Confronting Iran, Israel key to regional stability
The Middle East has been plagued by instability for decades, but especially since 2011 with the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, which have led to the death, injury or uprooting of millions of people in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. The United Nations, World Bank and the Gulf Cooperation Council, among others, have held countless meetings to try to restabilize the region, but with only limited success.
One reason for the lack of success is outside meddling and these foreign powers’ lack of interest in workable solutions that could bring stability. The instability created by the events of the Arab Spring gave Iran an opening to extend its presence in those countries, and a return to stability would weaken its influence. Similarly, instability in Israel’s neighbors made it easier for the Israeli leadership to ignore entreaties by the UN and others to reach a solution with the Palestinians. In turn, the lack of progress on the Palestinian question was used as a pretext by Iran to bolster its regional footprint.
There was a remarkable event in Dubai last week, which saw hundreds of politicians, academics, artists and journalists meet to discuss the conflicts raging in the region. The candid discussions were organized by the Arab Thought Foundation, the brainchild of Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, a statesman, educator, poet, artist and sportsman.
This was the first event I am aware of that encouraged a public discussion of these problems on such a large scale. It was given prominence by the participation of luminaries such as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, Prince Khaled and other high-level political leaders. Prince Khaled, who is governor of the Makkah Region and special adviser to King Salman, started the foundation in 2000 to serve as a non-governmental incubator for ideas on literature, art, innovation, and politics. Using this mix, the foundation dedicated its 16th annual conference in Dubai to “stabilization challenges amidst regional turmoil.”
Sheikh Mohammed, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, played host. Himself a renowned poet, Sheikh Mohammed fitted perfectly with the highly intellectual crowd. Prince Bandar bin Khaled, the Arab Thought Foundation chairman and a royal adviser with ministerial rank, acted as the glue that held everything together. Like his father, Prince Bandar attended almost every session from start to close. He was instrumental in sharpening the focus of discussions and disciplining the sometimes emotional or frenzied discourse.
Over three days, participants deliberated on the causes of the crises in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. They debated the apparent as well as the hidden, underlying origins of conflict. Poverty, unemployment and the skewed distribution of wealth and power were agreed to be the underlying causes of instability, while flawed political processes in those countries failed to deal with the economic and social challenges. Experts then explained how extremist ideologies, as well as terrorist groups, take advantage of those distortions.
Participants got especially animated discussing the role of external players. Iran was identified by most participants as the main malign force, and Israel its evil twin. Turkey and Russia also came in for criticism for meddling. The United States, Britain and Europe were criticized for sins of omission — withdrawing from the region when the going got tough. The United Nations and Arab League were dismissed as impotent organizations, as their influence has been neutralized by internal disagreements.
After three days of discussing the roots of instability and conflict, a panel of eminent politicians and experts was asked to identify the antidotes. Iraq’s Vice President and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and ex-Lebanon PM and minister of finance Fouad Siniora were among the speakers. All agreed that we need to use a clever mix of tools to lead Arab societies back to stability. One of the mistakes that compounded the problems was a reliance on brute force to address essentially political and economic challenges.
The panel identified several parallel tracks for restoring stability. First, the political process has to be inclusive, fair, transparent and accountable. Corruption has to be fought and eliminated. Allawi emphasized the need for a codified bill of rights for citizens.
Since 1979, Iran has been trying to export its revolution to the region. It has managed to masquerade its imperial ambitions under the cloak of religion.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Second, economic opportunities have to be fairly distributed, without discrimination, nepotism or favoritism. To provide adequate jobs for growing populations, economic growth has to continue, which requires investment. For local or foreign businesses to invest, countries have to reform their ways of doing business.
Third, social cohesion has to be restored after decades where extremist ideologies dominated and divisive sectarian discourse defined social relations. Teachers, intellectuals and religious figures have to guide their societies to regain their old traditions of civility, chivalry, generosity and tolerance.
The security track was agreed to be one of the most difficult to change, but most urgent to address nevertheless. All agreed that fighting terrorism has to continue, increase even. However, for the counter-terrorism fight to be effective and sustainable, two prerequisites are necessary: Due process of law, strictly observed, and the state must have a monopoly over the use of force. No freelance militias should be allowed to usurp the role of the state. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, militias have frequently acted as states within a state and thus undermined the fight against terrorism. No amount of reform on the other tracks would be effective without disarming militias, it was universally agreed.
The final and most difficult track was countering external actors, who thrive on chaos and instability and would therefore fight attempts to restore stability. All speakers agreed that Iran and Israel are the two most dangerous outside actors because their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the people of the region.
By effectively abandoning the two-state solution, Israel has embarked on a collision course not only with Palestinians, but with all its neighbors. Reversing that course is necessary for restoring and maintaining stability.
Revolutionary Iran is unique, it was universally agreed. Since 1979, Iran has been trying to export its revolution to the region. It has managed to masquerade its imperial ambitions under the cloak of religion. To succeed, it created deep fissures in Arab societies along sectarian lines, so addressing those divisions is key to reversing Iran’s meddling and countering its destabilizing activities. Furthermore, Iran and its proxies frequently justify themselves as champions for the Palestinians against Israeli aggression. That is another key argument for the urgency of reaching a solution for the Palestine question.