Strategic specialists are again resurrecting the idea of a new Marshall Plan for the Middle East. The hope is that programmes and funding aimed at embedding prosperity, trade and social mobility in post-Arab Spring failed and failing states will act as a deterrent to extremism.
Even as his forces bomb what remains of Syria, Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, last week called for “a kind of Marshall Plan to revive this war and conflict-torn region”.
His comments follow those of former US general John Allen, who called for a new economic initiative similar to the US plan aimed at the economic reconstruction of postwar Europe.
Here are six key reasons why such a plan, at least as conceived by the original architects in the postwar period, would not work.
Firstly, the chances of cooperation between Russia and the West, on anything, are slim. Mr Putin is massing his forces along his western border and threatening Eastern European Nato-affiliated states. He is ostentatiously showcasing his next generation of nuclear missile city-killers and has just sailed a Syria-bound naval task force within 32 miles of the UK coast. He has inserted himself through military opportunism into the Syrian sociopolitical narrative and, despite his words above, would be hostile towards any US-sponsored reconstruction plan that would inevitably threaten his newly-minted regional influence.
Secondly, any reconstruction plan would be seen, whatever its motives, as a reimposition of “colonialist” influence in a region whose systemic ills were, in the minds of many, created by that same influence. In many postwar European countries, levels of desperation, hopelessness and displacement lent the Marshall Plan’s sponsors an element of compulsion in imposing new economic and trading models. Countries such as Egypt, whose economic reconstruction is key to any regional rebirth, would readily receive financial and other types of conventional aid, but would be unlikely to take instructions on exactly how and by who it should be deployed.
Thirdly, the original Marshall Plan was aimed at reconstituting industrialised, trading economies in countries with representational political systems. It was a matter of restarting an engine that had run out of fuel. In many countries of the Middle East, where centrally-planned command economies have combined with poor governance to produce unequal patterns of prosperity, it would be a matter of first building the engine. There is no capacity and certainly no mandate for such a venture.
In addition, the original plan worked with strong nation states. Dysfunction in Syria and Libya, Kurdish sovereign ambitions and rampant tribalism and sectarianism make the identification of a responsible local governmental partner for reconstruction nearly impossible in those places most in need of reconstruction.
Next, aside from Mr Putin’s regional ambitions, it is clear that any concerted, western-inspired plan would fall foul of Iranian regional ambitions. The so-called Arab Spring was significant as an expression of discontent with regional governments, but it also opened the door to renewed Iranian influence – power greatly amplified by the US-led decision to lift sanctions on that country. Iran, at its true governing level, is still a deeply anti-western theocracy. Any plan that has to work around Russia would also have to work around Iran.
Finally, a Marshall Plan for the Middle East presupposes western consensus. Western powers are tired and strategically played out. Their electorates are growing more populist and nationalist and less inclined towards multilateralism. Their economies are exhausted, their populations older and their own histories and cultures are more inclined to be forgotten or ignored. Recent forays into Middle Eastern affairs by western powers have for the most part proved disastrous. How about a “mind your own business plan” instead of a new Marshall Plan, asked one writer on Middle Eastern affairs.
The real impetus for any sustainable regional reconstruction must come from within – albeit with the help of multilateral bodies such as the IMF and the UN and sustained by generous dollops of foreign aid and inward investment. The UAE, for instance, has declined to see itself as a construct of international strategic concerns and postcolonial influences. It has embarked instead on a difficult quest for self-determination through diversification, trade and multilateralism.
The old certainties associated with existence under the western strategic umbrella are less certain now. It falls to those states capable of a measure of self-determination to reform themselves and help those around them less capable of reform. We see an example of this in public and private investment by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Egypt – mini local Marshall Plans.
The region is blessed with young people, too many of whom are abandoning their homelands in exchange for a dangerous Mediterranean crossing and refugee status in an increasingly less welcoming Europe.
Only economic reform from within, true regional cooperation and the heartfelt denunciation of sectarianism and extremism will prevent the exodus and lay foundations for regional reconstruction.
Martin Newland is a former editor in chief of The National