Middle Eastern economic bloc could be a global player
Every so often and as the situation becomes gloomier in Lebanon, one cannot help but put forward some wishful thinking. This week it was inspired by a panel discussion focused on new business models at the World Economic Forum’s Pioneers of Change Summit. One of the speakers discussed how to create more inclusive business models, especially when it comes to dominant platforms (such as Amazon, Facebook, etc.), to support all stakeholders in drawing a comparison with the unexpected collaboration between pharmaceutical and healthcare groups in the fight against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Unfortunately, when it comes to politics, we usually see a winner-takes-all attitude without any hope for collaboration. However, sometimes crises can force change. Lebanon is not only facing COVID-19, but also a total collapse and the prospect of becoming yet another failed state in the Middle East. Also, on the regional level, we need to see renewed urgency to build our economy, especially as it is left naked in the face of large economic blocs: North America, Europe and now Asia thanks to last week’s announcement of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade zone.
Considering these domestic and regional issues, one might ask if there could be a new Arab-sponsored initiative to reach a consensus with Iran concerning Lebanon and Hezbollah’s military arsenal as a start, which could extend trust and bring more stability to the region. Could Iran accept forsaking its support for a single group and adopt government-to-government relations with Lebanon instead? With the recent Abraham Accords, is there an opportunity for broader peace not only for Lebanon, but the region too? Once again, a big disclaimer needs to be made that this is wishful thinking, especially as most positive approaches with Iran end up being misunderstood as weakness and lead to more emboldened and disrespectful actions on Tehran’s part.
Today, this topic can only start by asking what US President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy program will be. Most analysts expect a return to the nuclear agreement with Iran and, hence, expect Tehran to become even more aggressive thanks to the economic relief the deal entails.
Therefore, one should ask if US policymakers are aware that Hezbollah’s voices in Lebanon see the expected outcomes as a net positive for Iran and its goal of total control of Lebanon. It is important for them to ask several questions, starting with will Biden’s foreign policy accommodate Iran and look the other way regarding Hezbollah’s actions in Lebanon in the hope of reaching a deal with Tehran and hoping this brings regional stability? Will this come at the price of Lebanon’s peaceful protesters, who want sovereignty and independence?
It is key for the US and France to understand that Hezbollah’s military arsenal is the first and most important obstacle blocking the country’s path to stability. Its arsenal is not a deterrent for Lebanon against Israel but rather a card in the hands of Iran in its regional play. Lebanese voices stating the opposite are mistaken.
Lebanon could be a new foundation from which to build a strong and stable Middle Eastern economic bloc that could compete with the other global blocs.
Khaled Abou Zahr
President Barack Obama recognized that mistakes were made in the nuclear negotiations, especially with how they affected Syria and the “red lines” that the regime crossed without US action. Will Biden put forward the same policies? In an interview with French magazine Le Point last week, Robert Malley, a former Obama adviser and part of the nuclear deal negotiating team, gave a glimpse of the answer when he stated that the law of political gravity will probably realign the US and Iran on the nuclear negotiations. This convergence theory was echoed by another former Obama staffer, Tony Blinken, and the entire Democrat platform seeing that the US does not want a direct confrontation and that Iran needs relief on the economic front. At what price will this come, and will Iran be forced to concede ground on its regional actions?
One clear point is that things have changed since the Obama administration. For one, Arab countries have gained in independence and increased their maneuvers and initiatives. They have moved to counter Iran’s actions where needed and possible and will continue to do so, while the same also applies to Turkey. The second point is that Russia has extended its influence in the Middle East, with this week’s agreement for a port in Sudan being an example. Finally, there is also a growing Turkish involvement, which does not seem to bother the US for now and seems to accommodate the coming administration. Starting from evaluating the situation in Syria, where all these actors are involved, Lebanon is only a small piece of the puzzle but a big symbolic tool for Iran represented by Hezbollah.
It is unfortunate but, until now, every time we dig into possible solutions for Lebanon, they always pass through Damascus and what happens there. With Turkey’s growing influence, there is now a danger for the region and Lebanon, especially if (or when) the Sunni Lebanese call on Recep Tayyip Erdogan for support. The solution is by no means armed Sunni groups confronting Hezbollah, but rather a strong Lebanese state that protects all. This is a threat that all actors should be aware of, as it could lead to destabilization all over the region.
It is in this sense that Arab initiatives have been much better for Lebanon than Iran’s or Turkey’s approach. There is a big difference between Arab support for Lebanon as a state and exclusively supporting an organized group. The Taif Agreement is witness to that.
It is this concept that needs to be accepted by all regional powers and is why a renewed Arab initiative for Lebanon might be needed — it could even build on some of the points made in the French one. It is also key for Arab countries to keep their eyes on all files in the region, Lebanon included, and prepare for the worse against Iran and Turkey. Therefore, they should lead initiatives to be part of any solution or potential grand bargain. Despite everything, not everything is lost in Lebanon and there are still some cards to play, such as by engaging with Russia and the Europeans. There is still some leverage for Lebanon.
Unfortunately, one cannot expect tensions in Lebanon or the region to end, but one can aim to shift toward competition rather than confrontation. In this concept, there are ways to spare Lebanon from being a pawn and unlock the region’s true potential. Indeed, the Middle East is a fantastic platform for economic cooperation and growth. Lebanon could be a new foundation from which to build a strong and stable Middle Eastern economic bloc that could compete with the other global blocs. For this to succeed, it should not be limited to Arab countries, but should also include Iran, Turkey and Israel. Let us hope that, by starting with stability in Lebanon, this wishful thinking becomes a concrete plan.
- Khaled Abou Zahr is CEO of Eurabia, a media and tech company. He is also the editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi.