An Alternative Approach to Regional Security in the Middle East

The Arab Spring is a decisive event that continues to reshape the geopolitics of the region, so why has no progress been made to create a security collective?

A meeting of the Arab League’s foreign ministers after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his Middle East peace plan, Cairo, Feb. 1, 2020. Mohamed Abd El Ghan/Reuters

The recently U.S.-proposed anti-Iran Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) andthe European-led missions to secure navigation in the Persian Gulf have forced a rethinking of the possibility of developing a viable regional security architecture for the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) and a reexamining of the obstacles that historically hindered its creation. The U.S. and European initiatives reveal that they are still constrained by the old conviction that international solutions can solve the “security deficit” that has plagued the region for decades. The history of the region tells us that this approach did not work out as expected, but in fact deepened security deficits instead of solving them.

First, the approach was used to serve the political interests of the United States and European countries and not those of the region. The recently proposed schemes are built on the same Western posturing, as they are designed to protect American and European interests and contain the direct threats to their national security emanating from increasing insecurity and ongoing conflict in the region.

The terrorism of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), illegal migration, and insecurities in the main maritime chokepoints are a few examples of those threats. Second, these proposals are built on a traditional security outlook of the region that overlooks the changes in the security environment caused by the Arab Spring, which now requires new mindsets.

When one analyzes security developments in the region, one finds weak cooperation and interdependence between Arab countries, and this makes the task for American and European leaders all the more difficult. According to Barry Buzan, the leading scholar on the English school of international security,security interdependence, or the security complex, is a prerequisite for any regional security arrangement to exist and function. It means “a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another”. The history of security interactions among the countries in the MENA region is one of enmity and mistrust, which leads primarily to the failure or dysfunction of any regional security scheme proposed by external powers or developed by the Arab countries themselves, and secondarily to the absence of Arab agreement on a shared matrix of security responses to threats to their collective security.

In this context, the first section of this essay briefly analyzes the history of security in the Arab region to identify obstaclesto developing a regional security scheme. The second section attempts to reexamine what has changed in the security outlook of the MENA region in the post-Arab Spring period and what drivers there are for developing a new regional security architecture. The third section discusses a security arrangement that can help resolve the security deficit in the Arab region.

What Has Worked in the Arab Context?
There are five approaches that have been adopted in various regions in the world to achieve regional security. In the first approach, regional security is guaranteed and ensured by a hegemonic state that uses its hard and soft powers to impose stability and prevent any other country from threatening it. In practice, this approach maintained security in South Asia and in North America for a period of time.

In the second approach, small and medium countries form coalitions and alliances to balance the power of revisionist countries in their region. Practices among Western European countries during World War I and World War II followed this approach.

The third approach is based on cooperation and integration to achieve collective security. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is an example of the partial application of this approach.

In the fourth approach, security is achieved via the creation of a pluralistic security community in which the members do not create any formal institutions, but instead agree on a set of rules that ensure stability in the region, for example refraining from using military power, settling conflicts using peaceful means, and disarmament. History reveals that the success of this approach requires countries to share similar political and economic systems and have high levels of interdependence so as to eventually build institutions to implement the agreed norms and rules.

The fifth approach requires countries to agree to create a regional organization responsible for the multilateral collective management of security in the region. NATO is an example of this type of organization with security as its primary function.

It is important to emphasize that adopting any of these approaches in a specific geographic region in the world requires the existence of shared perceptions among those countries, including consensus on what qualifies as being a threat and what types of collective tools are accepted and adopted. The various regional arrangements in these five approaches lead to sustainable frameworks of collective security among their members that are different from security cooperation and ad hoc military or security coalitions among countries to counter an enemy.

The security interactions among Arab countries since the establishment of the League of Arab States in 1945 tell us that some of these approaches were applicable but did not deliver the collective conception of Arab security that evolved after the end of the Ottoman control of the Middle East. That conception had considered Western colonial powers and Israel in particular as the main threats, and the main collective Arab security policy was calling for unity against these enemy entities.

