A Collaborative Regional Reconstruction Strategy in the Arab World

This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.


Developments in the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen to Palestine, have prompted a reassessment of what needs to be done to resolve the issues of conflict and fragility in the region. Of course, the Arab world is diverse, which makes generalizations difficult. By and large, however, the so-called Arab Spring and what followed in terms of bloody conflicts—directly or indirectly involving most Arab states—and state weakening (and in a case or two, total collapse) demonstrated the fragility of many of the individual regimes in the Arab world as well as the impotence of the collective order of the Arab states.1 In particular, it exposed the wide gap that existed between ordinary citizens and their political and, by extension, administrative institutions. This chapter provides an examination of one potentially transformative idea for conflict response in the Arab world: a collaborative approach to reconstruction in the region.

Regionalism and Reconstruction

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the global mood was enthusiastic and embracing of a move toward greater regionalization. The long-term success of the European Union (EU) in ushering in a half century of democratic peace after the Second World War was heralded as a shining example for other regions to follow. Guided by the prevailing philosophy of globalism, multilateralism, and free market economics, regional and global governance were prescribed to solve the problems of underdevelopment and international insecurity.2 Alongside this post-Cold War optimism, regionalism was also driven by changes in the nature of war—from interstate rivalries to internal instability and civil conflict—which radically altered the perception of postwar recovery processes. In the words of Adetula, Bereketeab, and Jaiyebo, “the growing complexity of conflict dynamics and security challenges in the post-Cold War world require greater cooperation and coordination among states within regions.”3

Referring to the war-ravaged Balkan countries of Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, Hasic writes that “on the regional scale all the countries suffer from similar problems … In order to survive these countries need to work closer together, taking advantage of their proximity, if they are to become stronger economies.”4 While the technical and economic requirements for regional cooperation in post-conflict reconstruction have long been well-understood as rooted in innovation, cluster building, and the network economy, the major barriers to realizing this model in the Balkans and elsewhere are commonly socio-psychological and political. Balkan reconstruction required a Marshall Plan for south-eastern Europe. However, forward-looking regional recovery plans were not realized because too often, accession to the European Union was used as a stand-in for a unified and concerted strategy.

The Need for a Regional Reconstruction Strategy in the Middle East

Unfortunately, the socio-psychological and political barriers to a regional reconstruction strategy for the Middle East are currently very high. First, the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is at the very heart of the region. Second, the long-standing geopolitical fissures that overlay the region, in particular tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and to a lesser extent between the United States and Russia, continue to complicate efforts at cross-regional collaboration. Third, the Arab world lacks regional platforms on which to collaborate in even the most mundane technical fields. Rare examples of successful cooperation that could model a more effective and united reconstruction response include the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications center (SESAME)5 particle accelerator in the Jordan Valley. Fourth, the blockade of Qatar by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates since June 2017 has had the effect of further fragmenting the region at a critical moment, creating new obstacles to regional security and development cooperation and limiting the effectiveness of technical assistance for post-conflict reconstruction. This is already being observed in a number of areas, including Syria and the Gaza Strip.

Conflict itself is another major barrier to regional cooperation. For instance, the conflict in the Western Sahara, often forgotten, is perceived from the outside as a low intensity, low impact conflict that has killed a relatively low number of people—about 15-20,000 over many years. However, the conflict has led to high economic, social, human, and political costs for the Sahrawi people and for Morocco not only through displacement of over 100,000 Sahrawis and the separation of families and communities but also because of its wider impact of impeding regional cooperation and development across northwest Africa. This perpetuates the conditions of impoverishment and frustration that have fuelled extremism throughout the region. It is important to note that Morocco’s accession in 2017 to the African Union (formerly Organization of African Unity) after decades of shunning the organization, while not guaranteeing any outcome, does offer an institutional arena in which Morocco and Algeria––the two countries most involved in the Saharan issue––could attempt to resolve their underlying conflicts with the support of third parties.6

Even if the goal of a truly regional reconstruction strategy seems impossible to achieve, it should be seen as an ideal to seek. In the wake of World War II, in a beleaguered and battered Europe, the promise of a half century of peace ushered in by mutual cooperation would have been perceived as way beyond the limit of what was politically possible. A successful example in the region is reflected in efforts that were made during 2007-2010 by Jordan’s Prince Hassan bin Talal to establish the West Asia-North Africa Institute as a meeting place for the leading minds in the region through which a collaborative network capable of undergirding transnational solutions could be forged.7

By now it is well-understood that the challenges faced by the region are fundamentally interconnected. These include the need to transform economies to create meaningful jobs, enable new forms of mobility fit for the 21st century, address pressing ecological threats that could render much of the region uninhabitable, as well as resolve long-standing conflicts that have torn apart the region’s social fabric. In the past, governments could control information, construct public opinion, and simply command people to do certain things, but this is not so easily done nowadays.8 The problems that Arab states face are becoming increasingly multidimensional and complex. We live in a world where more interests have specialized knowledge, more citizens are educated, and more individuals use social media to rapidly form and then re-form collective identities. In addition, changes in global geopolitics mean that there are now more opportunities for regional and international intervention in the Middle East than in the past 60 years or so.

