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date: 24 January 2020

Regional Organizations in the Middle East

Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces and reviews critically the main regional and subregional institutions currently operating in the Middle East. After presenting some analytical perspectives that shed light on the weakness of regional institutions in the Middle East, it presents the main institutional features of six regional, subregional, or “hybrid” organizations (including the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation framework) before turning to explore their activities from four critical angles, focusing on their effectiveness, their role, the impact of interregional institutional overlap and of regime types. It concludes with an assessment of how the so-called Arab Uprisings have affected the institutional architecture of the region.

Keywords: regionalism, subregionalism, Middle East, institutionalism, interregionalism, Arab League, GCC, Euro-Mediterranean, Arab Uprisings, Arab Spring

Home to the oldest regional organization, and yet one of the regions in the world that struggled the most to generate effective intraregional cooperation in all areas, the Middle East has proven to be a very interesting yet complex testing ground for regional cooperation.

1. The weakness of Middle Eastern regionalism in perspective

Studying regionalism in the Middle East means, first of all, facing a basic dilemma. On the one hand, as often noted (Tripp, 1995: 283; Barnett and Solingen, 2007: 180), the Middle East seems to provide solid grounds for engendering a thick process of regional integration. Culturally, the vast majority of the inhabitants of this region speak mutually intelligible dialects of a single language (Arabic) and share their adherence to Sunni Islam. Historically, for the most part of the past fourteen centuries the region has been unified under large empires; in fact, most of the current interstate boundaries in the region have been drawn as the outcome of colonial quarrels and often preceded, rather than followed, the establishment of distinct national identities.

Yet the Middle East is often described as a “region without regionalism” (Aarts, 1999), and it lacks a strong region-wide regional organization; the League of Arab States (often known as Arab League) is the oldest regional organization and yet one of the weakest, and has often proven unable to play a central role when a major political, military, or economic crisis arises.

Institution building in the Middle East faces a variety of challenges, two of which are particularly significant.

The first has to do with the relation between regional integration and state building. The political elites of the modern states that formed out of the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire were torn between the need—and, sometimes, desire—to assert their independence and the fact that most (if not all) of these new states could not rely on strong “national” identities other than the Arab one. The creation of the Arab League in 1945 has therefore been described as an attempt by these elites to publicly commit to a shared pan-Arab agenda, while they were at the same time working to undermine the effectiveness of such organizations in all aspects that could have clashed with the individual interests of their newly formed states. That is, as Barnett and Solingen (2007) later put it, despite its ambitious framework the Arab League was “designed to fail” from the start. The fate of the League and the essential failure of pan-Arabism, sometimes described as “little more than an ideology of interstate manouevre” (Bromley, 1994: 177), highlight the complex interplay between state building and regional institution building in the non-Western world, where the formation of “nation”-states tends to happen in parallel with the development of regional institutions rather than (always) being a prerequisite of it.

Even in the presence of political will, the formation of strong regional bodies in the Middle East would remain unlikely in the absence of substantial economic incentives for regional integration. The low level of intraregional economic exchange rightfully observed by some scholars (e.g., Lindholm Schulz and Schulz, 2005: 189) has its roots in the low degree of complementarity between the economies of the region (cf. Shui and Walkenhorst, 2010: 274–278)—that is, the fact that most of the exports (such as oil) are sold to countries outside the region, from where Middle Eastern countries also import products (such as consumer goods and industrial machinery) that are not, or cannot, be produced locally. By decreasing the attractiveness of a pan-Arab free trade area or economic union, low complementarity has been an important factor in discouraging the states in the region from developing strong forms of economic cooperation that could have then spilled over into further cooperation in political and security matters—that is, in depriving the Middle East from what is known as the “functionalist” path toward political integration.

Furthermore, when regional trade agreements were eventually negotiated, their impact “has fallen short of expectations” (ibid.: 273) primarily because they were not paralleled by substantial efforts in improving export diversification by their member states, which in turn helps explain why trade links with Europe have proven more promising. As such, trade has not been a unifying force for the Middle East, while it has the potential for encouraging alternative regional configurations.

