It is Time to Establish a Middle East Regional Security System

Unlike every other region of the world, the Middle East does not have an inclusive regional security system. This article explores why that is, asks whether now is the time to begin, and suggests how such a process could be started

The Middle East is the only region of the world that does not have an inclusive multilateral process dedicated to the promotion of regional stability. Attempts to create such a system have always foundered on the region’s myriad tensions and complexities. The question, then, is whether the dramatic events of the past few years have made the current moment ripe, at last, for beginning such a process.

At heart, regional security systems have two key elements. First, they create a set of agreed-upon regional standards of conduct, and second, they create an accompanying process of dialogue intended to give those standards effect. As experiences in Asia (Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)), Africa (Organisation of African Unity), Europe (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)), the Western Hemisphere (Organization of American States), Eurasia (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation), and South Asia (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) show, these processes do not in themselves end regional competition. They set standards of conduct and create mechanisms whereby they can be discussed. 

They also create a means for discussion of issues before they become sources of conflict. Where conflicts do arise, these frameworks do not always result in resolutions; if the countries directly concerned do not wish to end a dispute, they cannot be forced to. In these cases, regional systems can help manage a conflict and prevent it from spreading—these are not trivial things.

The question of the kind of security that these systems seek to establish is also important. Briefly, inclusive regional systems seek to further what is known as cooperative security, which means that the participating states have established norms of conduct and an inclusive mechanism in order to cooperate with each other to implement them. The other type of security arrangement that can exist in regional contexts, known as collective security, exists when a particular group of states within a region band together to resist intimidation or aggression. NATO is one example of a collective security agreement. Importantly, it does not have to be an “either/or” arrangement with respect to the kind of security mechanism that can exist in a region. In Europe, for example, both NATO (collective security) and the OSCE (inclusive, cooperative security) exist, and the trick is that such arrangements should not undercut each other, but seek to complement each other’s basic objectives.

A region can be defined as essentially an area where states believe they have a particularly close set of relations due to history, culture, geography, or some other factor. Countries can belong to more than one region simultaneously. Moreover, within regions there are “sub-regions”—areas where states have unusually close relationships due to proximity. For the purposes of this essay, the Middle East is defined as the states of the Arab League plus Iran, Israel, and Turkey, with some states belonging to more than one region. This essay also defines the Middle East as containing the following sub-regions: the Persian Gulf, the Levant, and the Maghreb, with some states belonging to more than one sub-region.

Middle East Regional Security

The Middle East has had multiple disputes, often with significant involvement from outside powers, in its recent history. Though most of the world’s attention has been focused on the Arab–Israeli dispute, there have been many different security challenges in the region. Indeed, fighting between and within the states of the region, beyond Israel and Palestine, has consumed many more lives than that tragic conflict. Moreover, the only instances of the use of weapons of mass destruction in the region, both between and within states, have been for reasons having nothing to do with the Arab–Israeli conflict. And yet, attempts to create an inclusive regional system have foundered on fears that such a system, if it included Israel, would by default “normalize” relations with that country before the Palestinian issue was resolved. Some countries in the region are also of the view that the question of Israel’s ambiguous nuclear status must be addressed before an inclusive regional security system can begin.  

Of course, the region is not without experience in multilateral diplomacy around security issues. The Arab League is the premier regional institution, though it does not include Iran, Israel, or Turkey—three states key to regional security. The league has tried to be both a cooperative security institution (setting down norms of conduct between the Arab countries) and, at times, a collective one (exploring various kinds of military and security coordination between Arab countries). It must be said that the League has not done particularly well at either of these. Its members have been too jealous of their sovereignty and often too suspicious of each other to fully cooperate within the League for either purpose. Sub-regional institutions have also existed within the Middle East. Perhaps the best known is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It has also sought to act as a collective security mechanism against (at various times) Iraq and Iran, with the participation of the United States, and as a cooperative security mechanism with regards to relations among its own members. Again, the success of the GCC at both of these tasks has been mixed.

