In an important presentation, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman detailed the profound economic and developmental reform that has set many Arab countries firmly on the road to modernisation and progress. A “new Europe” was emerging in the Middle East, he said. Dubai and the UAE in general have set the new bar in this regard. If Egypt, by dint of geography, demography, historical status and current experience, has been lauded for its progress, other Arab countries such as Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have also received their due share of praise. While “reform, modernisation and progress” have been the keywords to Saudi Arabia’s startling evolution for some time, what is new is how this has been linked to the future of the region as a whole. We all know that the state of the region compared to the rest of the world has been far from encouraging. It was seen as the “exception” to worldwide trends of globalisation, democratisation and modernisation. It was “inextricably mired” in religious fanaticism and extremism, closed mindedness, civil and sectarian strife. The Arab Spring inspired a surge of hope that this outlook was wrong. But then, civil warfare erupted again and the region seemed to be dragged backwards towards jihadist groups, the so-called caliphate, and chronic animosity for the West and for progress.
Unfortunately, Mohamed bin Salman’s prognosis has not sparked the attention the Saudi and other reform drives merit. They are still seen as the exceptions that prove the rule, spurts of progress that quickly fade. Proponents of this view point to the Arab Awakening in the 19th century, which gave rise to the national independence movements and early democratisation drives that lapsed. They recall the period following the discovery of oil in this region when, despite newfound wealth, modernisation and modernism remained out of reach. However, much has occurred that conflicts with this widespread outlook, especially since 2015 and even more so since the outset of this decade when many Arab countries began to implement sweeping and comprehensive socioeconomic reform programmes. The pillars of this process are:
- Emphasis on the nation state, inclusive of its national identity, historic depth, and political unity. In this framework, renovation of religious thought and discourse to bring them into conformity with the concept of the modern civic state is an essential component of national unity.
- Comprehensive change in terms of the geographical horizons of the development process. If “from the river to the sea” describes Egypt’s developmental thrust from the Nile Valley to the Mediterranean and Red Sea, for Saudi Arabia it is “from the Gulf to the Red Sea.” The notions that we are fated to desert and aridity and our only wealth is oil are no longer viable. We now see sand as silicone, mountains as minerals, the seas as bridges and channels of communication, and our people as mind power and creative energy.
- Unity of political will. The strength and youthfulness of this resolve can work miracles which, in more scientific terms, means progress over a short time. After all, what is a miracle if not a feat performed in the twinkle of an eye?
- It was Mohamed bin Salman who added this pillar by promoting a new mode of relations among the reform countries, one that replaces rivalry and envy with common cause. In this case the binding idea is to work together to forge a new region like Europe after it emerged from the Middle Ages into the modern era. The “New Regionalism,” as this approach has been termed, proceeds from domestic reform and extends outward to regional cooperation and calming regional conflicts and tensions. One could already see its potential for new and fruitful ventures in the maritime border agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This agreement opened the doors to a form of regional integration between Sinai in northeastern Egypt and AlUla in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Together, these areas form a political and developmental unit in the northern Red Sea, forging geopolitical and geostrategic realities that can lay the concrete groundwork for regional stability and economic development. More recently, however, this regionalism manifested in the convergence of nine Arab heads-of-state meeting with the US president in Jeddah. That the Arab leaders spoke with virtually a single voice on what was and was not acceptable from their perspective, established a new rule for how this region behaves internally and externally.
By way of a reminder, the European regional order began with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which established the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of European nations states. Without it, the Hundred Years war and the Thirty Years war across the Protestant and Catholic divide would never have ended.
That nine Arab states came together to meet with the US means they can be a single entity in their capacity as pro-reform, pro-progress and pro-renovation states to build a new regional structure. If two world wars, both of which wrought tremendous death and destruction, led the European experience to its current state of progress, then the Arab wars of independence, the Arab-Israeli wars, the Arab civil wars and regional conflicts – all of which have exacted horrific losses – should compel the region to start afresh. The starting point, politically, is to recognise the existing borders of the region’s states since independence (on which basis they gained membership in the UN) and to uphold the principle doctrine of non-intervention in the internal affairs of others. Economically, the doors are wide open. The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum offers a model similar to the role the Coal and Steel Community played in the formation of the European Union. In this case, cooperation in natural gas is the first step to integration. The Northern Red Sea Forum and the New Levant Forum are also proceeding in the right direction.
In terms of strategy, impetus can be given to the sustainability of domestic reform by relying on a major demographic asset of this region, namely the predominance of youth in contrast to Europe’s ageing population. In the process, we can benefit from an important lesson from the European experience which is that “newcomers” have a chance to surpass their predecessors because they have the advantage of a new technological reality, whereas their predecessors had to undergo a massive and costly adjustment process when shifting from older to newer technologies. The Arab world is brimming with initiatives in applications of new technologies. In the last Eid Al-Adha, robots performed important services for the pilgrims to the Holy Sites. When I saw a robot in charge of the beverage service in the Saudi Arabia Airlines passenger lounge at Jeddah Airport I was reminded of something Mohamed bin Salman mentioned about NEOM. The state-of-the-art metropolis would have more robots than people, he said. The UAE has sent a spaceship to Mars. In Egypt, the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences is using satellites to guide farmers on sowing, irrigation and harvesting schedules.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.