2. Regional organizations in the Middle East: An overview

Before turning to a more specific thematic analysis of the questions and problems raised by regional projects in the contemporary Middle East, it is important to briefly reconstruct the types of regional organizations present in the region, their institutional structure, and their areas of activity. The oldest of these bodies—the Arab League—is also the only organization that is normally described as fully “regional.” Since the 1980s other multilateral projects have been developed by members of the Arab League at a subregional level. In parallel with both, “hybrid” cooperation frameworks were created starting from the 1960s, some of which—like the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation framework—play an important role in regional politics today.

2.1 Arab regionalism: The League of Arab States

The idea of creating an interstate “scheme” or “league” across Arab countries was aired repeatedly during the Second World War both by individual governments in the region (most notably by Iraq’s Foreign Minister Nuri Said) and by the British Foreign Office. These plans began taking form in the last two years of the conflict, primarily in light of the desire of various Arab countries to join forces against the European Mandate system (from Syria to Lebanon to Palestine) and of Egypt’s attempt to gain a more central position in the regional system.

A first inter-Arab meeting in September 1944 resulted in the adoption of the so-called Alexandria Protocol, which set the blueprint for the eventual signing of the Pact (or Charter) of the League of Arab States in Cairo, in March 1945, by the governments of Syria, Transjordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, and Yemen.

Both documents make reference to the desire of the signatories to strengthen the “close relations and numerous ties which bind the Arab States” and work toward “the welfare of all the Arab States” and the “realization of their aspirations.” Both documents, however, also record the reluctance of the signatories in transferring substantial powers to the organization itself, as they both state the key principle—included, in the Pact, in Article 7—that the decisions of the main executive body of the organization would be binding only on the members that accept them. In fact, even if the Alexandria Protocol was seen by some as “only a first step towards a still closer union” (Hourani, 1947: 132–133), in the six months that separated the two documents the scope of this organization further shrank in some important regards. The Pact, for instance, included a strong statement recognizing the “respect for the independence and sovereignty” of its member states and, in Article 8, that the “systems of government established in the other member-states” are “exclusive concerns of those states,” while removing the clause mentioned in the Protocol which prohibited signatories from pursuing “a foreign policy which could be detrimental to the policy of the League or to any of its member states.”

The organization created by the Pact was therefore a strictly intergovernmental institution with a strong emphasis on unanimity—an outcome that was rightly described as “little more than the lowest common denominators of the desires of its member states” (Seabury, 1949: 636). Its internal institutional structure pivoted around the Council of the Arab League, its main executive body, where each member state has one seat and which convenes at least twice yearly, or more often if emergency meetings are required. The Pact also mandated the creation of committees and of a Secretariat led by a secretary-general. The Secretariat would be based in Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

With time various organs were added to this basic institutional skeleton. The 1950 Joint Defence and Economic Cooperation Treaty endowed the League with two more councils—a Joint Defence Council and an Economic Council, later renamed the Economic and Social Council—reporting to the Council of the League. Since the 1960s the practice of summoning Arab League Summits has taken hold, initially at irregular intervals and, in more recent times, on a yearly basis. These summits have been held in different Arab countries and are typically attended by Arab heads of state, while the scheduled meetings of the Council of the Arab League are normally staffed by foreign ministers. These summits now constitute the most visible events associated with the institutional activities League. The 2001 Arab League Summit also established an Arab Parliament, which convened for the first time in 2004.

Finally, similar to the United Nations, the Arab League has its own “family” of specialized agencies and regimes. The 1957 Economic Unity Agreement among States of the Arab League, for instance, set the bases for the creation of the Council of Arab Economic Unity (CAEU); free-trade agreements facilitated by the Economic and Social Council in 1981 and 1997 also paved the way for the development of a Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA). In 1970, the Charter of Arab Cultural Unity established the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO)—an Arab equivalent of UNESCO. An Arab Charter on Human Rights was signed in 2004 and entered into force in 2008.

From its seven original members, the Arab League has eventually expanded to include 22 “Arab” states, nine of which (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, the Comoros, and Egypt, with the exception of the Sinai Peninsula) are geographically African countries. Over time many other states, including Turkey and Eritrea, have been invited to take part as nonvoting observers to its sessions.

2.2 Subregionalism

The death of Egypt’s charismatic president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, the shifting power balances within the region toward the oil-rich states of the Gulf, the increased influence of the United States, and the regime changes in Iran and Iraq encouraged a process that could be described as corrective institution building. In this phase, smaller, subregional institutional arrangements were created with the purpose of securing at least some of the original goals associated with the pan-Arab project. Most of these projects began with a predominant focus on economic cooperation, with the prospect of developing broader political and military cooperation down the line.

