In a refreshing change to most conversations about the Middle East where narratives originating at the government level are given the most importance, the opening panel of the Arab Center Washington DC’s Second Annual Conference on Thursday, October 26, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy” focused foremost on the societal level. Panelists Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland-College Park and the Brookings Institution as well as moderator Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center discussed a survey of Arab public opinion conducted by the Center over the past two months, analyzing the implications of its findings for US policy and making recommendations on how these findings could be better communicated to an American public.
Kharroub presented the survey, which tested attitudes towards the US, Arab perspectives on US president Trump and his policies, opinions on Middle East policy priorities, and thoughts on what the US president should be doing. This involved 400 respondents in eight Arab countries. Overwhelmingly, Arabs hold positive views of the United States and its people, but negative views on its foreign policy, President Trump, and Trump’s policies.
When asked about specific actions, the majority of respondents said that the US should not intervene in the region, followed closely by those who believed that the US has prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by those who think the US is focused on crises and conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria and Yemen.
Kharroub pointed out the limitations of the survey, highlighting the fact that around 40% of those approached declined to participate, which she attributed to the political environment in the region, especially since the majority of refusals took place in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Another limitation was the popularity of “I don’t know” as an option to the specific, policy-oriented questions at the end of the survey, making the majority findings partly due to the lack of participation.
Mogahed emphasized the importance of understanding that the Arab public has a nuanced perspective towards the US. Arabs distinguish between the American people and their government. This is important, particularly considering the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Referencing a different but poll, the American public, Mogahed underlined, is more likely to support discriminatory government policies when they believe that those affected by the policies have a negative, hateful view towards Americans. When made to believe that Muslims have a favorable view towards Americans, they are less likely to support such policies. Similarly, if Americans believe that the conflict that they are engaged in with others is due to cultural differences, they are more likely to support violence, but if they believe that it is due to politics, then they are more likely to call for peace.
Telhami focused his analysis on what he called the “Trump factor,” looking into opinions on President Trump and the reasons behind them. The survey revealed negative attitudes towards almost every one of the Trump administration’s policies, except for the improvement of relations with Arab allies. Telhami argued that the reason for this is the frequent visits made by government officials to the region (particularly to GCC countries) and the positive language that Arab regimes have been using to talk about the Trump administration. Trump’s hostility towards Iran is also welcomed by certain groups.
A policy issue that was negatively assessed was the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is unsurprising considering Trump’s asserted support for Israel and the commotion caused by his proposition of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but Telhami also noted that the Palestinian issue was not prioritized as it has been in previous years. This is primarily due to age differences, as older age groups tended to prioritize the issue more, while younger groups still deemed it important but not as urgent. Telhami suggested this may be due to the perceived urgency of more recent events, like the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
The most pertinent finding was the distinction Arab opinion makes between the American public and the American government. Mogahed urged that information be presented in more accessible formats, such as short videos that can be posted and circulated on social media. She stressed the importance of being “louder in our criticism of media bias,” especially its portrayal of marginalized groups, and asserted that the public has a responsibility to demand better.
It can be problematic to take the “Middle East” as a single entity–to speak of it generally risks ignoring nuances and dangerously simplifies conversations and engagements with the region. At the Brookings Institution’s “Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead” event, however, John R. Allen of the Brookings Institution argued that one of the United States government’s flaws was its divided outlook toward the region, seeing the countries in it as “separated blocks” rather than parts of a larger, interrelated region. Finding a balance between examining the region’s countries separately and seeing them as part of a whole is what Allen, Mara Karlin, Daniel Byman, and Federica Saini Fasanotti, all experts at the Brookings Institution, made an effort to do on Thursday, October 5. The panel was moderated by Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.
Karlin gave an overview of the situation in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, a victory over ISIS would result in political reconciliation and stabilization. Iraq would go through reconstruction, a main component of which would be the return of the country’s refugees. Not included in this vision of Iraq’s future are the Kurds, who, envision a separate future for themselves, as expressed in the Kurdish referendum of September. The formation of an independent Kurdistan, however, would bring its own set of challenges, as it would be landlocked and surrounded by hostile neighboring countries.