We can no longer just live in isolation and pretend that these issues affect only one country. This is the core weakness of the region—that it is dealt with and perceived as individual entities and manipulated and driven in all directions by competing states inside and outside the area. Fragmentation and division are not new; they have been advanced starting with the Mongol invasion and through the Crusades, Ottoman rule, the British and French mandates, and in the post-World War II era when unifying ideologies and institutions in the region have been subject to manipulation and control.

Calls for regional cooperation do not require that the nation-state be dismantled. There is a need for a level of sophistication to act regionally at one level and act nationally or globally at other levels; indeed, the situation does not have to be black and white. For example, while European Union countries see eye-to-eye on some policies, they lobby against each other regarding certain interests. There is a need for this political maturity in the Arab world. The starting point should be to move away from any process that reinforces the image of the West devising solutions and proposing what it deems as new visions for the region. Such approaches are reminiscent of the Sykes-Picot agreement of the early 20th century or the neoconservative “grand strategy” at the end of it, which clearly do not appreciate that the Middle East has changed fundamentally since 2011. The region, at all levels, now expects to be the driving force behind its own development.

Steps Toward Regional Reconstruction Efforts in the Middle East

Since the spread of conflict throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, some new initiatives have been launched toward regional reconstruction. The Syrian conflict, in particular, has demonstrated the inadequacy of the international aid architecture to address and mitigate the effects of the crisis.9 The spillover ramifications of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders, such as the massive refugee crisis, necessitate a coherent regional response.

Several Multi-Donor Trust Funds (MDTFs) have also been established to finance humanitarian and development responses in Syria and the wider region. For instance, the New Financing Initiative to Support the Middle East and North Africa Region was established in April 2016 as a World Bank-led package offering concessional loans, grants, and guarantees. The initiative consists of a Concessional Financing Facility that offers soft loans to middle income refugee host countries and a Guarantee Facility that supports post-conflict reconstruction across the MENA region. The European Union and its member states have supported refugees, internally displaced persons, and the hosting communities by pledging nearly two thirds of the total contributions announced during the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference held by the Council of the European Union in London in February 2016.10 Part of the European funding is channeled through the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis (the Madad Fund) established by the European Commission in December 2014.11 MDTFs for the Arab world enable war-torn countries in the region to access sustained and predictable funding. This institutional mechanism is particularly important to avoid the pitfalls of bilateral funding of reconstruction in the Arab world. This includes conflicts such as Israel’s assault on Gaza, which is viewed by some donors as too politicized for contributions toward recovery funding. Another problem is donor fatigue in the case of protracted conflicts that also include that in Gaza.

While welcome, these initiatives do not go far enough to constitute the building blocks of a truly collaborative regional reconstruction strategy. In particular, the last few years presented both a social and an institutional challenge that requires a shift in our thinking when considering the role of the state in society. As such, the approach to the effort of state building should focus more on governance rather than government; on how changes can be accomplished rather than just what can be done; and on collective development rather than the singular state-by-state approach. Such a shift is critical in order to establish a badly needed new social contract between citizens, their states, and the wider Arab region. Regional ties are indispensable if millions across the region are to make meaningful progress on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.12

Pillars for a Collaborative Regional Reconstruction Strategy13

At the regional level in the Arab world what is needed is the ability to come up with a vision that can undergird the establishment of a reconstruction strategy to address the fallout of conflict. Such efforts risk being characterized as overly idealistic; nonetheless, it is important to keep trying to discuss ways to unleash resources from various corners of the Arab world and mix them together so that transformative development and change in the region are possible.

The region needs an ever-evolving strategy that maintains a holistic, problem-solving outlook while drawing on various forms of intervention (such as community-driven development, interregional development projects, targeted counterinsurgency operations, and state-building) 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, human potential, 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 and specifically, all the ingredients for large-scale development such as human resources, an educated population, capital, mobility, and nature. The goal would be region-wide development that is synergistic and not a predatory or 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 high-tech and innovative sectors can thrive in the Middle East. Such a broad vision is crucial if the region is to leapfrog into the 21st 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. To that end, serious changes are required in places such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to enable both to exercise their regional leadership in forming 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 action and ideas rooted at the local level and with popular participation. The process of engaging in a region-wide consultation where contributions originate in 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: The region prioritizes defense—using the excuse of fighting the Islamic State—instead of focusing on a collective vision for development. 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” or “area development” 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 discord, strained relations between displaced and host communities, and tensions between Sunni and Shia 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. Much 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 a 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. President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to liberalize Syria’s economy prior to 2011 led to the further enrichment of a corrupt elite, contributing to the present situation. Going forward, reconstruction efforts must take into consideration the poorest and least capable so that nobody is left out.