In line with this conception of Arab security, Arab countries adopted a collective defense pact in 1950 within the framework of the League of Arab States. The pact in essence corresponded with the third approach mentioned above. The resolutions of the ministerial council of the League of Arab States from 1945–2006 reveal that this pact was used specifically to counter Israel, which was framed in those resolutions as the “enemy country” that threatened Arab security. Accordingly, that pact was invoked in the cases of Israeli offenses against Arab countries, such as Israeli offensive operations on Jordan’s river in 1964.

 But the effectiveness of this security scheme was contested by an alternative approach to regional security adopted by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia during the 1960s. The Saudi approach considered the Muslim World, not the Arab World, as the focal point of any regional security arrangement and aligned the country with the U.S. security agenda in the region. Furthermore, the Europeans and the Americans historically proposed many security arrangements to serve their security agenda in the region instead and overlooked the security function of the League of Arab States. Thus, those proposals did not last long and were rejected by many Arab countries. For instance, the 1955 Baghdad Pact that aimed to contain the Soviet Union was joined by Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan, but was rejected by Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.

Most of these regional and external attempts to create a collective security architecture in the region adopted the very narrow definition of security that focused on the military and political dimensions and on the “enemy state” as the main source of any threat. This Cold War concept of security was in line with the prevailing security perceptions among the Arab ruling elites, who used it to frame national security in its political and military dimensions as the priority and to justify considering strengthening military and security relations with great powers as the sure option to maintain national security and counter any regional threats to their territorial security.

 These patterns of security interactions created three realities in the region that are responsible for hindering any effort to develop a working collective security scheme. The first is the discontinuity and, in some cases, absence of common perceptions among Arab countries of the threats to their collective security, which in turn has weekend the security complex in the region. The old concept of collective security discussed above is getting weaker and is not shaping the security policies of Arab countries. For example, the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 was not perceived by other Arab countries as a threat to their national security; instead of collectively adopting measures against Israel, the discourse of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries demonized Hezbollah and considered it the main threat to their security.

The second reality is the narrow concept of security that continues to shape Arab foreign security policies, leading to increasing militarization to counter any attack from an enemy country. However, developments in the region broadened the concept of security beyond the militaristic to include economic and social dimensions. In 1990, the source of enmity was another Arab country in the case of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Later, new enemies in the form of violent non-state actors, such al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, emerged.

The third reality is the rising rivalry among Arab countries, leading to diminishing trust in any pan-Arab security arrangements. In many cases, this is driven by the increasing independence of the Arab state that is alienating its security interests from those of other Arab countries and linking them to the security agenda of the United States and European countries. This unfolded, for instance, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Arab countries preferred to align themselves with any non-Arab arrangement proposed by the United States or any other country. This, in turn, weakened the region’s security complex. 

The Post-Arab Spring Period?
The Arab Spring was a decisive event that continues to reshape the security outlook of the region and redefine what regional security in this part of the world means. On one hand, it is shifting the perceptions of security threats among Arab countries. On the other hand, it is making ensuring territorial national security the priority for Arab countries, and, as a result, their support for and participation in any collective security arrangement is subject to the extent to which it serves their national security. These shifts are better explained by examining three crucial questions on the creation and function of any collective security arrangements:

What is being threatened?

 In the post-Arab Spring period, the survival of the nation state remains the priority for several Arab countries. This is especially true since one of the consequences of the Arab Spring has been the emergence of armed conflicts weakening the state structure, as in Libya after the NATO-led operation in 2011, in Yemen since 2015, and in Syria since 2011. The increasing emphasis on state survival in the official discourse of many Arab leaders during this period has not been confined to political and security dimensions as it used to be. Instead, it encompasses humanitarian, societal, and economic dimensions as long as they strengthen the capacity of state institutions.

It is important to note that this development coincided with the rising power, influence, and legitimacy of violent non-state actors in some countries versus that of the national governments, to the extent that those actors’ survival became important to the survival of the Arab state itself. For instance, in Lebanon Hezbollah maintains the independence of its military structure and at the same time participates in the Lebanese political system, creating a hybrid entity that enjoys being “part of the state structure” and a “state within the state” at the same time. This model of violent non-state actors could be replicated in other Arab countries suffering from weak central governments such as Libya and Yemen.