The most notable of such subregional initiatives has been the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Founded in 1981 by six Gulf monarchies (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Oman) it aimed, according to the preamble of its charter, at “effect[ing] coordination, integration and interconnection” between its member states “in all fields.” Even if Gulf countries “share a number of common historical features that have helped to bring them together” (Barnett and Gause, 1998: 164), the timing for the formation of this body is normally associated with two related events. The 1978–1979 Iranian Revolution, according to Barnett and Gause (ibid.: 165), “pushed the smaller shaykhdoms closer to the Saudis,” while the Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980 not only ruled out Iraq and Iran from cooperation projects in the Gulf area but also heightened the threat perception of the six Gulf monarchies, encouraging them to bind together in a new subregional formation (Guazzone, 1988: 136).

The main decision-making organ of the GCC is the Supreme Council, composed of the heads of state of its members, where unanimity is required for any substantive decision. Similarly to the Arab League, the GCC also includes a Ministerial Council, composed of the ministers of foreign affairs of the member states, and a Secretariat led by a secretary-general; however, in contrast to the League, to date the informal practice for the choice of GCC secretary-generals allowed individuals from different member states to be elected on a rotating basis.

Within the framework of the GCC, Gulf countries concluded various interesting cooperation initiatives. Economically, GCC countries pushed forward toward the eventual establishment of a common market by signing in 1981 an ambitious Unified Economic Agreement. An Internal Security Agreement has also been under discussion since 1982 but met the opposition of some member states, especially Kuwait, and was eventually signed in 2012 after the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. A joint (but largely Saudi-led) defense force named Peninsula Shield was developed in 1984 and was eventually endowed with a manpower of approximately 7,000 soldiers—an initiative described as “symbolic” (Twinam, 1991: 114) yet essentially unique in the region.

In February 1989 two other subregional organizations were created. On February 16, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and North Yemen announced in Baghdad the formation of the Arab Cooperation Council (ACC), and the following day Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia signed in Marrakesh the Constitutive Treaty of Union of the Arab Maghreb (or Arab Maghreb Union—AMU). Both organizations had primarily economic agendas and their creation was inspired by the overall encouraging track record of the GCC in the 1980s. The charter of the ACC expired in 1991 soon after the 1990–1991 Gulf crisis without any notable achievement recorded. As for the AMU, the “political momentum” that led to its foundation derived from the rapprochement between Morocco and Algeria in 1988 (Mortimer, 1999: 177). This was primarily due to a temporary ease of the tensions between the two countries on Western Sahara—a vast region that became independent from Spain in 1975 and Morocco claims as part of its historic homeland, while Algeria traditionally supported financially and militarily the Polisario Front in its strife for the creation of a separate, sovereign country. Yet, as intra-Maghrebi trade amounted to only 3% of their member states’ total trade, its economic bases were very fragile, and the development of new political and economic cooperation initiatives between the European Union and Mediterranean countries since the mid-1990s (mostly through the formalized cooperation framework known as the Barcelona Process) stole most of its thunder. In 1995, after only six meetings, Morocco called for the suspension of its activities; since 2012 there have been some attempts at revitalizing it, but so far they have been unsuccessful.

The exclusive and largely fixed nature of subregional projects—with the partial, but essentially irrelevant, exception of the ACC (Ryan, 1998: 391)—was a new feature in a region where even projects with pan-regional ambitions have fuzzy and ill-defined borders that led to substantial interregional overlap. In particular, as we shall see, the GCC assumed an increasingly exclusive responsibility over Gulf affairs that led to the marginalization of the Arab League from this subregion, despite the latter’s formal status as a regional body responsible over the entire Arab world.

2.3 Hybrid regionalism

Apart from Arab regional institution building and the development of subregional bodies since the 1980s, the Middle East has also been involved in other cooperation projects that transcended its (ill-defined) geographical borders.

Some forums hinged on unifying identities other than the ethno-linguistic idea of “Arabism.” The main instance of such projects is the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (until 2011 the Organization of the Islamic Conference—OIC), which was founded in 1969 in response to an arson attack on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. As a “pan-Islamic” cooperation forum, its 25 founding members included not only the member states of the Arab League that were independent at the time but also Turkey, Iran, and a variety of other Muslim countries from West Africa (like Senegal and Niger) to Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Headquartered in Jeddah, the OIC has made the Israeli-Palestinian issue its main focus of action but also occasionally provided a forum for other notable multilateral initiatives, including the adoption of conventions on human rights and security issues.

