A regional realignment in the Middle East has been going on for sometime. First there was the Abraham Accords, then the Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati rapprochement with Turkey, the initiative of new Mashreq involving Iraq, Jordan and Egypt and, even talks amongst rival regional parties.
Also attempts to return Syria to the Arab fold spearheaded by the UAE. And most recently there was a spat of meetings the last of which was the meeting in Sde Borek involving Egypt, Bahrain, UAE, Morocco and Israel with the participation of the United States.
If anything these developments reflect the dissatisfaction of countries of the region with the prevailing status quo. But they also reflect more pressing concerns: the reduced US commitment to the security of the region, the ramifications of a revived nuclear deal with Iran; and finally a belated realisation by some Arabs of the dangers of leaving Syria, Yemen and Libya prey to foreign interventions and particularly to the machinations of Iran and Turkey.
What was absent from all these endeavours -with one exception - was that they did not explicitly take place in the context of establishing a regional security architecture.
The exception was Sde Borek where the Israeli Foreign Minister attempted to present the meeting as a harbinger for a new regional security architecture “based on progress, technology, religious tolerance, security and intelligence cooperation, designed to deter our common enemies, first and foremost Iran and its proxies.
No wonder the Israeli as well as western media labelled the Israeli proposal as the Mini Middle Eastern NATO.
While there is no one template for regional security systems, they can, however, be broadly categorised in two major groups: First, inclusive, comprehensive and cooperative in the sense that they include all regional states and cover not only military but also political, economic and humanitarian matters the example of which are the OSCE and ASEAN; and the second, a strictly politico- military arrangement such as NATO to serve as a defence mechanism against potential adversaries.
What Israel is proposing is the latter, whereas I believe the Arabs have every interest in an inclusive and cooperative system that would also serve as a conflict resolution mechanism. This in my view is the best means to ensure the long-term stability of the region.
Establishing a Middle East security system has been on the regional and international agendas for a few decades. Most official efforts were of a declaratory nature focusing on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and Gulf security.
The one practical initiative was taken within the context of the Madrid Middle East conference in 1991, where a working group on arms control and regional security ( ACRS) was established. It however quickly floundered due to Israel’s obstruction of any movement on the issue of disarmament, particularly nuclear disarmament. There have also been a plethora of studies and track two efforts.
To help jump start the discussion on which of the two options better serve Arab interests, it useful to refer to the outcome of two recent endeavours on the issue of a Middle East security architecture. A track two meeting organised by the Oriental Institute in Moscow in November 2021 and a report produced last March by the School of Global and Public Affairs of the American University in Cairo entitled “ Al Mostaqbal: Envisioning a better Arab future “ (http//:documents.auc egypt.edu), both of which I had the privilege to participate.
The purpose of the Moscow meeting - in which former officials, members of think tanks and journalists from most regional states-with the exception of Israel- together with Russia, EU, US, India and China participated - was to discuss the Russian proposal for Gulf regional security whose latest version was presented to the UNSC on 20 October 2020 with the new title of “Maintenance of International Peace and Security: Comprehensive Review of the Situation in the Gulf Region.
The meeting initially focused on Gulf security, but as deliberations progressed views converged on the fact that for such a system to be viable and sustainable it needed to be anchored in a Middle East security system that would include both Arab countries as well as Iran, Israel and Turkey.
As a consequence, the view was that efforts to create a regional security architecture should take place in a sequence of three stages: the Gulf subregion, Middle East region as a whole and ultimately at the international level as the regional system would require international guarantees, in particular from nuclear weapon states. The linkage between the three stages was the need to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear weapons.
It was also agreed that the process would be gradual, flexible and pragmatic in a way to allow for different countries to participate in discussions on different themes which can include, inter alia: disarmament, confidence-building measures, human rights and humanitarian matters, terrorism, environment and water, and energy.
But ultimately all discussions would be channeled in a OCSE inspired process. In this regard it important to take into account recent crisis in Ukraine, in the sense that a sustainable regional security system must be based on a balance of interests of all parties and that no one party can impose its will on the other parties.
The second effort of direct relevance is that of "Al Mostakbal" report, the brainchild of Nabil Fahmy, presently the Dean of the Scool of Global Affairs and Public Policy GAPP at the American University in Cairo and the former Foreign Minister of Egypt. It involved only Arab academics, intellectuals and former diplomats.
The purpose of the report was to chart a future course for a security architecture that would address the concerns of Arab states. The premise of the report was that Arabs should move from being at the receiving side to one that takes the initiative in establishing a regional security architecture. But more importantly while it acknowledged the negative impact on Arab security of the three non-Arab countries in the region: Israel, Iran and Turkey, it maintained that for such an architecture to be stable and sustainable needed to include them.
After analysing the current situation in the region, it proceeded to lay out four future scenarios, selecting one as the most realistic: namely, steady change where regional and international efforts towards conflict management succeed in mitigating the most severe aspects of the ongoing conflicts and sub-regional frameworks shift towards greater institutional forms of cooperation and greater engagement to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
It then provides policy recommendations for Arab countries to ensure that such a scenario prevails.
The recommendations are premised on the fact that Arab countries will be proactive and will not cede the initiative to other regional or for that matter international players.
The policy recommendations are largely designed to address the shortcomings that have long deprived Arab countries from articulating a common vision for a regional security architecture and include: emphasizing human security in order to address the domestic vulnerabilities of Arab countries, the need to make efforts with regard to stabilization and reconstruction in post conflict Syria, Libya and Yemen as a means to roll back foreign interventions, devising regional security frameworks which would include a nuclear dimension, and preserving the tenets of a two state solution to Palestinian-Israeli conflict through efforts at both the international level by reinforcing the Arab Peace Initiative as well as by providing political and economic support to the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Having participated in both endeavours and after consulting numerous reports, I am of the view that a number of conditions have to be met to ensure the success of the process of the establishment of a sustainable Middle East security architecture: First, the need to establish a set of norms of conduct throughout the region which should form the backdrop of efforts to resolve problems on all levels anchored in the principles of the UN Charter, in particular the right of self-determination for all people, the non-use of force, the respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states and the non-interference in domestic affairs; Second, the establishment of an arms control and disarmament regime, in particular the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction; Third, the process needs to be gradual, flexible and pragmatic; Fourth, the creation of a viable Palestinian state and; Fifth, the process should be inclusive of all states in the region and not be directed at any single party.
It is my hope that Al-Mostakbal report, together with the outcome of the Moscow meeting would stimulate Arab governments to initiate a process of consultations about identifying the common threats, identify what kind of a security architecture would safeguard their security interests and, agree on how to cooperate amongst themselves in establishing mechanisms that would enhance their negotiating power vis a vis the other regional states that should ultimately be part of the regional security architecture.
* The writer is a former Senior Undersecretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and Assistant UN Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Special Representative for Syria.