‘The Middle East is going through a paradigm shift in its political development’ was perhaps the most constant refrain in Valdai Forum discussions. Pan-Arabism as a dominant idea sank in the Arab Spring, giving way to a swirling flow of Islamism, which seemed like it would be there for quite some time. Yet, a fresh wave, which took shape in 2019 and continued into 2020, has disproved this very point. Although estimates largely vary, most experts agree that a significant part of the population, and above all young people, are moving away from political Islam ideas. Konstantin Truyevtsev, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, takes a look at the immediate prospects for the Middle East in his analytical report.
The report “The Middle East: Toward an Architecture of New Stability?” by RAS member Vitaly Naumkin and historian Vasily Kuznetsov, PhD, largely set the tone for the discussion at the Valdai Club Middle East Conference. The goal of the issues regarding development forecasts for the region they raised was to provoke a debate, and that was exactly what actually did happen.
2019: Revolution 2.0?
For all the acute problems plaguing the Middle East such as unresolved conflicts, fragmentation of the region , the non-Arab states’ dominance trend and the Persian Gulf issues, the discussion largely focused on what could be summed up as ‘the Arab Street, revisited.’
The speakers saw the 2019 events in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq as a direct projection of the future not only for these countries, but – possibly – for the entire region (Syrian representative Hames Zreik even said “and for the entire world,” but that would probably be rather unlikely).
Arab spring extension? Yes, Algerian political scientist Yahia Zoubir explained, because the reasons that stood behind the 2011 uprisings have not gone anywhere. Governments have tried to upgrade authoritarianism; but the ‘street’ resisted it.
In fact, what do a whole lot of different countries, for example, like Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq all have in common? The number one thing is that these particular countries have either not been affected by the Arab spring at all, or they have been minimally touched. Secondly, each of them saw a rebellion against the elites, against the establishment as such, with intolerance to corruption being one of the major motives. And, also in each case, anti-corruption protests instantly evolved into protests against the existing political regime.
However, as Yahia Zoubir also noted, the recent protests in all of these countries showed a rethinking of the Arab spring lessons. Foreign Minister of the Interim Government of Libya Abdul Hadi Al-Hweij perhaps expressed this idea most bluntly describing the 2011 events as a peaceful youth protest against dictatorship, which the Islamists took over and perverted.
Furthermore, the protest movements in each of those countries have expanded beyond any ethnic or religious divisions. As Raghida Dergham (Lebanon) and Mohammed Ihsan (Iraq) emphasized, those were civilian movements underpinned by a nation-state identity (‘we are Lebanese, not Maronites, Shiites or Sunnis;’ ‘we are Iraqis, not Shiites or Sunnis;’ ‘we are Lebanese and Iraqis, not US or Iranian tools.’) In Algeria and Sudan, those movements have already achieved political changes, even though not final ones; in Lebanon and Iraq – not yet.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa explained the regional significance of these changes: young people account for 70 percent of the population of Arab countries, and these changes will determine their future over the coming decades. There is an open discussion underway in Egypt and in other countries, primarily among young people, about the role of religious thinking: whether one should live according to the covenants of fourteen centuries ago or whether it’s high time the situation should change. We are Egyptians, Iraqis and Lebanese, and not Sunnis, Shiites or whoever. And no one from the other side of the river, sea or ocean should be able to impose a solution on us.
Conflicts and mediators
The most acute conflicts – in Syria, Libya and Yemen – are nearing an end, for all their severity and remaining pitfalls. This statement made by one of the Russian participants did not trigger off any controversy or heated debate. This alone suggests that these conflicts are fading away from the acute agenda. The same cannot be said about the conflict between the US and Iran, though, or the new exacerbation between Israel and Palestine following the “deal of the century.”
In general, the recent regional conflicts and specifically those in the Middle East have led to a review of the mediator concept. This was especially noticeable where the parties mainly spoke English (non-Russian partners). On the one hand, they used the word “proxy,” meaning a party acting “by proxy,” that is an intermediary acting in the interests of one of the sides. On the other hand, the “broker” concept – meaning an intermediary with an ambition to represent both parties equally – is becoming ever more widespread.
It so happened, especially in the Syrian conflict, that the best the majority of regional and global players, who claimed to be able to resolve it, could do was join one of its parties – either the Syrian regime or the opposition. But, as the opposition became increasingly more mixed with outright terrorists, the various mediators felt increasingly embarrassed to support while failing to separate them, this situation led to a certain ‘distillation’ of mediators. Leading Arab countries began to sink to the bottom, while proxy countries such as Turkey and Iran surfaced and became beneficiaries of the process; moreover, they also now claim dominant regional positions. This also includes Israel, which benefited from direct non-participation in conflicts, if anything.
Arab countries are alarmed that three non-Arab states have wormed their way into the very heart of the region. Amr Moussa spoke with concern as he underscored the danger of growing ambitions of Turkey and Iran, while Raghida Dergham directly spoke about these countries’ penetration of Arab geography. Israel’s representative, Zvi Magen, noted that nowadays it is just three non-Arab countries – Turkey, Iran and Israel – that actually determine the regional agenda.
