A Middle East regional security dialogue process: Getting the ball rolling

  • Peter Jones

    Professor, University of Ottawa; Executive Director, The Ottawa Dialogue

    أستاذ بجامعة أوتاوا

The idea of an inclusive regional security dialogue in the Middle East has been around for some time, but seems to be getting renewed attention.1 This article will briefly review the idea and place it in the context of today’s situation in the region. It will also reflect on ‘lessons’ from the experience of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), along with those from other regional systems.

Why now?

The Middle East is widely held to be at (yet another) crossroads. Decades-old ‘certainties’ are crumbling, and few know what will replace them.2 Many factors have led to this situation. They include a widespread perception that the role of the US in the region is changing; growing concerns among some regional states over the role of Iran, leading to new alignments, most notably the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’; a perceived steep decline in the importance accorded by many regional states to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question as a precondition to other changes; and the upheavals to the regional political and social order that had been brewing for some time and burst forth during the Arab Spring. In this context, new constellations of interests and alignments are likely. Some of them are already emerging. Could steps to begin an inclusive, cooperative regional security dialogue process also be part of this process of regional change?

What, exactly, is the idea?

In essence, the idea is an inclusive, cooperative regional dialogue system to establish a set of regional norms of conduct and a standing dialogue mechanism to promote implementation over time. Such regimes exist in every region of the world except the Middle East.3 Though these regional organizations differ in scope, objectives and impact, they are not alliances or collective defence pacts whereby certain actors have banded together to deter aggression. Rather, they are often referred to as ‘cooperative security’ organizations. This means that the states of a region, some of whom have deep differences, have agreed that utility exists in having a regional forum to promote dialogue and cooperation, even as other differences play out. Importantly, the existence of an inclusive and cooperative regional system does not mean that collective defence arrangements cannot also exist. Europe, for example, contains both the OSCE (inclusive, cooperative security) and NATO (collective defence). Asia has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN (inclusive, cooperative) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (collective defence). 

How to get there?

One might be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands and saying that the Middle East will never achieve the kinds of organizations which exist elsewhere. However, it is important to remember, as one study of the idea, the SIPRI Report, has put it, that ‘no regional security system was born fully formed’.4 All of the other regional organizations were very modest versions of their present selves when they began. There is no reason to believe that the Middle East will follow a different trajectory. Expectations that an all-encompassing regional system will simply spring forth should be kept firmly in check. 

A first key concept therefore is, begin with what (and who) you can begin with. Start small and build over time. It is likely that not all regional states will be prepared to join at the outset. Begin with getting those countries which are interested together to start considering what a regional security system would look like. This should culminate in some sort of founding document laying out important regional norms of conduct and how the system is intended to promote them. Leave a seat open for others to join when ready to do so and to abide by the understandings and commitments enshrined in the founding document of the system. The founding documents of existing regional security organizations can serve as reference points, but a new Middle East system will need to develop its own, reflecting its unique situation and history.5

Similarly, the selection of initial subjects for consideration in such a system must be modest – but also cautiously ambitious. This means that the first subjects for discussion should reflect who is at the table and what they can achieve, but a broader vision of what the process intends to tackle must also be firmly established. In this, it seems likely that an expansive definition of what ‘security’ means should be entertained (see below). In addition to the exploration of cooperation on more traditional issues of ‘security’, space should be left for cooperation on wider social and economic issues as well. As the past decade demonstrates, pandemics, coping with the effects of environmental change and issues such as youth unemployment are region-wide problems which would benefit from enhanced cooperation between regional states.6

In terms of facilitating and convening the initial stages of the process, experience shows that it is important that the impetus comes from local actors who can take ‘ownership’ of the process. In all other regions, the security system which emerged was led by local states. Here again, the ‘begin with what (and who) you can begin with’ principle is important, as those who host the initial discussions will, by definition, come from those states that are prepared to take part at the beginning. 

