Middle East Institute 68th Annual Conference: “Navigating the Storm” #MiddleEast

“What’s happening in the region is renegotiation of social contracts.”~ Randa Slim, Director for Initiative for Track 2 Dialogues at Middle East Institute

This bodes true for countries that are in the middle of transitioning power… and can be argued for countries that are still not inclusive.  We ask, “who are the ‘middlemen’ in these transitions? (Since we’re feeling cheeky, we ask if countries, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran are Middlemen or Meddlemen?

Middle East In Flux: Opportunities

  • Solar Energy
  • Education Reform
  • Desalinization Plants

Solar power decreased costs for desalinization plants in the Gulf countries, like the UAE, according to Juan Cole.  Specifically, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain have earmarked more than $100 billion in their water sectors between 2011 and 2016 to improve desalination technologies.  Herein lies as  opportunity for investment into Yemen, which is the lowest-income country in the Arabian peninsula and also faces water scarcity.


  • Reductionism
  • Middlemen or Meddlemen? Arabia

Be wary of simplifying the problem through reductionsim of MENA region, warned many scholars, like Charles Schmitz.  (They are not the only ones–bloggers get it too!)  Using sectarianism as a frame, like “Shi’ite Crescent” is not helpful because at the end of the week, conflict is about power.

Containing the Islamic State

Although each panelist from morning panels had something to say about ISIS–since it is what the U.S. perceives as the top MENA priority– at least two reasoned that ISIS emerged “due to ‘unfinished job’ of rebuilding Iraq”.  As Turkish Columnist for Radikal, Cengiz Candar, said: ISIS in Iraq is primarily made up of former soldiers from the Ba’ath party era, Saddam Hussein’s party.  It is a sad irony since the Ba’ath Party was established as a secular party in Iraq and in Syria.  ISIS can be viewed more as an outlet for ideological opportunism.  As Randa Slim shared: “in the war for hearts and minds, the ISIS group has 40k tweets a day.”

Let’s revisit the main issue: Syria.  Why? Syria is the country where ISIS developed with funding from Gulf countries to remove Bashar Assad’s regime –unsuccessfully–from a powerbase dating back to 1971.  Gulf country “intervention” failed.  At the same time, U.S. non-intervention on Syria transformed into intervening against ISIS… in Iraq.

Commentators, like Juan Cole, questioned if the U.S. should even have been a country to intervene militarily at all.  If not the U.S., then who?  So BBC correspondent, Kim Ghattas asked Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish panelists on what each of their country’s role should be in intervening.  The Irani panelist, Hossein Mousavian, who teaches at Princeton University did not mention Iran specifically.  Rather, he said, “We need to cooperate to keep in tact…election needs to be held, supervised by .”

Candar shared this story,” When US jets appeared over , the Kurds start to shout ‘Long Live .”

Travails in Transition: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen

In keeping with the earlier argument–that the MENA region is renegotiating its social contract– the subheading was the theme for the afternoon panel. According to Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, Yemen is also renegotiating its social contract –again–through the Houthi movement.  (Here’s an ethnographic breakdown of who makes up the Houthis since they are not technically a political party, but represent a voice for about one-third of Yemen.) Earlier in November, the Houthi Movement leadership gave a 10 day ultimatum to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to step down, which resulted in Hadi reforming his cabinet…but remaining in power.

Former Minister of Parliament, Amr el-Shobaki, represented the Egyptian perspective.  In Egypt, El-Shobaki is a founding member of the Al-Adl Party, which is against the the ban on labor and political strikes and the use of military trials for civilians.  He served as a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Center for International Peace, based in the US.  In a nutshell, despite the existence of some parties, he argues that Egypt lacks the political infrastructure to broker between competing ideologies.

Moving from Egypt to Libya, Fred Wehrey probed the Libya example with respect to its neighbor’s high-profile presidential leadership because he observed the “Sisi Effect”:  the trend of tremendous support for General turned Interim Leader to President within a year of former President Morsi’s removal.  Similarly, the El-Sisi effect took hold, or “reverberated with young liberals in led to Kalifa Haftar.and argued that Libya needs national reconciliation.  Moreover, Libya cannot be viewed through an Islamist versus non Islamist lens because there is a complex network of town rivalries and patronage networks.  El-Sisi effect reverberated with young liberals in led to Kalifa Haftar.   In a nutshell: When asked if Libya is a failed state?   Wehrey stated, “In Libya there was no state to fail.”

Really? Tunisia should be 2nd Largest Recipient of U.S. Aid?

Regarding Tunisia, there is a school of thought that dominates the DC “Beltway”.  That is “Tunisia’s political success is a great example, not necessarily a model, in MENA. More needed in economy & security though,” according to former U.S. Foreign Service Officer Lawrence.  True, economic downturn existed even before Tunisia’s rejection of the Ben Ali regime, it declined further in 2012. Note “J-Curve” of Tunisian economy after transition…so Tunisia panelist (former U.S. Foreign Service Officer Lawrence) argues that  shld be 2nd largest aid recipient, not 9th.

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