Economic Development is Best Chance for Middle East's Post-COVID Recovery | Opinion

The U.S. and her allies face a deteriorating situation in the Middle East. International media attention today focuses on the Taliban's accelerated takeover of Afghanistan and America's humiliation there, but the regional situation is much worse. Lebanon is undergoing total collapse that will likely result in a civil war or enhanced conditions for the next conflict with Israel that will be far more lethal than in 2006. The mullahs of Teheran sit on the nuclear threshold and face an international community desperate to appease and relieve the maximum economic pressure campaign of recent years. COVID-19 has ravaged economies across the region with no shortage of youth unemployment, political instability and infrastructure challenges—particularly water access.

The process of a gradual American withdrawal from the Middle East has been an ongoing trend for years; and the desire to end the "Forever Wars" is one of the only things former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had in common. Both previous administrations argued that Washington should shift its focus away from the region because the future of world politics would be determined elsewhere, in a power competition with China in Asia. This misguided sentiment was clearly reflected in an essay in The Wall Street Journal last year by Martin Indyk, titled "The Middle East Isn't Worth It Anymore." Yet, while U.S. interests seem to be focused elsewhere, the Middle East is left to pick up the pieces—at a critical moment for the region's history. Great powers would be ignoring this region at their peril.

Nevertheless, the Middle East has witnessed encouraging achievements in recent years. This positive change is reflected in and propelled by the Abraham Accords, and some degree of improvements among Gulf Cooperation Council relations, as demonstrated in the reconciliation of the Gulf Crisis. The biggest perceived threat to the region's stability only a few years ago—ISIS—remains dangerous, but its days as an actor capable of destabilizing states, controlling cities and breaking the borders of the modern Middle East are long gone. Instead, as veteran observers of the region note, what plagues the region today are inequalities in health, education and economic opportunity. These structural problems may pose even greater difficulties for Arab-majority states than the popular uprisings of 2011 (the naively termed "Arab Spring").

This moment in the region's history presents a unique opportunity to leverage these diverse economies and establish robust trade deals that serve to advance peace and security. If planned wisely, such moves could create a trickle-down effect and unleash greater opportunities across different sectors in the region, benefiting youth, women and other audiences currently underrepresented in regional economies. Such trade deals and joint projects could be wide-ranging such as Israeli technology transfer and medical tourism, joint investment in Gulf energy resources, Egyptian manufacturing, agriculture development in Saudi Arabia, or even renewable bitcoin mining using low-cost energy sources in the Gulf. Specific economic projects will allow the region's diverse populations to come together around shared goals. These projects could heal social rifts, narrow socioeconomic gaps and strengthen citizens' trust in governments. The timing for such projects may be opportune, once the region emerges from the coronavirus pandemic and starts to make its way toward economic recovery.

Until recently, many of these natural resources and projects were confined to each country's national borders, due to regional politics, but as the global and regional economic crises caused by the coronavirus have shown, the need for regional cooperation—in health, but also in long-term economic development and planning—has never been greater.

An aerial view of Dubai at night
An aerial view of Dubai at night. Rustam Azmi/Getty Images

Taking advantage of this new period, as the region struggles to emerge from a pandemic that prevented movement between countries traditionally open to one another, will define the decades to come. The development of cross-border energy projects could help bridge ethnic and national gaps by creating thousands of new jobs and laying the foundations for a regional energy economy. Such projects include a UAE-Israel natural gas deal, Egypt-Israel-Cyprus gas, a new Saudi tech city (Neom) and more. In the post-COVID-19 era, governments that embrace this potential and develop such projects could significantly improve their people's prosperity and economic opportunities, while also decreasing the potential for regional tensions.

Despite this rosy picture for the region's future, enduring threats remain and necessitate joint investment between regional partners, especially in the framework of the Abraham Accords to encourage other countries to join. Iran remains a looming threat to Israel, the Gulf and endangering the populations of Syria, Iraq and the Iranian people themselves. Thanks to Tehran's "help," the splendors of Damascus and Aleppo have been reduced to ruins; Baghdad remains in limbo; Lebanon is in its worst economic crisis since its civil war and is running out of food and fuel, and its descent into bankruptcy and state failure seem all but inevitable. More recently, Tunisia has been facing challenges from the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Kais Saied invoked the constitution in late July to seize emergency powers to prevent the Brotherhood-linked al Ennahda Party from taking over the country. Iraq and Syria, while officially past the civil wars that have plagued them since 2003 and 2011, respectively, are already desperate for change. Learning the lessons of the chaos which ensued after 2011, the region cannot afford more collapsed states.

Of course, the region deserves an international effort by global powers exerting credible military threats against Iran's nuclear proliferation, terrorism abroad and human rights violations within, combined with direct political support, tools and training for the populations of Iran, Lebanon and Syria to take back their countries and pursue a future of freedom. But coming back to reality, in the stark absence of any such global leadership, economic development may offer the next best chance for improvement.

A concerted regional effort that involves forward looking, tolerant governments must push the region toward prosperity, stability and security. The encouragement of cross-border cooperation and hi-tech knowledge transfer by governments, as well as of entrepreneurship by the private sector in countries across the region, could help make that vision a reality. The development of regional infrastructure projects could bring about regional prosperity—thus aiding the Middle East to emerge stronger and more prosperous from the political and economic shocks of COVID-19.

Joel Zamel is the founder of Wikistrat, the world's first crowdsourced intelligence platform helping governments and multinational corporations around the world navigate complex issues. Joel also advises governments on applying information operations to counter-extremism programs and the promotion of human rights. Joel is an active investor in crypto, and a believer in the power of decentralized technologies to liberate populations seeking freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.