Problems and Challenges of the Middle East: The 11th Annual Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club

On February 21-22, 2022, the Valdai Discussion Club held its regular annual 11th Middle East Conference with the support of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. 

Experts from many countries of the region attended the venue, as well as experts from Russia and the EU countries. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sent a greeting message to the participants of the conference. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov spoke at the conference, as well as Faisal Mekdad, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Compatriots Affairs of Syria.

Prior to the conference, the Valdai Club published an expert report by Konstantin Truevtsev, titled “Russia’s New Middle East Strategy: Countries and Focal Points”. It noted that the disappearance of a homogeneous world order, in which more or less uniform rules operated, sets a different framework for regional systems. This directly concerns the Middle East, which has traditionally been both an object of external influence and a determining factor in the balance of power in other parts of the world. Thus, the changing dynamic of relations in the region opens up new opportunities and challenges for Russia as well.

As for the programme of the conference, this year the Valdai Club decided to deviate slightly from its traditional format, where the main focus is devoted to the analysis of the current state of affairs in key Middle East conflicts: Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, etc. This time, the experts were invited to consider broader common problems that are significant both for the Middle East and for the world as a whole. These included a new understanding of security, traditional energy in the context of a green transition, economic ties, migration processes, and youth policy.

The Security Session, which was open to the media, looked at the key aspects of the dynamics of this process. One of the topics of discussion was possibilities and limitations regarding the creation of institutional mechanisms for ensuring regional security in the Middle East. The experience of the European security architecture within the CSCE/OSCE during and after the Cold War was analysed. A number of conference participants noted that the transfer of European mechanisms to the Middle East is unworkable due to the large number of contradictions between the warring countries of the region and the lack of a clear bipolar structure in Europe, which facilitated the negotiation process. In addition, the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis amid the conference, made it possible to conclude that the institutional architecture of European security had turned out to be inefficient after 30 years. Regardless of the reasons, it is no longer possible to use it as an exemplary model for other regions of the world, several experts at the conference stressed.

At the same time, examples were given on certain aspects of non-military security, for example, on the provision of fresh water, and on historically conflicting states finding opportunities for cooperation, including a multilateral format under the auspices of the UN. Therefore, at first, ad hoc structures may solve specific problems, which may include certain countries on opposite sides of the barricades. if they are successful and efficient, then, in the future, it would be possible to raise the question of more comprehensive security institutions in the region.

Separately, Turkish views on international and regional security were discussed at the conference. Experts analysed Turkey’s approaches to conflicts, which were called “balancing acts”, when, depending on the context, Turkey enters into situational partnerships with certain countries during some conflicts, and opposes them in others. Naturally, this approach, unlike permanent alliances, requires a much subtler diplomatic game. But in any event, the modern Turkish model of the compartmentalisation of interests can be used by other countries.

Also in relation to Turkey, and in relation to other countries of the region, a number of experts discussed the concept of the “post-West” world: when, given the postulated decrease of the dominance of the West, many states of the Middle East face the problem of a “foreign policy identity crisis”. They must choose either to continue to focus on the West and the US (as it was before), to build bridges with their opponents, or to try to play their own standalone game.

Particular attention at the session was paid to the principles of security. The experts noted that almost no common shared principles are left. In a game without rules, only situational coalitions of actors are possible, but without a solid value base. The above situation of “friends in one, enemies in another” leaves no room for one.

The session on energy at the conference was of particular interest, since among the countries of the Middle East there are a significant number of producers of oil and gas. Therefore, the prospects for a global green transformation can have a very direct impact on the states of the region; on their well-being, economic and political ambitions. On the one hand, some of these countries have already announced large-scale green transition projects at the national level. On the other hand, it was very interesting to listen to the arguments the oilmen used in their own defence. First of all, they stressed the need to ensure energy stability and security in the future.

According to experts at the session, in the context of a growing world population, the demand for fuel and electricity will only increase, and a too-rapid withdrawal of oil from circulation may lead to increased demand outstripping the supply in the global energy market. All this can lead to a serious long-term energy crisis. According to experts, the same fears became apparent as a result of the energy crisis in the autumn of 2021 in Europe. In its aftermath, many began to lean towards recognising gas as a “green” fuel, despite it never being characterised as such before. Another aspect of this problem was revealed by the outflow of investments from the oil sector which transpired under the influence of green standards. Such a move can lead to an imbalance in the oil industry, during the difficult “green transformation” transition period, and thus only exacerbate the situation with the global energy balance.

It was also noted that in the future the developing countries outside the OECD will become the main consumers of energy, both due to their gradual modernisation, and, in part, due to the fact that the lion’s share of population growth is expected in this group of states. The lack of cheap and stable access to energy for the masses of poor people in these countries can be further hampered by an unbalanced green transition and thus rob them of their right to develop and grow. As a result, the idea was discussed that access to energy should be considered a basic human right. Experts also noted that the instability and price volatility of access to energy can very easily lead to social protests. In this regard, the examples of France and Kazakhstan were given.

