Many people suggest that the Middle East is only important because of its oil and energy supplies — and that given the rise of renewables, and the fact that the US has become self-sufficient in energy — the importance and relevance of our region is diminishing on the world stage. I disagree with such views.
First, the days of oil are not yet over, and as the world’s population continues to grow there will still be a demand for it. But more importantly, the broader Middle East is much more than just an energy reserve for the world. Indeed the Middle East, and the Gulf region, is at the heart of many things that are crucial to the rest of the world. It is, for example, at the crossroads of global transport networks, from air routes to sea lanes. The region is at the center of finance flows and population movements. There are also, as we all know, many religious and cultural factors that give the region added relevance and importance.
It is as a result of all these things that the region has always been the center of conflicts, and a stage for the global fight for influence. It is nevertheless undeniable that there are major shifts taking place in the world, from great-power competition between the US and China to the emergence of tech powers, such as Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook, that have direct influence and power over economic, social and political decisions through their control of data.
It seems that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has increased the urgency for nations to face these tectonic shifts. As this continues to happen, I strongly believe the Greater Middle East has a historic opportunity to take control and influence these changes rather than continue to be a confrontation zone.
In fact, the importance of the region to global stability means that it is a necessity that we build stability in the region, especially as middle powers — nations that are not great powers but nevertheless have some measure of international influence — look to enhance leadership and cooperation.
It is also clear that we cannot continue moving from one crisis to another, battling to extinguish the fires of conflict while other regions build prosperity and experience growth. The Greater Middle East deserves better and should plan for a new role and goals. There is so much potential waiting to be unlocked if geopolitical stability can be achieved.
This stability can only come with a number of important developments in the region, including: The creation of a new, strong and stable political, security and military infrastructure that can protect the region’s common interests; an alliance that has mechanisms to solve difficult regional disputes while also acting as a deterrent to outside interference; and infrastructure to promote security that goes beyond Arab nations to include other key countries in the Greater Middle East, from Central Asia to North Africa.
Think tanks offer NATO as an example of the form this Greater Middle East infrastructure should take. It needs to be the cornerstone of a regional political-security alliance, and promote strong bilateral ties and partnerships among its members. It should not, therefore, be exclusive to Arab countries but include all nations in the Greater Middle East that seek stability, cooperation and fruitful bilateral relationships. It would also work with global partners who want to support stability and prosperity in the region and help to ensure a good international balance is maintained.
The key for the establishment of such an institution is to promote acceptance of a non-interventionist stance on the domestic affairs of other nations as a founding principle. The objective of this infrastructure must not be to threaten the security of others, no matter how they behave, but to safeguard regional stability and security through deterrence.
A Greater Middle East alliance should offer a strong framework that creates strong opportunities for cultural exchanges, trade and cross-border investments.
Khaled Abou Zahr
This new alliance and infrastructure will also need to learn from the mistakes made and problems experienced by previous institutions that became irrelevant or were rendered powerless by a lack of clarity about their missions, or divisions among their members. This essentially has long been the problem Arab countries have faced as their interests align and diverge from one issue to the next.
Every time the region faces a problem it is described as an “Arab issue.” We witness interference in the region from around the globe, yet when chaos erupts, the blame is placed on the leading Arab countries whose initiatives and proposals were sabotaged. This is the case, for example, with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the Arab Peace Initiative was destroyed by Iran, with the help of Hamas. It is the case in Lebanon, where all solutions are blocked by the hegemonic views in Tehran. And now it is also the case with the interference of Turkey in Libya.
These “meddling powers” benefit from divisions and so have stirred up these regional disagreements. Therefore the main difficulty in building a regional alliance is that it demands a full alignment of the interests of each participant, and full agreement on proposed solutions to problems. We can see this friction in existing international organizations, such as the EU and NATO. They are facing similar problems because increasingly their members cannot agree on common policies, which leaves the door open for others to act and take advantage of the discord.
An analyst recently suggested that Turkey and Iran have lost trust in the Arab world and other international powers, such as Europe, the US and even China, and that this explains their behavior. I disagree with his view because I believe these countries have chosen to follow a path of hegemony hidden within a sectarian ideological vision. They have chosen a negative strategy of interference in the affairs of other nations rather than promoting positive bilateral relationship building.
Despite many approaches from the US and Arab nations, both of these countries have consistently rejected appeasement and maintained their focus on hegemony. It has been a constant choice despite repeated calls for de-escalation. The main reason for this, in my view, is the absence of a strong regional deterrence force, which is what the infrastructure I described would create. Yet, any alliance should have broader goals and a greater vision, as we cannot build a brighter future only by stating what we stand against. We need to say what we stand for and what we want to build and protect.
A Greater Middle East alliance should offer a strong framework that creates strong opportunities for cultural exchanges, trade and cross-border investments. Only by creating these links and protecting them will we transform this region for the better.
• Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.