—Cairo, November 12, 2012
It is a paradox of the modern Middle East that an area so rife with common security, economic, and ecological challenges should be such an institutional desert when it comes to regional cooperation. A fascinating two-day conference this weekend at the American University in Cairo (AUC) discussed whether recent political openings might portend deeper multilateral cooperation in the near future. Sponsored by AUC and the Council on Foreign Relations, the meeting on “Regional Cooperation in the New Middle East” offered only the faintest glimmers of hope that the Arab Spring would auger a new burst of multilateralism in the Middle East.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is one of the most barren areas in the world when it comes to regional—or even subregional—organizations. There is no robust structure for cooperative security. Nor is there a political framework for negotiating differences and advancing collaboration on common challenges, from promoting counterterrorism to advancing energy security to combating desertification. Existing institutions (like the Arab League) have historically been weak. The region is also among the least economically integrated in the world, whether measured in terms of trade and investment flows, transportation and telecommunications links, or the free flow of labor; less than 10 percent of the region’s trade is intra-regional.
Six factors appear to explain the lack of robust regional institutions in the MENA area:
- Perhaps most important, the region’s regimes are among the world’s leading defenders of national sovereignty—suggesting that national leaders have purposely designed weak regional institutions.
- Stark differences among regimes (including constitutional monarchies and authoritarian republics) over the sources of domestic political legitimacy cripple multilateral cooperation.
- The region is characterized by enormous disparities in national wealth, particularly between “oil haves” and “oil have-nots.”
- The growing influence of Turkey and Iran, two powerful non-Arab players with distinct regional visions, one a member of NATO and the other a sworn enemy of the West, poses an enormous obstacle to regional integration.
- The endless Palestinian-Israeli dispute continues to divide the region.
- The overwhelming weight of the United States in the region, and the preference that many nations give to bilateral relationships with Washington, cannot help but detract from alternative, regional approaches to cooperative security.
Yet, in the wake of the Arab Spring, as citizens demand more responsive governance, we’ve seen some glimmers of deepening regional cooperation.
The most prominent shift has been the apparent reinvigoration of the Arab League. For decades, the League was a paragon of fecklessness and lowest-common denominator policies, offering Arab regimes a convenient scapegoat. Last year, the League suddenly sprang into action over Libya, providing invaluable diplomatic cover for UN Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 2011, authorizing “all necessary means” to protect Libyan citizens from Moammar al-Qaddafi’s forces. (Such vigor contrasted favorably with the League’s refusal to condemn Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity in Darfur.) In the aftermath of Libya, the Arab League worked to engineer the orderly departure of longstanding Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh.
More recently, the League has suspended the membership of Syria, called for the orderly departure of Bashar al-Assad, and pressed for a negotiated settlement among all Syrian forces toward a democratic transition in that country. The League has also participated actively in ongoing mediation efforts, jointly sponsoring the work of a special mediator with the United Nations. These developments suggested that the Arab League might be poised to transform itself along the lines of the African Union (AU), whose founding Constitutive Act replaced the “non-intervention” absolutism of the preceding Organization of African Unity with a declaration of “non-indifference” toward internal assaults on democracy.
Still, the Cairo conference suggested we should not expect robust multilateral institutions in the Middle East anytime soon. The European experience suggests that strong regional institutions are most likely to arise in the presence of strong states. And the fact remains that most states in the MENA region are institutionally anemic and can claim little legitimacy. Vulnerable at home and abroad, most regimes in the region will cling to national sovereignty and resist constraints on their freedom of action at all costs. The Arab Spring, moreover, has deepened a disjunction between two camps in the Arab world: in Egypt and Tunisia, newly empowered Islamist governments are pushing toward greater citizen participation, whereas reactionary regimes, including in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, are fighting a counterrevolution. (Moderate monarchies, as in Morocco and Jordan, are somewhere between). Partly as a result, the emerging regional order is likely to be fragmented.
Going forward, the Arab League’s continued renaissance will depend on whether it expands its mandate, as well as capabilities, to address humanitarian, human rights, good governance, and peacekeeping challenges in the MENA region. Such reforms are essential if the League is to fulfill the seldom-invoked collective defense provisions of its Charter. Given the aforementioned divisions among its members, it is possible that we will see the emergence of a multi-speed Arab League—characterized by emerging coalitions of the willing that want to move faster and further to develop real instruments of regional cooperative security.
The emergence of a prosperous Middle East will also require stronger regional institutions to foster economic integration and release the entrepreneurial energies of young populations desperate for economic opportunities. With a population expected to double over the next twenty-five years, the MENA region needs dramatic growth to meet even modest employment goals, much less the social justice objectives of governing coalitions like Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party. One of many challenges includes policy responses to dire projections about climate change-induced water scarcity. Particularly in the context of rapid population growth and urbanization, the region must embrace deeper cooperation on the sustainable management of shared watercourses and aquifiers, as well as the deployment of new technologies like desalination and solar energy.
Whether the countries of the region will rise to the occasion multilaterally will depend on the commitment of ruling regimes to improving the lives of their citizens.