When Covid-19 struck over two years ago, we realised that the post-pandemic world would not be the same as the pre-pandemic one. We left it to politicians, researchers and, of course, historians to determine what exactly would be different. After that, we waited for the vaccine and the world to settle down to the new normal. But following the sudden outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, it soon became clear, once again, that the world would not be the same as before. Thus, the world has radically changed twice within the space of three years. At the same time we all know that the world has been changing all the time regardless of the pandemic and the war. In fact the war and the pandemic overshadowed a very crucial phenomenon: the greenhouse gasses that are generating global warming, which is causing polar icecaps to melt and water levels to rise, and unleashing violent storms, floods and other climatic disasters.
Amidst these crises and the consequent fog and dust that cloud our vision and thought, humankind is contemplating two central ideas. One is to recoil into the nation state and self sufficiency because globalisation is broken, trade can not flow smoothly across borders and people can not cross seas. In this conception, values are trapped in frameworks of hatred and fanaticism. The other idea is that, as long as globalisation is broken and the nation state is wounded, regionalism as recognised by the League of Nations and the UN Charter can become the new normal that we have been waiting to see coalesce after the warfare and the pandemic subside. This regional concept emerged and coalesced in Europe which now finds itself doubly stunned due to its sudden decline in immunity and due to the EU’s inability to achieve the envisioned peace among European nations.
No region in the world could use that regional idea more than the Middle East, though. The opportunity is at hand to act on it, not only to overcome the effects of the pandemic and warfare but also to forge a future very different from the past. Three factors encourage this. First, the violent repercussions of the Arab Spring, such as terrorism and civil war, have largely been contained. What remains are political squabbles, negotiations and wrangling. These could meet dead ends and reignite conflicts, but they could also offer avenues to a more stable future. Secondly, profound and sweeping reform processes are underway in many Arab countries. What we see happening in Saudi Arabia today, for example, was unimaginable ten years ago. Thirdly, the AlUla Declaration adopted by the last Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit has not just paved the way to the end of the conflict between Qatar and several Arab states, it has also opened the doors to communications and potential rapprochements with non-Arab neighbours: Iran, Turkey and Israel. Fourthly, whatever the results of the forthcoming Jeddah summit between US President Joe Biden and nine Arab heads of state, the Arab states must resolve to rely on themselves.
The American agenda that Biden is bringing with him is obvious. He wants to set the clock back on US-Saudi relations to a smoother period. But he seeks cooperation without the deeper substance: alliance. For Washington, cooperation should achieve two purposes. It wants the Arabs and, above all, the Saudis to pump large quantities of oil into global petroleum markets in the hope that it will bring down inflation and soaring prices and increase Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s prospects in the midterm elections. It also wants to see improved Arab-Israeli relations crowned with the great Saudi prize.
The Arabs need to consider the tactical aspects of such an agenda in the context of their general stance on the war in Ukraine, stalled Western-Iranian negotiations and the related covert war that Israel is waging against Iranian targets with Washington’s blessing. Biden’s meeting with nine Arab heads of state is a sign that the regional strategic balance, which Iran had thought now tilted in its favour, is regaining equilibrium. But the meeting could also prove the starting point for an Arab project for regional security that is not contingent on relations with the US because it is anchored within the region itself. This is not to deny the importance of relations with the US. However, past experience, current realities related to American political whims, and the changes anticipated during the forthcoming US presidential tour make it imperative that any talks and understandings establish clearly that the Arab region and its Middle Eastern environment are an Arab responsibility, above all.
This responsibility entails eliminating the residual effects of the so called Arab Spring, especially in Yemen, and safeguarding the processes of reform and construction which, in turn, means not allowing any party to sow instability in the region. The rest of the region’s security needs are clear: preservation of borders as they stood since independence, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of others, ensuring that the states in the region hold the monopoly on the legitimate use of arms, establishing a ceiling on armaments and the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, promoting development and economic cooperation. The latter already exists in many forms among Arab states as well as between Arab states and Isreal, the latest example of which was the recent Egyptian-Israeli agreement to supply the EU with gas.
Washington has changed its tone remarkably towards the Arab countries in recent weeks, especially towards Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The new conciliatory language is a far cry from Biden’s campaign rhetoric. There is no problem with that, just as there is no problem with the Arabs making oil production adjustments as long as those conform with Arab interests. However, this still leaves the crux of the matter, which is how to manage the Arab region and its Middle Eastern environment, inclusive of Israel, from within this region and not from the White House. For example, there is no reason for the US to meddle in the question of the presence of multinational forces in Tiran and Sanafir. Arab experts can deal with such matters in a manner that observes the interests of the stakeholders. In fact, this could be one of the tasks performed by Arab research centres, which should begin forming a network to foster cooperation and exchanges of views and expertise between them.
There is a long list of issues to deal with. The Palestinian-Israeli question will be on the agenda of course. But perhaps the one way the nine countries whose heads of state will be meeting with Biden could be prepared is to consider how each of them might contribute to realising strategic equilibrium with other countries in the region, revitalising existing bridges between them, and building new bridges to enable countries to develop within regional frameworks that take advantage of this region’s extensive markets, technological advances and changing international conditions. Whether or not the world’s “new normal”, whatever it will be, is just around the corner, we should still focus on making the Middle East better than it was in the past.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.