There is no doubt about the innumerable benefits that could arise from the pursuit of greater cooperation and a deeper integration of societies across the Arab world.
Multilateral regional cooperation can catalyze change, mitigate conflicts and relieve tensions by developing cooperative (not collective) security architecture, as well as by attracting external capital, creating jobs and promoting growth across markets, to list but a few.
However, despite the obvious, demonstrable upsides of closer cooperation built on cultural and linguistic homogeneity, most of the Arab region remains deeply fragmented.
In fact, an incomprehensible resistance to a convergence of interests as part of formal regional processes or cooperative frameworks has now become a driver of persistent fragility and explains why the region remains so prone to conflict.
From a pessimistic viewpoint, it is a hopeless situation that can only be navigated now by adopting policies aimed at managing chaos rather than rehashing stale arguments urging for a pursuit of the seemingly impossible.
On the other hand, a number of Arab countries in recent years have stepped up as intermediaries between age-old rivals, as mediators for warring factions and competing interests, while seeking regional partnerships of their own.
This suggests new possibilities and a turning tide, signaling a prelude to a different kind of Arab region in the coming years — not necessarily a re-creation of the immense success that is the Gulf Cooperation Council, but the nurturing of a landscape in which such feats are no longer improbable.
A changed and changing geopolitical landscape is mostly responsible for this shift, sparked by the certainty of the US deprioritizing its “policing” of this part of the world and exacerbated by the spillovers from intensifying multipolar competition.
Essentially, the region is being left to its own devices as the vacuum left by Washington increasingly attracts elements and actors that would sooner exploit regional divisions for their own self interests, rather than help to bridge them to shore up the Arab community’s resilience to malignant, metastatic disruptions.
Of course, if we are to repeat the success of the GCC and enhance the reliability and resilience of future GCC-like forums for cooperation across the Middle East and North Africa, the foundations upon which they are built must be rooted in much more than being proximal countries that possess some level of homogeneity. After all, the pursuit of deeper levels of cooperation will demand difficult compromises on, or re-interpretations of, the ways in which nation-states exercise their sovereignty — suffocating hurdles that always whittle away any political will to integrate people, markets, economies and societies.
Naturally, most efforts to craft multilateral arrangements between Arab countries are thus narrowly focused on simply creating common markets and broadening access to them to net tangible, practical benefits for their signatories.
Sadly, unlike in other parts of the world where common markets are often a preamble to closer cooperation in other areas, leaders across the Arab world only ever have an appetite for the former, if at all. Most attempts at the latter tend to be just another way of exercising hegemony over perceived spheres of influence.
Thus, rather than adopting forward-thinking strategies to expand regional cooperation and access potential solutions to domestic challenges, particularly youth unemployment, Arab leaders historically have failed to rise to the moment.
It can only be hoped that in this multipolar world of strategic competition and regionalization, Arab countries seize the opportunity to attempt the unprecedented — as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq have been trying to do.
Although it is still a work in progress, the Amman-Baghdad-Cairo — or the ABC — agreement seeks to forge a trilateral regional partnership of sorts, spanning North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia. The ABC is an ambitious undertaking that aims to connect an area that is home to an estimated 162 million people and will have a combined gross domestic product of $628 billion by the end of this year.
It builds on more than three decades of on-off cooperative ties, beginning with Iraq’s reliance on Jordan as a conduit for its imports and exports during the Iran-Iraq war while Egypt supplied labor to replace conscripted Iraqi men. In return, Jordan received cheap oil and Iraq became the largest source of remittances to Egypt.
Even during and after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 trade relations persisted among all three countries, though they were interrupted briefly by the subsequent civil war and intermittent violence following the Iraq war in 2003.
Fast-forward to a few years ago and several plans were outlined not only to connect the electricity grids of the three countries but also to develop oil pipelines. In addition, Iraq anticipated Egyptian or Jordanian assistance for its post-war reconstruction and reemergence after four decades of conflict and biting sanctions.
The ongoing efforts have so far remained immune to Iraq’s tumultuous political environment and, despite constrained finances, all three countries remain eager to forge ahead and deliver on the boundless economic promise of enhanced trilateral cooperation. A flurry of diplomatic activity is underway to build on recent progress, capped by three trilateral summits to date, with more set to follow.
To some observers, this trilateral grouping is an alliance of “odd fellows” indeed. However, the Amman-Baghdad-Cairo agreement is a step in the right direction and has a lot of coherence to it. For instance, all three countries have broadly similar market economies that are seeking or undergoing reforms in pursuit of diversification, private sector growth, the enhancing of safety nets, and attracting foreign investment, even in the face of disruptive political crises that Egypt has faced and Iraq is still experiencing.
Additionally, Jordan and Egypt are already members of the World Trade Organization and Iraq is likely to join soon. This creates a solid base for any trilateral agreement since it will have to be consistent with the principles of the WTO.
Lastly, all three countries are members of the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement, which provides a road map for the integration of Arab markets and trade in goods and services.
However, like most of the optimistic proclamations in the region, while there is plenty of history, momentum, goodwill and upsides to support the ABC, or other partnerships like it, the realities of implementation remain highly complex and, ultimately, discouraging.
After all, the Egypt-Jordan-Iraq axis has been a project three decades in the making that initially peaked with the short-lived Arab Cooperation Council. It is now seeking rebirth — firstly to encourage much-needed economic cooperation and, eventually, to rehabilitate war-torn Syria, while also positioning itself to embrace a “rescued” Lebanon as part of what the leaders of the three countries envision as their Al-Sham Al-Jadid (“New Levant”) project.
It can only be hoped that a rekindled North African-Levantine-West Asian axis will not succumb to the usual pitfalls that historically have imperiled Arab cooperation. Its leaders must also resist a framing of the ABC as a counter to the GCC, because such divisive rhetoric will diminish the prospects for the two well intentioned cooperative frameworks to work together based on their obvious synergies and shared interests.
This can, and should, be a crucial spark for a region deeply in need of a new vision and alternative frameworks to help it navigate mounting challenges and manage crises in a changing world.
The Article was originally published on Arab News.
[The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BasNews.]