viewed their borders as a physical obstacle. The recent warming of relations between Arab states has led to increase in trade, leaving Israel more regionally isolated than ever before.
By Moran Zaga
Over the last month, border crossings have opened along both the Jordan-Iraq and Iraq-Saudi Arabia borders, while the border crossing between Jordan and Syria is slated to open soon. Even the crossing between Lebanon and Syria is now accessible, even making it to the news recently after Bashar al-Assad paid a visit to the area for Eid al-Adha prayers, after kicking the Islamic State out of the area.
For the past few years, these crossings have been shut down, after the Islamic State had taken control of several major border regions, stoking fears that the group would spread into neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. The border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia has been shut since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, leading to the severing of ties between the two countries. The last months, however, has seen warming relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to create a strong coalition that would counter the spread of Shia influence in the region.
Many in and outside the Arab world criticize the process of drawing borders in the Middle East — mostly dictated by the colonial powers that previously ruled the area — especially the arbitrary creation of new countries that did not exist previously. Even if these claims are legitimate, the map has not changed since the establishment of these new countries, and the test of time teaches us that Arab states have become accustomed to the borders that were forced on them. Their citizens, moreover, have for the most part adopted the national identity of their new countries. Thus, the important question relates to the significance of these borders: how do these states view them? What role do they play?
The events of the Arab Spring led to a chain reaction of fortifying the borders of the Middle East, North Africa, and even Europe, which dealt with waves of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War. After years of open borders in the pre-modern and modern Arab world — including during times of conflict and war — the borders of the Middle East have undergone a revolution in the 21st century, when they began functioning as physical obstacles. From Morocco to Yemen, Arab states have been busy marking their boundaries and building fences, while establishing various mechanisms to oversee them.
Israel has also been influenced by this process. With lightning speed, it built hi-tech fences on its borders with Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, despite peaceful relations with the latter two. The role of the border as an obstacle can also be clearly seen in the conflict between Qatar and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf, when they closed their naval, aerial, and land borders as a means of putting pressure on Doha.
These developments reveal a fundamental change in the way we view Arab borders. Arab states use their borders for political means, both internally vis-a-vis their citizens, a well as externally vis-a-vis neighboring countries — similar to Western countries. The process of fortifying or opening border crossings is discussed at great length by the local media in these countries and is at the heart of their political discourse.
Internally, these borders symbolize defense mechanisms and national sovereignty. In Arab states, as in Israel, fortifying borders has been presented as a physical obstacle against terrorism and illegal infiltration, a claim that has led to general support among the public. On the other hand, opening the border crossings is an expression of a sense of confidence and prosperity — precisely how the recent opening of the border crossings in the Arab world has been recently presented.
From a foreign policy perspective, shutting down the border is bold political statement. Similarly, opening borders is a sign of warming foreign relations and a desire for political, economic, and social cooperation. Saudi Arabia, for example, uses its border as a tool to send political messages to Qatar. It first closed its border to the monarchy before opening it for humanitarian reasons, and in order to allow worshippers to cross over to make their pilgrimage to Mecca. In doing so, the Saudis turned the border into a central component of the conflict.
As Arab borders re-open, Israel is becoming more closed off than ever. The warming of relations between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia will likely increase cooperation and cross-border relations between the countries. Meanwhile, Israel’s isolation will only deepen.
The difficulty of creating significant touristic and trade avenues with Jordan and Egypt leaves Israel outside the regional economy and prevents it from enjoying an array of opportunities. The opening of the Quneitra crossing with Syria in order to bring in wounded Syrians and allow humanitarian aid — along with cooperation with the Egyptian Army in Sinai — are positive steps, yet they are not an indication of civilian cooperation. There is hardly any foot traffic at Israel’s open border crossings, and the closed borders with Lebanon and Syria are a sign of hostility. It is no coincidence that just two weeks ago, the UN Security Council voted in favor of renewing its presence on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Over the last century, the borders of Middle Eastern and North African countries have not only been the result of political partitions, they have also served as a tool and a new idea that the region must deal with. Most of the states have survived the colonial redrawing of the Middle East, and have even entrenched their new borders. This is why we must focus our analysis on the significance of the very concept and role of the border.
Moran Zaga is a research fellow for the Forum for Regional Thinking, where this article was first published in Hebrew.