How the Middle East can benefit from multilateralism


Like many regions around the world, the Middle East, in particular the Arab World, had gone through turbulent episodes at the height of the Cold War. As the former colonial powers of Britain and France began their slow withdrawal from the region at the end of the Second World War, the United States moved in to secure oil routes from the Arabian Gulf as well as to protect pro-western monarchies from the Arab nationalist tide that found an ally in the Soviet Union.

In a bipolar global order, the Arab world was divided between conservative and traditional regimes and revolutionary ones, with the US backing the former and the Soviet Union supporting the latter. The Arab-Israeli conflict, with the Palestine Question at its core, was a rallying cry for both sides of the Arab political divide during the 1950s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. The region went through war, occupation and displacement with no just conclusion to the plight of the Palestinians.

But even then, a bipolar geopolitical regime provided much needed equilibrium in the international arena. The Soviet Union was considered an ally of revolutionary Arab regimes seeking to promote the just cause of the Palestinians. But the polarization of the Arab World back then had impeded much of the work of the Arab League; a club of Arab countries aspiring to create a multilateral platform for intra-Arab development and cooperation. That body, created in 1945 and now encompasses 22 independent Arab states, has a poor track record when it comes to achieving set goals and resolutions not only in the political arena, but in various economic, social and cultural fields.

That polarization, which is one reason for undermining the work of the Arab League, was one of the driving forces for the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in1981”. The club of like-minded, traditional, conservative oil-rich Arab sheikdoms sought US protection against perceived foes such as Iran and Iraq. The GCC, which has evolved over the years, remains one of the most successful models of multilateral cooperation in the region.

At the end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen moved to create the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC) in 1989 as their answer to the GCC”. That asymmetrical alliance was short lived; collapsing following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the ensuing first Gulf War. 1“Also in 1989, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia created the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU)”, but that economic alliance was also short lived as a result of deep political frictions among its members.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 marked the end of the Cold War and the birth of a New World Order under the United States as the only superpower. For the Arab World, the triumph of the US-led coalition in evicting Iraq from Kuwait also meant that Washington was now the sole power in charge of the region’s security.

That meant two main things: One, the US forced itself as the sole mediator in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations; starting with the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, which later culminated in the historic Oslo Agreement between the PLO and Israel in 1993. And second, the United States would put itself in charge of the region’s political and economic development by calling the shots and superseding sovereign decisions at many levels.

For the first, the outcome of three decades of US exclusive sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and later between Israel and other Arab countries is yet to deliver a just and lasting political settlement in historical Palestine.

For the second, the US has, in the past 20 odd years, waged an unjust invasion of Iraq, the results of which have been catastrophic for the people of Iraq to say the least, as well as intervening in Libya and Syria, under different guises and excuses. The outcome, as can be seen today, has been disastrous for the region and beyond.

US intervention, promoted by Washington’s neo-cons as part of a greater design to engulf a rising Russia, has crippled further the Arab League; the only body, lifeless as it is, to present a framework for intra-Arab cooperation. In 2023, the Palestinian Question remains unanswered while trouble and instability boils over in Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iraq.

But something interesting is happening in the region. While claims of a waning US influence in the Arab World may be exaggerated and premature, the chaotic and humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 has marked a change in the mindset of at least two key US allies in the region; the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both have adopted a new foreign policy approach of drawing a line defining their individual national interest priorities, on the one hand, and those that align with the US, on the other.

A process of erasing conflicts with former foes, such as Turkey, Syria and Iran, while adopting a neutral stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, forming economic alliances with India and China has visibly marked a departure from decades of blind allegiance to Washington. The clean slate approach to former adversaries represents a new strategy that is based on giving priority to national interests with securing economic dividends as its core.

This adoption of an independent foreign policy line, controversial as it may be especially for Washington, can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s close coordination with Russia through the OPEC Plus group over oil production and Riyadh’s close coordination with Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi.

This new line of rapprochement is proving to be infectious. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia and Algeria are now normalizing ties, at different levels, with Syria’s Bashar Assad. Jordan and Iran are talking about restoring full diplomatic relations, following the historic diplomatic breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran through Chinese mediation.

With Russia and China talking about the need to build a multipolar world, the Arab World stands to benefit at two levels. Multipolarity should better serve national Arab interests, especially where the Palestine Question is concerned. But more than that, it would bring in much needed balance in the region’s dealing with the rest of the world.

The second benefit is that multipolarism should allow Arab countries to experiment with multilateral cooperation models at a time when multilateral groups, such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, are gaining strength and influence across the globe. There is even an approach to adopt minilateralism where small groups of countries, not geographically connected, can cooperate in specialized areas such as green energy, climate change and Artificial Intelligence.

For the wider Arab World such an approach is much needed; first to put an end to pre-state wars and civil strife, and second, to finally arrive at a stage where intra-Arab complementarity—a post-independence aspiration—can become a reality.


Author: Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.