The only attempt to create a regional security system was the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS), which was part of the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process in the early 1990s. ACRS foundered, as did all of the multilateral groups, over the normalization of relations with Israel, but also over the question of Israel’s ambiguous nuclear status. The group was also not inclusive of the region’s states; for a variety of reasons, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya did not participate. That said, ACRS did accomplish much in terms of beginning the exploration of how an inclusive, cooperative regional security system could work, and significant discussions and even negotiations over regional security and confidence-building took place. ACRS also developed a draft of a statement of principles on regional security, which was agreed upon except for the difference over Israel’s nuclear status. That draft could serve as a starting point for consideration of these issues. There have also been several important projects at the Track Two level, which brought together regional experts for an in-depth exploration of these issues (For more on all this, see the “Further Reading” list).

The Situation Today

Much has changed since ACRS went into abeyance. Notable developments include the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath; significant changes in many states since the so-called Arab Spring; conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere; the emergence of ISIS and other new forms of religious extremist groups; the continued rise of Iran as a perceived threat (and the accomplishment and then apparent demise of the nuclear agreement—the JCPOA); and the perception that America is not so fully committed to regional stability as in the past, along with the rise of Russia as a power in the area. All of this has created a regional picture that seems even more unstable than at any time since the end of World War II.

Under such circumstances, one may question the value of steps to begin an inclusive, cooperative Middle East Regional Security System (MERSS).  Indeed, if one believes that a regional security system must be born fully formed, it is impossible to imagine that the lofty principles that are contained, for example, in the ACRS principles will be widely respected across the region anytime soon. But no other regional security system was ever born fully formed. In all of the other cases, there were significant issues and conflicts when the initial steps were taken.  

Had it been the case, for example, that the countries of Asia did not begin to talk while the Vietnam War was raging, ASEAN would never have begun. Had it been the case that European countries did not talk to each other until the division of Germany had been resolved, the CSCE (which later became the OSCE when the Cold War ended) would never have been started. And yet, both ASEAN and the CSCE/OSCE played significant roles in helping to manage the end of these conflicts and also in promoting stability in those regions to this day. Moreover, not all regional security systems included everyone at the outset. However, a seat was left open for them to join when they were ready—none of these systems began by permanently excluding countries that would have to eventually join for the systems to work.

The key, in all cases, is that some states in the region began the work to create a cooperative system and left places open for others to join as they were willing to abide by the principles of the regime. Additionally, a fundamental aspect of such early efforts was a recognition that certain issues could not be resolved right away, but that cooperation and dialogue could be sought in certain areas while conversation continued about issues that could not be resolved immediately.

Looking Ahead

How, then, might efforts to create an inclusive MERSS begin in this environment?  There are at least five points to consider. First, the creation of a MERSS will be a long-term process, as it has been everywhere else, which will likely begin with a few regional actors stepping forward. Without naming names, there are some countries in the region that have a history of being prepared to talk while others do not. Those others will join as they are willing, and a seat must be left for them. It is important, then, that the process not begin as an exclusionary one, but also that it not wait until everyone is ready—that is a recipe for never getting started. There will have to be a core group of states who will begin the conversation with the expectation that others will join when they are ready. 

This leads to a second consideration, which is the definition of security.  Trying to be both a cooperative and a collective security system does not work because the two kinds of security regimes have different functions.  Importantly, as in other regions of the world, the two types of security arrangements should not be seen as mutually exclusive—one can band together with a select group of like-minded states to resist perceived intimidation from others, even as one also tries to have a broader and more inclusive conversation with those others to see if rules of behavior can be established and tensions lessened. Some in the region in recent years have called for informal alliances between Israel and various Arab states to contain Iran. Perhaps these will work and perhaps they will not, but the key is that such arrangements would be quite different from an inclusive and cooperative MERSS, which would have as its goal to stimulate discussions, including with Iran and others, in an attempt to address, or at least manage, the issues that divide the region.  

Another aspect of the question of defining security, and one very much heightened in importance today, is the question of including social, economic, environmental, and other such issues in discussions about “security”.  Finding ways of cooperatively dealing with the consequences of rapid social, environmental, and other changes is an increasingly important element of how the region manages its future. This was apparent before the crisis over COVID 19 erupted; it is even more the case today. These issues should be firmly on the agenda of any system that might be created.

