An interesting gathering in Egypt between Arab nations and their European counterparts took place Last month. It happened amid geopolitical and economic challenges facing the MENA, referring to the Middle East and North Africa region, shaky old alliances between the EU and their Western partners, and the rise of China as an alternative for the world to build a shared economic interest.
The summit reflects deep concerns among Arab nations’ policymakers when it comes to promoting economic capacity and solving social issues with regard to employment and stability.
Amid wars, political transitions and an economic downturn, the EU and the Arab League met to discuss immigration, security and try to forge a common vision as neighbours.
Now the question that arises is whether this meeting is the right way forward.
From my expertise as a scholar in International Relations History and the fact that the 21st century is offering new challenges to the concepts of economic growth and alliances, the summit offers no solutions to the main concerns of the MENA population.
The talks focused on the EU rather than MENA issues, which is normal. The EU had nothing to offer as an economic project to the Arab League, as marred by the Brexit fallout, facing a more aggressive US administration that is threatening tariffs hikes, the EU stakes don’t lie with supporting the Arabs economically now and into the future.
Sure, about 44 percent of MENA exports go to Europe, and this creates leverage from the EU, which is seen as supporting the region, however, the reality is more complex than it seems.
The MENA region also receives grants from Europe, many young people receive their education in Europe, and there is a sizeable Arab community in Europe. More than 80 percent of international tourists come from the EU.
Though we must not forget that all MENA nations were colonised by EU nations, and after World War II they fell into the sphere of European powers. To what result?
Countries ravaged by war and insecurity, unemployment hitting world records and economic stagnation.
Maybe it is time to re-think the Arab-EU relationship because so far there is no palpable outcome from this alliance.
Not only has the EU had no economic impact on Arab nations’ capacity building, but moreover Arab nations also have to tread carefully when the President of the European Council says
“We need to cooperate and not leave it to global powers far from our region”
Why do Arab states have to pick a side? The MENA region cannot afford to choose only one partner; it goes against the concept of globalisation and inclusive cooperation.
Reaching out to Russia, China, and other South Asian nations must be welcomed by Arab policymakers. The huge need for infrastructure, both physical and cyber, cannot be met by the EU alone, and they know it.
The World Bank gave clear notice of the importance of developing the MENA digital economy around broadband capacity and digital payment solutions.
With slow speeds, high prices and outdated technologies, only China can fill the growing gap between MENA economies and the rest of the world. Today’s cyber infrastructure is hampering local entrepreneurship drives while governments have limited resources to support employment and start-ups.
There should be a balancing act between regional powers, to not fear international cooperation, if it can bring an economic boost and social stability.
Arabs understand very well that they need to diversify their options. Chinese and Russian involvement is needed, and the EU needs to see the two nations as positive actors that actually can contribute to safeguard European security, improve MENA inter-trade (which only counts for about 10 percent of the total) through international schemes such as the Belt and Road Initiative and finally having Russia brings its security experience to balance the US’ geopolitical outreach.