Other projects focused on geographical identities alternative to those identified by the subregional configuration on which the GCC, ACC, and AMU were based. A Western Mediterranean “dialogue” initiative was launched in the early 1990s, involving the five members of the AMU and five European states (Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, and Malta)—henceforth known as “5 + 5.” A few years later this forum was supplemented by the so-called Barcelona Process—a series of initiatives launched in 1995 by the European Union and 12 Mediterranean countries designed to provide a comprehensive framework for cooperation initiatives across the Mediterranean. One of its outcomes was the creation in 2008 of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM)—a multilateral body that includes all EU member states, the EU Commission, and 15 Mediterranean countries. The UfM is, to date, one of the very few multilateral forums in which both Israel and the state of Palestine are represented.

3. The main debate: Do regional institutions matter in the Middle East?

Despite the institutional proliferation that we witnessed in the region especially since the 1980s, by far the most recurrent question on Middle East regionalism is whether these regional cooperation frameworks really matter. This debate is almost as old as the Arab League itself but has gradually evolved from being focused narrowly on the issue of effectiveness to exploring, more broadly, the roles or purposes of these bodies.

3.1 Effectiveness and “success”

As early as in 1949, four years after the signing of the Arab League Charter, scholars like Paul Seabury (1949) denounced the “debacle” of the League as a regional body. Noticing its “disastrous” failure in upholding the Palestinian cause during the 1948–1949 war and that “most of the League’s economic and social activities have either been abandoned or pigeonholed” (ibid.: 640), Seabury concluded:

The League, in its efforts to create an exclusive, self-sufficient Arab world in the Near Eastern cauldron of great power rivalries, has had neither the resources nor the requisite strength to accomplish its tasks. The League’s failures must not be considered merely the failure of the Arab states alone, but also of a too widespread belief that such local arrangements, by themselves, can form the basis for regional peace and stability.

(ibid.: 641–642)

The gist of Seabury’s damning assessment on the League resonated with much of the following literature on Middle East regionalism, all the more since the experience of the European Economic Community/European Union proved that his final, sweeping statement on the future of regional organizations was overly pessimistic.

In the following decade, the League was regularly described in similar terms—for instance as “weak” (Howard, 1952: 108) or even as “almost defunct” (Haas, 1956: 247). In the 1970s, some scholars tried to measure systematically how effective the Arab League has been in some of its main areas of activity, such as the management of conflicts and wars, and reached similar conclusions. Joseph Nye (1971) compared the record of the Organization of American States (OAS), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and Arab League in resolving conflicts among its members between their creation and the late 1960s, concluding that the League had the lowest success rate of the three. Mark Zacher (1979) attributed to the Arab League a 12% success rate in the resolution of regional conflicts, lower than the 19% and 37% rates achieved respectively by the OAU and the OAS, yet higher than the 9% attributed to the UN.

These trends have been confirmed also by more recent studies by Ibrahim Awad and Marco Pinfari. Awad (1994: 153) claimed that the conflict-resolution efforts of the Arab League resulted in a “success” in “only six of seventy-seven conflictual situations it attempted to settle between 1945 and 1981.” Pinfari (2009) extended the coverage to 2008 and suggested that interventions by the Arab League at least contributed to the resolution of disputes or conflict in 12 occasions, being a “primary cause of success” in five of them. This analysis also revealed that the League tends to be more effective in managing minor disputes between its “core” membership (the countries that had joined the League since the 1940s, especially Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq) and that, in contrast with the expectation that regional organizations act as first port of call for regional disputes, other organizations (especially the United Nations) are often called upon immediately by the parties involved and the involvement of the League as an active mediator normally follows the failure of these other bodies in dealing with a dispute.

As mentioned, the widely acknowledged weakness of the main pan-Arab regional body, especially in light of the gradual decline of Egypt’s regional role after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, opened the gates for alternative projects. In that regard, some noted that the performance of the Gulf Cooperation Council in its first decade “might well have surprised even the observer optimistic at its birth” (Twinam, 1991: 108). As a mediator of border disputes in the Gulf area, it scored some interesting successes (Ramazani, 1988: 123–127; Tow, 1990: 50; Barnett and Gause, 1998: 175–176), and it came much closer than any other regional or subregional body in the Middle East in encouraging economic cooperation among its member states.

