Middle East Institute Annual Conference: Managing Transition, Containing Conflict but #NODrones

“You can’t have peace in without in negotiations.”~Mohsen Milani

Middle East Institute 67th Annual Conference: Managing Transition, Containing Conflict

From November 14th to 15th, the Middle East Institute held its 67th annual conference.  To kick off the MEI banquet, Washington, DC’s oldest think tank devoted to the study of the Middle East and North Africa region, awarded Zaha Hadid the Issam Phares Award for her global contributions as an architect.  Hadid, who was born in Iraq, is the only Arab as well as the ONLY woman to win the Pritzker Prize, the HIGHEST honor in global architecture.  In addition, MEI awarded its Visionary Award to Abdlatif Al-Hamad from Kuwait.  Al-Hamad was recognized for his work at The Arab fund for Economic & Social Development, which accrued $120 Bil to support electricity & projects.

The keynote address was delivered by Ambassador Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and current National Security Adviser.  She was introduced by Richard Clark, who began with describing a U.S. success in Libya.  As he stated, “Chapter 7 Resolution important not just for US action in  in 2012, but in setting a precedent.” Note: Richard Clark was Ambassador Susan’s first boss in the national security sector.  Years later, she holds his same position as National Security Adviser)  Syria was mentioned, but not in the context of one of the major sponsors of MEI’s conference, Kuwait. (“One Kuwait-based effort raised money to equip 12,000 rebel fighters for $2,500 each.”

Rice stated that the U.S. must continue to: “confront aggression”; securing open markets (and mentions protection of women and minorities in same thought, unrelated); dismantle terrorist network; prevent proliferation of WMDs.  The U.S. must “stand with those who share fundamental interests and values”.  She discussed U.S. developments in MENA since 2012:

1) Iran- we are working w/P5 + 1 partners that will halt progress in nuclear program and roll it back. Goal to put real time on clock. We will continue to enforce exisint sanctions, revenue will far exceed any amount of relief of any first step agreement

  • “For the first time in many years, we are seeing an Iran where a nuclear deal may be possible,” stated Rice.

2) Israel-Palestine

  • The US does not accept the continuing “illegal settlement activity” in Palestine.

3) Syria – “There is no military solution to the conflict in Syria….no viable future for Syrians while Assad in power,” continued Rice.

  • Only a negotiated settlement, welcomes participation at the Geneva 2 conference, June 2012 Communique calling for a political transition to a new Syria, governing body formed on the basis of mutual consent–meaning: Assad must go.
  • The U.S. is working “intensively with partners and vetted opposition to counter Assad and extremist groups.”
  • Rice claimed a U.S. achievement in nonproliferation: “reducing extreme threat of weapons of mass destruction.”
  • The International Community must “alleviate humanitarian crisis” in Syria.

4) Egypt – US Intensifying efforts to make difference in day-to-day lives of people throughout the region.  Change is taking root, and no less true in Libya.

November 15 Conference: PITAPOINTS

The first panel “Assessing the Transitions” got a status check on the Arab transition among North African countries–sans Morocco and Algeria.  The most succinct assessment that addressed political, economic, and social issues came from Noureddine Jebnoun, professor at Georgetown University.  He summed up the Tunisia power struggle with caveats about terminology. His key points:

  • “Ennahda party versus others is more of a struggle to hold power. Period. Not “Islamist” vs non-Islamist.”
  • The polarization is a consequence of divided elites.
  • There has been no reform of security or judicial systems, which is necessary to move forward.

Larry Diamond dominated the question and answer session in a pseudo economics-ridden lecture.  Nonetheless, the most controversial points, though valid, came from Dr. Rabab El Mahdi.  She challenged a popular Egyptian narrative “movements of were overrated” and that the image of the middle class & youth created by media.  In a nutshell, “it doesnt reflect totality of picture” of what transpired in Egypt.  MEI’s Egypt scholar, Khalid Alaini stated that the Nour Party sided with Morsi’s ouster because they are trying to tame the Muslim Brotherhood.

Latter panels discussed the “Sectarianism & Balkanization of the Levant”, the status of “In Search of Coherence: U.S. Policy in the Arab World”, and the “Arab Youth in Post-Uprising Politics”.  In response to whether Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon are undergoing “Balkanization”,  MEI scholar Paul Salem explained that it’s “Balkanization with a small ‘b'”–  meaning state authority breaks down but borders aren’t actually redrawn. However, it was harder to interpret Mona Yacoubian’s (Stimson Center) response: it is “compelling for the West” to talk about redrawing borders.

“You can’t have peace in without in negotiations.  It’s fantastic that Secretary Kerry & Zarif spoke about Syria for 30 seconds,” shared Mohsen Milani, professor at University of South Florida, who was the most optimistic among the four panelists.

It was ironic that Iran emerged as a key topic within the Levant discussion regarding nuclear talking points when Israel meets both criteria for discussion: being located in the Levant AND possessing nuclear weapons.

On Syria, Salem went beyond the proxy war discussion by saying that, “Lebanon taught us that no one wins a .”

Overall, drone discussion only emerged after a question from the audience and youth movements discussion were relegated to the end of the conference…how symbolic.

MEI Conference Sponsors

Sponsors of MEI this year included: National Bank of Kuwait; Embassy of Qatar; Embassy of Kuwait, Embassy of Saudi Arabia; Embassy of UAE; US-UAE Business Council; Embassy of the League of Arab States; Embassy of Bahrain; Embassy of Iraq; International Relief & Development; BAE Systems; Carlyle Group; Morganti, Hunt Oil Middle East Limited; Chevron; Conoco Phillips; Shell; Raytheon; Ergo; Exxon Mobil; Foundation for Middle East Peace; Good Harbor Security; Sahouri Insurance; MENACA

Technology: Lebanon’s Forgotten Space Program http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24735423

  • Note that both small and big economies must choose between funding a conventional weapons program or a space program.
  • It’s not just the rate of brain drain, but the type of fields that lack the critical mass needed to initiate different programs, like a space program.  How much engineering talent and number of physicists do MENA countries lose to very advanced industrialized economies, like the United States?


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