New dimensions of security and regionalism in the Middle East

By Matteo Legrenzi, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

The Middle East started facing a new set of security challenges in the second decade of the 21st century. Regional states were called to re-examine their strategic priorities and foreign policies at both the regional and global level.

Rapid regional changes bring to the attention of IR scholars the old debate about the low responsiveness of the Middle East to regionalism and regionalization in both the economic and political fields as well as the absence of a functional Middle East security complex. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, endogenous dynamics have rather benefited sub-regional integration. Concurrently, exogenous pressures—particularly the European goal of creating a Euro-Mediterranean common area—have not achieved the desired results. Regime changes that occurred after the 2011 uprisings and instability in many of the states formerly involved in the Euro-Med regionalization project have challenged the traditional approach of a dialogue between the northern and the southern banks of the Mediterranean. New polices meant to achieve stability on the two shores and contain potential insecurity connected to migratory flows, commercial exchanges and raw materials imports, are crucial for Brussels as well as for economic growth and the consolidation of the emerging political orders in the Middle East.

New perspectives ought to be adopted for the analysis of evolving Euro-Med relations. The combination of international and domestic factors (intermestics) could constitute a privileged analytical tool: will governments with popular legitimation re-conceptualize the national interest? Does the political identity of new actors push towards multilateralism rather than bilateralism? Do European and Middle-Eastern interests converge more than in the past?

With regards to European security policies, a specific focus ought to be the analysis of future military agreements with Middle-Eastern states, as well as the impact of the European conditionality principle in structuring civil-military relations: can we expect the separation of military and civilian power, subordinating the former to the latter? Will Europe—conceptualized here as both a single actor and a complex of national states that do not necessarily act in concert—be in a position to play the role of “external shaper,” combining “soft power” and coercive action?

Regime changes following the 2011 Arab uprisings are also driving a transformation of the regional system. We can identify three phenomena, which we expect will impact the redefinition of inter-state alliances and the conceptualization of threats from single actors: i) Progressive Islamization of politics in the regional context; ii) proliferation of civil wars after the collapse of some specific regimes; and iii) a new more assertive foreign policy by regional powers on both shores of the Persian Gulf.

A further field of inquiry should be the impact of the variables above on the level of Middle East stability and on the dynamics of inter-state competition and cooperation in the region.

State of the art

The Middle East is a region marked by a constant proliferation of threats and long standing conflicts. There is unanimity in recognizing the high impact of the security dilemma among regional actors; moreover, many scholars emphasize the profound security interdependence, which defines the inter-state dimension: the Middle East is often defined as a “regional security complex” marked by systemic enmity patterns (Buzan-Waever 2003).

Even after the Cold War, while the number of conflicts within the International System decreased considerably, competition among Middle Eastern states remained high, making the regional context less attuned to global dynamics. Furthermore, since the dismantling of the bipolar international system, the lack of meaningful regionalism and regionalization seems to have created a gap between the systemic functionality of the Middle East and that of other regional systems (Aarts 1999; Harders-Legrenzi 2008; Fawcett 2009).

Indeed, there is a trend in the ever growing literature on the topic that chooses to consider the Middle East in terms of “exceptionalism,” defining it as the only regional space resisting durable and institutionalized cooperation in the economic, political and security spheres. Different theoretical approaches have yielded distinctive explanations: according to realists and neo-realists the Middle East is the most “hobbesian” space within the International System—or, rather, the area in which inter-state relations reflect, at the highest level, natural competitive tendencies. Therefore, for Realists it is difficult to implement de-securitization policies in the Middle East (Waltz 1979).

This theoretical approach has met with criticism. One of the most compelling lines of criticism refutes the realist state-centered approach in the analysis of the Middle East inter-state system, preferring to recognize in the region a status of “immature anarchy” and permeability of borders. From this point of view, the conceptualization of threats is not just related to but even more revealing in a trans-national perspective (Bassel, Salloukh, Bryner 2004). This is particularly relevant when focusing on terrorism or sub-state forces aspiring to disarticulate state entities (e.g. the Kurdish movement in Iraq). Additionally, some Realists and some dependency theorists link the perpetual systemic (in)security with the high level of external (i.e. global powers) penetration (Brown 1984; Korany 2009).

Conversely, from a liberal-institutionalist perspective, the failure of regional cooperation is attributed to institutional fragility at both state and supra-state level (Kheoane 1984). Whereas, when looking at the situation through the lenses of complex interdependence, the difficulty in the emergence of a benign “regional security complex” has to be attributed to the low development of interregional commerce and economic cooperation among Middle Eastern states (Nye 1968; Richards-Waterbury 2007).

Moreover, a lot of work focused on way the overstated autonomy of the national interest towards the regional context constituted an obstacle to the formulation of common regional goals. This line of thinking is mainly put forward by constructivist authors and by those considering the identity of regional actors as one of the sources of regional (in)securities (Bryner-Korany-Noble 1993; Ryan 2007).

