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Dean Noha and speaker

Movement for governance in MENA Region

February 12, 2023

Noha El-Mikawy, dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, chats with Asli Bali, president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Bali has been a professor of law at Yale University since July 2022, a former professor of law at UCLA School of Law, the founding director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA, and the former director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.

"There is a substantial geopolitical shift underway in the international system with the move from a unipolar to a multipolar world and the concomitant transition to a more multilateral international order." said Bali

The Middle East hosted several global events in 2022, namely COP27 in Egypt and the football World Cup in Qatar. This year the region is going to host COP28 in the UAE. How could these events become an inflection moment for governance in the region?

In the Middle East, like other regions in the world, these developments generate both significant geopolitical opportunities and also real dangers. The current structural shift is largely a result of the rise of China and the pivot to a global economy in which Asia plays a larger role. The geopolitical position of the Middle East between the Euro-American Atlantic order and China, India and the rest of Asia offers both risks and rewards. Current Western efforts to “contain” China may create space for new trade and diplomatic opportunities for the MENA region in Asia while also producing pressure to take sides in a contest between the US and China. In this context, countries in the Middle East might understandably wish to adopt a more independent or neutral stance that avoids conflict, manages risk and pursues the rewards of multipolarity.

The hosting of major global events in the Middle East signals a growing role for the region in this more multilateral order. By hosting events like climate conferences, Egypt and the UAE are asserting a desire to help define global agendas rather than simply align with priorities set by great powers beyond the region. And cultivating soft power by hosting events like the World Cup and other major sporting tournaments is one way of rebranding the Gulf in particular as invested in building new cultural partnerships while remaining open for business globally. While these events may serve as an inflection point in the region’s involvement with global governance, they may not translate into greater global influence in determining climate goals or reshaping the terms of global finance in the short run. This is because the states of the region will have to invest (diplomatically and likely financially) in being repeat players on the global stage in such gatherings to gain durable influence. The political will and financial clout to sustain such continuing engagement are not equally distributed amongst regional states, so today’s hosts of global events may yet be displaced by other rising powers. Nor does hosting global events signal a shift in domestic governance for the states of the region. When host countries are subjected to global scrutiny during major gatherings, there is little evidence of substantive improvement in domestic practices as a consequence. This may have been recently confirmed by the UAE’s choice of Sultan al-Jaber, an oil executive, to serve as president-designate for COP28, indicating that hosting the conference will not materially affect the carbon economy of the Emirates.

The Middle East has profited in the past from the presence of the Non-Aligned Movement as a force that helped shape international law during the 1960s. Could the war in Ukraine and the increasing tension between the West and China provide impetus to reinvent non-alignment?

The shift to multipolarity is accelerating a realignment in the Middle East away from the Pax Americana that has characterized the last three-quarters of a century. But greater independence from the US should not be mistaken for a return to the non-alignment of the period following decolonization. While most countries will wish to retain a measure of independence from strict alignment with either China or the American/Western camp in the emerging geopolitical order, the solidarity that once characterized an attempt to develop a coordinated “non-aligned” camp in the Global South in the 1950s and 60s is largely absent today. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where coordination and collaboration with African, Asian or South American regional orders and institutions are weak. The non-alignment of the 1960s approached international law as an instrument to remake the global economy — and to announce a New International Economic Order (NIEO). States in the MENA region today show little interest in such structural transformation, even when their peoples demand socioeconomic reforms. While an increasingly multipolar world may produce opportunities to play rivalrous hegemons against one another and leverage the region’s influence, there seems little appetite in the MENA to commit to a more principled and rigorous conception of non-alignment.

The Ukraine war offers an early example of what independence rather than non-alignment might resemble. On the one hand, responses to the war in Ukraine have rendered more visible a clear North-South divide. The G-77 that once made up the core of the non-aligned movement has largely held back from joining the united Western front against Russia. The position of the Middle East is consistent with this reticence. The MENA region includes some of the top importers of wheat in the world, which have faced massive costs as a consequence of disruption to Ukrainian wheat production and the sanctions imposed on Russia. The result has been accelerating inflation and a cost-of-living crisis in countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia and, in turn, real skepticism about sanctions. Moreover, as the US pivots away from the Middle East, Russia is becoming a more substantial player. Russians have played a substantial role in the conflicts in Syria and Libya, and arms sales and nuclear cooperation between Russia and Arab states extend even to countries — like Saudi Arabia — that are among America’s closest regional partners. At the same time, sanctions on Russian energy have benefited the oil-exporting countries in the region, relieving pressure for major economic reforms, making some in the region unintended beneficiaries of the collateral consequences of the war. In the end, the region’s response to events in Ukraine has been to tread carefully, with a subdued response to the invasion and a focus on minimizing disruption to food supply and maximizing potential benefits, diplomatic and economic. Reluctance to endorse the Western approach to the Ukraine conflict is less a matter of non-alignment and more a reflection of the material interests of states in the region at a time of declining American influence.

We are observing shifting alliances in the Middle East. Do you see them redefining the security framework of the region? And if so, how?