As an alternative, a “green oil” strategy was proposed, with control over greenhouse gas emissions from oil production and refining, as well as the agreed use of profits from the oil industry (provided that investment in it is not accelerated) to finance green transition projects. In general, the voices of representatives of the oil industry and oil-producing countries differed significantly from the already-becoming- habitual optimistic tone regarding the green transition that we hear in many other forums. The main call here sounded like a rejection of the revolution in favour of evolution in energy matters.

A separate session of the conference was devoted to the economic recovery of the region in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as post-conflict recovery. This session was open to the media. During the session, various approaches to post-conflict reconstruction in Syria were discussed as well as possible scenarios for the involvement of various countries in this matter, including Russia and China. The issues of comparing the development projects of the Middle East with the Belt and Road initiative were also discussed. Particular attention at the session was drawn to the discussion of the prospects for a North-South transport corridor, as well as its potential opportunities and benefits for the logistics and infrastructure of the region. As problematic aspects for the post-COVID economies of the countries of the region, experts pointed to the return of inflation and rising food prices, the growth in debt of individual countries, as well as high budget deficits that have developed during the fight against the pandemic. All this, combined with closed markets and the rise of economic nationalism during the pandemic, according to some experts, leads to “reversed globalisation”. Therefore, the recovery process is expected to be longer than could have been traced from optimistic forecasts. The loss of human capital for a number of countries in the region can also be significant.

Another session at the conference was dedicated to the issue of migration from the region. During an interesting and frank discussion, a number of experts put forward the idea that the majority of migrants, no matter what they say, are not going to return to their country of origin. Their reasons may differ, whether it’s the economic underdevelopment of the country of origin, political pressure, or military conflicts causing flows of refugees. Therefore, attempts by recipient countries to pursue various strategies to make them return home are doomed to failure in advance. Financial assistance for these purposes, sent from rich recipient countries to the countries of origin, often serve only as something for corrupt interests to exploit. No less important is the question of why the large-scale remittances by migrants to their home countries, which sometimes account for a significant percentage of the GDP, in fact contribute so little to the growth of the economy in their countries of origin and, in fact, are often wasted.

Therefore, for recipient countries, the only possible effective strategy can be a policy of adaptation of migrants in the host country and support for their inclusion in social life. At the same time, however, as experts emphasised, this adaptation policy should be two-sided: to adapt not only migrants to the host society, but also adapt the host society itself to migrants and to change the social identity of the host society in this case. And this is much more difficult to do.

Also, the experts at the session recorded a controversial approach regarding the perception of the right to migration as a universal human right. The right to a decent life is enshrined in fundamental human rights documents and their judicial interpretations, for many people, cannot be achieved without recognising the right to migrate, due to socio-economic inequality in the world. However, such an approach is usually rejected by those states and societies that are recipients of migrants.

In this context, the experts separately considered the issue of skilled migrants (graduates and university students, those with in-demand professions, etc.) On the one hand, the recipient states may be more interested in them; on the other hand, participants actively discussed whether this stratum of migrants had a civic duty to return home and develop their own countries. At the same time, amid the aforementioned desire of the majority of migrants not to return, a contradiction became apparent: that unskilled migrants “have the right” to stay, while the professionals must leave in order to develop and change their own countries for the better. Here there may be different assessments of how fair this approach is, especially taking into account the fact that it is more often difficult for highly professional migrants to find themselves in the homeland, both due to its comparative economic underdevelopment, and due to the greater dissatisfaction among this particular category of people with those forms of social-political pressure and the lack of social mobility in their home countries, which they feel more acutely due to their higher level of education.

Also in this regard, the experts raised the question of what is “better” or “worse”: a failed, collapsed state (failed state) or a stable functioning autocracy. Which of these types of state is most likely to provoke migration, and which social groups are affected by this desire to leave in both cases? The same dilemma is also caused by the idea expressed by experts that the migration problem is primarily generational, since mainly young people leave.

This was the link between the session on migration and the last session of the conference: on youth policy in the Middle East. Here, a number of experts put forward the idea that despite the fact that young people were among the main drivers of the Arab Spring and despite the euphoric idea that “the future is yours”, the youth of these countries could not put forward either new political leaders or serious development projects independently, and relied heavily on older generations of leaders from both the government and opposition camps. As a result, in a number of cases, the result of the Arab Spring was only that one type of dictatorship was replaced by another.

The experts also emphasised that in stable, functioning authoritarian societies, one can single out a fairly clear trend towards gerontocracy — and at all levels. As a result, in the absence of upward social mobility, young people have only two options: revolution or emigration. We saw such a revolution, the Arab Spring, with the results described above. The exodus of young people only exacerbated the aforementioned generational problem. In the context of the Covid pandemic, however, cross-border mobility is limited, and opportunities for emigration became curtailed. And this, in the specific conditions of the Middle East, has made young people especially receptive to alternative options, many of them perceived in the region as having a religious extremist nature. However, the Valdai Club experts also noted that this desire of young people to search for socio-political alternatives in their homeland in the face of restrictions on migration could lead to an uptick in the popularity of ideas and movements on the left wing of the political spectrum in the region (progressivism, Marxism and others).

In general, the 11th Valdai Club Middle East Conference consolidated the mood for dialogue that exists in the expert community between the Middle Eastern countries and Russia, and also made it possible to develop practical recommendations that will be useful for further constructive cooperation in this area.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.