The Arab States in 2017: UNU Conversation Series

By Tamara Luisce

The ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and in the Arab States is at the centerpiece of numerous analyses and debates. Beginning in Tunisia in late 2010, the Arab Spring was part of a broader international movement seeking democratic change and bring about changes in national leadership across Arab nations. The actual effects of the Arab Spring and its status have been put into question. Moreover, the broader changes in the international scene particularly in the West can have a significant effect in the Middle East. On September 27, 2017 Prof. Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies was invited to the United Nations University (UNU) Headquarters to join the conversation series titled “The Arab Spring: Six Years On”. Three days later, Mrs. Roula Khalaf, Deputy of the Financial Times joined the series with another conversation titled “The Middle East — the Established Powers and the New Great Power Game” also hosted at the UNU headquarters in Tokyo.

Prof. Mohammad-Mahmoud provided very interesting input regarding the overall position the Arab Spring takes within the broader spectrum of social uprisings. In other words, he mentioned that the Arab Spring was not a regional event in isolation but instead was part of a global proliferation of movements together with ‘Occupy Wall Street’ in the United States and ‘Indignados’ in Spain. These movements advocate for a process of transition and come in many colours. Per his views, the election of President Donald Trump to the highest office in the United States as an expression of social pressure for employment could be a similar movement. While some have said that the Arab Spring resulted in an Islamic Spring particularly with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, Prof. Mohammad-Mahmoud argues that this focus leaves out the ongoing process and that transitions take time. During the question and answer session, there were very interesting questions asked from the public. In terms of international support to the Arab States, he mentioned that while military intervention is often looked upon as the only option, diplomatic measures could be more effective. In addition, other issues such as Black Lives Matter and Feminist movements are part of this trend but a big theory on transnationalism is missing. He added that while the world is focusing on Syria, one should not overlook Yemen, as a proxy war is elevating to a severe security issue. Lastly, he mentioned that despite living in a multipolar world, we often pay too much attention to the West and we overlook other main players such as Brazil, China, and India.

Moving on to the conversation with Mrs. Roula Khalaf on the new global implications affecting the Middle East, she explains that we are in a very uncertain time and that the issues at hand should be analyzed bit by bit. She began by mentioning that Barrack Obama’s presidency was a reaction to the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Given that the Obama administration did not take significant steps in Syria, Bashar al-Assad did not see an obstacle and the situation escalated. In addition, this opened the way for Russia in the Middle East not only in Syria but in other countries such as Libya. A current issue with foreign policy is that radical Islamic terrorism is being used as the only prism in which policy is being studied, leaving aside many other factors. She mentioned that the Sunni-Shia divide is exacerbating the issues and that there is an underreported marginalization of the Sunni states. Moving on to the question and answer session, the public was particularly interested in knowing about the implications that Donald Trump’s presidency will have on the Middle East. Mrs. Roula Khalaf explained that although his position is uncertain, the “America First” slogan would be inconsistent with sending troops to the Middle East. However, this will also depend on how the relationship with Russia evolves. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mrs. Khalaf mentioned that with the Trump administration a two-step solution will have less support. In addition, she explained that by singling out Christians in the Middle East, Trump is making their situation more dangerous. Finally, she concluded that the number one recommendation that she would give to President Trump would be to listen to the State Department.

The two conversations were extremely interesting to the public and relevant to the international community. As mentioned by both speakers, it is important to give attention to the actions of other states aside from the West. In addition, one should not look at one uprising or social movement in isolation. Transnationalism in revolutionary or transition movements is becoming more relevant than ever. The Middle East has yet to prove whether transitions were effective or not. In the meantime, the international community should provide diplomatic support to the region to prevent further issues from escalating.