For three generations, events across the globe have left an indelible mark on the Middle East and North Africa. The Cold War wove its ideological rivalries into the region's politics, and the post-Soviet era co-authored its social contracts. The War on Terror and the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings toppled governments, brought in new despots and ripped open old scars — proving, if proof were needed, that foreign interventions are not a panacea for the region’s ills.
Now there are two pandemics, one of which has already decimated lives, livelihoods and economies, setting back progress on much-needed reforms and the region’s slow democratization. The second pandemic, a sustained drop in global oil and gas demand, is fast approaching — meaning that exploration for, and exports of, fossil fuels will cease to be this region’s bread and butter. When combined with the detritus in the wake of COVID-19, the entire region is yet again inching closer to a precipice, about to plunge into the depths of the unknown.
This is not an argument for countries to mount regional incursions in their own defense, or sponsor conflicts elsewhere. It is an argument for the exact opposite; a collective rethink aimed at finding commonality between nations, and building on it to confront existential threats from a disengaged world with no appetite for Middle East oil and no incentive to intervene beyond perfunctory diplomatic pronouncements.
The region’s stability, reform progress and attraction as a destination for investment, manufacturing or consumption can be achieved only when the Middle East rids itself of its penchant for violent conflict and settling old scores. A new model is needed, built on regional solidarity rather than parochialism.
Before that happens, the region must first grapple with its woeful realities. Civil conflicts, political intransigence and high unemployment prove that the old ways are no longer sustainable. The upper echelons of politics and society remain strangled by entrenched interests and patronage networks, which poison well-intentioned reforms via corruption and malfeasance.
Existing social contracts continue to exhaust and frustrate the public as each new government proves to be as out of touch as the previous one. Meanwhile, young people grapple with bleak futures, having little in the way of relief given tattered social safety nets, and now sudden-onset austerity, aimed at fixing problems they never caused.
No country in the region is a stranger to these crises or phenomena, but the pandemic will certainly exacerbate these deep-seated ills and widen societal fissures, leaving some areas far more vulnerable to conflict and displacement. There are also additional concerns that countries with strong security systems will be less inclined to relinquish authority gained to deal with the pandemic in favor of less democratic, illiberal political processes.
The ensuing chaotic period will leave the region ripe for encroachment by far-off powers seeking to fill the vacuum left by the pre-9/11 era of exuberant American unipolarity. Already, a few countries have made inroads into the region with variegated approaches ranging from economic partnerships to wading into active conflict zones with mercenaries and military hardware.
The Middle East is far too large, populous and diverse for any one country or entity to exert its will and ideologies on the others. Futile exercises aimed at cultivating a homogeneous identity, or the adoption of a version of democracy palatable to this region's idiosyncrasies, are doomed to fail with discernible ramifications.
The trinkets that come with such relationships are attractive to a government faced with a woeful outlook seeking to jump-start stalled economic activity or an embattled belligerent seeking a generous patron to bankroll and arm their participation in a conflict. However, all of it comes at a cost and an especially steep one, considering the inevitable onset of intractable geopolitical proxy battles already dooming the region to perpetual instability.
It should thus be a priority for Arab governments to not only manage the pandemic but also begin to assess ways to foster greater regional solidarity. It will not come by aggression but by a diplomacy that is cognizant of the threat posed by endless conflict, especially when it attracts the interest of far-off powers turning the region into an open battlefield.
Simply managing the pandemic and wishing for a return to the “old normal” is not going to work given the blaring warning signs of permanent changes to work, travel, leisure, education and even spending habits. Failure to reckon with these seismic shifts will doom even the most optimistic of scenarios. Without a regional-minded focus, there is little chance for countries to stave off prolonged strife, deal with domestic issues or even spare time for other impending crises such as food and water security.
Deeper regional integration and the formation of an Arab economic bloc mimicking the European Union are unlikely in the next decade. However, that should not stop the Middle East from forging closer bilateral ties in lieu of multilateralism, in order to build resilience into societies and economies in the new era of increased regionalization. There is also the added benefit of an Arab world better prepared for the next crisis, unhindered by regional tensions, civil conflicts or intractable domestic woes.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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