In recent years, the wall that shielded Europe from crises in the Middle East has been shattered. From the refugee crisis of 2015 to the current tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, Europe has become directly affected by the dynamics of the region’s geopolitical balance. In many ways, when it comes to geopolitics, Europe and the Middle East have the same problems.
For many analysts, one of the main reasons for this situation is the reduced US role in both regions, leading to a vacuum that is an open invitation for meddling and destabilization. In short, it has weakened the transatlantic alliance, which also governs the defense and security of the Middle East, at a time when both the global and regional geopolitical orders are being reshuffled.
On a global level, it is now obvious that Russia and China are much more involved in the Middle East than ever before. Russia is a major player in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean; it also has the capacity to play a stronger role in Yemen. The visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Egypt this week shows a strong understanding of the region and a closer alignment with Cairo’s vision. China, meanwhile, has increased its economic and trade ties through the development of its Belt and Road Initiative, from the Gulf region up to the western Mediterranean, with a focus on infrastructure and construction. It has been able to secure major deals in both Israel and, as recently announced, Iran.
On a regional level, since the so-called Arab Spring and accentuated by the Iran nuclear deal of 2015, leading Arab countries — namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE — have increased their parade grounds and started diversifying their defense and security strategies, as well as broadening their trade agreements. In short, they have taken a much more proactive policy toward their countries’ security. Despite some setbacks, this has been a successful step. Also regionally, Turkey, following the failed coup of 2016 and its dead-end talks regarding joining the EU, has taken a much stronger stand that clearly opposes Europe but is also challenging and divisive within Middle Eastern ranks. Only for Israel and Iran have the dynamics mostly stayed the same.
These changes have led the US and EU to discuss the revitalization of the transatlantic alliance. The outcome of these initiatives is still unknown, so it might be an urgent necessity for leading countries in the Middle East to engage strongly with the EU on a defense and security level, but also to discuss stronger economic ties.
When looking at the various issues that affect both regions, we quickly notice they are the same. We also quickly notice that there is an alignment in views and in necessary action. However, due to the number of actors, there has been a drive toward bilateral agreements and short-term pragmatism rather than a strong and solid infrastructure or alliance. This is clear in both the Libyan and the eastern Mediterranean files, in terms of both energy and trade flow security. A listing of last year’s naval exercises between the various countries can quickly clarify this point. And this is the main issue in Europe and the Middle East (EMEA): The lack of aligned policy within the region, as uncovered by the retreat of the US.
I am a big believer in the transatlantic alliance and the stability it has brought the world. America’s leading role since the First World War has generally been a positive one. Despite what most believe, there is less poverty, less conflict and greater stability in the current world order. The announcement of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan clearly indicates that it cannot be present on all fronts anymore. This means that the transatlantic alliance needs to morph, and it is high time that the old continent took on greater responsibility, with this effort stretching to the Middle East as well.
There is also the current sovereign identity debate in the US, which might, in a few years, translate into a total withdrawal from its traditional role and all its alliances. It is a small probability, but some of Israel’s actions in the past few years are an indicator of this potential outcome. Tel Aviv has used an approach of asking for US forgiveness rather than permission while engaging more steadily with both China and Russia. The EMEA region also needs to prepare for such a scenario by taking on more initiatives. This means a stronger dialogue with the US on the necessities of stability. There have been difficulties for both the EU and the Middle East in convincing the US to listen to their point of view on key military and security issues.
The EU has announced a renewed and broader vision for its foreign policy based on multilateralism and cooperation, which also seems to indicate its preparedness for such a scenario. But the main issue the EU will face is a lack of political vision. The success of the transatlantic alliance started with its values and the will to defend them. This was the real drive and partly explains why the EU is now failing in the eastern Mediterranean file.
It is why I have trouble understanding catchphrases such as “a multi-stakeholder approach,” beyond being a self-gratifying sentence for its speaker. Does that mean that even evildoing stakeholders need to be included in the decision-making process without a change in behavior? Or is it simply another way of justifying purely pragmatic deal-making? And so where does multilateralism and pragmatism lead us without core values and a political vision? What happens when you abandon common values for prosperity and stability? When do you give up on fighting evil?
The other way of asking this question is what is the result of soft power without hard power? The answer is simply chaos. Therefore, leading EMEA countries need to jointly lobby the US for strategic autonomy along the lines of improving local military and defense capabilities with greater decision-making independence, while still staying committed to the transatlantic alliance. This is the only way forward and a guarantee of EMEA stability with a unified leadership. This will, in all likelihood, impact the region positively and avoid the dynamics that lead to conflict and war.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.
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