The UAE and Turkey last week exchanged accusations regarding Libya, with each party claiming that the other is a hostile, destabilizing force in the region. Unfortunately, the region is bleeding from conflicts due to competition between different partners, while Israel tries to play on the differences to find allies, and radical movements like Daesh take advantage of the chaos created by conflicts to thrive.
The region is in a mess. It is difficult to get out of this quagmire as long as each party looks at conflict from a zero-sum perspective. Our situation resembles the Europe of previous eras. Shattered by sectarian wars and rivalry for influence, the old continent was only able to prosper and achieve true peace when it realized that cooperation is better than competition. This is when the concept of the EU was born. The Middle East needs a similar regional order to overcome its differences and to start constructive interstate relations.
If we take a close look at the Middle East, though we like to blame our calamities on Western imperialism or on the US, really the threats any country faces come from within the region — from a neighbor, whether distant or close. They do not come from across the Atlantic or the Pacific. In this respect, we should ask ourselves, if the money we have spent in the last 50 years on conflicts and weapons had been spent on development, where would we be standing now?
As said before, there is a similarity between our plight and the past of Europe. Though history does not repeat itself, human nature has some patterns that are likely to cross cultures and times. If we ask ourselves: What led to the Thirty Years’ War? What led to the First World War and the Second World War? The answer is greed and fear: Wanting to have more power and more influence, and being afraid of annihilation by the other. Ideologies that led to bloody conflicts were built on those two destructive human feelings.
Our current conflicts are governed by the same tendencies. To overcome them we need an overarching order, a regime, a system that transcends interstate differences and sets the rules of engagement. When I look at the region today, I think of the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48 that destroyed Europe and ended with the Peace of Westphalia treaties. The different parties were compelled to enter into an agreement when their coffers emptied and they had no more young men to send into battle. Unfortunately, we are far from that stage. We still have money to pour into conflict and we still have fighters. Unless we have the maturity and the will to cooperate, these conflicts can drag on for another 10 years, if not more.
Today, there is some speculation that, with Brexit, the refugee influx and the coronavirus crisis, the EU project is nearing its end. However, if we pay attention to French President Emmanuel Macron’s interview with the Financial Times last month, he emphasizes that only through cooperation can Europe emerge from the current pandemic and overcome its repercussions. He called it a “moment of truth” for the bloc. The Middle East’s leaders should follow the logic of the moment of truth. No power is strong enough to totally defeat the others and spread its influence all over the region; hence we need to cooperate. There is no other way.
The starting point is to create a congress where Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the anchor powers in the region, can meet and streamline their differences. Instead of exchanging accusations, each of these three regional powers should put on the table the perceived threats it is facing from the others. Once these differences are streamlined and an initial agreement is reached, other countries in the region will join. The order should organize economic as well political relations among members. Like the EU, it should have a parliament for political representation of the different member states and a commission that has more of a technical, sectoral function. All countries will be joined by a common market that can unleash huge economic potential for the region.
Unless we have the maturity and the will to cooperate, these conflicts can drag on for another 10 years, if not more.
Once relations among the different states are streamlined and no country represents a threat to its neighbors, then we can focus on growth, prosperity, human and civil rights, and quality of life, instead of being obsessed with security the way we are today.
Such a structure can offer the necessary pressure, incentives and guarantees for Israel to abide by the two-state solution. It would need to join the order in order to find friends in the region. And, by joining the order, Israel would have the necessary guarantee that it would not be attacked by any neighbor. Therefore, Israeli politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu, who have built their narrative on fear and hate, will become a thing of the past. Also, access to a huge market would provide the incentive for Israel to make the necessary concessions for the Palestinians.
This is a gargantuan task but it is worth initiating. We need to remember that the Westphalia treaties were not drafted overnight, but rather took almost 10 years of negotiations. The EU took even longer to materialize in the structure we know today. However, an initiative needs to be launched to start the process.