The question of extra-regional participation will be a particular issue in the Middle East. The involvement of extra-regional powers is critically important for some regional states, but a point of contention for others. In all other cooperative regional security systems extra-regional actors contribute to, but do not dominate, the process. There are a variety of possible mechanisms to achieve this balance. In the case of Europe, it is a rather unique situation in that the US and Canada have had a seat at the OSCE table from the very beginning as full participants. Indeed, Soviet recognition of the US and Canada as integral parts of the European security system, in return for Western recognition of the post-1945 European boundaries, was a key compromise that made the OSCE’s predecessor organization possible. The OSCE also maintains cooperation and dialogue arrangements with 11 states in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia. In Asia, ASEAN is run by the regional countries, but there are institutional arrangements whereby the extra-regional countries have formal seats at the table in both Track 1 (the ASEAN Regional Forum)7 and Track 2 (CSCAP and also ASEAN-ISIS).8In Central Asia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has eight member countries, four observer countries and six ‘dialogue partner’ countries.9 Then, there are memorandums of understanding with various other organizations, such as the UN, ASEAN and others.10 The involvement of extra-regional players in the SCO is thus more functional, with extra-regional countries and institutions being invited to play a role as circumstances and mutual interests warrant. 

A second key concept is known as geometry variable. This idea suggests that a flexible approach should be taken to how the system is initially structured, both in terms of membership and issues for discussion. There may be issues which those prepared to formally begin the process can work on productively at the official level and they should do so. But there may be other issues which some are not prepared to discuss officially. In this case, possibilities exist for a structured but semi-official process of dialogue to allow for consideration of such issues and also for the inclusion of a wider constellation of actors. This points to a kind of structured Track 1.5 dialogue process that could accompany the official track and permit more inclusive and flexible approaches to participation and subject matter.11 The OSCE has used its Track 2 as a mechanism to encourage dialogues with partners, such as in the so-called Euro-Med region.12 As noted above, ASEAN has for many years had a multi-layered Track 2 system (CSCAP and ASEAN-ISIS), which permits in-depth exploration of subjects not yet ready for Track 1 and also participation of actors not yet willing to participate in Track 1 or acceptable to everyone there. The ASEAN Track 2 system is by no means perfect, and has been criticized for sometimes being too timid and too dominated by its Track 1 patrons.13 Both of these examples show that creative approaches can be taken to permit dialogue to go on at multiple levels in order to allow those that are not part of the official process to participate, and also to permit subjects deemed premature for official discussion to begin to be explored. 

A third key concept is, carefully define what is meant by ‘security’ in this context. This follows the previous discussion over the differences between ‘cooperative/inclusive’ security and ‘collective’ defence. While it would be premature to think of the Abraham Accords as an ‘alliance’, some states of the region are at least tentatively exploring the feasibility of some sort of ‘collective’ arrangement to deter Iran.14 As sovereign states, they are entitled to do so, of course. But what is being proposed here is a different kind of regional body – one which would exist to provide a platform for cooperative and inclusive approaches to regional issues. Experience has shown that having different types of co-existing security arrangements can benefit a region. But care must be taken to make sure that the differences between them are clearly understood and expressed. Above all, attempts to turn what is supposed to be an inclusive and cooperative process into one which is exclusionary should be avoided. In particular, if some argue for the exclusion of others for alleged unacceptable behaviour, this needs to be resisted. All other regional cooperative systems took an inclusive approach, even though there were significant differences over behaviour, and collective defence arrangements were also in place. Indeed, it is critical to the success of these cooperative systems to view such inclusion of differing, and even antagonistic, states as a way to try to bring everyone into discussions that are intended to establish new patterns of conduct in the region over time – even while collective security arrangements are maintained in the meantime by some in the region.

The ‘geometry variable’ concept permits all issues of importance to participants to be on the agenda, albeit on different parts of it. The OSCE experience demonstrates that creative ways can be found to accommodate different issues and to ensure that all are able to point to their concerns being addressed by the process. While it would probably be improper to speak of ‘baskets’ in the formal sense that they are used in the OSCE process, a broader definition of security means that certain issues can be divided between different thematic areas. Combining the OSCE’s ‘baskets’ approach with the ASEAN Track 2 system, some issues could be explored at different levels of dialogue in the first instance. 

