Wednesday, May 16, 2018

12th Al Jazeera Forum: Session 4 - Changing Alliances in the Region

Where is the Middle East Heading?

On April 28-29, 2018, Al Jazeera held its 12th Forum providing an opportunity for leading scholars and other experts to discuss a variety of topics affecting the Arab world.  The website for the forum, @aljazeeraform, provides additional information and links to the videos of each session.  You can follow the Twitter coverage at #AJForum.

As I noted in my first post in this series, I am working from my notes, so I apologize in advance if I incorrectly paraphrase the remarks of any speaker. I was also reliant on the quality of the translation services and their audibility. Therefore, I am happy to make any needed edits to this summary.

For summaries of the other sessions see:
Session 4: The Middle East Amid Changing Regional and Global Alliances

Session focus:

The crises and conflicts that erupted during the past numbers of years -- with the Gulf crisis being the most recent -- cover almost the entire Middle East, creating a high level of political and strategic liquidity.  Accordingly, relations between the region's countries have witnessed great changes, thus reshaping the features of the general scene and forming regional and global alliances that will not settle on a final form in the near future.  Rapid changes rocking the Middle East hinder stability, increase sources of threat, and make current regional and global alliances temporary and fragile arrangements open to all options.  Where is the Middle East heading amid these transformations and changing alliances?


  • Abdullah Al Shayji, Chairman of the Department of Political Science at Kuwait University.
  • Galip Dalay, Research Director at Al Sharq Forum and Senior Associate Fellow at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies.
  • Mohamad Hosam Hafez, Assistant Professor at the College of Law at Qatar University.
  • Elahe Kolaie, Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Central Eurasia Research Department Centre at the University of Tehran.
  • Leonid Issaev, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow. 
Key points:

Abdullah Al Shayji:  Even though 400 million Arabs exist, power does not reside in their hands.  They engage in little joint action.

America's retreat from the region during the Obama administration was very disappointing.  It allowed the increasing role of Russia.

A cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia started when the Saudi embassy was attacked in 2016.   [See here and here for more information. And, this video does a good job explaining the cold war and the proxy wars in the region.  It suggests this rivalry began much earlier than 2016.]  

Iran claims to control the capitals of four Arab countries. 

Some people hope that Salman's rise to King of Saudi Arabia, Trump's election, and the formation of a 40 country Arab union could be a new beginning for the region.  But, that hope was dashed when members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)  turned on Qatar and imposed a blockade. 

Until recently, the GCC served as a model for Arab unity.  It served as a leader.  But that is no longer true and its diminished situation is "very painful" for Arabs.  

Turkey, Russia, and Iran, rather than Arabs, are controlling the future of Syria. 

Trump has made the situation more complex.  He is the first American president outside the political establishment.  He is "moody" and "transactional."  He creates a lot of concern among regional political leaders.

The US presence in the Gulf costs American taxpayers nothing.  But, Trump wants the region to pay more for its security.  

In comparison, Israel costs US taxpayers $3 billion [a year].  Moving the embassy to Jerusalem adds insult to injury.  

The US is now producing more oil than Saudi Arabia.  But, the world still needs stability in the Arab world.

It is not likely that North Korea will denuclearize.  Iran is watching.  Where is the nuclear deal heading?
  • US withdrawal from the deal could be the "best, worst option" because it does not cover ballistic missiles, geopolitical expansion, or Iran's support for terrorism.
  • Alarm bells should ring in the Arab world. War is possible. 

Turkey and Iran both have national ambitions that extend beyond their borders.  What about Arab ambitions?

A new Middle Eastern order may emerge, but Arabs will be weaker.  Many Arab countries are fragile or failed states not capable of delivering services to their people.  

Galip Dalay:

Speaker has seen a shift to discourse about "national security," but it covers a "regional or network security," too. 

Yet, this push creates regional insecurity because by imposing demands on a neighbor to bolster a country's security, the second country impinges on the sovereignty of the first country.

