PS21 Event Writeup: ‘Changing Face of the Middle East’

By Rebecca Lille

Photo Credit: Ross Bradford

PS21 Chief of Staff, and chair for the event, Sam Genge, opened by welcoming everyone. He introduced the topic, explaining that discussions on the changing face of the Middle East are still very much needed. He stated that although people generally have a good working knowledge of the Middle East and related issues, the topic is complex, and in-depth, knowledgeable discussion is still important.

Henry Smith, Partner at Control Risks, highlighted emerging trends in the Middle East. He referenced the new Democratic House in the US, hoping to “clip the wings” of the Trump administration, and with it, the presence of the US in the Middle East. Smith suggested that we are unlikely to see consistent US policy regarding the Middle East. In response to the US de-prioritising of the Middle East, the regional powers are preparing to take more control, and looking to Asian powers for the future. A key focus for Smith, is the important role of climate change. He noted that there is increasing evidence to suggest that natural weather issues, such as drought, are linked to civil instability, pointing to the Syrian conflict as just one example. Smith concluded by highlighting some positives trends. He noted the recent successes against ISIS, the possibilities of peace or negotiated settlements in both Syria and Yemen and the economic boom taking place in Egypt.

Cinzia Bianco, Senior Analyst of the Arabian Peninsula at Gulf State Analytics, further outlined trends in the Middle East. Bianco suggested that the post-Arab Spring Middle East has seen a significant decline of the role and interest of global powers and lacking commitment of resources from the West. Global actors had hoped that regional powers would step in to establish a new and coordinated balance of power. However, instead, states have focused on individual growth and influence in a zero-sum game mentality. As a result, the centre of regional politics has shifted to the Arab Gulf, reflecting the financial might of assertive local actors such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Bianco also analysed the Gulf players’ role vis-à-vis the resurgence of political Islam, discussing the transformative political role of the Muslim Brotherhood in both Egypt and Libya, and its continued presence as a significant player in Syria. Bianco said that, while the conflict between Islamists and anti-Islamists is catalysing attention the most, rising inequality is having a neglected but crucial effect on shaping the political landscape in the region. Bianco suggested that of all regional trends, this is the most important long-term, influencing the balance of power both at the regional and at the domestic level.

Niamh McBurney, consultant at Versik Maplecroft, warned that, contrary to a number of recent media suggestions, ISIS are still present in Iraq, although their capabilities are extremely limited in comparison to previous years. There are, however, other groups similar to ISIS around, and these too pose a threat. Since its invasion in 2003, the Iraqi environment and have completely changed. Politically, there appears to be a somewhat positive trend. The elections held in 2018 saw the most successful hand over of power since the invasion. However, McBurney also discussed the recent popular protests in South Iraq as a new feature of Iraqi politics, stating that these were caused by a multitude of drivers, but the cut off Iranian gas supplies were a great influence. In addition to this, climate change caused heightened tensions. The security forces have stepped in, providing resources such as water and power, but McBurney predicts similar issues and protests for summers to come.

Emad Mostaque, Iran and regional specialist, began by discussing the political theory of the social contract – suggesting that the Middle East, has seen a considerable redrawing of this contract in recent years. In collaboration with this shift, the politics of the region have seen a move towards personality politics. However, Mostaque said that this move is not confined to the Middle East, pointing at Trump’s success in the US as another symptom of this trend. the Middle East is also witnessing a shift towards more libertarian views. With these changes occurring, Mostaque questioned when the breaking point will occur, offering several possibilities; when water tables get too low; when Egypt’s economic boom ends; or when international pressures on Iran amount to foreign intervention. Mostaque concluded that the breaking point is of key concern, as are the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, with the latter posing a possible incoming humanitarian disaster. Mostaque remarked on the recent successes against ISIS, stating that although these look promising, he predicts an ‘Al Qaeda 3.0’ is likely to emerge soon.

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