The Middle East and North Africa needs its own ASEAN

The Middle East and North Africa needs its own ASEAN

In 2012, Turkey made the Ro-Ro agreement with Egypt, which allowed its goods easier access to Middle Eastern markets. The agreement is going to expire this April, and Egypt has made it clear that it will not renew it. The whole episode strengthens my belief that Turkey needs to restore the zero problems policy.

This framework was simple, yet strong, and refreshingly pragmatic. It reminded me of the Pax Ottomanica. Now that I think of it, it also reminds me of the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Ideally, we would be thinking about an Association for Middle Eastern and North African Nations (AMENAN), but politics seems to be getting in the way.

First things first, let me tell you how I understand zero problems. In Turkey, we have things to sell to our neighbors, but selling things to our eastern neighbors is not like selling goods to our western neighbors. To sell goods to the West, we do not need to be on good political terms with those governments. In the West, there are market economies, and governments are not needed when it comes to business-to-business transactions. In the east however, things are totally different. To do business with Turkey’s eastern neighbors, the political dimension is vital. When our presidents meet, it’s important that they smile during the photo op. It’s important that they call each other “brother” and have big business delegations with them during their visits. That is because our eastern neighbors’ economies are, formally or informally, under government command. Therefore, in the MENA region, good business relations necessitate good political relations. That’s the gist of the zero problems policy to me.
Mind you, I am not saying that you need to like the governments, or what they are doing to their countries. Just mind your own business. What matters to Turkey is obvious: As long as our containers have the right of passage, we have exactly zero problems. It is kind of like the old Ottoman motto: As long as the provinces pay their dues to Istanbul, don’t take sides in the disputes between them. In that sense, the zero problems policy is a continuation of Pax Ottomanica.

The Turkish-Egyptian Ro-Ro agreement was signed in 2012 for three years. The Syrian civil war had just cut our container route to the Gulf through Syria, and the Iraq route was also closing up. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is not exactly being friendly to Turkish containers. If something cuts the flow of Turkish containers full of “made in Turkey” goods, Turkey’s interests are harmed. Full stop. That is why Turkey signed that deal with Egypt to open an alternative route for Turkish goods.

Containers started to flow from Iskenderun to Port Said, and from there, to the Gulf. An Israeli route was also opened to Haifa, from where Turkish-plated trucks made their way to Jordan and to the Gulf. It looked like Turkey was going to maintain its trade relations with its eastern neighbors despite the wars on its border.

But in a decision taken at the highest level, Egypt decided not to renew the 2012 agreement. Why? Because our president is not exactly on photo-op terms with their president. Why is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan slamming Abdel el-Sisi whenever someone hands him a microphone? Beats me. What I do know, is that his words have consequences for Turkish business. Politics coupled with idle talk materialize very quickly in this region.

That is why Turkey needs to restore the zero problems policy. Now is the time to move ahead: We can spearhead the establishment of an ASEAN in the MENA region. ASEAN is regional integration by human interaction, in contrast to the regional integration by human design modality of the European Union. The ASEAN model is a much better fit for this region.