Who is a terrorist?
  • In some countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria, the term covers political opposition.  Thus, the war on terror is problematic.
Alliances driven by fear rather than a shared vision:
  • The authoritarian group: Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, and US via Trump.
    • Drive for a new regional order because the Arab Spring created regime anxiety.
    • Political Islam is deemed an intolerable "other."
    • But, national security depends on US.
  • Iranian network:  Asad's Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi government, and Houthi government.
    • More coherence.
    • More network security.
      • But creating more regional backlash with more instability.
  • Turkey & Qatar:
    • Supported Arab Spring.
    • Qatar must now focus on its own national security instead of its foreign policy.
Each group is exclusive of the other groups.  So, they create more instability with counter-responses.

They are all trying to maximize their own national security or network security.

The challenge is to turn network security into regional security.

Mohamad Hosam Hafez:  When the post-World War boundaries of Arab countries were drawn, the Arab people were not consulted.  These boundaries laid the seeds of conflict.  Most of the state boundaries are not validated by international law.

  • New way of dealing with existing countries.
  • Non-state actors.
Alliances between countries are fragile and prone to change.
  • Temporary understandings.
  • Not creating long-term alliances to serve joint interests.
  • Even though GCC was a promising model, current events undermining it to the point of breaking it up or marginalizing its role in the region. 
Democracy should support people and allow them an easier way to change leaders.  But, post-Arab Spring, we saw governments blocking the actions of the people seeking change.  Cannot ignore people's desires.  They were political actors, despite counter-revolution. 

Even alliances in Syria seem short-term with Russia exploiting resources of oil and phosphate. 

Non-state actors:  If a strong security alliance had existed in Syria, ISIS would not have found a weakness to enter.

Elahe Kolaie: Arms race has occurred in the Arab region.  It has become an important purchaser of weapons in the last decade. 

States in the region do not use soft power effectively through dialogue and direct interaction.  Enhancing diplomatic actions would benefit everyone.

Democratization is an important issue.  Could change the dynamics of power politics.

US policy deprives Iran of the mutual benefits of the the region through expanded relationships with neighboring countries on both Eastern and Western borders.  It could serve as a stabilizing force, but that has been a missed opportunity. 

Iran seeks a regional dialogue. 

Leonid Issaev: The region is undergoing a reconfiguration.  The previous order collapsed after the 2011 Arab Spring.

New rules of the game and security architectures exist.  Question is whether they are created within the region or by outside actors.

Regional actors need to create agenda for region.  Policy now is very personalized. States tend to solve problems in most radical ways.

Global actors are not that interested in solving the problems of the Middle East.  That's a problem.
  • See Yemen humanitarian crisis.  Just try to organize an event about it, and the room will be empty.
  • Russians are not interested in discussing Middle East problems unless they have a nexus with US policy or actions.

Instead, global actors will use Middle East conflicts to serve their own interests.

No focus exists on reconciliation or disarmament.

Russians achieved short-term gains for Syrian regime, but no long-term gains for Syrian people.

No one outside the region has any solution for the Middle East problems, and they cannot create order in the region. 

Q & A:

Mood now reflects Iran's move towards hegemony at the expense of Arabs.  Iran is playing a negative role in the region.  May put other countries at risk.

In the absence of political leadership and a robust civil society, who can solve problems of the region?

Summary: Disorder.  Iranian intervention. Turkey's ambition.

Iran quickly sent snipers and weapons into Syria.  Hard to see Iran's interventions in Syria as enhancing regional security.

In the middle of a big turmoil, can we produce a new generation of problem-solvers?  Probably not.  They are raised by expat maids, [over]use technology, and have no dreams or aspirations. [Ouch.]

US is trying to impose tough diplomacy in connection with the Iranian nuclear deal.  

Syria is now split in four zones:  American, Russian, Iranian, and Turkish.  Does this represent the new paradigm in the Middle East? 

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