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How the Past Informs the Future

Thank you.



There is a proverb in Arabic which says:

The past is not past, for the past is the present.

Since for all of us, the past is our present, I am going to look at the

Middle East today through that frame.

But I will also use another analogy. Imagine the Middle East as a series

of concentric circles, but ones that link in 3D, like those expandable

telescopes that admirals and pirates used, where the outer circle ends

up being the rim, and the inner circle, the eyepiece. We’ll start with the

outer rim, so that by the time we hold the telescope to our eye, our view

is complete.



   I. The outermost circle – the geopolitical

          A. In the 19 th century, the British geographer, Harald McKinder

               argued that world domination depended on control of the

               EurAsian landmass. This would mean control over all major

               resources, and the benefit of short communication lines,
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   making it easily defendable because military forces could be

   quickly moved around .

B. An alternative view, however, was advanced by the

   American naval expert, Alfred Mahar, who said no, it was

   not control of the heartland that mattered, but control of the

   seas, since then you controlled global trade.

C. If you combine both these theories, you reach a paradigm

   that very accurately describes the European imperial period

   – with Britain as the sea power, and Russia and France as

   the dominators of the heartland. It equally does a good job

   of describing the Cold War – with the US as the sea power,

   and the Soviet Union as the dominator of the heartland.

D. Now consider what happens at those points where the land

   and sea powers abut and come into conflict. Saul Cohen,

   again an American, saw the areas of contact as becoming

   regions of constant conflict. And he coined a term for those

   areas: shatter belts. Look around the globe and one sees

   many spots where these tensions can develop.

E. The primary and most significant shatter belt is of course

   the Middle East. What is interesting about those states
                                                                         3


         inside shatter belts is the degree of independence they

         enjoy in choosing which side they will align themselves

         with, and when and how they shift across alignments. The

         shatter belt paradigm is a good lens to view the Middle East

         – going some way to explain its ongoing volatility, and

         geostrategic importance – to this day.

II. The second circle section is likewise large and deep – it is the still

      recent Middle East experience of European colonialism.

      A. For the majority of the Middle East, this lasted only a short

         time, primarily between the two world wars, with Britain

         and France withdrawing by the mid-‘50s to early ‘60s -

         although in some spots along the Persian Gulf –such as

         Qatar – Britain severed its last colonial ties only about 15

         years ago.

      B. Although short, the period was intense. The Ottoman

         empire, an economic and administrative power-house in its

         day, ran a vast complex of cities, tribes, ethnicities, and

         civilizations unbounded by borders . When the empire was

         carved up, the states that emerged were the result of

         bargains among the victorious European powers. Jordan
                                                              4


famously was the result of a doodle by Winston Churchill

over afternoon coffee. Some frontiers divided up resources,

critically, oil. They also divided up power blocks, such as

the Hashemites, the Sheikhs of Mecca, who claimed descent

from the Prophet Mohammad, and had ruled Arabia and its

Holy Places for centuries. The Hashemites were replaced in

Mecca by the Sauds, and sent to Baghdad and the dusty

little village of Amman in Jordan. Importantly, for an

understanding of the Middle East today, these new states

had no past and no present – the people of Lebanon thought

of themselves as part of Greater Syria; the northern Iraqis

were Kurdish, part of an ethnic group that got no state of its

own, while the southerners from Basra felt no allegiance to

the Kurds, having more in common with their Shi-ite

brethren in Kuwait. Then there was Israel, a brand new

creation of the Balfour Agreement, generally rejected by the

Arabs, who had hoped to have a single nation of their own.

Only Ibn Saud made an agreement with the British to

accept Israel - in exchange for the throne in Mecca.
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C. The colonial states were economically tied and dependent

   on their colonial masters for trade. It was during this period

   that many of their agricultural systems were switched to

   cash-crops, making them no longer self-sufficient. Today,

   the EU still dominates trade in the region, the lines between

   the European capitals and the states of the Middle East and

   North Africa operating in a hub-and-spoke fashion. There is

   little trade within the region – a huge drawback to

   development, and the spread of economic prosperity – and

   a complete contradiction in terms when looking at the

   indigenous populations’ history as a bazaar, trading,

   business-oriented society. The exception is Turkey, which

   benefits from the old Ottoman infrastructure to trade with

   every MENA state, and has become today, one of the fastest

   growing economies in the world, earning itself a place at the

   G20 table.