While Karlin’s assessment of Iraq contained some hope, her assessment of Syria was grim, as she labeled it a “humanitarian catastrophe” even if the conflict seems to be nearing an end in which the Assad regime regains control over the majority of the country. Although he seems to have an advantage, Allen contended that Assad will not win, attributing Assad’s advantage to several factors. One was the disconnect between US strategy to defeat ISIS and its anti-Assad stance, which would have attracted more Syrian support but remains no more than a “policy aspiration.” Another shortcoming on the part of the US was its delayed support to the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Defense Force, as well as its failure to act upon its “red line” threats in 2013.
Shifting the focus away from the US, Allen said that the Gulf states have also been creating obstacles in Syria, as they are supporting opposing militias. Karlin agreed that certain events had made it more difficult for the opposition to succeed, citing the US response to the war in Libya and its failure to design a response that would be appropriate for the Syrian context. Karlin disagreed with Allen, however, in that she maintained that a victory for Assad seems realistic and upcoming.
Saini Fasanotti spoke about the numerous dimensions that characterize Libya’s present situation. The international community’s recent actions, including the appointment of Lebanese Ghassan Salame as the new UN special envoy to Libya, represent positive steps towards stabilization. However, she criticized the divisions that exist among both external and internal actors, considering they are Libya’s biggest obstacles. More generally, she suggested that efforts to achieve further stabilization in Libya could not be expected to follow other models in the region, as Libya “has never been a state since the Ottoman Empire,” referring to the colonization of Libya by Italy and even to the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He worked to increase the country’s divisions rather than to unify it, making Libya’s current goal the establishment of a unified, independent country, and not the restoration of one that existed previously.
Byman discussed the state of counterterrorism efforts in the region, beginning with some promising signs: Al Qaeda has been largely inactive and seems to have submitted to pressures exerted on it by international actors, and ISIS is losing battles in Iraq and Syria. However, Byman pointed out that while the US has the capabilities of defeating these groups, it has not historically been successful at supporting a transition for governments after such successes. The rapid rise of ISIS suggests that the idea necessary to form such a group are present, making the job of supporting states to gain stability more important. Shifting the focus to the West, Byman noted how terrorist groups in the Middle East have influenced policies and attitudes in Western countries, exemplified most clearly by the hostilities that Muslim communities are facing. The demonization of Muslims has also led the US travel ban on citizens from Muslim-majority countries and its efforts to slow its refugee resettlement program.
Addressing the situation both in the Middle East and the West more broadly, Allen recalled the Arab Spring – which he suggested be renamed the “Arab Tsunami” – and reminded the audience of its negative consequences: the vulnerable positions that states have fallen into, the increasing social and economic difficulties, radicalization, and the refugee crisis. Refugees have particularly affected Europe, testing its social fabric and resilience and causing social and political divisions. Such repercussions have resulted mainly from the numerous attacks that Europe has witnessed since the beginning of the crisis, causing an increasing preoccupation with security precautions and a fear of refugees and immigrants.
Discussing policy options for the US, there was consensus on the need to prioritize economic assistance to the region as a whole. Karlin added that the US needs to be aware of the distractions that Iran and the nuclear deal have posed. Instead of the nuclear deal, Karlin argued, Iran’s role in destabilizing countries in the Middle East should be the US focus. In Libya, Saini Fasanotti urged the West to adopt a “bottom-up” approach, reiterating her views on Libya’s nationhood (“in a nation that does not exist, you cannot look at the top”). She emphasized the importance of giving citizens a role and a choice, responsibilities that they were not granted under the Ottomans, Italy, or Gaddafi.
Byman pointed to the dangers of the approach that the West has taken in dealing with refugees, especially the poor treatment of refugees in Europe despite the welcoming front exhibited by accepting large numbers, which h argue, has caused radicalization to occur in most cases inside Europe and not outside of it. He also referred to the West’s failure to treat all types of violence equally. Not taking right-wing violence seriously further isolates and demonizes refugee and immigrant groups. Saini Fasanotti suggested that Europe in particular needs a “real strategy” to effectively welcome and integrate refugees, referring to her personal experience in Italy and the increasing hostility towards refugees that she has witnessed.
Last Tuesday the Middle East Policy Council held their 85th Capitol Hill Conference on “Economic Reform and Political Risk in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).” Speakers were Aasim M. Husain, IMF deputy director of the Middle East and Central Asia; Ford M. Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Center and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Edward Burton, CEO and president of the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council; and Karen E. Young, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. Richard Schmierer moderated.
