In the long term…

Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.

The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.

This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.

Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.

The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.

The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.

Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.

The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.

But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that  bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.

The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors:  demographic  and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.

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