The end of the Global War on Terror (GWoT) and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan brought to a close a violent, more than two-decade-long period in which the MENA region was treated as an incubator of threats to the international order in need of constant counter-terrorist intervention from within and without. Yet it remains unclear whether the end of the War on Terror will provide a peace dividend. This is because it is difficult to determine whether declining US influence will produce conflict resolution or, instead, escalation. Since at least the end of the Cold War, the US-based regional order was structured to protect three principal American priorities: Israeli security, privileged access to the energy resources of the Gulf, and the containment of Iran. The stability of core American partners in the region was understood to be essential to maintaining these priorities, and so the US served as a guarantor for the region’s authoritarians. The beginning of this century witnessed significant blows to the American order for the region, many of them self-inflicted by the US.: the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”, the disastrous intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of Iran as a more powerful regional actor (in part because the US. removed its rivals through interventions). Perhaps most significantly, the US went from being a stabilizer of the region to become a revisionist power between its GWoT interventions and its Janus-faced attempts at democracy promotion. From the sectarianization of conflict in the region to the Arab uprisings and their aftermath, the shifting distribution of power and alliances in the region are all correlated to some extent with these changes in the American approach.

In the wake of diminished US influence, some of the contours of the emerging, redefined security framework have begun to come into focus. First, regional powers are hedging against an increasingly unpredictable US presence by pursuing Russian arms sales and deepening economic ties with China (and, to a lesser extent, India). The ambivalence of regional actors about the war in Ukraine is one consequence of this diversification strategy. Second, Arab states confronting the possibility of having to manage relations with key regional rivals without US mediation are pursuing diplomatic overtures or other forms of de-escalation, enabling the emergence of a more multi-polar regional security order than had been possible under American tutelage. This is evident not only in the Abraham Accords but also in the lifting of the blockade on Qatar, the warming of relations between Turkey and its erstwhile Gulf antagonists, and even in some diplomatic overtures to Iran and its regional partner, Syria. While some of these more promising dynamics are clearly present, there are also worrying underlying trends. For one example, while the Camp David and Oslo Accords were oriented towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have now been displaced by the Abraham Accords, which sideline the Palestinian issue in favor of developing a new military alliance designed to contain and counter Iran. With a dangerously extreme new government in office in Israel, the fracturing of Arab support for Palestine and the alignment of key Gulf countries with Israel’s maximalist understanding of its own security prerogatives raises the troubling prospect of explosive new conflicts. Another potentially destabilizing development is the degree to which regional actors have themselves become producers of arsenals likely to exacerbate conflict in the region — with Turkey and Iran producing armed drones that are shifting the playing field as far afield as Ukraine. In the end, the concern is that the current transitional period in the region’s shifting security framework may lack the mechanisms and institutions to constrain conflict.

Question: What research questions should we be asking about international law in a moment of deep transformation in the global order?

One question of growing significance is whether the current international legal order is fit for purpose in light of the crises of global interdependence now on the horizon. Over the last decade, the world has endured economic deglobalization in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a pandemic that has been truly global in its reach, the increasing toll of climate change through the ravages of droughts, fires, famines and floods across hemispheres, and attendant migration crises as refugees flee destitution and environmental degradation the world over. The current international legal order is a legacy of mid-twentieth-century institutional arrangements designed to avert a third world war. This order has served its immediate goals by preventing direct military confrontation between great powers and facilitating the economic integration that made globalization possible. At the same time, it has also enabled proxy wars and the ascendance of a rapacious form of neoliberal capitalism that together has entrenched global inequality, produced humanitarian catastrophes and accelerated environmental harm. Moreover, the international legal order is ill-equipped to meet the core challenges of the current moment. There are no binding multilateral agreements or norms that require international cooperation to address planetary crises by, for example, establishing a just migration regime, enforcing mandatory climate goals, or effectively coordinating responses to global health emergencies. In short, there may be a need to rethink how international law is developed, defined, implemented and enforced to design a new normative system better suited to meeting challenges of interdependence in a world of intensifying geopolitical competition in the North and increasingly precarious sovereignties in the South.

Regrettably, instead of focusing on these challenges, the international legal order has been distorted for more than two decades by the GWoT and the reshaping of core international norms to strengthen the coercive apparatus of states at the expense of human rights and shared priorities outside of the realm of counter-terrorism. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the primacy of counter-terrorism has finally given way to other priorities. Crises have a way of accelerating change, and the sheer number of truly global crises converging in this third decade of the twenty-first century is staggering. At the turn of this century, critics of neoliberalism, environmental activists, and humanitarian actors were all sounding the alarm about looming dangers, but post-9/11 policymakers and international institutions were blinkered by an unduly narrow security agenda. To make up for lost time and address the crises of the moment, a rethinking of the international order on the scale and scope of the NIEO is now once again in order. An urgent research agenda for international lawyers is to imagine systemic reforms to the normative fabric underlying the global order that prioritizes obligations of international cooperation to meet planetary challenges. At a minimum, this would mean rethinking our conception of “international security” to center climate justice, the socio-economic dimension of human rights — including rights to a clean environment, health and adequate food and potable water — and a migration regime that protects the humanitarian welfare of civilian populations endangered by conflict and scarcity.

About Asli Bâli

Asli Bâli, is the president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Bâli has been a professor of law at Yale University since July 2022, a former professor of law at UCLA School of Law, the founding director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA, and the former director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. Prior to her academic career, Bâli worked for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and as a lawyer in private practice with Cleary Gottlieb. She serves on the editorial board of the American Journal of International Law. Her scholarship focuses on international law, human rights, and comparative constitutional law. She holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton and a JD from Yale Law School.