Husain presented data on how different countries of the GCC are adapting to cheaper oil. Prior to the dramatic decline in oil prices in mid-2014, Gulf governments had been raising their spending by expanding energy subsidies, increasing government payrolls, and raising wages. Non-oil sectors were growing at an average of 7 percent throughout the GCC. When oil prices suddenly dropped from $110/barrel to $40/barrel in mid-2014, a GCC average 10% budgetary surplus turned into a 9% deficit overnight. Spending, which had been increasing by an average of 8-10% since 2011, is expected to contract by over 10% in coming years.
Most Gulf states are cutting back their capital spending by starting fewer new projects and slowing and canceling current ones. Many are raising subsidized energy prices—ending the longstanding policy in some countries of providing essentially free energy to their citizens. Some GCC members are also considering a value added tax. Even with these reforms, in the next five years we can continue to expect deficits of 7-10% of GDP. It’s a grim picture, even before you consider how cuts in spending will impact economic growth.
Over the next five years, 2 million youth will enter the workforce across the GCC. Husain predicts that 2/3 of those will find jobs. That optimistic figure relies on the necessity of non-oil sector growth in next five years generating more jobs than in the past.
Fraker emphasized just how dramatic recent changes in Saudi policy have been. He identified the main goals of Vision 2030—diversifying the Saudi economy and eliminating government inefficiency—and added that the biggest change brought about in the months since Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s assumption of the throne has not been any particular economic policy, but rather an “unprecedented” opening of Saudi government.
Decision-making had always happened behind closed doors without transparency or outside input. The rise to prominence of the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman changed that. He has opened government, for example by putting all government ministers on stage for unprecedented public questioning. Fraker wants the US to welcome these changes. Washington has a strategic interest in a stable Saudi Arabia and should therefore support its allies politically and economically.
Burton elaborated on business opportunities for American investors. Saudi Arabia is the third biggest spender on military equipment in the world. Mohammed bin Salman’s goal to divert 50% of Saudi military spending to domestic contractors would create major opportunities for job-rich growth. Burton also foresees healthcare as a potential growth sector. Saudi Arabia suffers from high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health challenges. The Kingdom is the Middle East’s largest information and communications technologies market, particularly with its growing youth population.
Young analyzed GCC strategies and policies to make ends meet. Across the region, there has been a dramatic rise in bond issues. In the short term, there is no problem. Gulf countries are not heavily indebted and currently have access to the capital they need. Continued reliance on credit for the next five years could get dicey. This oil crisis is different from the 1970s crises. Over the course of the 2003-2014 oil boom, the Gulf invested in building lasting institutions, which enabled Kuwait and the UAE to adapt to the drop in oil price. The GCC is also much more integrated into the MENA region than it was previously. Egypt and Lebanon are dependent on Gulf foreign direct investment. Jordan and Morocco rely on foreign aid from the GCC to balance their budgets.
All the panelists managed to neglect the economic and political ramifications of GCC involvement in two regional conflicts. Husain talked about massive cuts in capital and social spending to ease the sting of deficits, but ignored the continued climb in Saudi defense spending since 2011, starting with Saudi involvement in funding and training opposition fighters in Syria.
Saudi Arabia will be running up against its biggest planned budget deficit in 2016, despite the slight uptick in oil prices and domestic fiscal reforms. GCC members are heavily involved in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, so military spending is continuing to rise at an alarming rate. In 2016, Saudi Arabia surpassed Russia as the third biggest military spender, spending $87.2 billion. Qatar and the UAE have also increased their military spending while drastically cutting other spending.
- Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum: The Future Of Goal 16: Peace and Inclusion In the Sustainable Development Goals | Tuesday, December 8 | 9:30-11:00am | SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make a clear link between conflict and development, thanks to the powerful language about peace in the preamble to the along with the inclusion of Goal 16 on “peaceful and inclusive societies.” This emphasis recognizes that protracted conflict undermined the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in many countries, and it creates a new international focus on peacebuilding as one of the solutions to development challenges.How did the international community shift its thinking toward peace and inclusion in the SDGs, and where do we go from here? The inclusion of peace as a goal in the SDGs was not a foregone conclusion, and panelists will discuss both how advocacy helped ensure a role for peacebuilding in the SDGs and what that means for the next 15 years. They will also discuss the challenge that remains for governments, organizations, and individuals to implement and evaluate these global goals.
