The Middle East is beset by division and conflict, and the path forward is to play to its strengths.
In the wake of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and the subsequent Turkish War of Independence, declaration of the Turkish Republic, and final abolition of the Ottoman caliphate, the post-Ottoman world has struggled to form a new basis of regional security that would guarantee peace, freedom and prosperity for the peoples of the Middle East.
Part of the disarray of the post-Ottoman region is by design: non-Muslim powers have openly stated that they have an interest in maintaining conflict and division in the Middle East to prevent the rise of a united Sunni world.
But much of the blame ought to be placed at the doorsteps of regional politicians who have failed to pursue policies that could integrate the region and instead pursued strategies that exacerbate ethnic and religious conflict for their own, short-term gains.
The most extreme example of the sheer madness of such a policy is the Syrian tragedy, where a despotic regime, headed up by a small coterie of an elite within a religious minority, intentionally stoked sectarian conflict to preserve their own power rather than to accede to even nominal political reforms that distribute power and resources more equitably within Syrian society.
But more generally, the despotic order of the Arab world, in leading the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring, has suddenly come to embrace the virtues of the nation-state, and promote local nationalisms, e.g., Egyptian nationalism, Saudi nationalism, and even an Emirati nationalism, as a shield against pan-Islamism (and pan-Arabism), trotting out the “nightmare” of the caliphate – and Daesh associating itself with it – as the only alternative to their local despotisms.
The protagonists in the ongoing Arab civil war that is now threatening world peace are, ironically, the very enemies that post-Ottoman theorists of the caliphate, such as the Syrian religious scholar and reformer Rashid Rida and the Egyptian lawyer-jurist, ʿAbd al-Razzaq al-Sanhuri, identified as representing the biggest challenges to the development of the Arab world after World War I – ethnic nationalism, on the one hand, versus religious obscurantism, on the other.
Their reformed conception of the caliphate which would function as a law-based federation rather than a centralised despotism along the lines of the late Ottoman state was their solution to integrating the peoples of the Middle East in a structure that recognised legitimate claims of self-determination while resisting claims of ethnic chauvinism and religious fanaticism.
For both Rida and Sanhuri, the key to developing this new political order was grounding it in law rather than the personality of the ruler. Both advocated a reformist conception of Islamic law that would preserve abstract principles and values of Islamic law while displaying a great deal of flexibility at the level of practice to suit the needs of the people in furthering their material and moral development, while at the same time guaranteeing the religious freedom of non-Muslim minorities.
Events of the last 100 years have proven thinkers such as Rida and Sanhuri to be correct. The pursuit of ethnic nationalisms and reactionary religious projects have destroyed the region.
The region stands on the verge of an abyss that can only be averted if regional states abandon narrow, self-interested policies designed almost entirely to preserve their own positions of power, and pursue steps that would promote the region’s integration so that politics ceases to be a zero-sum game and instead focuses on improving conditions for everyone.
The most populous states of the Middle East – Egypt, Turkey and Iran – bring immense human capital resources that could be directed toward rapid development if they are provided with the combination of financial capital, legal infrastructure and the limiting of arbitrary government intervention.
The Gulf states face the end of the hydrocarbon era and must wean their economies away from extraction and rent-seeking to productive investment. Opportunities for productive investment abound in their human capital-rich, but financial capital-poor, neighbours.
Achieving greater regional integration requires more than just a formal peace, however. It also requires domestic political reforms so that the states of the region are accountable to their own people.
Only governments that are accountable can be trusted to pursue the common good effectively rather than pursue policies designed to enrich a narrow segment of the population.
Political change is hard, but refusal to change will create even greater problems for all the post-Ottoman states in a not-too-distant future.
The failure to democratise and pursue meaningful policies of regional economic integration has already produced horrific human costs in terms of death, destruction, and refugee flows throughout the post-Ottoman region.
The lost opportunities that conflict has imposed on the region and its peoples are just as great, if not greater.
Despite the region’s desperate need for productive investment, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are spending more than 3 percent of their GDP on military expenditures, with Saudi Arabia spending 8.77 percent and the United Arab Emirates 5.64 percent of their 2019 GDP on their respective militaries. Qatar is the region’s exception, spending only 1.5 percent of its GDP on its military.
The post-Ottoman region is excluded from all major global trading blocs, and as a result, is both unable to attract sufficient foreign investment to produce export-led growth, and their domestic markets are too small to attract substantial foreign investment to pursue a domestic-led growth strategy.
Yet, without substantial economic growth, the region’s woes will only become more severe.
As more and more states in the region face increasing risks of collapse, they will inevitably seek out foreign patrons to prop up their various regimes, but at the cost of their own independence.
We are already seeing this in Iran’s recent deal with China, and it is probably an important motivation in the UAE’s recent deal with Israel.
The only way to avoid this dystopian future for the peoples of the Middle East is a path of regional integration.
A federation composed of post-Ottoman states, along with Iran, on the other hand, would have a population of over 500 million, providing this federation with enough heft to pursue domestic-led growth strategies and leverage to obtain preferential access to advanced markets in North America, the European Union and the Pacific Rim. It would have sufficient human, natural and financial resources to offer peace and independence to the people of the region.
The only thing lacking is the political will to do so. The time has come to stop pointing fingers, and for regional leaders to pursue policies that guarantee a safe and prosperous future for all.