Earlier this year, the foreign ministers of Israel, the U.S., the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt gathered for a summit at a kibbutz in the Negev—an event that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. Representatives of these countries reconvened in June and established the “Negev Forum” as a basis for further regional cooperation. Hoping that this new institution will both benefit its members and expand to include other pro-Western nations in the Middle East, Daniel B. Shapiro holds up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a model to emulate:
The year was 1967. While the Middle East was convulsed by its own conflicts, the nations of Southeast Asia, just emerging from the colonial era, had been riven by disputes. Indonesia and Malaysia had fought a low-grade border war on the island of Borneo, and Malaysia and the Philippines were also at loggerheads over conflicting territorial claims. War still raged in nearby Indochina, threatening the stability of the entire region.
Despite—or perhaps because of—these circumstances, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore came together in 1967 to found ASEAN.
In 1992, the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) was signed, leading to the phased elimination of tariffs and customs duties on trade between the countries. In 2009, an ASEAN human-rights body was established, with the stated aim of allowing the member states to hold each other accountable for upholding certain standards. ASEAN began to engage other nations and regional groups as a bloc, signing free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand, China, India, and South Korea, hosting foreign ambassadors to its secretariat, and convening summits with foreign leaders.
Regional integration represents a sea change in thinking about how the nations of the Middle East and North Africa region will relate to one another in the decades to come: identifying common interests, rooted in their common history, and fostering a common identity while preserving what is unique about each of them (and gaining appreciation for each other’s uniqueness). It moves beyond building trust to sustaining inherently trusting relationships, beyond proving the mutual benefits of the partnership to internalizing the logic that there are deeper gains to be harvested from thinking and acting collectively than from viewing all interests through an individual lens. And as the ASEAN experience teaches us, integration need not be held back by the diversity of Middle Eastern countries’ sizes, economies, political systems, cultures, or religions.