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Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Turning to Asia

The Arabs should keep open avenues for cooperation and partnership with Asia as it becomes an economic centre of gravity in the world economy

Abdel Moneim Said , Wednesday 20 Feb 2019
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We have previously spoken, in this column, of the fissures that are cleaving Europe and the Western camp in general. It would take too long to explain them all, especially given that they are multiplying and deepening and, moreover, spreading from the realm of international relations to the realm of domestic politics.

One only has to look at the effects of Brexit inside Britain and the impact of Trump’s insistence on a wall at the border of Mexico on politics in Congress and in the US where the splintering is mounting between the states and the political parties and the media.

Recently, the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, which is part of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, released a report called “NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis.” Authored by Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute, it details the dimensions and magnitude of the growing rift between the US and its allies in Europe.

But perhaps nothing sums up this crisis more than the conference that was held last week in Warsaw in order to address Iranian aggression, on the one hand, and how to achieve stability, peace and development in the Middle East, on the other.

There is nothing inherently wrong in holding a conference on how to deal with the problems and dilemmas of the Middle East in a comprehensive way.

But the way the US prepared for it was quite disturbing. The fact that it was held in Poland raised many eyebrows and Washington’s poor coordination with friends and allies ensured that the message the conference meant to send was feeble and more a reflection of European-US rifts than the ability of allies to forge a united stance on the concerns of this region.

The level of representation at the conference was also a reflection of the problem. The US was represented by its vice president and secretary of state while most other countries were represented at the level of ministers of state, deputy ministers or their ambassadors to Warsaw.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini did not attend at all.

This can largely be attributed to the nuclear agreement with Iran or, more precisely, Washington’s decision to withdraw from it unilaterally. But what was also apparent in Warsaw was that many governments in Europe (and elsewhere) have decided that it is very difficult to deal with the current US administration that has deviated from the rules and conventions the US helped establish following the end of World War II.

They are therefore forced to grapple with the dilemma that the US is too important to ignore but that Donald Trump and Mike Pence are not the type of leaders who are easy to work with. The solution, so far, has been to bank on the time factor and on the American electorate in the 2020 and even the 2024 elections.

Europe, as represented primarily by France and Germany, along with Britain (on this point at least), will probably avoid an open confrontation with the US or risk the destruction of NATO. Instead, they will wait until the wave of right-wing extremism and US isolationism subsides as determinants of Western policies.

But what about the Arab countries? What are they supposed to do when the Western alliance falls apart temporarily or for the long run?

Above all, when any country in the world finds itself in such a predicament, its leaders need to keep a cool head. Such problems are not new in international relations. They become prevalent in transitional phases during which it is always wise to wait until the clouds recede and the haze lifts.

This said, the first key is self-reliance, which entails identifying and supporting a country’s latent strengths in order to attain new and higher levels of advancement and progress. The second is to forge the relations and alliances that help augment the sources of autonomous strength.

The third is to search for ways to diversify foreign relations. In our case, this does not mean giving up on the West or abandoning close relations with the US.

Rather it means taking stock of what is happening over there in the West and the US while exploring new relations that could contribute to furthering our economy, national security and policies.

Fortunately, a number of Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, are currently in the process of extensive and radical reform processes, all of which add to the sources of autonomous Arab strength. In fact, while much attention is being given to the creation of an “Arab NATO”, it is important to understand that an Arab alliance already exists.

It is between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain, and these four countries have strong military and economic relations with Jordan and Kuwait.

So, in this context, while holding on to as much that we can of what is not negative in the Western camp, despite its current problems, the Arabs need to open doors with China, India, Japan, South Korea and Brazil, which will add to Arab strength during this transitional phase.

The visits that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince His Royal Highness Mohamed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz undertook to Pakistan, India and China are a step in this direction.

Saudi Arabia’s strategic weight is well-known, whether due to its centrality in the Islamic world, its membership in the G-20, its ranking among the top oil producers in the world and its strategic location between the Red Sea and the Gulf, or due to the cumulative effects of the policies Riyadh has followed during recent decades.

The multifaceted reform process that is currently in progress in the kingdom can only add to its overall strength.

In fact, this renaissance augments the individual value of every one of the aforementioned dimensions in view of how it thrusts the kingdom into the realm of the modern world and, simultaneously, opens opportunities to all regional and international players.

Saudi Arabia, with the mega-projects it has initiated at this unprecedented phase in its development, is a huge laboratory for evolution and growth.

But the crown prince’s visit has another dimension related to Asia in general, and China and India in particular. Asia has become a major global economic pole.

The Asian share of global GDP is equivalent to that of North America and Europe, or the West in general. Both have a 35 per cent share of global GDP. What is important, here, is that Asia in general, and China and India in particular, depend on oil for economic growth.

India and China are home to around a third of the population of the world, and together they form a centre of gravity of growth in the international market as well as a main technological hub in the world of today. And both need Saudi oil.

Therefore, the first significance of the visit is that, in the context of its renaissance, Saudi Arabia is striking a balance in its foreign policy outlook by means of an Asian dimension of increasing importance in today’s world. The second is that, in addition to the economic factors, the visit had major strategic dimensions.

Pakistan, on top of being an important power in the Islamic world, is also a nuclear power and a high-ranking military power. It is also a window to Afghanistan, a centre of the US withdrawal process from the Middle East and all the ramifications this has with regard to the fight against terrorism and terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turning to Asia 

 

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