Once the Jeddah summit between US President Joe Biden and nine Arab heads of state became certain, media outlets have been pressing for answers about its purpose and what it will cover. Many eminent professors and experts from Arab capitals have ventured various opinions, but they all shared a passionate belief that the forthcoming meeting represented a unique, historic moment the Arabs must seize as a unified front. One expert held that, as long as the world order was in flux, with some powers on the rise and others declining, this was the right time for an “Arab pole” to coalesce and make its mark. Many encouraging views, hopes and intentions were inspired by history, supporting an idea that I have advocated in this column and elsewhere, namely a new Middle Eastern regionalism.
The concept is premised on my conviction that the time has come for the countries and peoples of this region to depend on themselves and that this self-reliance rests on profound and comprehensive reform processes that are underway in Arab countries, instituting changes that were inconceivable just ten years ago. The concept is thus motivated not by the US exit from the region or the Russian entry into it but by the determination to build and advance the progress of the modern nation state. Perhaps the most salient event to have boosted this trend was the AlUla Declaration adopted by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit on 5 January 2021. The declaration laid the foundations for a restoration of calm in the region beginning with a rapprochement between Qatar and the quartet of Arab countries that had severed relations with Doha several years ago. Also as a result of the declaration, political and diplomatic channels were opened with Iran and Turkey. The declaration gave impetus to a new approach to Israel that, drawing on the spirit of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, resulted in the “Abraham Accords” followed by the Negev summit between four Arab states, the US and Isreal with the purpose of promoting cooperation while drawing attention to the Palestinian question, which remains pressing.
Many other developments favour the new Middle Eastern regionalism. First is the agreement that Egypt and Israel signed with the EU to supply the latter with liquified natural gas (LNG) to compensate for shortages in Russian gas against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the precipitous downturn in Western-Russian relations. Second is the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian agreement to supply Lebanon with LNG. So far, it has enabled the Lebanese to have an additional four hours of light at night.
A third important development is the ceasefire in Yemen and then the start of negotiations, which made it possible to renew the ceasefire. It should be stressed that the ceasefire and its renewal would not have been possible had it not been for international support as well as Tehran’s green light. Fourthly, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent tour of Egypt, Jordan and Turkey was not only an important affirmation of close bilateral relations and economic cooperation with Riyadh but also a means to prepare for and coordinate Arab positions in advance of the forthcoming Jeddah summit as well as an opportunity for the crown prince to familiarise himself with circumstances surrounding the war unfolding in Europe so close to the Turkish jugular vein.
The significance of Prince Bin Salman’s tour can not be overstated. High-level Saudi visits usually result in a broad array of political consensuses and cooperation agreements the groundwork for which will have been laid during previous consultations. The Egyptian-Saudi case serves as an example. It began with the visit of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz to Egypt in 2016, during which 60 bilateral agreements were signed. This was followed by the crown prince’s visit in 2018, during which another ten agreements were signed. Then, during his last visit, the two sides concluded 14 more agreements.
The “new regionalism” will be founded on a weft and warp of actual and carefully cultivated mutual interests. Its function will be to respond to, advance and broaden those mutual interests with the overall aim of augmenting the power of affiliated states and raising the happiness of their peoples. In the process, it will generate a new power balance based, not on hollow slogans about an “undefeatable unity” or an “unprecedented great awakening” but on autonomous sources of strength and a growing ability to tame, absorb and channel regional and international forces. The concept thus features a form of “strategic patience” in tandem with the ability to build bridges calmly but resolutely. In it, the Arab ship is visible and firm but not provocative. It does not seek to intimidate, but rather to give and take and find common ground.
The forthcoming meeting between Biden and nine Arab heads of state will demonstrate to what extent the balance of power in the region is changing, not only militarily and economically but also culturally. The process of “ideological renovation” here embraces not just the moderation of religious thought but also the assimilation of the broader concept of progress and its prerequisites.
The new regionalism is about restoring sanity to a region that fascist and reactionary forces had sought to drive mad. But obstacles are not difficult to detect. We are still living with the crises unleashed by the so called Arab Spring in Syria, Libya and Yemen and, in other forms, in Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon. In the larger regional environment we find many challenges. Some concern Iran 43 years down the line from the Islamic Revolution and still exporting it. Perhaps the price the Iranian people have paid for this may propel them towards the rise of the civil state to replace the revolution which has sapped so much of that country’s energies.
Turkey, after the great progress it had achieved in the first decade of this century, now seems on the verge of abandoning its dream to become part of the EU. Geopolitically, it is flanked by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the conflicts in Central Asia, yet it continues to entertain a dream of a post-Ataturk order informed by a neo-Ottoman expansionist vision. Turkey will only emerge from its predicament when it resolves to abandon its militaristic foreign policy and reconcile itself with the reality of the emergent regionalism in which there will be no place for arms against neighbours.
Israel will remain the Gordian knot given its location in the middle of the Arab region and its immense power, which is both autonomous and derived from its close relationship with the US and the West in general. Surplus power has a tendency to produce folly, abuse of power and abuse of time. In this case, blindness to such factors and their costs continued until eventually right-wing fascist trends resurged, charged with antisemitism and Islamophobia. So far, the new regionalism has woven some new cooperative relations in various fields and given fresh impetus to previous forms of cooperation. But it has so far been unable to bring Israel down to earth in order to resolve the Palestinian question.
As difficult as the foregoing problems and challenges are, they also create opportunities. The most important is the prospect of forging a new order that does not require a heavy dependence on the US.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.