Who is threatening security?

The Arab perceptions that used to frame Israel as an enemy in the region are changing. Since the 1973 war, it took some Arab countries more than three decades to review their perceptions of Israel as “the enemy” and then begin receiving Israeli officials, normalizing their relationships even though Israel’s enmity has not officially ended and Tel Aviv has not yet recognized the existence of an independent Palestinian state. Exchanges between Israeli officials and Arab states who have not signed a peace treaty have increased in recent years. For example, the Israeli minister of foreign affairs visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in June 2019 to discuss Iran’s policies in the region.

Regional actors including Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Ethiopia and international actors such as the United States, European countries, Russia, China, and to an extent, India, are also influencing the security environment in the region. Arab countries do not share a common security perception toward any of these actors; thus it is difficult to categorize any of them in the friend or enemy status. This extends to Arab stances toward the MESA proposed by the Trump administration, which aims to contain Iran. Egypt, for example, announced its withdrawal from the MESA talks in April 2019 because, as explained by an anonymous Saudi official, “it doubted the seriousness of the initiative, had yet to see a formal blueprint laying it out, and because of the danger that the plan would increase tensions with Iran.” Other Arab countries participating in the MESA talks include Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other GCC countries.

Furthermore, it is hard to reach an agreement among the majority of Arab countries on whether any of those actors are strengthening the security of the region or weakening it. For instance, although Egypt has supported the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia that is taking part in the war in Yemen since March 2015, it considers the Houthi group as a faction of Yemeni society, unlike the Saudis, who consider it a terrorist organization. Egypt also considers the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia as a threat to its national security, but Saudi Arabia does not share the same point of view.

In addition, the enemy that threatens national or regional security is not just another state capable of acting offensively, but also violent non-state actors (VNSAs), who are playing crucial roles in the continuation of many armed conflicts in the region as reported by the Heidelberg Institute.Even though many of these VNSAs have rationales and interests, they often act as agents for non-Arab regional and international powers interfering in the region. That partially explains why some Arab countries designate VNSAs such as ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Free Syrian Army as terrorist organizations while others do not.

In the ten years since the Arab Spring, there has been a growing list of security issues that must be addressed collectively by Arab countries in order to achieve security in the region. This list includes the armed conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Palestine; the increasing legitimacy and role of VNSAs (radical and extreme religious groups, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations); maritime terrorism and piracy; the increasingly interventionist policies of Turkey, Iran, and global powers in many Arab countries; the weakening of the unified nation state; uneven development; the marginalization of youth and women; and technological threats.

Although it is easy to compile this list, it is hard to say that there is a common perception among Arab countries regarding the priority of each security issue on the list. The exception is when Arab states are located in the same geographic area and share histories of amicable relationships and common interests. For instance, the Levant Arab countries are more concerned with the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Palestinian issue, and the VNSAs active in that part of the region, while those located in the Arab Maghreb are more concerned, for example, with the conflict in Libya and the terrorist organizations active in the Sahel region. Similar differences can be found among Arab countries located in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Eastern Africa.

Who shapes regional security perceptions?

The Arab Spring exposed the structural weaknesses of the Arab region and the absence of an Arab hegemonic power that can alone master the creation of a collective regional security policy. It also exacerbated the rivalry among the countries in the region to be the leading state that defines the security agenda of the region. It is becoming obvious that the strongest countries in terms of military and economic capabilities that adopt an influential discourse supported by other countries in the region are securitizing actors that define the regional security agenda that serves both their national security and political interests. Consequently, the security agenda of the region, if there is any, could be shaped to strengthen the political internal and external legitimacy of the more powerful countries, and this in turn leads to its politicization. Even though security cannot be understood apart from politics, the latter remains one of the former’s dimensions. But in the MENA region, the politicization of security perceptions contributes to the further weakening of the security complex in the region.