Apart from the GCC, the performance of other regional bodies is often presented in very negative terms. The OIC has been described as an “illusion” and its policy record “disappointing” (Akhbarzadeh and Connor, 2005: 79–80). The AMU has “fallen short of the hopes that were vested in it at is creation” and soon entered a phase of “prolonged hibernation” (Mortimer, 1999: 177). The ACC might have registered some “brief triumphs,” but it also met an “ignominious end” after only two years (Ryan, 1998: 401). The downsizing of the UfM into little more than a loose cooperation forum, active primarily in some areas of technical aid and cultural cooperation, has been rightly described as an example of “neofunctionalism in reverse” (Reiterer, 2009: 328)—that is, as a process in which the responsibilities of this body did not expand over time, as neofunctionalist theory would suggest and as expected in the life cycle of successful organizations, but rather gradually shrank to the point of making it almost irrelevant in regional affairs.

The debate on the “effectiveness” or “success” of Middle Eastern regional bodies is surely interesting, not least because of the linguistic creativity demonstrated by academics in search for semantic equivalents of “failure,” and does have a bearing for scholars and politicians alike who want to locate Middle Eastern regionalism within a comparative framework. Yet, apart from the immediate—and largely understandable—intuition that no regional organization in the Middle East has so far shown remarkable achievements, any attempt to provide a more systematic assessment of their “effectiveness” inherently faces a number of obstacles that, in turn, undermine the search for any robust comparative conclusion. The three main issues in this debate concern the determination of valid internal and external baselines for assessing the “effectiveness” of these initiatives, and the difficulty in differentiating institution-driven initiatives from state-driven ones.

First, it is unclear if organizations like the Arab League, GCC, or even—more widely—other bodies such as the OAU (now African Union—AU) should really be held accountable to the goals set in their maximalist foundation charters as reported above, not least because these programmatic documents are open to a variety of interpretations. For instance, the Arab League did not succeed in creating an “exclusive, self-sufficient Arab world” (Seabury, 1949: 641), and yet other authors point out some of the League’s successes, noting its “substantial increase in membership,” its role in fostering “the Arab States’ attachment to Arab unity,” and the fact that “League membership has consistently displayed its solidarity against Israel over the years” (Hussein Hassouna, 1975: 391–392).

One is surely tempted to conclude that the achievements of the League mentioned by Hassouna are modest; however, this forces us in turn to establish some external baselines for measuring such “modesty.” The European model is the main reference point for regional projects worldwide; Joseph Twinam (1991: 111) notes, for instance, that the member states of the GCC were “fascinated by the success of the European Community.” Still, it is clear that the Middle East has not seen—and, in the foreseeable future, will not see—a process of integration similar to the European one. The differences between the Middle East and Europe are many and for most part self-evident, not least in relation to the degree of economic complementarity among the members of the two systems and the different stages at which domestic institution- and state-building processes happened in the two regions. Indeed, outside Europe, it is difficult to find regional integration processes that would be widely recognized as “effective” or “successful”—arguably neither in Africa nor Latin America nor Asia. Quantitative comparative projects such as Nye’s or Zacher’s are still often cited in studies on Middle East regionalism, yet they relied on a series of arbitrary assumptions to be able to compare between different conflict interventions across regions; as a consequence, such comparative exercises appear as largely outdated. In fact, even if regions like the Middle East and South Asia are “lagging behind” in most areas of regional integration, almost everywhere “regionalism remains a work still in progress” (Fawcett, 2004: 441).

Lastly, it is often difficult to establish if initiatives carried out formally in the name of a specific regional body should be attributed to the body itself, rather than to individual members who use the organization as an umbrella for adding multilateral legitimacy to an initiative, but maintain full ownership over it. While this is true for any regional or international body, this problem is particularly relevant in the presence of weak or unfinished regional institution-building processes and of a clear power hierarchy within a specific organization. In fact, most of the successful interventions in regional disputes attributed to the GCC appear to be steered by individual member states (primarily Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Qatar) with limited involvement of the institutional structure of the GCC and its Secretariat (Pinfari, 2009: 16–17).