- Implementing Camp David: US-GCC Security Cooperation Since The Summit | Tuesday, December 8 | 12:30-2:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | President Obama convened leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in May 2015 to discuss reassurance and security cooperation in light of the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran. The United States and Gulf Arab monarchies agreed to improve future cooperation on ballistic missile defense, counter-proliferation, counterterrorist financing, cybersecurity, and a range of other issues. Six months after the summit, with the Iran deal secured and amidst the Middle East’s continuing crises, US-GCC security cooperation remains critically important. What have been the notable successes and challenges since Camp David? To what extent has progress been made in key areas? Has the region’s security situation benefitted from US-Gulf cooperation in light of the continuing fight against ISIS and other crises? Speakers include: James L. Jones, President, Jones Group International, Nawaf Obaid
Visiting Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Barry Pavel
Vice President, Arnold Kanter Chair, and Director, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security Atlantic Council, Frederick Kempe President and CEO
Atlantic Council, and moderated by Karen DeYoung, Senior National Security Correspondent, Washington Post.
- Syria: Steps Toward Peace Or Deepening Intractability? | Tuesday, December 8 | 5:30pm | Brookings Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Soon to be in its sixth year, the conflict in Syria remains as deadly as ever. The consequences of an increasingly complex and seemingly intractable civil war are now also being felt internationally to an alarming degree. Recent attacks in Beirut and Paris warn of the danger of Syria’s continued breakdown. With nearly 300,000 people recorded killed, 12 million others displaced, and vast refugee flows overwhelming Syria’s neighbors and now Europe, finding a solution is nothing short of urgent. Recent multilateral meetings in Vienna demonstrated renewed diplomatic determination to negotiate peace for Syria, but significant differences remain between the conflict’s principal power-brokers.This Brookings Doha Center policy discussion aims to explore the current status of the Syrian conflict and the roles being played by an ever expanding list of actors. Does a moderate opposition still exist in Syria, and if so, what does that mean? Does the Vienna process provide hope for a durable political solution? How can the armed opposition play a role in shaping a political solution in Syria? What is the future of Salafi-jihadi militancy in Syria and what are the local, regional, and global ramifications? Speakers include, Mouaz Al Khatib, Former President, National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Noah Bonsey, Senior Analyst Syria, International Crisis Group, Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Doha Center.
- Manning the Future Fleet | Wednesday, December 9 | 10:00-11:00am | CSIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND| The Maritime Security Dialogue brings together CSIS and U.S. Naval Institute, two of the nation’s most respected non-partisan institutions. The series is intended to highlight the particular challenges facing the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, from national level maritime policy to naval concept development and program design. Given budgetary challenges, technological opportunities, and ongoing strategic adjustments, the nature and employment of U.S. maritime forces are likely to undergo significant change over the next ten to fifteen years. The Maritime Security Dialogue provides an unmatched forum for discussion of these issues with the nation’s maritime leaders.
- Breaking the Silence: Societal Attitudes Toward SGBV In Syria | Wednesday, December 9 | 2:00- 3:30pm | Syria Justice and Accountability Centre | REGISTER TO ATTEND | As the Syrian conflict continues with increasing levels of violence, reports have emerged indicating that government forces and extremist groups are using sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) as a tool of war. However reliable information on SGBV remains scarce due to social stigma and survivors’ fears that they may be ostracized from their communities if they come forward with their stories. As part of its efforts to ethically and comprehensively document all violations of the conflict, including SGBV, SJAC commissioned a report from the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization (SREO) to assess Syrians’ attitudes towards survivors and perpetrators of SGBV. The results were surprising. Speakers include: Ambassador Steven E. Steiner, Gender Advisor USIP, Shabnam Mojtahidi, Legal and Strategy Analyst, Syria Justice and Accountability Center, Cindy Dyer, Vice President of Human Rights, Vital Voices, and Sussan Tahmasebi, Director of MENA, ICAN.