And, if we are to borrow from securitization theory, the Arab region in the post-Arab Spring period has witnessed over-securitization and de-securitization of a number of issues. This is particularly true following the new power structures in some countries, such as Egypt after the fall of Mubarak’s regime, Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah, and Qatar after the ousting of King Hamad. For example, terrorism in Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012–2013 was considered by then-President Mohamed Morsi as a political issue that could be managed via dialogue and political concessions. But since 2014, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has considered terrorism as the main threat to national security and is consequently countering it using military, economic, and social measures.

These newly developed national security perceptions among Arab countries have also extended to their foreign policies, limiting the possibilities of developing a common set of regional security perceptions. Egypt’s 2015 proposal of forming a new rapid counterterrorism force is an example in this regard. The proposal was within the framework of the League of Arab States, but it failed to materialize due to Saudi concerns about who would lead these forces. Although Saudi Arabia contributed to the Arab chiefs of staff’s discussions of the proposal and to the drafting of these forces’ protocols, it called for postponing the discussion of that draft. In parallel, Saudi Arabia led the creation of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in December 2015.

A Proposed Solution to the Arab “Security Deficit”
I argue that providing a realistic solution to the security deficit in the Arab region requires considering the new security outlook of the region uncovered by the Arab Spring. The recently proposed MESA and other projects are institutionalizing the role of external powers, either the Europeans or the United States, and answering the security needs of those actors rather than answering those of the region. MENA countries need a regionally developed security arrangement that reflects their complexities and can both counter the aforementioned list of threats and protect the interests of Arab countries.

Based on that argument, and referring to the five aforementioned approaches, I propose solving the security deficit in the Arab region with a security arrangement that combines both the pluralistic security community approach and the creation of a regional security organization approach. This proposed arrangement recognizes the absence and discontinuity of common security perceptions and the weakening security complex. It also considers creating common perceptions and strengthening that complex as its main two priorities.

What is required here is the establishment of a new regional forum for dialogue and deliberation that has an institutional aspect in order to ensure its sustainability; this could be called the Arab Forum for Security Policies (AFSP).  Then come the questions of membership and leadership. As these are very crucial questions, I suggest a core group of countries that enjoy a degree of amity and trust, have a shared perception of threats, and have experience working collectively. These countries include Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia.

The AFSP would meet annually in order to offer regionalsolutions to regionalsecurity issues. The outcome of the yearly dialogue would be a document of guiding policies that included both bilateral and multilateral cooperation, utilized a variety of tools not confined to military measures, and accepted the reality of the numerous securitizing actors in the Arab region.

To have the AFSP function effectively, it should avoid two issues that have proved to be drivers of dysfunction in any arrangement in the Arab context. First, the dialogue among member countries should not be built around the enemy country mentality. As mentioned earlier, there is no Arab agreement on categorizing any of the regional or international powers with interests in the region in the friend or enemy status; some Arabs perceive them as both friends and enemies (frenemies). Instead, the forum should consider that the threats to the national security of its members and to their collective security do not emanate from one single enemy country and focus on the list of threat issues mentioned earlier. The priority of the threats and issues can be defined through voting. Second, the main goal of the forum should not involve offering or developing a comprehensive security agenda or obliging countries to enter into long-term commitments, but should rather be to build common perceptions among the member countries regarding each security issue on the agreed list of priority threats.

It cannot be overstated that the Arab region in the post-Arab Spring period urgently requires a regional solution to, instead of a deepening of, the security deficit from which it suffers. The proposed AFSP aims to strengthen the regional security complex among a group of Arab countries as a first step prior to building arrangements that encompass both Arab and non-Arab states.

In other words, the AFSP attempts to remedy one of the obstacles that historically hindered the success of any regional security arrangement. The AFSP concept is not a call for isolating Arabs, but one for all regional and international actors interested in securing MENA to consider the new security outlook taking form and to help the countries of the region find the courage to take the lead in solving their security issues.

Eman Ragab is head of regional security and military studies at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a research fellow at the NATO Defense College in Rome. She is also a visiting professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

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