3.2 Intentions and roles

A closely related but conceptually distinct—and much more promising—debate has been initiated in recent years, calling for a more subtle assessment of the functions or “roles” of regional arrangements in the Middle East. This approach twitches the research question addressed by scholars who inquired about the effectiveness of regional organizations in the Middle East by asking not whether they have been successful or unsuccessful but rather why they performed the way they did.

A standard answer to this question is that most of these organizations do not work in the “right” way, for a variety of reasons that could be associated with peculiarities, problems, or failures specific to the Arab world. In a regional variant of the neoliberal theory of hegemonic stability, the absence of a single regional hegemon in the Middle East (Lustick, 1997) and its “multipolar” structure (Frazier and Stewart-Ingersoll, 2010: 738) might be considered root causes of institutional weakness. The pervasiveness of foreign penetration in the region and the role of external interference in the creation and, at least for an initial period, running of these bodies may have also impacted negatively on the resilience of regional cooperation processes. From a purely legal perspective, one could point to the lack of courage in framing the institutional structure of these organizations as crystallized in their charters; their reliance on unanimity, which gives every member state veto rights, effectively deprives these bodies of any substantive power to impose its decisions on the member states.

An alternative and more convincing view, which is associated primarily with the work of Michael Barnett, suggests that institutional weakness of organizations like the Arab League is not the indirect consequence of problems faced by the Arab world or of bad institutional engineering but rather the intentional outcome of political decisions aimed at keeping regional bodies as weak as possible. The problem with the Arab League may not be a “failure of design” but rather that it was, purportedly, “designed to fail” (Barnett and Solingen, 2007).

The “designed to fail” argument is based on highlighting the tension between two types of nationalism in the Middle East—pan-Arab nationalism (qawmiya in Arabic) and state-based patriotism (wataniya). According to this view, individual regimes in the region had weak domestic bases and decided to prioritize state building and the reinforcement of state-based patriotism over the creation of a strong pan-Arab entity, to which, nevertheless, they paid lip-service since pan-Arabism was (and, in a way, still is) a very popular ideology across the region. A consequence of the priority of regime survival over regional integration was that Arab leaders “labored to create the myth and ceremony of Arab nationalism while limiting the possibility that it would impose any unwanted demands” (Barnett and Solingen, 2007: 182). In other words, institutional weakness is the result of Arab leaders simultaneously wanting an Arab multilateral forum yet also wanting it to be weak.

In line with the recent literature on international organizations, this framework shows that multilateral bodies are not created just with the rational purpose of favoring interstate coordination; rather, they can play a number of functions or roles beyond that, for instance by allowing states to “shift blame” (cf. Tallberg, 2002: 27; Risse, 2005: 297) toward them when crises occur. This approach also helps explain why ethnic and cultural homogeneity may not be conducive to regional integration, especially when state elites want to keep their own states in existence as sovereign, independent entities while believing that their internal legitimacy is too weak and would be further jeopardized by the contemporary construction of a strong interstate entity.

The “designed to fail” approach also helps one understand why the Arab League seems to be almost unreformable. Various attempts to reconsider its institutional structure have been aired throughout its history, yet very little has changed in its institutional backbone as no agreement has been reached among its member states who, in contrast to the recent experience of the OAU/AU, appear to be unable (or rather, as this approach would suggest, unwilling) to revise the institutional architecture of this organization.

4. Two missing themes: Institutional overlap and regime types

The overwhelming focus of the literature on Middle East regionalism on the issues discussed has come at a price, as a number of other important themes have arguably not been given the attention that they deserve.

One of these is the role of institutional proliferation in exacerbating a problem that is inherent in the nature of Middle East regionalism—institutional overlap.

At the regional level, the absence of clear geographical borders for the Middle East as a region and the reliance on the idea of “Arabism” resulted in a rather unique phenomenon across regional projects—a substantial overlap between the memberships of two major regional organizations, the Arab League and the OAU/AU. The consequences of such overlap should not be overstated, as both bodies are far from generating any substantial form of intraregional integration; however, it did impact regional cooperation, especially in relation to the management of and mediation in local conflicts such as Western Sahara, Darfur, and Somalia (Pinfari, 2013). In these cases, the Arab League and the OAU/AU had different positions as mediators, and the opposing parties in these conflicts were able to side with the regional mediator that showed more sympathy to their concerns rather than being forced to compromise on the basis of a single, shared initiative. This scenario, known as “forum shopping,” is amply described in the literature on multiparty mediation (cf. Crocker et al., 1999). In extreme cases, such as with Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara, this resulted in one side of the conflict leaving one of the two regional organizations—in this case, the OAU. A direct solution to forum shopping lies in enhancing coordination across would-be mediators; yet interregional institutional cooperation remains underdeveloped across most of Africa and Asia, and the limited coordination between the Arab League and the OAU/AU when mediating civil wars—despite the presence of a formal “Afro-Arab” cooperation framework since 1977 (cf. Boutros-Ghali, 1994)—is a case in point.

