The Middle East has always been an important part of the world’s movement toward the future or its transition to new eras. In the beginning, in antiquity, this region was the world. Not in terms of human habitation, of course, but because this is where all the ancient civilisations were located, from the Sumerian to the Pharaonic and in-between. This was the haven and engine of human civilisational evolution. The inception of the divinely-revealed religions endowed this region with a spiritual dimension that soon acquired a universal dimension, embracing the whole of mankind. With the great classical imperial epoch, from the Persian to the Hellenic and Roman empires, followed by the Islamic and then Islamo-Turkic empires, civilisation revolved around the Mediterranean and the area now known as the Middle East. While it is true that the Renaissance and then the first industrial and scientific revolutions shifted the hub of civilisational evolution to Europe, that young continent would find its maritime exploits of discovery and colonisation — including in the Middle East — indispensable to its survival and prosperity. In the early 20th century, this region became a major arena in the Great War, or World War I, not just as a battleground but also as a theatre for political intrigues and diplomatic pacts. The same would be the case in World War II, in the post-World War II era, the Cold War and the post-Cold War era when a new world order was ushered in by George Bush Jr at the outset of the 1990s and when George Bush Jr. launched the global war against terrorism at the outset of the third millennium.
In virtually all historical epochs, the Middle East was a part of the past and a part of the future, for better or for worse, because of the wars that raged or the political settlements that were concluded in it. This reality is recognised in the final report of MEST (Middle East Strategy Taskforce) which was recently released by The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based international affairs think tank. MEST, a joint Democratic-Republican congressional initiative launched at the time when Bill Clinton was president, is chaired by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former national security advisor Stephen J Hadley. In their report they demonstrate that the current turmoil in the Middle East “is not a crisis of the Middle East, but a crisis from the Middle East with global consequences”. Because of this global impact, the US cannot steer clear of the problems in the Middle East. But as the authors also point out, if this applies to the US it applies even more so to us, the primary stakeholders in this region. We cannot afford to ignore or deny these problems. Our duty is to grapple with current realities with all possible resolve and to lay the groundwork for the future of this region. If we do not forge our own future, a future forged by others will expel us from our present.
The report acknowledges this. It notes that the problems of the Middle East are not America’s problems to solve alone. The days when foreign actors could decree what happens in the region are over. “Outsiders cannot fix what ails the Middle East,” the report stresses. The time has come for “the leaders and peoples of the region [to] take full responsibility for charting a new, positive vision for their societies.”
The report also observes that there are signs that the countries of this region have begun to shoulder this responsibility. This development is chiefly the product of two factors: declining oil prices, which compelled governments to contend with economic difficulties that could not be resolved without tangible economic reforms, and modern technologies which worked to empower broad segments of the population, especially youth, enabling them to play a greater part in shaping the future. The report offers numerous examples of this from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Dubai. However, as crucial as these two factors are, perhaps the most critical is the exorbitant price the region has paid in money and lives for the widespread turmoil that has put the very existence of the nation state at risk due to civil war, material and moral deterioration and collapse and, indeed, the direct assault against religious values by barbaric extremist groups. Ultimately, the report concludes on an optimistic note: “The region’s people are its most important resource. If nurtured, this human capital can help transform the future of the Middle East.”
Despite the importance of the MEST report, which was the product of the work of a large team of researchers and writers, mostly from the US but some also from this region, this region is still thirsting for contributions from politicians, strategic experts, opinion makers and other influential people. It is amazing that the question of the future of the Middle East has become akin to a major industry in the West, whereas Arab work in this regard is still very limited. Moreover, a considerable part of that Arab work was conducted and published abroad rather than in the Arab world. Occasionally, the contribution entailed presenting a set of scenarios or possibilities that might be useful for drawing up specific policies. However, such contributions, in themselves, are not sufficient.
On 29 December 2016, Mohamed Abdullah Younis of the UAE-based Future Centre for Advanced Research and Studies outlined 10 concepts that would act as the “driving forces” of the near future, not just of the Middle East but of the world. The first was “Protracted Instability” which basically signifies that our future would more or less be a continuation of the present. The reverse is to be found in the second concept, “Recovery and Resilience” which is about the ability to respond to crises, recuperate energies and “bounce back”. The third, “Stateless Societies”, is perhaps the bleakest, a condition in which societies revert to primary social formations and affiliations that assume the functions of the state because state institutions have collapsed or the performance of their functions has deteriorated too much. An example was to be found in Lebanon where, at times when there was no president or central government, tribal militias undertook the security functions of the state. The fourth concept, “Grey Zone Conflicts”, in which regions live on a shaky brink between war and peace, may lead to the fifth, “Minimal Settlements”, whereby warring parties manage to establish a minimum degree of coexistence. If the foregoing concepts speak of circumstances of varying levels of difficulty, the strains are aggravated by the conditions or phenomena encapsulated in the remaining five concepts: “Network Terrorism”, “Populist Discourse”, “Cyber Exposure”, “Sharing Economies” and “Globalisation in Retreat”. These latter concepts sum up a world that entered the third millennium full of optimism and liberal ideals inspired by the power of science, technology and the prospects of greater inter-human communication but that suddenly encountered setbacks and declines of different sorts and different degrees of severity.
The 10 concepts above are useful for defining the current situation, but they do not address the role of policy and its ability to overcome the effects and repercussions of conflict as occurred in the aftermath of the two world wars and the Cold War. Each of these periods was characterised by universal change through institutions that had not previously existed. While our region has been the focus of political thought in other parts of the world, what it desperately needs is for the thinking process to begin at home. We have seen the rise of national projects, such as the 2030 visions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The time has come to turn our minds to a regional project for the future. The process must begin immediately. We cannot afford to put it off.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.