The case for a regional reconstruction strategy for the Middle East

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editors’ Note: It is time to establish a regional reconstruction strategy for the Middle East, argues Sultan Barakat, that involves collective vision, broad participation, smart security, equality, and other key elements.This post originally appeared in Huffington Post.

The World Bank is hosting its annual Fragility Forum this week with the aim of making progress on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals. This week has also seen a fragile ceasefire in Syria, potentially landmark elections in Iran, and a violent clash between Jordanian security and so-called Islamic State members. Together these developments have prompted me to reassess what needs to be done to resolve the issues of conflict and fragility in the Middle East.

For the Middle East, the starting point should be to move away from any process that reinforces the image of the West devising solutions and proposing “new” visions to the region. Such approaches are reminiscent of the Sykes-Picot agreement or the neoconservatives’ “grand strategy” of the early 2000s and do not appreciate that the Middle East has changed fundamentally since 2011. The region, at all levels, now expects to be treated with dignity and to be the driving force behind its own development.

It is high time to pull together to establish a “Regional Reconstruction Strategy” that can address all sorts of violence, not just Islamist-related conflict. The region needs an ever-evolving strategy that maintains a holistic, problem-solving outlook while drawing on various forms of intervention (e.g. community driven development, inter-regional development projects, targeted counterinsurgency operations, stabilization, statebuilding, etc.) without being straightjacketed by any one toolkit or template. Novel approaches rooted in genuine regional leadership, broad participation, youth engagement, and the utilization of technology will increasingly need to be applied. The pillars of such a strategy should be a collective regional vision, effective local participation, smart security, reconciliation and justice, equity, reconstruction and development, and capacity.

Collective Vision: With the aspirations of the Arab Spring unrealized and many countries descending into sectarianism, what is needed now is a collective vision that goes beyond national borders. This would include pooling the region’s resources, specifically all the ingredients for large-scale development, such as human resources, an educated population, capital, mobility, and nature. We could then look to the day when region-wide development is synergistic and not predatory or a zero-sum game. What Morocco has achieved with solar energy is a shining example—a visionary investment has addressed regional developmental and environmental challenges, stimulated employment, and raised confidence that hi-tech and innovative sectors can thrive in the Middle East. Such a broad vision is crucial if the region is to leapfrog into the twenty-first century and not remain in a vicious cycle of conflict and failed development.

Key to an inclusive and non-adversarial vision will be both accepting and embracing Islam as a majority religion while building on human security as an area of common ground. For this to happen some real changes are required in places such as Iran and Saudi Arabia—which would enable both to exercise their regional leadership in coalescing a constructive collective vision rather than perpetuating sectarian hostility.

Broad Participation: It is important that the regional vision recognizes that development requires an active civil society, a free media, and rooting action and ideas at the local level and with popular participation. The process of engaging in a region-wide consultation where contributions are coming from schools, villages, city halls, political parties, unions, and many other civic forums can help the region start dreaming about what it wants to look like in the 50 years to come.

Smart Security: Instead of a collective vision for development we have one for defense, formed with the excuse of the Islamic State group. All appreciate that a minimum level of security is important for implementing reconstruction, but a lack of security cannot be a pretext to do nothing. Experience has shown that delaying reconstruction efforts pushes people down the slope of conflict and violence and leads to dependence on humanitarian assistance. The region needs to find ways of better understanding the granular texture of security at local and regional levels so that strategies can be developed in which localized insecurity does not hold back development in other areas. This could support “spot reconstruction” efforts that create exemplars of what a degree of stability combined with reconstruction intervention can achieve in the midst of larger instability.

Reconciliation and Justice: No long-term investment in reconstruction can be protected without genuine reconciliation across the region. Twenty years ago the main fault line was Israel-Palestine. Today, there are many additional fault lines that need to be addressed, including Muslim-Christian tensions, tensions between displaced and host communities, and tensions between Sunni and Shiite communities. The most fundamental way to initiate reconciliation is to make sure that the rule of law applies to all and that everyone has access to justice regardless of the mechanism. On this a lot can be built on local and traditional systems for achieving justice and reconciliation.

Equity: A common mistake with reconstruction is that it proceeds without sufficient regulation and monitoring to ensure that benefits are equitably distributed. This region has repeatedly seen how easily reconstruction “lords” (most of whom were previously warlords) can emerge to line their pockets at the expense of the general public, thus perpetuating that country’s crisis. World Bank arguments for the private sector to take the lead in reconstruction in Afghanistan and elsewhere have done nothing but strengthen this model. Assad’s efforts to liberalize Syria’s economy prior to 2011 led to the further enrichment of a corrupt elite, contributing to what we see today. Going forward, reconstruction efforts must take into consideration the poorest and least capable—so that nobody is left out.

Reconstruction and Development: There is an urgent need to find new ways of inducing development through international engagement with the region. The current instability has shifted spending toward security and away from the basics of development. As a result, some of the most important development indicators—freedom of expression, women’s participation, poverty, quality of education—have taken a step back. All this is happening when the region is facing financial challenges due to severely reduced oil prices. This may prove to be an opportunity as some countries needed a good wake-up call to the pernicious effects of a model of capital development in which billions of dollars are invested in the West, generating jobs and stabilizing economies thousands of miles away at the expense of the region. If the West wants to help the region it should seek to focus minds within the Arab world on the value of investment in addressing regional problems in a mutually beneficial way. Ultimately a more stable region will lead to more prosperous neighbors both in the East and the West.

Building Capacity: To do this we must invest enormous amounts in fostering sustainable capacity at regional, national, and local levels. It is essential to invest in education at all levels, in particular going beyond primary education to support the young men and women that will become leaders with the conviction and capabilities to rebuild the region. In a rush to capture development, we have focused on the hard sciences, engineering, business studies, and computer science while ignoring our own culture, languages, and history. We must correct this imbalance, and it is time we develop our ideas in our own language and not rely on translation.

For all this to happen, fragility must be addressed within a coherent regional vision, not individual national plans. It would be constructive if the international community and donors would try to view the region as a whole—as one canvas in which to facilitate cross-border mobility of population, capital, ideas, and labor—and encourage regional responsibility with different countries leading in their areas of competency. International partners can support this with new and innovative forms of funding that utilize collateral guarantees from the region, not just individual countries. If we can embrace a truly regional approach, there may be a day when we elevate human dignity and human development above petty politics and sectarianism.