In the economic sphere, especially in relation to trade policies, institutional overlap is surely less of a problem than in conflict management. However, it is undoubtable that some of the initiatives detailed above were in direct competition with each other and that their combined effect was problematic. For instance, economic cooperation within the AMU was seen as instrumental to tightening political ties across the Arab Maghreb, especially between countries like Morocco and Algeria that had several outstanding political disputes, including Western Sahara and Algeria’s western region of Tindouf, which was the object of a border conflict between the two countries in 1963. However, on purely economic grounds, it is unsurprising that AMU member states had more interest in the parallel development of 5+5 and eventually of the Barcelona Process, as increased trade with Europe was clearly more beneficial to them than intraregional trade. As a consequence, the ensuing “freezing” of the AMU, which was in effect replaced by hub-and-spokes links between individual Maghrebi countries and the EU, negatively impacted intraregional political and military cooperation in this subregion. The signing in 2004 of a free-trade agreement between Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco (the so-called Agadir Agreement) is also at odds with the pan-Arab GAFTA—both because of its European-looking horizon and in terms of specific trade regulations (cf. Wippel, 2005).

Therefore, even if some scholars suggest that projects based on “different outward alignments” and a different “set of (often fuzzy) regional affiliations” (ibid.: 25) in the economic realm can lead to an “open regionalism” (Shui and Walkenhorst, 2010: 294–295) in which countries benefit from this regional overlap, the opposite may also be the case—as in the political realm, forum shopping between different economic alignments can undermine intraregional cohesion and weaken the prospects for economic functionalism to spill over into broader political integration.

A second under-researched theme concerns the relation between Middle East regional institutions and regime types, and the impact of this predicament on their representativeness. Most regional projects have developed in continents where most states are democratic (Europe and, at least at present, the Americas) or where at least a rough balance exists between democratic and partially or non-democratic regime types (as in Africa and East Asia). In the Middle East, by contrast, very few states have had representative and accountable domestic institutions—a phenomenon traditionally known in democratization studies as “Arab exceptionalism” (cf. Stepan and Robertson, 2004).

As noted by Fawcett and Gandois (2010: 628), in the literature on regionalism “the broader question of how regime type is linked to successful regionalism remains open.” In particular, it is unclear if regime type or regime stability (as argued by the “designed to fail” argument) should be associated with more successful regional institutions. However, in the Middle East, two important themes immediately come to mind. On the one hand, there seems to be a direct relation between the persistent failure in generating effective supranational institutions in the region and the lack of truly representative domestic institution in most countries. Put simply, the weakness of bodies like the so-called Arab Parliament within the Arab League should not be surprising when most member states lack working parliaments of their own. Still, it is unclear how far this argument can be taken, considering that only Europe has truly succeeded in supplementing intergovernmental organs with (effective) supranational ones.

On the other hand, the broader arguments on nonstate or grassroots regionalism have interesting implications for the Middle East. Civil society in the Western sense remains underdeveloped in the region primarily because of the control exerted by state apparatuses on NGOs and other instances of civil activism; as such, NGOs with regional breadth are few and have little impact on regional politics. However, because of the nature of the region and the shared religious, linguistic, and ethnic identity across Arabs and Muslims, transnational regional linkages remain substantial and sometimes develop into significant regional nongovernmental networks, as in the oft-discussed case of the “international organization” of the Muslim Brotherhood (cf. Pargeter, 2013: 104; Pinfari, 2014: 165). While these networks are probably less thick and articulated than is sometimes suggested, they challenge researchers and politicians alike to extend the meaning of “regional organization” beyond the realm of intergovernmental institutions.

