Arab Cold War

This article is about Cold War between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For modern Cold War between Saudi Arabia and Iran, see Iran–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict.

The Arab Cold War (Arabic: الحرب العربية الباردة al-Harb al-`Arabbiyah al-bārdah ) was a series of conflicts in the Arab world between the new republics led by Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and espousing Arab nationalism, Arab socialism, and Pan-Arabism and the more traditionalist kingdoms, led by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.[1] The period of conflict began following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the rise to power of Nasser, and lasted until 1970, when he died, although some think it lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Despite its beginnings during the global Cold War and era of European decolonization, and its links and interactions to that wider Cold War, the Arab Cold War was not a clash between capitalist and Marxist–Leninist regimes. The two sides were Arab nationalist republics, usually quasi-socialist and Pan-Arabist in orientation, and the traditional monarchies, usually with quasi-feudal or rentierist economic structures. The leading Arab nationalist state during this period was Egypt, closely followed by and in competition with Syria (with which Egypt briefly united to form the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961). The leading conservative monarchy was Saudi Arabia, with Jordan (and initially Iraq) reluctantly falling in the same but competing camp.

Although in theory, almost all of the Arab states were non-aligned during this period, in practice, the nationalist republics, with the notable exception of Lebanon, were allied to the Soviet Union even as most of them ruthlessly suppressed the communist parties within their countries while the conservative monarchies generally received military help from the United States.

The expression 'Arab Cold War' was coined by American political scientist and Middle East scholar Malcolm H. Kerr, in his 1965 book of that title, and subsequent editions.[2]


Over the period, the history of the Arab states varies widely. In 1956, the year of the Suez Crisis, only Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Sudan, among the Arab states were republics; all, to some degree, subscribed to the Arab nationalist ideology, or at least paid lip-service to it. Jordan and Iraq were both Hashemite monarchies; Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and North Yemen all had independent dynasties; and Algeria, South Yemen, Oman, and the Trucial States remained under colonial rule. By 1960, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and North Yemen had republican governments or Arab nationalist insurgencies while Lebanon had a near-civil war between US-aligned and Arab nationalist factions within the government.

Because conflicts in the period varied over time and with different locations and perspectives, it is dated differently, depending on sources. Jordanian sources, for example, date the commencement of the Arab Cold War to April 1957,[3] while Palestinian sources note the period of 1962 to 1967 as being most significant to them but within the larger Arab context.[4]


In 1952 King Farouk of Egypt was deposed by the Free Officers Movement under a program to dismantle feudalism and British influence in Egypt. In 1953 the officers, led by Nasser, abolished the monarchy and declared Egypt a Republic.[5] On 26 July 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, following the withdrawal of an offer by Britain and the United States to fund the building of the Aswan Dam, which was in response to Egypt's new ties with the Soviet Union. Britain, France, and Israel responded by occupying the Canal but were forced to back off in what is known as the Suez Crisis. Nasser "emerged" from the crisis with great prestige, as the "unchallenged leader of Arab nationalism".[6]

In July 1958, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was overthrown, with the king, crown prince and prime minister all killed by the nationalist revolutionaries. Iraq's monarchy was also replaced by a republic with an Arab nationalist orientation. Forces supporting Nasser and nationalism seemed ascendant, and older Arab monarchies seemed in peril.[6] In 1969, yet another Arab kingdom fell, when the Free Officers Movement of Libya, a group of rebel military officers led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, overthrew the Kingdom of Libya led by King Idris.

In Saudi Arabia, Nasser's popularity was such that some Saudi princes (led by Prince Tala bin Abdul Aziz) rallied to his cause of Arab socialism.[6] In 1962, a Saudi Air Force pilot defected to Cairo.[6] There were signs of "unrest and subversion" in 1965 and 1966, "especially" in Saudi's oil producing region.[6] In 1969, a Nasserist plot was uncovered by the Saudi government "involving 28 army officer, 34 air force officers, nine other military personnel, and 27 civilians."[7][6]

In the early 1960s, Nasser sent an expeditionary army to Yemen to support the anti-monarchist forces in the North Yemen Civil War. Yemen royalists were supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan (both monarchies). Egyptian air power struck Saudi border towns like Najran in December 1962.[6]