Development: There is an urgent need to find new ways of inducing development through international engagement with the region. Current instability has shifted spending toward security and away from development basics. As a result, some of the most important indicators—women’s participation, poverty, quality of education—are reflecting eroding development. All this is unfolding while the region is facing financial challenges due to severely reduced oil prices. This may prove to be an opportunity as some countries need a wake-up call to the pernicious effects of a capital development model where 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, it should focus minds within the Arab world on the value of mutually beneficial investment in addressing regional problems. Ultimately a more stable region will lead to more prosperous neighbors in both East and West.

Unleashing Human Potential: There is a vibrant workforce in the region; however, it is trapped and possesses no mobility. It is probably easier to look for work by crossing from one Arab country to another than to seek a job at home. Arab states are endowed with rich resources and energy and much of it is exported as raw material; very little is being exploited in the first, second, and third stages of development to provide jobs. It is vital to change these realities in order to create meaningful job opportunities to fulfill the human potential of Arab youth. The Gulf states together import millions of workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, and India—the latter alone has over six million people in the region. Meanwhile, there are millions of Arab youth stuck in their areas, unable to do anything and prone to expressing their frustration and marginalization through civil unrest.

Building Capacity: To build skills and competence, states must provide enormous amounts of funding in fostering sustainable regional, national, and local capacity. It is essential to invest in education, in particular to support youth beyond the primary grades; indeed, these are the young men and women who will become leaders with the conviction and capabilities to rebuild the region. In a rush to capture development, the Arab world has focused on the hard sciences, engineering, business studies, and computer science while ignoring its own cultures, languages, and history. It is imperative to correct this imbalance and develop local ideas—in the Arabic language and without relying on translation. For all this to happen, fragility must be addressed within a coherent regional vision and not individual national plans. To reiterate, it would be constructive if the international community would 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 such an effort with innovative forms of funding that utilize collateral guarantees from the region, not just from individual countries. A truly regional approach could, one day, elevate human dignity and development above petty politics and sectarianism.


This chapter has argued that a regional collective vision is required in order to address the challenges posed by the spread of conflict in the Arab region over the past decades. Ultimately, the most effective form of intervention to address the thorny issues of fragility and poor governance will be state building—not just of institutions but of rebuilding the broken social contract in the region. Such a regional perspective could bring about a mindset to transform governance in war-torn societies and enable states and citizens to innovate and participate in broad-based societal recovery.

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1 Filipe Campante and Davin Chor, “Why Was the Arab World Poised for Revolution? Schooling, Economic Opportunities, and the Arab Spring,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 2, no. 2 (2012): pp. 167-188.
2 Björn Hettne, András Inotai, and Osvaldo Sunkel, Comparing Regionalisms: Implications for Global Development, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001, UNU-Wider, p. 6.
3 Victor Adetula, Redie Bereketeab, and Olugbemi Jaiyebo, “Regional Economic Communities and Peacebuilding in Africa: The Experiences of ECOWAS and IGAD,” Policy Dialogue No. 12 (2016): p.8.
4 Tigran Hasic, Reconstruction Planning in Post-Conflict Zones, PhD Thesis (Stockholm: KTH Royal Institute, 2004), p.15.
5 Karim Shaheen, “Open Sesame: particle accelerator project brings Middle East together,” The Guardian, August 30, 2016, https://bit.ly/2bT1qJA.
6 Djallil Lounnas and Nizar Messari, “Algeria–Morocco Relations and their Impact on the Maghrebi Regional System,” Istituto Affari Internazionali, (2018): p. 19.
7 WANA Institute, http://wanainstitute.org/en.
8 Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, Democracy’s Fourth Wave: Digital Media and the Arab Spring (London: Oxford University Press, 2003).
9 Victoria Metcalfe-Hough, Marcus Manuel, and Alastair McKechnie, Enhancing Aid Architecture in the Regional Response to the Syria Crisis (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2016).
10 Council of the European Union, “Council conclusions on the EU Regional Strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the Da’esh threat,” May 23, 2016, https://bit.ly/2FLiyS0, p. 5.
11 European Commission 2016, “Agreement establishing the European Union regional trust fund in response to the Syrian crisis, the Madad Fund,” May 23, 2016, https://bit.ly/2WeV1Om, p.4.
12 United Nations Division for Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “Sustainable Development Goals,” 2015, https://bit.ly/1Qk5cqI.
13 The ideas presented in this section build cumulatively on an earlier publication: Sultan Barakat, “The Case for a Regional Reconstruction Strategy for the Middle East,” Huffington Post, 2016, https://bit.ly/2GqcoqM.