- Cyber Risk Wednesday: 2016 Threat Landscape | Wednesday, December 9 | 4:00-5:30 pm | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On the cyber front, 2015 paints a dark picture. The year has been filled with massive data breaches, disruptive cyberattacks, and espionage. Neither government agencies nor private companies were safe. Nations have become increasingly comfortable with fighting their battles online, using covert cyberattacks to accompany traditional warfare in on-going conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Will 2016 be any different? While data breaches and hybrid warfare are likely to continue, Internet users’ awareness of cybersecurity issues has reached an all-time high, companies are pouring investments into strengthening their cyber defenses, the United States and China were able to reach a deal banning commercial cyber espionage despite the countries’ otherwise lukewarm relations, and the privacy issues are getting prime time attention. Speakers include: Luke Dembosky
Deputy Assistant Attorney General for National Security
US Department of Justice, Jason Healey Senior Fellow, Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council, Ellen Nakashima National Security Reporter The Washington Post, and Mark O’Hare
Director, President, and CEO, Security First Corp.
- Implementing Counterinsurgency In Afghanistan: Lessons From Village Stability Operations And Afghan Local Police (VSO/ALP) | Thursday, December 10 | 11:00 am | Institute of World Politics | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In 2010, towards the end of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) and their international partners experimented with a new way of implementing counterinsurgency, Village Stability Operations (VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP). VSO/ALP is based on a “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” approach that focused on soldiers interacting with local Afghan populations, supporting traditional local tribal governance, and training local security forces. In this discussion, Dr. Lofdahl will review lessons which can be drawn from the VSO/ALP experience in Afghanistan. Speaker: Dr. Corey Lofdahl, Senior Scientist at Charles River Analytics.
- Planning for Korean Unification: What Is Seoul Doing? | Thursday, December 10 | 12:00-1:30 pm | The Heritage Foundation | REGISTER TO ATTEND | South Korean President Park Geun-hye has made Korean unification a central tenet of her foreign policy strategy. More so than her predecessors, she has made reunification a tangible objective. Despite repeated attempts at reconciliation, North Korea has rejected dialogue and criticizes President Park’s unification outreach as unrealistic, seeing it as a threat to regime stability. Issues to be addressed would include the blueprints of Korean unification, how to overcome North Korean resistance, and how to achieve or pay for it. To learn more about South Korea’s plans for achieving unification, join us for a discussion with three distinguished members of South Korea’s bipartisan Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation. Speakers include: Dr. Chung Chong-wook, Vice-Chairman of the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation, Dr. Moon Chung-in, Professor of Political Science, Yonsei University, and Dr. Kim Byung-yeon Professor Economics, Seoul National University.
- Hope, Innovation, Activism: The Critical Role Of Millennials In Afghanistan | Thursday, December 10 | 12:00 – 1:30pm | Rumi Forum | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Ambassador Dr. Hamdullah Mohib will explore why this demographic matters — the role of millennials in Afghan society today, and the important role they have to play in the country’s future on December 10, 2015. A young man builds an aircraft from scratch; a teenage boy builds an internet connection out of trash scraps; a young woman uses her savings to found a coding school for girls and a women-run IT company; a group of students initiate a recycling campaign to clean up their city; young people rally on social media and in the streets to protest the unjust killing of a young woman. These are stories from Afghanistan that you don’t hear about. Roughly 75% of the population in Afghanistan is under the age of 35. While much of the media focuses on the challenges of the new government and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan today, the country’s hopeful, innovative, educated and active millennial population is defining and building the country’s future.
- Climate Security and Migration | Friday, December 11 | 10:00am – 12:00 pm | Center for New American Security | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On December 11, please join CNAS for a public event on climate security and migration. We will explore questions of how the United States, in collaboration with foreign partners, multilateral institutions, and civil society, should tackle future climate migration. What are the key initiatives, institutions and challenges involved in successfully addressing climate migration? Does the issue of climate migration fit our current framework and processes for dealing with migration? What should the international community be doing now? The events over the summer and fall in Europe, albeit not due to climate change, were illustrative of the scale of the challenges involved for policymakers and security leaders. Climatic change will add another layer to the challenges the global community will face in addressing migration, including explicitly climate change-driven migration, in the years ahead. Speakers include: Hon. Sharon E. Burke, Senior Advisor, New America, Dr. Daniel Chiu, Deputy Director, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council, Sherri Goodman, CEO and President, Consortium for Ocean Leadership, and CDR Jim Moran, Senior Strategist, Emerging Policy, Deputy Commandant for Operations U.S. Coast Guard