The crisis of regional order in the Gulf

An approach that ignores the demands and desires of people is destined to fail to produce a new coherent regional order.

Foreign Ministers of the countries involved in the Gulf crisis meet in Cairo
The Gulf crisis is the direct outcome of the lack of a sustainable regional order in the Middle East [Reuters]

At a time when the Middle East is in dire need of a positive agenda and a plan to overcome division, ominous new developments are dominating the scene and the forces of disintegration appear to have been unleashed.

The current “Gulf” crisis is just the latest manifestation of this trend. Before considering the way out of this crisis, it is important to accurately depict it, its root causes, and its regional implications.

There have been many depictions of the Qatari crisis, and several different names have been used to describe the nature of the issue.

“The Qatari crisis”, “the Gulf crisis”, “the contest to define a new regional order”, and “the latest chapter of the Arab Spring showdown” have all been employed on various occasions to describe the crisis.

These are all valid descriptions contingent upon observers’ own operational logic. In fact, the politics of naming a crisis is no frivolous endeavour.

They shed light on the political position of the intellectual or informed observer of the crisis, and hence also inform us of how the situation is being read and what formulas are being offered to solve it.

Exhausting competition

This crisis is neither a bilateral crisis between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours, nor a geographically isolated dispute confined to the Gulf region.

Instead it is a regional crisis – the direct outcome of the lack of a sustainable regional order in the Middle East.

The lack of a sustainable and legitimate regional order has undergirded the menacing rivalries and exhausting competition, creating a cycle of zero-sum games in the region.

This lose-lose logic defines the basic premises of most inter-state relations as well as state-society relations in the region at present, becoming the hallmark of regional affairs in recent years.

Since enmities, suspicions, insecurities, and deadly rivalries have come to define the nature of regional interactions, borders started to represent not points of connection but barriers between peoples, societies, ideas, and states. In a sense, borders transformed into separation walls.

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Such suspicions, misreadings, and exaggerated ideas of looming threats have ushered in a “siege mentality” at the level of political elites across the region, and this in return lays the groundwork for proactive plotting, bullying and aggressive politics.

The root cause of this “siege mentality”, as well as the paranoid nature of this political conduct, lies in the glaring gap between the people and the ruling elites.

Such a crisis of legitimacy at the level of political elites and the stark contrast between the aspirations of the people and the projections of the political class forms the backbone of all major crises in the region. This in return inhibits any fruitful engagement among states and societies at regional level.

Naturally, this condition has a deleterious effect on regional cooperation and integration. The reason for this is clear: institutions follow intentions and shared values.

Sound institutions

Political actors devoid of popular legitimacy cannot act with the goodwill which would pave the ground for sound institutions that can produce public goods for both individual societies as well as the region at large.

Therefore, solving the legitimacy crisis of regional political actors is essential for mechanisms of intentions and institutions to develop and function.

A successful model in this aspect is the European integration project. When analysing the intentions of the founding fathers of the European project, one thing that becomes clear is that they were all committed to the idea of European integration and of restructuring the nature of relations among themselves in a mutually beneficial way; hence a win-win logic was at play.

Moreover, these political elites could clearly see the interdependency of the national and regional contexts.

Likewise, equipped with popular legitimacy, they also shared similar values in terms of order in the state, society and region – a factor that contributed enormously towards the establishment of a common security community through the European integration project.

Proto-regional order

Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, the closest the Middle East has come to creating a legitimate proto-regional order was arguably the year 2012, where it seems that certain societal energies and demands began shaping political processes, which in return would have provided the necessary ideational foundation and political security for political elites to embark on establishing a new regional order should the process have been successful.

Yet this process was aborted.

Today, the Middle East is sorely lacking the aforementioned qualities of the founding fathers of the European project. Likewise, the American leadership’s stance on this crisis has been all but visionary as well.

The dual nature of the American policy, one represented by Donald Trump or the White House and the other by the institutions, have only aggravated the crisis. Such disparate policies adopted by the different components of the US government are contributing to the Gulf’s insecurity.

This policy inspires neither confidence nor trust among American allies. The US needs to adopt a responsible common policy aiming at the de-escalation of the crisis.

Going back to the Middle East and putting it differently, the region is in search of visionary statements, equipped with popular legitimacy, which can project beyond the calamities of the present and above the particularities of their own national contexts.

Political elites must learn to envisage a mutually beneficial regional order in which the welfare of one nation will be dependent on the larger regional context.

Hence achieving a state of regional good which can be seen not only as an altruistic endeavour, but also as a self-serving action.

Logic of interdependency

In such a scenario, the blockade of Qatar would have been inconceivable, because the logic of interdependency would have militated against such a move. This is intimately tied to the existence of a functioning regional order.

But it isn’t only the lack of a regional order that aggravates regional grievances or feuds.

The fact that the region lacks institutions or frameworks that can govern these grievances or serve to channel feuds into diplomatic and political processes should also be an issue of major concern.

