The case for an ASEAN in the Middle East

The case for an ASEAN in the Middle East

Years ago, I participated in a World Bank conference on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, near Amman.

 The discussion was on corporate governance reforms, a pet subject of the organization at the time. A portfolio manager took the floor, looked at all the international and national bureaucrats, and shattered my vision for development and change. 

“Why this focus on grand corporate governance reform strategy?” he said. “I am here to choose two companies, at the most, to my regional portfolio. A handful of reasonably transparent companies to choose from are enough for me, I don’t need thousands. I only need to be able to interact with that handful of guys freely. The market will take care of the rest.” 

That was where I deepened my understanding of Friedrich von Hayek’s distinction between change by human interaction and change by human design. This man was meticulous about avoiding design. He knew that the thing he could control was his interactions, and he didn’t want to contaminate that with anything else. 

Sometimes it’s necessary for politicians to adopt similar simplicity over complicated design. Like all American presidents before him, Donald Trump said he wanted to make a deal for peace in the Holy Land.

 “I intend to do everything I can,” he said while leaving Jerusalem back in May. Last week he sent an American delegation headed by his son-in law and senior adviser Jared Kushner back to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This is actually a meaningful and timely move.

So far, however, I have only heard skepticism. People are saying that Trump is asking for peace but has no plan. That might be true, but does that mean that his initiative is doomed to failure? I don’t think so. 

We have seen many grand designs for peace in the Middle East. Now is the time to stop designing and just do instead. Feeling our way into human interactions is better than beautifully designed plans. That means conducting more practical projects on the ground, not planning the whole peace process. Trump, who is eminently against intellectualizing these things, could be the right man for the job.

Think about it this way: The Association of South Eastern Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union are two successful regional integration projects in different parts of the world. The EU is a human design-based regional integration project, while ASEAN is a human interactions based regional integration project. The Europeans are universalist, and tend to intervene in other people’s politics. It’s part of their DNA. Asian culture is much more reserved about politics, and everyone keeps to their own norms within their own societies.

The Middle East now needs an ASEAN, not an EU. This means that whatever grouping this is, it wouldn’t move the politically diverse countries towards democratic convergence, but towards mechanisms of economic (and hence social) interaction. That’s it. Stop there.

The Arab Spring started a latent debate about what comes first: Economic or political transformation. I gather that the Syrian civil war and then the crisis in the Gulf ended that debate once and for all. The attempt for political transformation through the Arab Spring uprisings has no doubt brought chaos and tribal, sectarian and ethnic violence to our region. 

The Middle East is no Europe. We tried political transformation before economic transformation and it failed utterly. We see that in the tribal feud between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, as well as in the demise of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism. So now is the time to focus on economic transformation. It is time to integrate the Middle East into the global economy. That’s why I find the environment very timely for a Middle Eastern ASEAN where human interaction prevails over human design, and where economic interaction between the nations could pave the way towards stability.

For an ASEAN of the Middle East, I see many possible partners. There are countries that are trying to adjust their economies to the non-carbon new normal, like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and even Qatar. Every one of these countries has extensive “vision” documents. Jordan and Egypt need to take part in the new normal. Turkey already started its economic transformation process back in the 1980s, long before its political transformation process that started in 2002 and is still continuing. Turkey now needs deeper economic ties with the whole region in general, and with Israel in particular. 

Whether he knows it or not, President Trump is also right on a core issue: Israel and Palestine is the place to set the blueprint for a deal for the economic transformation of the region. 

But let’s not call the Middle Eastern ASEAN the “Association of Middle Eastern Nations.” Because that acronym, “AMEN,” gives the impression that peace in the Middle East still requires divine intervention. We should be aware that on this one, we’re on our own. We will bear the price of failure together.