By the late 1960s, Nasser's prestige was diminished by the political failure of the political union of Egypt and Syria, and the military failures in Yemen where the civil war stalemated despite his commitment of thousands of troops to overthrow the monarchists, and especially with Israel where Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula and 10,000 to 15,000 troops killed during the Six-Day War. In late 1967, Nasser and Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal signed a treaty under which Nasser would pull out his 20,000 troops from Yemen, Faisal would stop sending arms to Yemen royalists, and three neutral Arab states would send in observers.[8]

Islamic revival

Main article: Islamic revival

Though far smaller in population than Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had oil wealth and prestige as the land of Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities of Islam. To use Islam as a counterweight to Nasser's Arab socialism, Saudi Arabia sponsored an international Islamic conference in Mecca in 1962. It created the Muslim World League, dedicated to spreading Islam and fostering Islamic solidarity. The League was "extremely effective" in promoting Islam, particularly conservative Wahhabi Islam, and also served to combat "radical alien ideologies" (such as Arab socialism) in the Muslim world.[9]

Particularly after the Six Day War, Islamic revival strengthened throughout the Arab World. After Nasser's death in 1970, his successor, Anwar Sadat, emphasized religion and economic liberalization rather than Arab nationalism and socialism. In Egypt's "shattering" 1967 defeat,[10] "Land, Sea and Air" had been the military slogan. In the perceived victory of the 1973 war, it was replaced with the pious battle cry of Allahu Akbar.[11] While some argue Israel's counterattack belied claims of Arab victory, the Saudi-led oil embargo was a major success.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by the Egyptian government and aided by Saudi Arabia, was allowed to publish a monthly magazine, and its political prisoners were gradually released.[12] At universities, Islamists,[13] took control and drove (anti-Sadat) student leftist and Pan-Arabist organizations underground.[14] By the late 1970s, Sadat called himself 'The Believer President'. He banned most sales of alcohol and ordered Egypt's state-run television to interrupt programs with salat (call to prayer) on the screen five times a day and to increase religious programming.[15]

See also


  1. Gold, Dore (2003). Hatred's Kingdom. Washington, DC: Regnery. p. 75. Even before he became king, Faisal turned to Islam as a counterweight to Nasser's Arab socialism. The struggle between the two leaders became an Arab cold war, pitting the new Arab republics against the older Arab kingdoms.
  2. Writings by Malcolm H. Kerr
    • The Arab Cold War, 1958-1964: A Study of Ideology in Politics. London: Chattam House Series, Oxford University Press, 1965.
    • The Arab cold war, 1958-1967; a study of ideology in politics, 1967
    • The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970, 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
  3. Water resources in Jordan: evolving policies for development, the environment, and conflict resolution, p.250
  4. Bahgat Korany, The Arab States in the Regional and International System: II. Rise of New Governing Elite and the Militarization of the Political System (Evolution) at Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs
  5. Aburish, Said K. (2004), Nasser, the Last Arab, New York City: St. Martin's Press, ISBN 978-0-312-28683-5, p.35-39
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Gold, Dore (2003). Hatred's Kingdom. Washington, DC: Regnery. p. 75.
  7. Internal Security in Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Public Record Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FC08/1483, 1970
  8. "Beginning to Face Defeat". Time. 1967-09-08. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved August 26, 2008.
  9. Gold, Dore (2003). Hatred's Kingdom. Washington, DC: Regnery. p. 75-6.
  10. Murphy, Caryle, Passion for Islam : Shaping the Modern Middle East: the Egyptian Experience, (Simon and Schuster, 2002, p.31)
  11. Wright, Sacred Rage, (p.64-7)
  12. Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt; the Prophet and Pharoh, Gilles Kepel, p.103-4
  13. particularly al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya
  14. Kepel, Gilles. Muslim Extremism in Egypt; the Prophet and Pharoh, Gilles Kepel, 1985, p.129
  15. Murphy, Caryle, Passion for Islam : Shaping the Modern Middle East: the Egyptian Experience, Simon and Schuster, 2002, p.36
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