Last week a Chatham House report was launched to explore the possible establishment of a new official multilateral forum for sustainable dialogue and engagement in the Middle East and North Africa.
CMES Visiting Professor Dalia Dassa Kaye, one of the authors of the report, is a globally recognized expert on Middle East policy. As a Fulbright Schuman scholar, she is based at CMES during 2023-2024. She is a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations and formerly the Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation.
Seizing MENA’s Moment to Build a Multilateral Forum
The point of this project has been to re-visit and explore ideas about launching a regular, sustainable regional platform for dialogue that is inclusive of the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The focus has been to see whether it is possible to adapt to the current regional moment and geopolitical context to build a multilateral MENA Forum (MEF). Up until the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October and Israel’s subsequent war with Gaza, the region has recently been moving towards rapprochement, normalization of diplomatic relations and de-escalation of conflicts. However, as Dalia argues,
– MENA’s moment is fragile and there are still a lot of armed conflicts in the region and the mindset tends to be very competitive. The aftermath of the October 7 attacks on Israel and the brutal Gaza war will only make building new avenues for cooperation more difficult, but at the same time even more urgent to break the cycles of violence. It is difficult to know how the crisis will impact the calming trends that had been emerging outside the Israeli-Palestinian context, and how sustainable the new reconciliation efforts really are. It has therefore been crucial to discuss the structural challenges that we are facing in the region and half of the report is a survey of the current regional landscape. The goal is to leverage what is already taking place in terms of regional cooperation and see how we might build on that, rather than re-inventing the wheel.
Official efforts such as the Abraham Accords and the Baghdad Summit have been surveyed in the report, along with other Track II and Track 1.5 initiatives. The surveyed efforts are unlikely to be sustainable as they are built as exclusionary short-term transactional arrangements, often with competitive agendas centering on one state’s stability or normalization. Evaluating previous regional cooperation efforts has allowed the authors to think creatively about what might be possible and where the gaps can be found.
– We want this to be practical. The idea is to leverage the recent regional assertiveness and cooperative activity and channel it in a way that might have more success if designed and implemented correctly. The goal is to build a platform that allows policy makers to start thinking in new directions and deal with issues that affect the entire region and will benefit everyone, like climate change, energy cooperation, and joint responses to emergencies. The forum should deliver results for people on the ground.
Listening to Diverse Voices from MENA and the International Community
When working on the report, it has been very important for the authors to engage with regional voices – to “get a dose of reality” as Dalia puts it – in order to understand where they can push the limits and where they are going to be constrained. International perspectives have also been key. As such, they have convened regional and global participants in confidential settings for workshops and one-on-one interviews over the past year to explore the way forward.
– There is an appetite in the region for thinking in new directions, a sense of possibility and agency, but there is also a great deal of skepticism. We have had many conversations about why this has not been possible in the past. It has been important for us to understand this and the obstacles that lay ahead.
Dalia and her co-author Sanam Vakil have strived to include a diversity of views. They have spoken both to champions of multilateral cooperation and those who are sensitive to the constraints. They have also been mindful to achieve geographical representation, speaking to people from the Gulf states, the Levant and the Maghreb. The majority of participants have been experts and academics, but also officials involved in previous regional cooperation initiatives. Officials from outside the region have sat in on some meetings in an unofficial capacity.
MENA Actors and Issues: A Step-By-Step Process
– The project is ambitious in terms of its vision, but also modest – we need very modest steps to start moving in a better direction. The first step is getting policy makers in the region to listen to the ideas in the report and thinking about new possibilities for dialogue. Getting the forum to launch is a big ambition, by handing it over to regional leaders who best understand their context. To launch it, we will need top-level buy-in.
– It is important to not have an Arab-only forum, replicating the Arab League. Turkey is a very important non-Arab actor that should be involved at the outset. There is no way to start a forum with both Israel and Iran at the table, and if you include only one, it will look exclusionary. In the aftermath of the Gaza war, this is only more apparent.
The idea is therefore to start with a small group of states – members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey – with the aim being to include the entire MENA region over time. The core group of founders all have links to both Israel and Iran, and the idea is to capitalize on those linkages to eventually get these and other adversaries at the same table.
– We give a lot of examples in the report of existing cooperation happening between adversarial states in the region who don’t normally sit at the same table under the cover of a multi-later technical discussion. However, it will probably take decades before the forum has full inclusion.
The choice of issues to be discussed is therefore crucial. Based on interviews and workshops, the report focuses on three existential issues (to start off with) that cross-cut the region: climate change; energy cooperation; and emergency responses. In comparison to other more contentious issues, these topics lend themselves better to cooperation. Civil society will be very important once the forum is off the ground, especially in terms of their expertise on specific areas of cooperation. Their input and technical expertise will be critical on issues like water and food security.
Peace in the Middle East?
The idea of the forum is to focus on region-wide issues that would benefit the entire region – it is not a plan for peace in the Middle East.
– There is a danger in linking this kind of region-wide forum to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Given the tragic events over the past week, we are sadly as far from resolving that conflict as ever. But we have to keep working in areas where cooperation might still be possible. The forum could be one way to promote regional calm and conflict resolution. That said, we will never have real regional stability without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
– Even though there are many other conflicts in the region, horrific civil wars like in Yemen and Syria, the Israel-Palestine conflict is crucial as it resonates across the region in a very serious way and escalates to the regional and even global level. There needs to be real international movement to support a serious and viable resolution to the conflict. Unfortunately, we are moving in the very opposite direction, which is really concerning.
The report was launched at Chatham House in London on October 10, 2023.
Read the report
Watch the Chatham House launch
Dalia Dassa Kaye's research profile