The Return of Diplomacy?
The Arab World in 2024

The year 2024 could prove to be a particularly pivotal moment in determining the future of the international system. How the international community navigates the treacherous challenges posed by a world transitioning from a bipolar one to what appears to be a yet-undefined multipolar one will be key, writes Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, Former UN Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Special Envoy for Syria (2014–2019), for the 13th Middle East conference of the Valdai Discussion Club

More specifically: the international community must determine how to deal with the challenges posed by artificial intelligence, climate change, cybersecurity, connectivity, supply chains, etc. These problems, however, require sustained efforts and long- term solutions, not immediate ones.

Also, will the political polarisation within countries that we have been witnessing over the past few years be exacerbated and in so doing, undermine democratic rule? Will populism increase its sway over the imagination of voters? 

Will Russia and the West reach a new modus vivendi in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine? Will China be able to overcome the economic and societal difficulties it is facing, and pursue with renewed vigour its quest to be the world’s dominant economic power? Will the United States be able to meet both the domestic and the international challenges it is facing in a manner that allows it to maintain its advantageous position in the international balance of power?

Also, will the Global South be able to carve out a prominent role in charting the future course of the international system and in this context, will BRICS - with its enlarged membership, including two Arab states - be able to influence the future trajectory of the international system? Will there be more coup d’etats in Africa? Will Latin America follow in the footsteps of Brazil or Argentina? How will Asia manage its relationship with both China and the United States?

Will the Arab World turn the crisis in Gaza into an opportunity to enhance its global position and influence?

All of these uncertainties are taking place at the time, when more than 50 elections are scheduled, some in countries that wield considerable influence on the international scene. Specifically, the United States may be facing the most consequential elections in its history.

These uncertainties raise questions that will need to answered to be able to discern the direction the world will take for the rest of the 21st century.

It is in this wider context that the future of the Middle East, including the Arab World, needs to be considered.

Although it is blessed with a strategic position astride some of the world’s most crucial transport and transit links, and possesses the world’s largest reserves of hydrocarbons, the region has been unable to realise its full potential.

There are many reasons for that. Some are domestic and others external. However, what sets the region apart from the rest of the Global South is the degree of intensive interaction between the domestic considerations and the external influences, which surpasses all other regions of the Global South.

The domestic brakes that have hindered progress largely relate to the issue of governance. Interestingly, even in the 21st century, it is the heredity monarchies that have proved to be the most stable. They have so far been able to preserve the social contract with their populations, made possible by seemingly endless deep pockets generated by profits derived from the export of hydrocarbons. The exceptions have been Morocco and Jordan, which are net energy importers and middle-income countries. Nevertheless, due to their history, religion, strong links beyond the Arab world, and astute domestic policies, they have been able to maintain a relatively high level of internal stability.

Regarding external impediments to progress, foreign intervention has been the most salient factor. By virtue of its resources and location, the region is an arena for competition among major foreign powers. This was the case in the colonial era and during the Cold War, and it continues in the present.

Nowhere has foreign intervention been more detrimental to the region than with regards to Palestine, which has implications for peace and stability for the Middle East as a whole.

While there have been many attempts to solve the Palestinian problem, none have been successful in addressing the underlying cause: the inability of the Palestinian people to exercise their right to self-determination by establishing an independent state.

History is replete with missed opportunities; a major one was the failure of the Arab countries to capitalise on the 1973 war to set an irreversible course towards a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

One can therefore not escape comparing the situation of the Arab World in the aftermath of the 1973 October War with the events that have taken place since October 2023.

The 1973 war brought Arabs together in an unprecedented manner. The differences that kept Arab countries apart in the 1950s and 1960s gave way to united action. Republics and monarchies, progressive and reactionary, pro-Soviet and pro-American regimes, at least for a fleeting moment in historical terms, forced the international community to pay attention to one of the Arabs’ most fundamental grievances: the need to end the Israeli occupation of Arab lands in Egypt and Syria and above all, the need to bring justice to the Palestinian people in the form of exercising their right to self-determination and the establishment of an independent state.

In 1973, the Arab countries, despite being an important source of energy to the world markets, were only marginally integrated in the international economy. Turkye and Iran posed no direct threats to Arab interests. At the time Arabs, however, had no common approach to achieving peace with their main adversary, Israel.

The situation of the Arab World in 2024 is markedly different. While Israel has become economically and militarily stronger, and both Iran and Turkey wield considerable political influence in the region, the Arab World also has considerably more potential in 2024 compared to 1973 to influence not only the future of the region, but all the evolving international system.

The ideological divisions amongst Arabs that existed during the Cold War are no more. Overall, they have a more balanced relationship with the major actors on the international scene. Their dependency on the United States has diminished considerably, including the Arab countries in the Gulf.

Relations with China are developing rapidly. There is significant cooperation with Russia, particularly in the areas of energy and the procurement of arms. There is intensive cooperation with the European Union.

Multipolarity and Connectivity
Russia and the Arab World: A New Paradigm of Cooperation?
Igor Matveev
The attractiveness of cooperation with Russia in the eyes of the elites of Arab countries and the GCC monarchies is associated with the process of sovereignisation of their foreign policy at the stage of transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world, Igor Matveev writes.

Moreover  the Arab world holds an increasingly important position in the international economy. They account for 46% of crude oil and 30% of natural gas exports and rising, 30% of international container trade and 16% of air cargo, and their sovereign-wealth funds command over $3 trillion in assets.

The inflow of foreign direct investment to the Arab economies doubled in 2022 compared to 2019, rising from 3% to 6%. The weight of Arab countries in the emerging markets indices is now at 7% and is expected to rise in the next few years to 10%.