5. The impact of the Arab Uprisings

A wave of events collectively known as “Arab Uprisings” or the “Arab Spring” have shaken the Middle East since 2010, resulting in regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and prolonged civil wars and unrest throughout most of the region. Even if the Middle East had witnessed many protracted and bloody conflicts over the previous decades, the Arab Uprisings are in many ways unprecedented; at least since the development of regional institutions, the region had not experienced so many domestic conflicts and regime changes over such a short period of time. The Arab Uprisings therefore provided an opportunity for these institutions to showcase their role in “securing the settlement of local disputes” in the region (as mandated by Chapter VIII of the UN Charter) and a chance for researchers to put their theories and expectations about Middle Eastern regionalism to the test. In this sense, it is possible to conclude that the Arab Uprisings sped up dynamics that were already present in Middle Eastern regionalism and in parallel brought to the fore some important—and potentially upsetting—research and policy questions.

In 2011 the Arab League took a political and diplomatic stance during the domestic conflicts in Libya and Syria, suspending the membership of both governments and supporting (at least initially) NATO airstrikes on Libya. In Syria its efforts culminated in the formulation of a peace plan in December 2011 backed up by the dispatch of a monitoring mission, which was hastily withdrawn in January 2012 amid internal divisions between the member states that contributed to it. Even if these efforts were initially accompanied by a wave of optimism and suggestions that the League had finally “come alive” (Maddy-Weitzman, 2012), it soon became clear that such increased activism happened primarily at the “declaratory level” and that its intervention in Syria was “mostly ineffective” (Beck, 2015: 197).

On the other hand, one key impact of the Arab Uprisings has been to galvanize GCC subregional activism in the Arabian Peninsula, which formally sanctioned the marginalization of the Arab League from Gulf politics. The Peninsula Shield Force, which had remained largely dormant since its creation, was called upon in March 2011 by the Bahraini leadership to help manage domestic unrest in the country. Also, in November 2011, the GCC Secretariat heavily intervened in the political crisis in Yemen and helped broker a deal that would result in the exile of long-term president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

This latter intervention—even if it did not hit as many international headlines as the Peninsula Shield operation in Bahrain—is remarkable on many levels. According to Edward Burke (2012: 3), it was an “unprecedented leap into foreign policy by an organization that has normally confined itself to economic affairs”—all the more in a country that is not a member of the GCC. Arguably, it was also the first time since its foundation that the Arab League did not intervene in a major crisis in Yemen, in contrast to what happened in at least six other occasions since 1945 (in 1948, 1963, 1972, 1974, 1979, and 1994—Pinfari, 2009: 21–22). Both interventions, but particularly the one in Yemen, therefore signal an upgrading of the logic of geographical exclusivity (which, as suggested, is typical of subregional projects) from the economic to the political level. One could conclude that the increased activism of the Saudi-led GCC in the entire Arabian Peninsula has “subregionalized” the Arab League and transformed it into a de facto “sub-Arab” organization responsible for the management of Arab relations outside the sphere of influence of the GCC. The caution with which GCC countries approached the Libyan and Syrian crises (where the Arab League took the lead), especially when compared with their interventions in the affairs of Yemen, seems to confirm this intuition. This is the latest stage of the downward parabola of the Arab League as a pan-Arab body—a stage that might amount to a point of no return for its status as a regional institution.

Events like the deployment of Peninsula Shield in Bahrain also raise broader questions about the potential link between two of the debates mentioned in this article—the widely discussed theme of the “effectiveness” of regional bodies, and the impact of regime types on their activities. Surely the deployment of a military operation represents a substantial achievement for any multilateral organization; yet there might be little to cheer about such “success” if the purpose of these operations is to quell popular demonstrations and prop up absolutist monarchies in the interest of regional hegemons whose systems of government are equally autocratic. This realization should help disentangle, in the debates on the “effectiveness” or “success” of regional bodies, the arguments about the institutional efficiency of these institutions from the underlying, normative assumptions about the fact that increased efficiency is to be welcome a priori, irrespective of its potentially negative consequences on democratization and political transitions. In order to better problematize—and understand—such dynamics it is important to pay more attention to the phenomenon of “authoritarian regionalism” worldwide, for instance by comparing the Gulf region with other areas in which similar projects have been observed, such as Central Asia (e.g., Collins, 2009). The involution of the Arab Spring since 2013, for example, with the return to power of the military in Egypt suggests that authoritarianism will remain the dominant regime type in the region for years to come, and therefore, regional and subregional projects (even beyond the GCC) will not escape its grip any time soon.


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