Can the Middle East use economic integration as a vehicle for peace?

The European model of the past half a century is worth emulating, but not blindly copying

Solar panels in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh. Middle East countries stand to gain when they use energy relations as a conduit for better partnerships. Reuters
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The level of violent conflict in several parts of the Middle East continues to rise. Over the years, numerous senior policymakers inside and outside the region have called for economic integration as a way of defusing tensions, citing the post-war example of the EU.

Recent research suggests, however, that such an approach needs significant fine-tuning before it can effectively function as a vehicle for peace.

Those born in the 1980s and later might easily imagine that Europe has been a perennially peaceful continent, having grown up in an environment where the likes of France and Germany are more likely to argue about how straight a banana needs to be than about who has political sovereignty over the Alsace region.

Yet quickly flicking through the history books shows exactly how blood-strewn Europe’s lands have been over the past thousand years, with millions of lives being lost in endless wars, culminating in the deadliest conflict the world has ever seen: the Second World War.

While many factors have contributed to the post-war peace in Europe, economic integration is undoubtedly a leading one. Starting with the “baby step” of the European Coal and Steel Community, and moving through to a free trade area, a customs union, the common market, and the crowning jewel, the euro, Europe has successfully used trade, mutual investment and labour migration as vehicles for peace.

Appropriately enough, the intellectual paradigm underlying this approach – the classical liberal school of international relations – is one that originated in Enlightenment Europe, being associated with philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Though it took two hundred years of violence, Europe’s governments ended up proving Europe’s philosophers right.

In 1950s Europe, trade was a plausible contributor to the improving relations between former enemies. In 2024, however, commercial exchange has evolved

A regional non-profit called Mena2050 recently surveyed a series of leading experts inside and outside the region to understand if the Middle East could look to replicate Europe’s successful use of economic integration as a way of decreasing the incidence of violent conflict. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the executive committee of Mena2050.) The resulting research note revealed cautious support for this principle, with some important qualifiers that policymakers should keep in mind.

One of these relates to the changing nature of trade.

Montesquieu was a proponent of a theory known as “doux commerce”, claiming that when people meet to engage in mutually beneficial trade, this inevitably engenders a sense of mutual affinity between the people trading. Over time, if the trade is wide-ranging, this can make two sets of people less likely to engage in destructive and violent conflict, simply because they like each other too much.

In 1950s Europe, this was a very plausible contributor to the improving relations between former sworn enemies such as France and Germany. In 2024, however, commercial exchange has evolved considerably.

With the advent of electronic trade, and due to the intermediation of large ships that transport millions of tonnes of goods across the oceans, countries that trade often do so with minimal levels of direct personal contact. This makes it much harder to develop positive feelings towards one’s trading partner – the sort that can help eliminate destructive stereotypes.

For example, this can be clearly seen in Sino-American trade relations: despite trillions of dollars’ worth of goods and services being exchanged between the two geopolitical rivals each year, there is little to show for in terms of mutual affinity. After all, if an American buys a Chinese product via Ali Baba, or a Chinese person buys the latest iPhone from the Beijing branch of the Apple Store, there is essentially no international physical contact, and so no opportunity for the doux commerce theory to come into play.

Today in the Middle East, several advocate using deepening energy relations as a way of defusing conflict.

In the past, hypothetically, were fuels such as coal or lumber to be transported by long wagon trains where the travellers would stop off and interact with locals during their long journeys, we might have expected lots of cordial personal interactions to arise. Yet in the 21st century, gas and oil travel thousands of kilometres through pipelines and ships with crews of a dozen sailors, making energy trade an extremely impersonal process divorced from the doux commerce theory.

Notably, there are other mechanisms by which energy trade – even if it is devoid of human contact – can engender peaceful relations, and so Middle Eastern policymakers should not take a defeatist attitude and consider violent conflict an inevitability.

However, when they use energy relations as a conduit for better partnerships, they should consider broadening how those relations occur to give the doux commerce mechanism a chance of applying.

In this regard, the system used by the Japan Co-operation Centre for Petroleum and Sustainable Energy is instructive.

It funds extensive, long-term training programmes that bring together energy experts from all over the world, with the explicit goal of creating mutual affinity. Learning together and collaborating on solving difficult energy problems is a great way to create lasting relationships. These can contribute to more peaceful energy partnerships and help rehabilitate the doux commerce elements that have been made redundant by modern technology.

The Anglo-American philosopher Thomas Paine once commented that “commerce diminishes the spirit, both of patriotism and military defence”. If that is indeed the case, then Middle Eastern policymakers are right to try to emulate Europe’s successful transition from a theatre of conflict to one of peace.

However, it is important to remember that context matters, and the world that Paine and his Enlightenment colleagues lived and traded in looks very different to the one we inhabit today. Consequently, we need to stay away from soundbites and think hard about the underpinnings of doux commerce if we want it to guide the region to peace.

Published: April 03, 2024, 4:00 AM