Challenges to minilateral cooperation in the Middle East

Long-standing fiscal, governance and security problems have slowed the implementation of many minilateral agreements.

king , sisi and iraq
(File photo:Twitter/X)
Over the past decade, Middle Eastern countries have signed at least 16 minilateral agreements, but many of these have produced scant results due to political instability, security challenges and the relatively low fiscal and administrative capacity of some regional governments. Superpower competition and ineffective multilateral institutions have played a major role in states turning to minilateral diplomacy to solve pressing security, economic and development challenges. اضافة اعلان

The 2020 Abraham Accords between Bahrain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan) and the 2022 Negev Forum were noteworthy peace-building initiatives centred on Israel’s regional integration. Yet the former has been hampered by hostile public opinion in Arab participant countries, a problem that has surely worsened since Hamas’s attack on Israel in October 2023. Both issues have stunted the development of strong people-to-people relations, as envisioned by the agreement. The Hamas–Israel war has shattered any assumption that Israel can achieve regional political and economic integration while ignoring the Palestinian issue.  

Economic security and resilience are also significant motivators for minilateral diplomacy in the region. Twelve out of sixteen agreements signed in the Middle East during the past ten years pertained to economic issues. The failure of the New Levant Initiative, created by Egypt, Jordan and Iraq in March 2019 to foster economic integration, highlights some of the main obstacles to economically oriented minilateral coalitions. The initiative was originally intended to create joint industrial zones, investments in connectivity infrastructure and increase trade. Although the countries have made tangible progress connecting their electrical grids, most other projects are facing political and financial difficulties. For example, the Basra–Aqaba oil pipeline – which aims to transfer one million barrels per day for Jordanian consumption and export to international markets – has been delayed by disagreements among Iraqi politicians, an unstable security situation in Iraq and Iranian interference in Iraqi politics. Fiscal constraints, inefficient government bureaucracies and militancy plaguing Iraq and Egypt, have also hamstrung progress in implementing projects under the initiative. 

Minilateral agreements have even floundered in cases where security, fiscal capacity and government efficiency are not major barriers to trade and investment. India, Israel, the UAE and the United States created I2U2 in 2021 ‘to promote high-quality sustainable investment among partner countries’. The group has made ambitious announcements, including the launch of a new joint venture in the space industry and the creation of the India–Middle East Food Corridor involving US$2 billion in Emirati investments into food parks in India. Yet the announcements have not produced tangible outcomes. The delay in UAE investments in India’s agricultural sector, for instance, is explained partly by the UAE’s concerns over India’s growing food protectionism. India’s Essential Commodities Act allows Indian authorities greater leeway in placing export bans on agricultural items, putting the feasibility of investments in food parks at greater risk. 

While minilateral diplomacy has generated many creative policy ideas and positive headlines, it has proven difficult to deliver on agreements for the same reasons multilateral efforts have been ineffective: the limited fiscal capacity of participant states, the inefficiency of regional governments, a lack of regional policy harmonization, and the persistence of internal and cross-border security threats. 

Laith Alajlouni is a Research Associate in the IISS-Middle East office, Manama. He is a political economist working on the issues of geoeconomics and strategy in the Middle East.

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