Reflections on the Middle East

Commentary | September 07, 2016

I spent much of last week at a meeting of around 100 Middle Eastern leaders: former officials, journalists, academics, who came to a European capital from Iran to Morocco, from Israel to the Gulf, from Egypt to Turkey. As a co-chair of this discreet effort to bring diverse views together, I was able to hear a great deal from a variety of sources, and wish to share some of the insights that they shared with me as well as a handful of other Americans and Europeans.

Regarding America, many in the region are cool to the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency because of her stances over the years on issues from Iraq to women's rights. But all are utterly terrified by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, with its manifest anti-Muslim overtones and a sense of unpredictability. As is often the case in that part of the world, many blamed America ("it's all because of 2003") while at the same time beseeching the U.S. to engage ("you've withdrawn"). While America is much less absent than they claim, what's important is that this has become such a common shibboleth. 

And just as America's perceived absence is overstated, so is Russia's new presence. Many stated that Russia is in a position to call shots, not only in Syria, but as far away as Egypt or Iran. There were voices reminding the group of Russia's weaknesses as well, but for the most part, Russia loomed large.

There was hardly a mention of global issues, as economic trends other than oil prices and demographic issues (from youth bulge to brain drain) were relegated to the sidelines and the words China and India were not mentioned at all. An interesting session on Brexit served as a snapshot of Europe's inward turn, latent hostility to outsiders, and the challenges facing Muslim communities in Europe.   

It was fascinating to hear, though, of the affinity among Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and other countries for one another's stances—clearly, some of the old post-1948 verities of Arab solidarity against Israel have changed, and there may be new trends in the offing. Of course, the immediate cause of this seeming rapprochement is the perceived threat of Iran's influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Israelis and Saudis both disparage of the Nuclear Deal. ISIS worries them less than Iran. The complexity of the picture, however, became manifest when discussing Turkey and its warming with Russia (itself seen to be an enabler for Iran).  

What of Israel and Palestine? As both sides put it, there was once a time in the not-so-distant past when the prospect of land-for-peace was backed by a belief in the stability of those who might make an agreement. But for Israel to give land, a Mubarak or a Hafeez Assad needed to give peace. Even moderate Israelis and Palestinians noted that there was no one to enforce such a peace.

Turkey had everyone worried, not the least the Turkish participants who were clearly frantic in efforts to predict what course the country would take. The Europeans in attendance began to see the outlines of a new set of crises on their flank, as the German-Turkish deal on migrants might be just one of the victims of the aftermath of the failed coup.

And yet there were those who sought to go beyond old ways of thinking, to try to take advantage of the realignment of states and power to look for new possibilities. One Saudi suggested that the equivalent of Europe's Coal and Steel Community—which rose from the ashes of post World War II Europe—might be a regional Oil and Water Community, looking at those mainstays of the region that matter to all, regardless of history or sect. Attempts to think regionally, and to redefine multilateralism, were common, and left at least some hope that after this period of extraordinary turmoil, newer modes of statecraft might emerge. In sum, as one Israeli participant said that if he were asked, in one word, how things are going, he might say "good"; but that if he were asked in three words the same question, he might then answer, "not so good." It's a matter of perspective—as well as hard work and engagement during a time of crisis.