On regional reform

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 31 Oct 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said presents his vision for the region’s future

 

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s I have mentioned often in this space, the Arab Spring that broke out at the outset of the 2010s sent huge tremors across the Arab region and the wider Middle East, throwing the existing balance of power into disarray, and whetting regional and international appetites for designs on this region. These designs were manifested in the direct occupation of Arab territory, settlement expansion, encroachments on the national sovereignty of Arab states, and fostering and promoting non-state militia entities. During the 2010s, the Arab region evidenced three main trends. One was absolute anarchy, in which clashes between sectarian, ethnic and tribal groups spiralled into civil wars and terrorism. The second was the rise of certain religious currents which assumed power in some Arab countries and created an “Islamic” caliphate straddling the borders of Syria and Iraq. The third was the reform drive that took off in the Arab monarchies that had largely been spared the upheavals of the so called spring and which was soon taken up by other important Arab countries such as Egypt. The approach is based on several pillars: the centrality of the nation state, inclusive reforms covering the entire geography of the state through strong infrastructural development to foster nationwide interconnectivity and new productive bases, and the renovation of religious thought commensurate to the spirit of modernity and aspirations for progress.

The Middle East was torn between reformists longing for peace and stability, which are prerequisites for development, and forces opposed to peace and stability for assorted historical, religious, or self-serving reasons, inimical to development. Those two sides have been locked in open or covert warfare at a time when new perspectives should be brought to bear on the handling of the region’s crucial concerns. The five Gaza wars, including the current one, and similar wars involving militia entities have made it a priority in the Middle East to encourage countries in this region to attain peace and stability on their own while preventing radical forces from spoiling efforts to this end. This entails an exercise of power aimed at regional security through the persuasion, enticement, pressure and, if necessary, coercion of the various destabilising forces in the region. Examples are to be found in the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces intervening to quell the turmoil in Bahrain in 2011 and the Saudi, UAE, Kuwaiti, Bahraini and Jordanian offers to help Egypt after the 30 June 2013 Revolution.  Other examples are the Egyptian, Saudi and UAE mediating efforts to resolve the Gaza crisis in 2014 and Egypt and Qatar’s efforts to manage the consequences of the 2021 war. What the Middle East needs is a system of regional powers that are practical, realistic, and clear-sighted, which understand how a failed and fragmented region could grow more complicated and, more importantly, more dangerous and costly, in all senses of the word, for countries pursuing the path of reform.

Reforming the region is an essential complement to the reform of the state. On the one hand, it is a means of warding off the succession of domestic eruptions sparked by demagogic religious one-upmanship, which has turned the Palestinian cause into a cornerstone in the formation of organisations that have subordinated regional security to a single dimension of Arab national security. On the other hand, it offers an opportunity to support the reformist current in many countries because, firstly, it generates a common language that values national interests and places state-building and the survival of the state foremost among those interest; and, secondly, it generates a market of ideas, development based on science and modernity, and a large and promising economic sphere; and, thirdly, it lays the foundations for interaction with similar regional blocs. In this regard, the EU stands out as a landmark experiment in functional cooperation in a large market and the development of institutions that foster integration. ASEAN offers a different model. This Southeast Asian organisation has succeeded in neutralising conflicts, historical tensions, and radical currents through the promotion of cooperation in everything related to human development and advancement in ASEAN countries. The recently begun dialogue between the GCC and ASEAN may yield knowledge and expertise that could be brought to bear on developing a similar experience in the Arab region.

My point, especially in the light of the current Palestinian crisis, is that the time has come to form an assembly of Arab countries that prioritise peace, stability, economic development and building the components of hard and soft power. Such a grouping would enjoy a considerable degree of harmony of opinion on the nature of regional contradictions and how to handle them. All its members, moreover, are engaged in profound reform processes consistent with the goals and principles of sustainable development, and the qualities of political maturity. Certainly, the voice of such an assembly would be heard in international forums where it could advance the interests of the Palestinian people through support for the PLO and the Palestinian National Authority as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Economic cooperation projects, such as the Eastern Mediterranean Natural Gas Forum, which brings Palestine and Israel together around common energy and economic interests, would extend to the northern Red Sea which would be transformed into a region of common prosperity where Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s development goals and visions converge in the Gulf of Aqaba.

This and similar visions and perspectives open horizons for economic and political collaboration while neutralising the tendency towards confrontation over ideological and historical differences which periodically erupt into clashes and conflicts. Like domestic reform in which the people’s sense of a shared citizenship identity draws them towards reform and away from radicalism, the sense of shared identity in a region derives not necessarily from history, values and perhaps religion or sect, but from the common, optimised benefits made possible through neighbourliness.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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