Also as a reflection of their increasing weight, a number of Arab countries are members or are in the process of becoming members of economic groupings that wield considerable influence in the international economy. Most notably, Saudi Arabia is a member of the G20. Egypt and the Emirates have become members of BRICS as of January 2024.

Moreover, the Arab countries are now committed to peace with Israel as a strategic objective, as stipulated in the 2002 Arab Peace initiative.

The Arab countries are therefore in a much more favourable position, not only to shape the future of the Middle East, but also make a significant contribution in shaping the evolving international system.

But to do so, Arab countries need to articulate a vision for a comprehensive and durable peace in the Middle East. This involves not only managing their relations with Israel, Iran and Turkey, but with the world at large, particularly the major powers: the United States, China and Russia.

In addition, they need to intensify their activities in addressing transnational challenges such as the green energy transition, environmental sustainability, connectivity, cybersecurity and last but not least, international terrorism.

In this connection, two recent developments that have taken place over the last few months, if properly utilised, can immeasurably enhance the influence of Arab countries in the region and on the world stage.

The first is the crisis in Gaza. The second is the historical position taken by the International Court of Justice on January 18, 2024 in the case brought by South Africa against Israel concerning the latter’s violation of the International Convention on Genocide in the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

As a starting point, there needs to be a determined effort to settle the conflicts that have for so long plagued the Arab World. October 7 has served to focus international attention on the necessity of solving the Palestinian problem. But it is not the only problem that deserves attention. There are other issues at play in Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Western Sahara. Probably none will be fully resolved during 2024, but efforts should focus on putting them on a pathway towards resolution.

What is important to bear in mind, however, is that Arab countries cannot and should not depend on outsiders to solve their problems. It’s true that none of these problems can be solved without dealing with foreign powers. However, time has proven that without the Arabs taking the initiative , the outside powers are perfectly content to manage and contain these conflicts until they blow up, as has happened in Gaza.

The countries of the region will not  achieve durable peace and stability if they address these conflicts on their own. This will only be possible if they are pursued in conjunction with the establishment of a regional security architecture. The Arab countries, therefore, need to articulate a vision for such an architecture.

This needs to be a comprehensive and inclusive regional security system, not one designed as a politico-military arrangement directed against any regional party. It also means that there will be no Israeli integration in the region without concrete steps to create a viable Palestinian state.

Under the present Israeli government, the prospects for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ate close to nil. Also how far the United States is prepared to go in pursuing the establishment of a Palestinian state remains questionable.

Therefore Arab countries need to set for themselves realistic goals for 2024 and at the same time prepare the ground for serious negotiations between Arabs and Israel, when there is clarity both in Israel and the United States. They also need to take the initiative in resolving the other problems in the region such as Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia, as well as the issues of Iranian and Turkish intervention. To do so they need to use all the instruments of power, including their financial clout, to manage their relations with all major international players.

Two short-term goals should be pursued urgently and in parallel.

First, achieving a permanent ceasefire and removing all obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Simultaneously, intensive efforts should be made in ending Israeli military intervention in the West Bank. With the position taken by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on provisional measures , there is a strong legal argument-based on the precedence of the 1996 ICJ ruling in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Serbia, which maintains that “states have an obligation to influence effectively the action of persons likely to commit, or already committing, genocide,“ which in this case places even more strict obligations on states that provide financial, intelligence and military assistance to Israel’s barbarous campaign in Gaza.  In addition, it will be easier to focus international attention on the violations perpetrated by Israel against the Palestinians. Continuous and consistent efforts should therefore be deployed in all international fora, particularly those dealing with human rights, to increase international pressure on Israel and convince it to pursue constructive policies towards the Palestinians.

Second, the rapid recognition of the Palestinian state and its admission to the United Nations. Already the United Nations Security Council has endorsed the principle of a Palestinian state in  resolutions 1397 (2002) and 1850 (2008), which were only recently endorsed by its presidential statement in January 2024. In addition, the General Assembly, as far back as 2012, adopted resolution 67/19 upgrading Palestine to “non-member observer state” status. Moreover 139 countries have recognised the state of Palestine. The only remaining impediment facing the admission of Palestine as a full-fledged member of the United Nations is the Security Council, where the United States, United Kingdom and France wield veto power.

This goal should be pursued independently of all other considerations. Only then can Palestinians have hope in the future. Without it, any negotiations with the Israelis will be doomed to failure.

Once the Palestinian state is recognised by every nation save for Israel and admitted to the United Nations, then issues such as arrangements pertaining to Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements and borders can be negotiated between Palestine and Israel.

It is in this context that we must be reminded that Israel, unlike other members of the UN, has yet to inform the United Nations of its borders.

The Israeli people need to understand that it is no longer business as usual. They can no longer continue to modify the conditions of occupation, as they have done in the past, with impunity. The Israeli people need to realise that their security can only be guaranteed by peaceful relations with their neighbours, particularly the Palestinians. In this regard, it will be extremely helpful for the international community to maintain a clear position on the recognition of Palestinian statehood.

In conclusion, although the decisive factor remains how the Arab countries can manage, amid the present crisis, to influence the United States and the Israeli body politic, one other critical factor can have an important bearing on the region.

Namely, how the complex and precarious triangular relationship between Russia, China and the United States will evolve. Any escalation in tension between these three countries will have negative consequences for the Middle East.

Gaza. Yemen. Epicentres of Pain. Feelings, Myths, and Memories in the Middle East
Vitaly Naumkin, Vasily Kuznetsov
Many developments that significantly impacted the destinies of the regional players, non-regional actors, and many people around the world have unfolded during the year that followed the publication of our paper titled “The Middle East and the Future of a Polycentric World” (February 2023).


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