A way forward

The idea outlined here is simultaneously modest and ambitious. It is modest in that it eschews the notion of creating a fully formed inclusive regional cooperative security process at the stroke of a pen. Instead, it argues for a small constellation of actors to begin considering more modest objectives, perhaps at different levels of dialogue. But it is ambitious as to its ultimate objectives. In this, it mirrors the trajectories of other regional cooperation processes which exist around the world.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. 


1 A brief history of the development of this idea may be found in Jones, P. (2022), ‘A Middle East Cooperation and Security System: Has the Time Come?’, Middle East Policy, 29(1), pp. 74–89, https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12620 

2 See: The Economist (2021), ‘Identity crisis: The Arab world’, 28 August 2021, https://www.economist.com/special-report/2021-08-28; and Foreign Affairs (2022), ‘The Middle East Moves On’, March/April 2022 issue, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/issue-packages/2022-02-22/middle-east-moves 

3 The OSCE in Europe; the Organization of American States (OAS) in the Americas; the African Union (AU) in Africa; the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in South Asia; the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) for Eurasia; and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Asia-Pacific region.

4 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2011), Towards a Regional Security Regime for the Middle East: Issues and Options, Report, Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/files/misc/SIPRI2011Jones.pdf 

5 These founding documents are very important parts of such systems. A previous project looked at what such a founding document for a Middle East regional system might be. The draft is appended as Annex 1 to Jones (2022), ‘A Middle East Cooperation and Security System: Has the Time Come?’. 

6 A ‘framework’ of issues that might be considered and mechanisms to do so were discussed by a previous project; see ibid., Annex 2.

7 ASEAN Regional Forum (2022), ‘About ARF’, https://aseanregionalforum.asean.org/about-arf/  

8 The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) is a standing Track 2 organization comprised of member institutes from the ASEAN countries and from extra-regional countries. See: http://www.cscap.org/.  Meanwhile, ASEAN-ISIS is a regional Track 2 body which consists of regional Institutes of Strategic and International Studies from ASEAN member states only. In addition to its internal work, ASEAN-ISIS also hosts workshops with institutes from non-ASEAN countries. See: https://www.isis.org.my/2018/09/23/asean-isis/ 

9 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (2022), ‘About SCO’, http://eng.sectsco.org/about_sco/  

10 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (2022), ‘General Information’, http://eng.sectsco.org/cooperation/ 

11 For more see: Longhini, A. and Zimmerman, E. (2021), ‘Regional security dialogues in Europe and in Asia: The role of Track 1.5 forums in the practice of international security’, European Journal of International Security, 6(4), pp. 481–502, https://doi.org/10.1017/eis.2021.14 

12 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2022), ‘The New-Med Track II Network’, https://www.osce.org/networks/newmedtrackII 

13 For a collection of papers on this system, which is more akin to Track 1.5, see: Ball, D. and Guan, K. C. (eds) (2010), Assessing Track 2 Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific Region, Singapore: Nanyang Technological University. For an examination of how this kind of Track 2 might be relevant to the Middle East see: Kaye, D. D. (2007), Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation; and Jones, P. (2014), ‘Civil Society Dialogues and Middle East Regional Security: The Asia-Pacific Model’, in Kane, C. and Murauskaite, E. (eds), Regional Security Dialogue in the Middle East: Changes, Challenges and Opportunities, New York: Routledge. 

14 Early reports suggest that this is centred on some sort of air defence system, though there has been no official confirmation yet. See: Gross, J. A. (2022), ‘Gantz: Israel is building a Middle East air defense alliance against Iran’, The Times of Israel, 27 June 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/gantz-israel-is-building-a-middle-east-air-defense-alliance-against-iran/