The Middle East has, in recent decades, been threatened by an increase in the number of non-state actors and mercenaries all over its crisis zones. Non-state actors such as the Iranian-made Hezbollah, with its “siblings” in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, have been negatively impacting the stability and security of the region. In the same crisis zones, Daesh and Al-Qaeda have also been benefiting from the chaos and still represent a danger not only in Syria and northern Iraq, but also Libya and other parts of Africa.
As part of a clear strategy, Iran openly supports and commands proxies that challenge national authorities and state sovereignty. This behavior and line of action has been an invitation and a rallying point for the opposite side, represented by the likes of Daesh, to act in the same way. Interestingly, as soon as one appears, the other follows and both look to gain control of areas, whether border posts or key transit cities.
Leading Arab countries and other regional powers have stepped up their actions to contain and confront these dangers when needed. There has been a noticeable and much more effective collaboration between leading Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. This has translated into clearer support on the critical issues that threaten the national security of not only these countries, but the entire region too.
We are clearly on the verge of significant global geopolitical changes, with the coronavirus pandemic acting as a catalyst. The main change might be a more direct competition between China and the US. Other key files such as climate change, data and tech could also have bigger impacts than we might have previously realized. Therefore, there is an urgent need to formulate a new vision and build a Middle East security and defense infrastructure that can take on future challenges, of which these non-state actors seem to be only the tip of the iceberg.
There have often been discussions about a Middle Eastern equivalent of NATO. Looking back at the early days of NATO at the end of the Second World War, we notice that this institution was founded based on the common values that link Europe and the US at their core, followed by the strategic and then tactical levels.
Today, it seems that, despite their positive declarations, European countries no longer view their commitment and responsibility to NATO in the same way. There is also a growing divergence and wish from some European leaders to mend relations with Russia. The latest initiative from French President Emmanuel Macron is a clear sign of that. However, they have been unable to convince the US to share their point of view. It seems that NATO needs to allow for greater responsibility and actions led on behalf of the Europeans. And so, vulgarly plagiarizing Thomas Jefferson, I would say that, as the world changes, there is a need for institutions to change and adapt. The US and the Europeans need to work on this transformation.
Despite this, the Western alliance is a necessity for both Europe and the US and demands commitments from both sides. It is about values before being about defense. There is the need for a similar approach in the Middle East. It might not be as elaborate as NATO, but there needs to be an infrastructure that supports stability and works to counter evil actions in our region.
The fact is that this alliance also means there is a need for mutualization of effort, risk and decision-making. It is a difficult task that sometimes seem to impact on sovereignty. However, there could be a starting point to this effort, especially as we notice the rapidity with which fires spread and become uncontrollable.
This infrastructure should avoid becoming a game of bilateral alliances, as was the case in Europe prior to the First World War. This mechanism would make the entire region fall into conflict without any mechanisms to de-escalate and find solutions to problems. It should be an infrastructure of deterrence and cooperation. It should, therefore, not be exclusive to Arab countries but rather welcome any nation that would respect the strategic vision for peace, stability and the respect of each other’s internal affairs.
As the region is witnessing important transformations — the most important being the US strategic plan of disengagement and a lighter footprint — it is urgent for the region to formulate this mechanism, which would give a stronger initiative to leading countries and allow the US to support it in a more stable and consistent manner.
An important step has been achieved with the creation of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), but this is still a work in progress. It is important that the decision-making process for strategic issues shifts toward the regional members of this alliance, while respecting the historic and strong links with the US. If Washington wants to successfully pivot to Asia and keep the Middle East as an ally, it will need to support the empowerment of MESA, while also understanding the needs of the regional powers. This means listening to it and giving it a voice in any security or military arrangement that concerns the future of the region.
If this alliance or infrastructure existed today, then it would have a voice in the negotiations with Iran, in what is happening in northern Iraq and Syria, and in what is happening in Libya and the Mediterranean. Skeptics will say that, because countries are unable to agree on all these files, it is doomed to fail. I would claim the opposite: It is the fact that we do not agree on all files that makes us different from a centralized and violent expansionist regime, such as Iran, and that means we would always look for the best solution possible in terms of stability. In short, Arab countries have had mature, positive and constructive bilateral relations and this is what is important.
To face current and future challenges, there is an urgent need for leading Middle Eastern countries to initiate dialogue ahead of the construction of this infrastructure. It is not about using an ideology for geopolitical expansionism, but about protecting and defending common values for the well-being and prosperity of all the region’s citizens. This alliance would be the best way to keep a strong balance and security that would allow for greater integration within the region, from supply chain routes to trade and tourism, all of which are the basis for greater economic and social prosperity, as well as stability.
- 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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