D. So here we have the colonial legacy: a region ethnically

   mixed up, geographically cut-out as though from cardboard,

   agriculturally turning out water-hungry cash crops such as

   cotton, strawberries and flowers. Lacking any sense of
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   nationhood – save for Egypt and Turkey - military and

   monarchical authoritarianism attempted impose it instead.

   This was often violent, and used ideology – such as pan-

   Arabism, Ba’athism, communism, and most recently, radical

   Islamism – to provide some coherence and momentum to

   the process. Yet significantly, these ideologies speak as

   much to a cross regional identity as any state patriotism –

   Islamism to the wider Islamic community, for example –

   creating tensions that often have encouraged further

   authoritarianism.

E. The miracle is that the countries have all retained their

   borders, with none having fallen apart or changed identities

   since they were created less than 100 years ago. To realize

   how recently these states gained their independence, and

   how cataclysmic the colonial period was, makes it easier to

   understand the growing pains they are experiencing – even

   aside from it being a shatter belt where invasions and

   international oil meddling regularly complicate matters. If

   we think about it, 100 years after the US gained its

   independence from Britain, it was engaged in a civil war.
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         The south was economically devastated for decades.

         Another 40 years would pass before women gained the

         right to vote, and longer for Blacks to sit in the front of the

         bus. In Chicago and New York, the mafia were rigging

         elections well into the 20th century. We think of ourselves

         as a young country. The states of the Middle East, though

         composed of old civilizations, are young too – teenagers

         really. They’re impetuous and unskilled – and heavily

         burdened by the glare and avarice of the globe’s great

         powers.

III. The third circle: The Cold War

      A. As I mentioned earlier, states inside shatter belts enjoy a

         certain freedom to choose sides. During the Cold War, the

         Middle East reflected the interests, and the standoff of the

         two superpowers. The Truman Doctrine warning against

         Soviet meddling in Turkey set the tone, while the first

         Security Council case involved forcing Soviet troop

         withdrawal from Iran’s Azarbaijan.

      B. In the Soviet bloc were Iraq, Syria and Nasser’s Egypt. In the

         American were Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, the Shah’s Iran
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   and the small Persian Gulf states. Yemen they split. For the

   US, the alliances were built primarily on oil. The Saudis and

   the Shah, with its blessing, patrolled the Gulf; while Israel

   increasingly showed its strategic worth as a military

   counter-weight to the Soviet-equipped Arab states.

C. What I wish to highlight is how those aligned with the

   different super-powers came economically to reflect their

   patrons. Liberal market capitalism became the norm in

   Washington’s allies; centralized socialist economies

   characterized Moscow’s. This has implications for today –

   for the latter have less infrastructure to compete on a global

   market, being much more adept at funneling state funds

   into mega projects. On the other hand, oil created a system

   of haves – and have nots, that has seriously divided the

   Middle East. Because of the wealth, and technical

   requirements, attached to oil, the haves brought huge

   numbers of foreigners onto their soil, and fast paced

   changes that served to erode the all-too tenuous identities

   being created. In Iran, this proved decisive, and it shook off
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         the American alliance to create the Islamic Republic and go

         a third way, Neither East nor West.

      D. Equally important to the Cold War balance was Egypt’s shift

         from Nasser to Sadat, away from the USSR and into the US

         fold. Coming on the heels of three devastating wars with

         Israel and millions of refugees crowding into Cairo, Sadat’s

         ground-breaking decision to make peace with Jerusalem

         appeared to be the move of a resurgent Egypt retaking the

         mantle of Arab leadership. In fact, it spelled growing frailty,

         with the other Arabs hesitant to follow suit, and Israel little

         softened. Today, politically stifled by Mobarak, economically

         dependent on the US, and diplomatically caught in the

         poisonous web of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Egypt is a

         casualty of the Cold War, its remit for Arab leadership

         increasingly taken over by others: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and

         most recently, Qatar.

IV. This takes us to the fourth circle, the post Cold War.

      A. We thought of this as a unipolar moment – in Francis

         Fukuyama’s words, the End of History, not because time

         would stop, but because market economics and liberal
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   democracy had overcome other movements. Geo-economics

   had proven itself in a globalizing world. There would be

   prosperity – and peace.

B. In fact, this turned out to be inaccurate. The shatter belt

   continued to be as conflictual as ever. With the US involved

   in three wars within the decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, it

   proved not to be a period of great global shift, but simply a

   period of transition. Quite apart from terrorism, a multi-

   polar world began to emerge by the end of the 1990s.