In the last few years, scholars have also focused on security sub-regionalization. In this context, attention has been given to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Within this territorial space, the conceptualization of threats is closely related to energy security- oil fields securitization and energy diversification (Gause III 2010; Legrenzi 2011). With the rapid change of the regional system, the importance of these two factors has manifested itself, initially, in the rising tension between Gulf Arab states and Iran; later, in new dynamics of sub-regional cooperation within GCC members and their role in the wider regional scenario; and finally, in the evolution of relations between the Gulf and i) the US, as a traditional security provider on the Arabian peninsula and among the most important oil importers; ii) Europe as a commercial partner and significant hydrocarbons importer as well as mentor of liberalization for political regimes of the region; and iii) China and India as new actors in the Persian Gulf.

Directions for future research

As I blissfully leave behind academic management for at least the next two years, my research will aim to map out an appraisal of Middle Eastern regionalism, more attentive to catch and critically evaluate efforts of institutionalizing regional cooperation in economic and security fields. It is certainly true, and it is clearly acknowledged by bureaucrats who work for regional or sub-regional bodies such as the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that the failure to implement signed agreements both in the fields of security and economics has damaged the credibility of these organizations. However, it is important to recognize the growth in regional awareness brought about by the activities of these organizations. For example, the profound change in the notion of Arab identity that followed the demise of Pan-Arabism allowed Gulf leaders in 1981 to spurn previously accepted norms of intra-Arab political behaviour by setting up an organization that was explicitly sub-regional in character.

The sub-regional setting has been enthusiastically embraced by intellectual and business elites bent on reform. The latter saw the sub-regional setting as a quasi discursively “good” area in which they were free to debate issues of economic, and, to a certain extent political, liberalization to a degree that was difficult in the single member states. For many, the GCC was seen as a possible vehicle of “top down” liberalization. Even if this did not prove to be the case, the GCC has certainly acquired a well-defined role in the cognitive boundaries of politicians and businessmen alike both within and without the region.

I aim to explore the potential and actual role of regional and sub-regional organizations in the Broader Middle East. I will then focus on economic, professional and civic regionalization. Finally, I will investigate the role that the European Union can play, if any, in abetting the growth of regionalism and economic regionalization in the region. My specific goals can be summarized in more detailed research questions:

  1. i) I aim to discern the actual impact that current regional and sub-regional organizations have in the Broader Middle East.

Do states in the Arab Middle East take into consideration their membership in regional and sub-regional bodies when formulating their foreign policy? Is there a modicum of consensus seeking behaviour at the regional and sub-regional level when new political initiatives are elaborated? Are decision makers in any way affected by membership in regional and sub-regional organizations in the formulation and day-to-day implementation of foreign policy? Are bureaucrats working in the secretariats and headquarters of regional and sub-regional organizations aware of the impact that membership has on the foreign policies of the member states? Are they working actively to increase the impact of membership in the formulation of the foreign policies of member states?

  1. ii) I aspire to identify the impact of regionalization as opposed to regionalism in the Broader Middle East.

I will do so by affirming an important distinction between regionalism as a conscious policy of Middle East states and economic, professional and civic regionalization as the outcome of such policies or of “natural” economic forces in order to identify the impact of objective indicators including capital movements and foreign direct investment between countries of the region. Along these lines, I will also explore the hypothesis that technical agencies such as the Arab Petroleum Investment Corporation (APICORP) and the Gulf Investment Corporation (GIC) have been far more successful than their political counterparts. At the regional level, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD) are also proving more vibrant than regional and sub-regional political organizations.

I will seek to discern whether new media such as Internet and satellite TV are creating a new public sphere in the region that transcends national boundaries. The following questions ought to be answered: are NGOs more likely to organize on a regional and sub-regional basis because of the existence of regional and sub-regional organizations? Do professional organizations meet on a regional and sub-regional basis? In more general terms, did the establishment of regional and sub-regional organizations result in a reshaping of cognitive boundaries within the region? Are these cognitive boundaries recognised by the regional professional and civic elites? What is the level of foreign direct investment among countries of the region? What are the capital flows crisscrossing the Broader Middle East? Why do some banking centers, such as Bahrain, thrive in spite of the opacity of their banking practices? Is transparency achievable in a business environment that values personal trust and discretion above anything else? What is the impact of these business practices on the effort to stem illicit capital flows? Why do technical agencies seem to work better than their political counterparts? Does it have to do with the fact that they are organized along corporate lines? Do they attract better expertise than political bodies? Are the new media really creating a new public sphere or do national political imaginaries still retain their grip? Are there quantitative indicators that we can utilize to measure this process?

iii) I will try to establish whether the European Union can play a fruitful role in the Broader Middle East by encouraging the proliferation of regional and sub-regional initiatives in the economic and social fields.

Can the European Union gain a less subsidiary role in conflict resolution in the region by encouraging regional and sub-regional initiatives? Has the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership proved a success in this regard? Can the European Union leverage its institutional expertise and help regional and sub-regional organizations in the Broader Middle East deepen the convergence and integration of member states in the economic and defence fields? Are the obstacles encountered by member states the result of lack of technical know how or of deep-seated political problems?

Matteo Legrenzi is an associate professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and director of the Strategic Studies and International Security program.


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