But this deficiency is not surprising. As discussed above, institutions are the product of intentions, and intentions are mostly shaped by actors’ perceptions, and hence their political psychologies, which are in turn formed mainly by their level of socio-political legitimacy.

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In the region, political elites are driven by dormant fears and active paranoias – or troubled political psychologies – and are ill-placed to initiate the process of establishing a legitimate regional order.

Because ill intentions pave the way for the establishment of either dysfunctional or misconceived institutions from the start, a glaring quality of most regional institutions or intergovernmental frameworks is that they prove to be useless when they are most needed.

The fact that the GCC has no place during discussions on how to settle the most significant crisis in the Gulf region in the organisation’s history is a case in point. An institution can only be as effective as its shareholders want it to be.

This requires forward-looking and legitimate political elites who are not mired in yesterday’s petty ploys.

Therefore, there is a dialectical relationship between values, intentions and institutions.

Search for new order

Once again returning to our core issue, the pre-Arab Spring regional order is dead. The Arab Spring has not successfully produced a new order either. The search for a new regional order has been transferred to the post-Arab Spring period.

For this search to be successful, we need to observe four principles which I laid down in 2008 and later emphasised as foreign minister while attending the 132nd Arab League Conference of Foreign Ministers, upon their invitation, on September 9, 2009. These four points are as follows:

I. The principle of “security for all”, which should be applicable to all states and societies as well as individuals in the region;

2. “High-level political dialogue” should be the main mechanism to settle regional disputes;

3. Creating “economic interdependency” among regional countries as a means to lay the groundwork for a peaceful regional order;

4. Embracing “cultural pluralism and co-existence” as a shared value in order to protect and cherish ethnic, sectarian, and religious diversity and the compositions of our cities, societies, and countries.

Besides these ideational foundations, on more pragmatic grounds the attempt to form a regional order requires also the existence of some starting points or islands of stability whose boundaries can gradually be extended and enlarged to encompass the whole of the region.

While looking at the map of the Middle East, Turkey and the Gulf represent the areas of stability. At least, this used to be the case until very recently.

Case for Turkish base

What stability they still have needs to be preserved. In this respect, the Turkish base in Qatar should be discussed within the debate on the necessity of preserving the areas of stability in the region.

The Turkish base is not solely there to preserve the security and stability of Qatar. Instead, it is there to preserve the security of the Gulf sub-regional system as a whole.

In this respect, it is as much committed to the security of Saudi Arabia as it is to the security of Qatar. Turkey refuses to play the politics of different camps in the Gulf.

In other words, the Turkish base in Qatar is meant to function as a security- and stability-enhancing factor in the Gulf.

It is not designed to play a role in the further fragmentation of the region or to pave the way for the penetration of the region by extra-regional forces.

Experience has taught us that the penetration of the region by hegemonic or extra-regional powers has not brought peace and prosperity to the people of the region. Indeed, the opposite has often been the case.

In this respect, we should not allow this crisis to turn into a new normality for the region.

It should not constitute yet another unresolved crisis in our common neighbourhood, generating varieties of negative externalities and security challenges for the broader region.

Risk of new normal

If this crisis is not settled swiftly, there is a risk of a new normality emerging in which the lines of a new Cold War become drawn up in the region. In such a scenario, one thing is certain: no one will emerge as a winner from this deleterious feud.

On top of this, the lingering of this crisis is distracting the actors involved from the real issues and agendas of the region.

The largely deafening silence of the Arab Muslim leaders over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of blocking access to al-Aqsa Mosque is a case in point.

Access to the places of worship is an inalienable fundamental human right.

Israel’s policy of the putting electronic detectors over al-Aqsa or later putting other means of surveillance under the pretext of the “security” is in breach of all human rights covenants.

The regional countries and international community need to act immediately to ask Israel to reverse this policy. Otherwise, this policy will lead to the escalation of the tension and aggravate regional instability.

The region sorely needs to increase the size of its islands or spots of stability rather than decrease them.

Today’s collapse, regional disorder, state failure or societal decay should not obscure our view of tomorrow, and neither should our deeds and discourse extend the lifespan of today’s chaos.

Attempting to revive the old order in its previous form and shape would be futile. The future will not be a replica of the past of the region.

Likewise, tomorrow’s regional order will not be achieved by breathing life into the corpse of yesterday’s order. That order now belongs to a bygone era, whose social constituency has been rapidly vanishing in recent years.

Political psychology of consent

For any political order to be sustainable, a political psychology of consent at the societal level is required.

The presence of these authoritarian regimes, even in their more brutish forms, and regional bullying should not deceive anyone into thinking that a new regional order is emerging in this way.

At best, this is an attempt by remnants of the past to hold back the forces of the future.

The region has new actors and a new political psychology. A top-down design that does not extend to include the demands and desires of the people is bound to fail to produce a coherent regional order.

In this regard, the “Gulf crisis” should serve as an opportunity for us to rethink the idea of an inclusive, legitimate and sustainable regional order that will overcome regional bullying and forestall attempts to reinstate the previous authoritarian status quo.