Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second left) and foreign ministers from ASEAN member nations attend a special ASEAN-China foreign ministers' meeting in Yuxi, Yunnan province, on June 14, 2016. Photo: AFP / STR

Insurgencies, waves of “Arab Springs” and the endless wars on terrorism have clearly devastated the Middle East, prompting many to wonder if peace and security can ever be restored for the prosperity of the region.

As economies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) start looking at the meteoric rise of China and the economies in East Asia, there are several commonalities that should inspire them in their collective desire to bring both peace and prosperity back into the region so that more people can live with greater dignity.

As in the Middle East today, East Asia was once severely inflicted by insurgencies and wars and suffered many unimaginable hardships when used in proxy wars, and remains the only region on Earth ever to be devastated by atomic bombs.

After the collapse of colonial rule in Asia, the US came in peddling its ideology of democracy, and history shows just how devastating its foreign policy has been.

For the past 50 years or more, every intervention by the US has failed to attain any of its stated promises but only destruction and chaos.  

But the real problem is not with the Americans’ advocacy of democracy or capitalism, but rather in their inclination to indulge in their old Cold War mentality against any country or region that threatens their global leadership or challenges the US dollar as the world currency.

In its latest desperate move to contain the rise of China, its controversial AUKUS alliance, ASEAN nations are yet again forced to be on their guard, as they do not want the region to be turned into a nuclear war zone by another of US intervention.

The business of insurgencies

But the Middle East has its own unique set of challenges that are vastly different from East Asia’s.

A look into the finances of insurgent groups like the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) reveals that insurgency has been a very lucrative business.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) audit in 2003 revealed that Yasser Arafat, the former chairman of both the PLO and the PNA, diverted some US$900 million of public fund into his personal accounts.

When the Palestinian Finance Ministry conducted an investigation into this allegation, it discovered that these funds were invested in businesses like the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ramallah and venture-capital funds in the US and the Cayman Islands, and were never used to benefit the Palestinian people.

The US General Accounting Office subsequently reported that Arafat held more than $10 billion despite persistently claiming that he was bankrupt.

As money can corrupt the hearts and minds of leaders, it can also be used to incentivize the creation of more chaos and upheavals or even drives dangerous ideologies, thus making peace and security even more elusive for the region.

Despite receiving death threats, Jamal Al Suwaidi, the former director general of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, has remained active in highlighting the abuse of religion by political groups and contented that the threat of such extremist ideologies do not “reflect Islam.”

In his books The Mirage and The Muslim Brotherhood in the United Arab Emirates – Miscalculations he substantiated his claims and cited that the key obstacle to serious interaction and societal developments for the Arab and Muslim worlds lies in them being “hooked” by such unrealistic and regressive ideologies.

Arab Springs – ideology or business-driven?

If there is no war or threat, then the global business of the defense industries as we know it will collapse.

And without disruptions in the Middle East, oil prices will not be volatile and there will not be much opportunity for speculative investors to make a financial killing out of it.

As such, to attribute the waves of Arab Springs that ravaged the Middle East as being purely driven by the aspiration for democracy remains debatable.

The irony of US wars on terrorism

The US-led wars on Iraq and Libya not only turned them into failed states but also created dangerous power vacuums in the region, leading to an increase in insurgencies that are more loyal to the Iranian government.

This undermines the GCC, whose members ironically are the major customers of US defense solutions.

During the GCC’s Security Conference in Bahrain in 2012, Dhahi Khalfan Tamin, the then police chief of Dubai, told the conference that the US was the “number one” threat to the security of the Middle East.

Is the US even aware that it is destroying not just the goodwill of its allies, but also the integrity of its global leadership?

The prospect of a GCC Union

Despite its regional challenges, the six member states within the GCC have somehow managed to remain some of the fastest-growing economies in the Middle East.

But there will always be a limit to their economic prosperity as long as peace and security continue to evade the region, and this is also limiting their collective influence on global developments.

As such, will this prompt the GCC to find a way to unionize their collective resolve and be a catalyst of change for the region, just as China has been for the East Asia region?

The Southeast Asian perspective

The rise of China has obviously unsettled the US, both economically and politically, but what is less obvious is that it has also lifted the aspiration of economies in the region.

Despite all the conflicts in East Asia, Southeast Asia has remained relatively peaceful and secure, and some of its economies are growing rapidly, in tandem with the rise of China.

Like China, governments in the region are taking back ownership of their own sovereignty and are starting to stand on their own feet, knowing well that peace, security and prosperity for their country and the region can only be forged by the collective integration of their economies and its interdependency with the rest of the world.

What this means is that these economies in East Asia have started to embrace the dawn of the new multipolar world where the collective peace and prosperity for the region are preferred over the destructive and antagonistic nature of the old Cold War. 

In initiating discussions with North Korea to try to secure a peace settlement needed to bring the unresolved Korean War to a close, and in the Abraham Accords for the Middle East, Donald Trump’s administration showed that the US can be relevant and has a critical role to play in a multipolar world.

But its future will depend largely on its own resolve to fix its broken foreign policy and being consistent in initiating resolutions needed for a more peaceful and prosperous world.

The search for peace and prosperity

As in Southeast Asia, there will always be some troubled states in the Middle East but the GCC countries must remain resolute in appreciating that a small regional peace that can be forged today may well be the foundation for the wider prosperity of the region.

If the GCC members aspire to be like China and see their collective future within a GCC Union, then its members must find their own “Chinese characteristic” that defines their own version of regional economic cooperation, one that harmonizes with the various monarchy styles of governments within the region and yet sufficiently inclusive for a multipolar world where multilateralism thrives.

For that to happen, it must start incentivizing the US in the right direction, and collectively with the Americans, stop incentivizing insurgencies and wars.

Maybe, just maybe, peace and prosperity for the Middle East will not be that elusive after all.

Joseph Nathan has long been a principal consultant with several agencies in Asia and is the founder and principal consultant at Asia Strategic Consulting. He is a Singaporean and holds an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management.