Najib Saab. 14/5/2023

The need for Arab cooperation in times of war and peace was behind the establishment of the League of Arab States in 1945, preceding the European Union and most other regional groups in the world by decades. While regional alliances were a sound option at that time, they are an obligation today, as the world is dominated by major poles that control politics and the economy, as well as decisions on war and peace, leaving smaller individual states to either succumb or fall.

The aim here is not to evaluate the League of Arab States over the past 78 years, but rather to stress the need to strengthen cooperation between Arab countries in all fields, as a condition for the survival of states and peoples, not only achieving prosperity. While the previous decades bore disappointments and setbacks, new frameworks for cooperation must be sought, based on successful experiences in the world. The first condition is leaving behind emotional slogans revolving around a “One Arab Nation” and building alliances based on economic and security interests, supported by historical and cultural ties.

Cooperation among Arab countries is of exceptional importance today, in the context of striving to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) and confronting the challenges of climate change. However, the situation that was critical a few years ago has been made more difficult by complications due to the pandemic and later the war in Ukraine. After the SDGs were announced in 2015, a report by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) in 2016 warned that even if all wars and conflicts ceased immediately, the Arab region could not meet the deadline for achieving these goals by 2030, if it sticks to the same traditional methods. Many Arab countries witnessed conflicts and wars that led to collapse on a large scale during the years preceding the announcement of the SDGs, which limited their ambition to just going back to the state that prevailed in 2010, instead of seeking to achieve new goals for 2030.

What is required is an alternative approach based on adopting the principles of sustainable development, which secures a balance between economic growth and natural resources, as part of the state’s general policies and plans, and not as an added superficial element. Budget lines must be reallocated to serve the implementation of these plans efficiently, far from waste and corruption. As for the countries that suffer from wars and conflicts, they must include the principles of sustainable development within the prospective reconstruction efforts, because the criticality of the situation does not allow for dealing with the devastation in an ad-hoc manner that accumulates errors and delays reform for years. Therefore, aid organizations and donor countries should not limit their efforts to providing the basic needs of those affected, but rather use relief programs to establish new practices that promote the goals of sustainable development and the transition to a green economy, along with emergency aid.

Some reports and studies on Arab countries neglect to recognize the great differences which prevent dealing with them as one monolithic piece. Each country has distinct needs, priorities, and economic, political, and social contexts that must be recognized when developing implementation plans. Countries should identify their priority development goals and develop national implementation plans accordingly, including policies and budgets. There are certainly a lot of commonalities that can be built upon within the scope of regional cooperation programs, while taking into account the diversity of natural and human resources, in a vast area spanning over two continents. While a few countries, such as member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have achieved significant progress in development indicators, others have witnessed limited progress, or regression, in many cases, with some of the poorer and least developed Arab countries being the weakest performers. This is not due to differences in financial capabilities only, but to other factors as well, foremost of which is stability, alongside endeavors towards policy reform and combating waste and corruption.

It is crucially important for Arab countries to adopt a positive development path, in order to meet the aspirations of their present and future generations for a decent and dignified life. However, achieving this requires addressing a series of challenges, foremost of which are political turmoil, peace and security, and scarcity of water and arable land, which is exacerbated by significant inefficiency, leading to heavy dependence on imported food products. The region, as a group, is rich in energy and poor in water and productive land. The situation is getting worse with the increasing demand for resources, as a result of rapid population growth, changing consumption patterns and poor efficiency, which will be further exacerbated by the impact of climate change. To address the challenges of poverty, hunger and food security, Arab countries have a number of policy options, including improving crop and water productivity, reusing treated wastewater, and developing fisheries, in a framework of regional cooperation.

Regional cooperation, based on comparative advantages, is an inevitable choice, not a voluntary one, to efficiently meet the development challenges in Arab countries, foremost of which is realizing food security. We have always read and written, before the recent outbreak of the most violent armed conflict in Sudan, about the importance of regional investment in that country for food production, as it combines vast arable lands and water. But the recent events in Sudan pose a challenge as to the possibility of attracting investments, in the absence of security and political stability. But the lack of a proper investment environment in Sudan situation dates much earlier, in the absence of proper regulatory laws which guarantee the rights of the investors and the host country alike.

Despite the wars and multiple setbacks, regional cooperation remains inevitable to achieve sustainable and stable development at the Arab level, according to modern frameworks that provide shared common interests while respecting diversity. As we await the dust of wars to settle, Arab countries must individually enhance their own capabilities without depleting their limited resources, taking every opportunity to boost regional cooperation at all levels. It is a race that cannot tolerate conciliation between development and wars, because the victory of either is the death of the other. Achieving development goals boosts regional security and stability, and provides the best insurance policy against upheavals.