It is noteworthy, however, that most Arab participants are more worried about the growing role Turkey and Iran are playing rather than that of Israel – with the exception of the representatives of Palestine, of course, who emphasized the dangers of the “deal of the century” not only for the Palestinian people, but also for the entire region.
At the same time, Amr Moussa noted that, in his opinion, the “deal of the century” is not necessarily a dictate but an American-Israeli proposal, which, in the form it has been presented, for the Arabs is most definitely unacceptable. But this means that the Arabs should not just vigorously oppose – they need to come up with an alternative proposal that would fully reflect the interests of the Palestinian people. In this regard, one of the Palestinian participants spoke of the need to return to the original dilemma of the 1940s: either a democratic Palestinian state with equal rights for Jews, Muslims and Christians, or two states based on the 1947 UN decisions. As regards the mechanism for resolving the Palestinian problem, some of the participants proposed returning to the Middle East Quartet formula.
Speaking about the dangers of the confrontation between the United States and Iran, which, according to several participants, is becoming the number one threat to peace in the region, Iraqi representatives pointed out that the past few months’ events have dealt a major blow to the positions of both countries, especially in Iraq, which is the central link of dominance of both the US and Iran in the region. The riots in Baghdad and the main Shiite regions of Iraq were clearly anti-Iranian, but after Qassem Soleimani was killed, they also became partly anti-American. The Iraqi parliament’s decision on withdrawing foreign troops generally casts doubt on the future prospects of the US military-political presence in that country.
At the same time, the chain of events unfolding both in Iraq and Iran has seriously undermined the positions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). These events are unlikely to lead to any radical changes in Iran in the near future, but will have an impact on its regional positions.
Iranian representatives do not share this pessimistic view, though. One of them, Mehdi Sanaei, spoke about the growing role of the “axis of resistance,” in which the Iranians include Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Houthi Yemen. But their reports also contained an interesting peacemaking point, in particular, an attempt to support Russia’s initiative to create a regional security mechanism in the Middle East and in the Persian Gulf region in particular. At the same time, Sanaei noted that it is impossible to rely entirely on global players, especially on the West, to create this mechanism, since the role of the United States in the region is destructive, while Europe has not been able to develop an independent regional agenda.
So he cited the Astana process – if not as a model, at least as an example of a constructive format – in which Russia, Turkey and Iran have been able to significantly de-escalate one of the most difficult conflict nodes, for all their controversy and difference of positions.
Although a number of speakers (for example, Raghida Dergham) assessed some aspects of Russia’s role negatively rather than positively (“it contributed to the growing dominance of Iran and Turkey”), many participants (representatives of Syria, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon and some others) noted that Russia alone is capable of acting as an “honest broker” in the Middle East, since the United States has failed in this role, Europe has virtually distanced itself from the conflict, and China is not being active enough when it comes to this. They emphasised (for example, Amr Moussa did) that it would be desirable to involve Russia, the US, the EU, China, and possibly India in the peace process in the region.
Scenarios for the region’s future were a major highlight at the conference. They were actually listed as a priority debate topic, but at first the discussion seemed to wander off in order to address more crucial things. Nevertheless, those at the forum gave a fair share of their time and effort to try and make projections for the region’s near and more distant future.
The threats are out there, and indeed, several negative scenarios for the Middle East have already become a reality. Over the past 30 years, we have seen some of the projections come true that were made at the beginning of this period. The forecasts made in 2008 for the period up until 2030 are also materializing (for example, changes in a number of political systems in Arab countries).
While admitting this, Mustafa Aydin from Turkey – who chose to be the spearhead of futurological studies at the forum – highlighted a number of negative trends that have emerged today and are unlikely to be overcome or reduced under any known conditions: (1) growing food shortages; (2) depletion of water resources; (3) population explosion; (4) the associated increase in the share of young people who find no place in the economic structure or existing parameters of socialization; (5) the aggravating problems of gender segregation.
Everything already mentioned will exert constant and even increasing pressure not only on economic growth, but also on the opportunities for carrying out and managing economic and political reforms.
In this regard, the very future of nation-states becomes questionable – assuming the very concept of a nation-state is generally applicable to Arab political systems (Mohamed Eljarh, Libya). Be that as it may, fragmentation of society on religious, ethnic, sub-ethnic and other grounds is on the rise in the Middle East (despite the recent tendencies observed in Lebanon and Iraq), accompanied by a growing polarization of society. These trends have spread to Turkey, Iran and Israel along with the Arab countries. On top of that, militarization of the region due to the Iran-Saudi Arabia developments is increasing, combined with the accelerating danger of these states emerging as nuclear powers. As for the areas now moving toward stabilization after experiments and conflicts, this tendency is generally accompanied by an increase in the role of the state apparatus, leading to a restriction of rights and freedoms.
This means unpredictability will escalate once again in the region – the reason why the emergence of black swans, unexpected and poorly predictable players (Randa Slim) got back on the agenda, earning a sarcastic remark about the club members’ bend to ornithology.
Be that as it may, during the Valdai Club discussion, the distant future of the Middle East sounded far more predictable than its immediate prospects.