Event Takeaways: The Middle East in Flux


On Wednesday, April 29, 2015, PS21 hosted a discussion in London on the current situation in the Middle East.

Chair: Peter Apps – executive director, PS21

Metsa Rahimi – Regional head of Intelligence, Deutsche

Joseph Walker-Cousins -Former advisor to the UK’s Special Envoy & Head of the British Embassy Office in Benghazi, now with KRB

Alia Brahimi -Research Fellow at University of Oxford

Here are the key takeaways from the event:

Never the world’s least complex region, the discussion concluded it was now more complex than ever. Simplistic talk a decade ago about a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic and Western worlds has been replaced with a multiple conflicts within the region.

Some explicitly blamed the US invasion of Iraq for beginning the process, tearing apart what rules there were governing the region. In first Iraq the Libya, Syria and increasingly elsewhere, autocratic regimes had been undermined, leaving chaos without any substantial centralised power structures remaining. Several conflicts were now overlaid on each other. There is the confrontation between Sunni and Shia, increasingly exacerbated by the proxy war between Iran and the Gulf states in particular, especially Saudi Arabia. Then there was the conflict primarily within the Sunni world. That encompasses both the fight between ISIS and almost everyone else – both Sunni and Shia – as well as of the social revolutionaries of the Muslim Brotherhood against more established structures. The West, it was felt, was struggling to find an overall strategy and was making multiple short-term ad hoc decisions. As a result, the US found itself effectively allied to Tehran fighting ISIS in Iraq, but opposed to it in Yemen.

The simple truth, most discussants said, was that powers in the region no longer viewed the West and the US in particular as the powerful force they were a decade ago. Increasingly, countries – even traditional US allies – were increasingly open to taking matters in to their own hands without reference to Western policy makers.

The era of large scale military interventions appeared to be over – although there were differing views on whether or not that was a good thing. However, western militaries looked set to be pulled in small numbers in to many of the conflicts.

The effect of the recent crash in oil prices had yet to fully play itself out. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring itself, oil producing states in the region benefited from the massive spike in prices, while consumers, such as Egypt suffered. That trend is now being reversed.

There was also now a considerable demographic divide within the region. Across the board, new cohorts of young often unemployed people were challenging the established order. In some countries, they had spent almost their entire adult lives in conflict, in others, quite the opposite. A significant minority of both groups however appeared drawn to elements such as ISIS, particularly when they were winning.

Within the West, there appeared to be a new trend in looking at autocrats as perhaps the best, if very imperfect, hopes of stability. Whether that was a real option in the new, more febrile and social media connected region, was another matter however.

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