The combination of the need for an expansive agenda and the fact that not all countries will be willing to join an official process right away leads to a third consideration, which is the need for a flexible, creative approach in structuring the initial stages of the MERSS. If, as noted above, the official process of starting the MERSS may only involve a few of the region’s states in the first instance, how can others participate in discussions? The key, as has happened elsewhere, notably in Asia, is to create a multi-layered process. If there are certain issues that are not yet ripe for discussion on the official level, a structured and long-term semi-official dialogue can allow them to be explored and developed until the day comes when governments are ready to tackle them. Similarly, if there are countries that are not yet ready to join an official process, they could participate in semi-official discussions as a way of beginning to engage. The Asian experience, where a standing, semi-official dialogue process exists alongside the official one, can be instructive here. This flexible approach, in which there can be different layers of dialogue to accommodate different issues and actors, is known as the geometry variable.

A fourth consideration is the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. While it is true that this is not the only conflict in the region, it is also true that it occupies a special place in regional politics. It will be difficult to sustain an inclusive regional process involving Israel without recognition of this reality. The fact that, in recent years, a number of leading Arab regimes have been willing to informally hold discussions over security with Israel in the absence of peace with Palestine indicates how important these countries believe it is to include a new relationship with Israel in their security calculations. But the fact that they are not prepared to do so officially is also notable. Perhaps the key here is to move away from the view that official regional dialogue involving Israel will only be possible once there is a final peace agreement with Palestine and toward a view that the beginnings of such a dialogue can be a positive contribution toward such an agreement. If a new government finds its way to power in Israel, the underlying sense of the Arab Peace Initiative may yet be proven and could form the basis for this.

Finally, there is the issue of the role of outside powers. As noted, the Middle East has seen an unusually significant involvement of outside powers over many years. It seems unlikely to imagine that this will end, though the exact nature of that involvement is shifting as the U.S. commitment to the region changes and others, notably Russia, play a larger role. While the history of the Middle East is unique, other regional systems, notably in Asia and Africa, have developed some rules of the game on how outsiders and regional states interact. It seems a long way off, but one can imagine a role for a MERSS to help create some common understanding of the proper role of outside powers in the Middle East. In the meantime, a structured discussion between regional states and outsiders of how the region and the outside world might properly interact could be an opportunity for dialogue.

While none of this will be easy, other regions have shown that significant differences over fundamental issues need not prevent at least the beginning of an inclusive dialogue on cooperative regional security. The key is to keep expectations modest and remember that these processes take decades to hit their stride. The fundamental security problems of the region cannot be ignored in the initial stages of discussions, but expecting a nascent regime to magically solve them is neither realistic nor productive. Those who step forward to begin should be mindful of the tremendous issues facing the region, of course, but they should not be so daunted as to be paralyzed into never taking the initiative. Other regions have shown that patience, flexibility, creativity, and perseverance can lead to significant results.


Much has been written about the idea of a Middle East Regional Security System. Here are some of the key texts:

Feldman, S. and A. Toukan, Bridging the Gap: A Future Security Architecture for the Middle East, (New York: Roman and Littlefield, 1997).

Jones, P., Towards a Regional Security Regime for the Middle East: Issues and Options, (Stockholm; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1998 NB: re-published with an extensive new afterword in 2011);  Available at: 

Jones, P., “Structuring Middle East Security,” Survival, Journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, vol. 51, no. 6, 2009.

The following collections of essays also explore different aspects of the issues:

  1. Kane, and Murauskaite, E., (editors.), Regional Security Dialogue in the Middle East: Changes, Challenges and Opportunities, (New York: Routledge, 2014).
  2. Mueller, and Muller, D., (editors.) WMD Arms Control in the Middle East: Prospects, Obstacles and Options, (London: Ashgate publishers, 2015).
  3. Hanna and T. Cambannis (editors.), Order From Ashes: New Foundations for Security in the Middle East, (New York: The Century Foundation and the Brookings Institution, 2018).

Finally, the “Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East” is a Track II initiative which was run from the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute in Germany from 2010 to 2016. It is now a private initiative. It has brought together experts to discuss a wide variety of regional security matters and produced many important studies, reports, and papers, all of which can be found on its website: 

Peter Jones is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He previously held several positions relating to international security matters in the Privy Council Office (the Prime Ministers’ Department) and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs. He has been active, both as an official and as a practitioner of Track II negotiations and discussions relating to Middle East security over twenty-five years.

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