How Arab leaders are studying from Sun Tzu’s Art of War

How Arab leaders are studying from Sun Tzu’s Art of War

By Mohammed Abbasi- Global Arab Network

The Arab world has navigated a complex geopolitical landscape, facing both internal and external challenges. In recent years, a growing number of Arab leaders and strategists have turned to a surprising source of inspiration: Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

This Chinese treatise on military strategy, written some 2,500 years ago around the 5th century BCE, offers timeless insights into strategy, deception, and the psychology of conflict. While seemingly an unconventional choice, Arab engagement with Sun Tzu reflects a deeper desire to understand not just the Chinese approach to global affairs, but also to refine their own strategies for navigating the 21st century.

This article explores the growing worldwide especially Arab interest in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. It examines the potential benefits of applying Sun Tzu’s principles to both international relations and internal reforms. Additionally, it explores how Arab philosophy intersects with Sun Tzu’s ideas, creating a unique framework for Arab engagement with the world.

So why Sun Tzu?

Several factors contribute to the growing Arab interest in Sun Tzu.

To understand the rise of China we must understand the Chinese mindset:

China’s growing economic and geopolitical influence has spurred Arab nations to understand Chinese strategic thinking, what makes this nation of immense population, culture and clout – tick. Sun Tzu’s work offers a window into the historical and philosophical underpinnings of Chinese foreign policy and how Chinese engage people outside China both friends and foes.

Shifting Power Dynamics:

The decline of American power and unipolarity and the rise of multiple powers like China, India, Russia and Europe necessitates a reassessment of traditional Arab diplomatic strategies from geared towards localised engagement to more international engagement. Sun Tzu’s emphasis on maneuvering, adaptation, and exploiting weaknesses offers valuable insights for navigating a more complex international landscape, Sun Tzu shows how nations like Saudi Arabia and UAE need to think of themselves as international powers and not regional, its not size that matters but clout – this is what Sun Tzu teaches. Sun Tzu said: Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. China appeared weak internationally and build up its economy, education systems and diplomatic networks alongside its military and now it’s a world power.

Internal Challenges:

Arab nations face numerous internal challenges, including political instability and social unrest. Sun Tzu’s ideas on leadership, resource management, and psychological warfare can be applied at a domestic level to address these challenges and how to deal with problematic elements like the Muslim Brotherhood and assorted Islamist and other elements which seek to keep the potential of people of the region locked up. Sun Tzu also teaches how some close to leaderships have their own agendas and how they can be outmanoeuvred, for example in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood within Saudi Arabia and UAE the Islamists from the western nations still have reach within the Arab world and haven’t been entirely dislodged, in my conversations with a Saudi diplomat recently there is concern how to deal with the threat from Western (especially UK and US based) Muslim Brotherhood activists without hurting relations with the west. Sun Tzu gives this answer: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

So which Sun Tzu’s Principles in can be followed within the Arab World

Sun Tzu’s Art of War offers a treasure trove of strategic maxims that resonate with Arab leaders and strategists. Here are some key examples:

  1. Know Your Enemy and Yourself: This principle aligns with the emphasis on knowledge and understanding deeply embedded in Arab intellectual traditions. Ibn Khaldun, the renowned 14th-century scholar, stressed the importance of studying history and societal dynamics to gain a strategic advantage. Remember the Islamic and Arab golden age happened through the rise of self knowledge and deeper understanding of reality.
  2. Supreme Excellence Consists of Breaking the Enemy’s Resistance Without Fighting: This quote resonates with the Arab concept of warfare, which emphasizes the importance of achieving objectives through strategy and diplomacy whenever possible, here we can learn from how to deal with potential enemies through engagement on different levels that do not resort to outward war or violence.
  3. Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win: This principle echoes the emphasis on meticulous planning and preparation found in the works of Arab military strategist Khalid ibn al-Walid which we can learn guerrilla tactics, which were used as part of an overall strategy have the effect of demoralising, disorienting, disrupting (especially supplies), distracting and ultimately creating enemy attrition.

Arab ideas and Sun Tzu’s Art of War

The Arab engagement with Sun Tzu is not a simple adoption of foreign ideas. It is a process of adaptation and synthesis. Arab philosophy offers valuable insights that enrich Sun Tzu’s principles:

The Just Cause: Sun Tzu emphasizes pragmatism, but Arab thinkers like Al-Farabi stress the importance of fighting for a just cause, adding a moral dimension to strategic considerations.

Importance of Leadership: Both Sun Tzu and Arab philosophers like Ibn Khaldun emphasize the importance of strong leadership in achieving victory.

The Power of Mercy: Sun Tzu advocates for minimizing bloodshed. This aligns with the Islamic concept of “Rahmah” (mercy), encouraging the pursuit of peaceful solutions whenever possible.


Beyond Military Strategy: Sun Tzu for the 21st Century

While Sun Tzu’s work is rooted in military strategy, its principles can be applied to various aspects of Arab engagement with the world:

Economic Diplomacy: Sun Tzu’s emphasis on maneuvering and exploiting weaknesses can be applied to economic negotiations and trade deals. Soft Power: Sun Tzu’s ideas on information control and psychological warfare can be used to effectively communicate Arab narratives and build soft power. Internal Reforms: Sun Tzu’s principles on leadership, discipline, and resource management can be used to address internal challenges and promote social cohesion.

Challenges and Considerations

While the Arab engagement with Sun Tzu offers promising possibilities, there are challenges to consider:

Oversimplification: Sun Tzu’s work is a product of its historical context. Applying it to the complexities of the 21st century requires careful adaptation. Focus on Conflict: While Sun Tzu’s work offers valuable insights, it should not overshadow the importance of cooperation and diplomacy in international relations. Ethical Considerations: Sun Tzu’s ideas on deception and psychological warfare raise ethical concerns that need to be addressed within an Arab philosophical framework.

Sun Tzu said: Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

The Arab world’s interest in Sun Tzu’s Art of War is not merely an intellectual curiosity. It reflects a strategic shift and a desire

Mohammed Abbasi is a consultant with some of the top British Universities on international engagement and speaks on strategy and conflict resolution