No proper understanding of the nature and characteristics of the contemporary MENA regional cooperation can be obtained without reference to the colonial period in the region. The colonial period is thought to be an important determinant of post-independence levels of political stability, economic growth, cultural discourse and more different issues. However, the colonial era was most instrumental in drawing up boundaries in roughly their present form, in redirecting economic relations away from MENA and towards Europe, and additionally, in defining the units that were to be singled out as distinct states (Rogan, 2005).
Halliday (2005) opines that in regional economic terms, modern politics has indeed, divided as much as united the MENA region. Prior to the creation of the modern and new state system, the region had a pre-modern but enduring trans-national economy. What are today separate MENA countries were able in the past to trade with each others’ societies within the Ottoman state and with its neighbouring states. The MENA region is a complex interaction of states and people, cultures and ideas, aspirations and purposes (Ziring, 1992). MENA covers a zone stretching from Morocco to Iran and from Turkey to Sudan. This coverage includes 22 countries; 20 of the Arab league, Turkey and Iran. Despite some internal difference among its states, MENA region is still sufficiently linked and shares a core of religious and historical experiences to offer a coherent unit of study. The building of new states after the colonial period and during economic development after independence with borders, has inhibited the reality of trading (import-export), just as it has damaged political, social and cultural interactions and contacts between societies (Dumper and Stanley, 2007).
The result has been that intra-regional trade has been much less important than trade with colonisers as representatives of more developed countries. In part, this stems also from the belief that trade with more developed and powerful states may have other benefits for the MENA states concerned: an obvious example is in France with North African Countries relations, where stronger cooperation is the guiding principle.
During colonialism there was no inter-state system as such in the MENA region. The colonial powers directed the foreign policies of the MENA territorial states while Turkey and Iran were busy consolidating internal power (Salem, 2008). In terms of economic-political style, British colonialism had the reputation of concentrating on economic issues, especially after the discovering of oil within the region, and relying as much as possible on indirect rule. French colonialism, however, concentrated more on cultural links and preferred a policy of direct rule (Ayubi, 1996). Both types of colonialism were equally interested in maximising economic gains from their territories. Both were equally interested in what Timothy (1988) and Ayubi (1996) call enframing of the societies they ruled, subjecting them to the kind of order and discipline that made managing them and leading them possible.
Moreover, for all the talk of MENA, or sub-regional economic integration, in the early 1990s intra-regional trade was only 10 % of the total and less than 9 % during 2000s. This is to say that more than 90 % of trade is concentrating outside the region. It is, however, important here as on other issues, probably in politics and religion events, not to exceptionalise the MENA region. Such trading system and policy preferences are, indeed, not specific to the MENA region. The relatively low level of regional cooperation in the post-1960s period, which can be introduced as the independence era, is by no means unique to the MENA region, a similar phenomenon being observable in other underdeveloped regions at that time like Africa and Asia.
This limited regional trade and growth was, however, compounded in the MENA region by two main facts which are: 1) countries had strong ties with their previous colonisers, and 2) non-oil exports from these countries were relatively at low levels; they had relatively little to trade with each other so this situation automatically forced dependency on the West, especially on the colonial powers, namely Great Britain and France (Halliday, 2005). This illustrates that the colonial powers will continue to have strong interests that cause them to foster relationship with their colonies. Their trade with the colonies is considered as internal trade as Greaves (1954: 45) says:
With or without statistics, both short- and long-term capital movements are an integral part of colonial trade relationships with the…[colonisers]; and, once we realise the nature of the monetary organisation at work, it becomes clear that neither foreign-exchange nor balance-of-payments problems in the usual and accepted sense of these terms can arise for a colonial territory. It is meaningless therefore to discuss the economic position of any of them in these terms…In short, contemporary monetary conditions are evidence that trade with the colonial territories is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country, and is amenable to the principles of the home trade.
In the same way, the end of European colonialism translated into independence for the territorial states of the MENA region, although the local political elites who inherited this independence maintained close relations with their European colonies (Subrahmanyam, 2006). The discovery of oil in the aftermath of World War I and proof of its profound strategic importance in the World War II had an immediate impact on the oil-rich countries. The colonial powers established a strong alliance with previous colonies, like France with Algeria, while Britain reinforced relationship with a number of regional countries it had helped establish along the Western shores of the Persian Gulf previously as trading posts and now as promising oil sources Western axis also grew intensely interested in the oil resources of Iran and some other regional countries.
On the other hand, Turkey turned to the West after the war, joining NATO and further disengaging itself from MENA politics. The dominance of Western influence in Turkey, Iran and Arab countries in the colonial period and in pro-independence, as well as the building of new states, could have facilitated the establishment of a Regional Dependence System under Western tutelage (colonial powers). The growth of Regional Interdependency has several reasons. For instance, the United States tried to do just that in the mid-1950s through the Baghdad Pact. The pact sought to bring together Turkey, Iran, and Iraq and some other Arab states in a pro-Western alliance to block the expansion of Soviet power in the region (Salem, 2008).
Another important factor is that due to the collapse of URSS and as a result the communist ideology, international relations changed considerably. It is interesting to see that these changes influenced Western`s attitude towards MENA countries as in other regions. While the existence of the communist system provided legitimacy to one-party regimes in the MENA region as in Egypt and Algeria, the fall of the ‘Soviet bloc’ combined with the economic problems has decreased and weaker these legitimating principles. Since the end of the 1980s, the West has been claiming that “democracy is the only model of government with any broad ideological legitimacy and appeal in the world today” (Abrahamsen, 2000). A Western superiority concerning liberal democracy followed the end of the Cold War, without the fear of losing allies to communist opponent’s bloc and thus it was easier for Western countries to interfere again in MENA’s affairs in a new wave of colonialism and imperialism (Campbell, 2008).
Recently and as another feature of MENA region disunity during the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of 21th century, a new type of organised and non-organised violence has been developed. This type of violence is described as ‘new wars for legitimacy’ and refers to internal civil wars which are characterised by guerrilla techniques, large-scale human rights violations and global interconnectedness with foreign allies (Kaldor, 2012). The Iraqi conflict, conflicts in Sudan, Yemen, and Libya as well as in Syria can be characterised as new wars. Most of fighting groups use extreme violence against civilians and there is a substantial involvement of regional and global actors in these wars that represent again a massive penetration.
Several features of colonial period carried over into later periods, such as low levels of regime legitimacy in territorial states, high levels of dependency on outside power as new states seeking protection, high levels of external penetration of the region and continued appeals to wider political identities such as pan-Arabism, Modernism, and Islamism. This shows that in the pro-colonial period, the factors that promoted dependency on the colonial powers were more significant than those which could have achieved MENA regional interdependence.
Dr. Bendebka Ramzi is the author of: (2015). “International Relations in the Muslim World: Promoting Moderation”, in Moderation: A Multidisciplinary studies. New York: LEGAS Publisher.
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