   Russia, humbled but autonomous, remains a rumbling

   power. Turkey and the BRIC (Brazil, India, and China) have

   become increasingly important – both economically and

   politically. The US, bruised by its experience in the Middle

   East, is having to adjust to the idea that it is not a power that

   can automatically dictate world politics.

C. This has been acute in Iraq – a country which first revealed

   the failure of airpower to hold territory, when the British

   tried to take over tribal lands during the colonial period.

   The Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent wars in Iraq have

   shown an important element in Middle East politics.
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   Sovereignty, pride of nation, now holds great store. Shias

   and Sunnis both showed they are not willing to abandon

   their countrymen to fight with their co-religionists. They

   may engage in sectarian violence on their own turf, but they

   will stand together as Iraqis against an outside enemy.

D. A real sense of national identity is emerging, and with it, the

   sense of patriotism. The Iraqis can be seen to have become

   impatient with the imposition of outside presumptions,

   whether in the form of al-Qaeda fanaticism, Iranian political

   theology or Americanized democratic precepts. The Iraqis

   are in a moment of transition. They are talking, they are

   imagining, they are creating a new state by themselves, for

   themselves.

E. For the West, particularly, the US, the idea of a Shia-led

   government has been novel – the old Sunni city states of

   Damascus, Cairo and Beirut having so far dominated

   thinking about Middle East power and social dynamics. In

   effect, the Old Middle East is passing as surely as the Old

   Europe, and in its place, Shia politics is as much a player as

   Sunni. Because of the complete breakdown of relations
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  between the US and Iran after 1979, understanding of how a

  Shia government works and how the Shia fit into regional

  geopolitics has been slow in coming, as has recognition of

  Tehran as one of the Middle East’s new power cities.

F. The end of the Cold War brought another change – the rise

  of Islamic terrorism, and what that has meant for the Middle

  East. The risk of terrorism as a force intent on destroying

  the sovereignty of the state has made for stark choices. In

  Saudi Arabia, for example, it meant clearing its territory of

  American military forces. Sadly, it has also meant further

  accommodation with the clerically run madrasa educational

  system, which is leaving the exploding population of young

  in Saudi Arabia woefully uneducated in anything beyond the

  Qoran, and hence, unfit for modern employment or

  leadership. In Lebanon, the risk of terrorism has meant

  accommodating with Hezbollah, because if Hezbollah’s

  popular national support is ignored, Islamic radicals may

  interpret its buy-in to the electoral process as a failure, and

  choose more extreme, perhaps more violent, approaches to

  make their mark.
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G. The end of the Cold War brought a third factor to the Middle

   East – the rise of Al-Jazeera, the Western-style, Arabic TV

   news channel that brings a Middle East perspective, and

   Arabic idiom to their stories. For the first time, Arab

   populations were seeing real reporting about their own

   countries from a competent Arabic station. The effect was

   electrifying. Until then, Arabs received news that was state

   controlled, overly processed, and boring. Arab leaders, such

   as the Saudis, closed the al-Jazeera offices, and officially

   banned it – though satellite, and now U-Tube, still makes it

   accessible. When it carried messages by Osama Bin-Laden,

   the US, previously smug and supportive, denounced it and

   for its part tried to have it closed down. Al-Jazeera has

   weathered it all. It welcomed Secretary of Defense Colin

   Powell and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice on its

   airwaves to present their position, while it still continues to

   carry Bin-Laden, Hamas representatives and anyone else.

   Its motto, ‘the View, and the Other View’ has preserved its

   even-handedness and credibility.
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H. I was recently at an al-Jazeera forum in Doha, Qatar, where

   Iraqi prime-ministerial hopeful, Iyad Allawi gave a keynote

   address. After he talked at some length about the freedoms

   and plans he envisioned for the new Iraq, a questioner in

   the audience asked whether Allawi intended to re-open the

   al-Jazeera office in Baghdad, which he shut down the last

   time he was Prime Minister. This question was doubly

   interesting since prior to its banning, the office had been

   bombed. One reporter was killed, but the bureau chief,

   Wadah Khanfar, who survived, has since become the

   Director General of al-Jazeera. Allawi’s response was non-

   committal, despite the catcalls that erupted pointing out

   that he was happy to speak at a televised al-Jazeera

   conference and enjoy Qatari hospitality, even though he was

   not willing to provide media freedom in Iraq.

I. Finally, the end of the Cold War ushered in a new Arab

   Cold War, with those favouring the US and Israel ranged on

   one side, and those favouring Iran and the Islamic radicals

   on the other. It has been a wrenching standoff, not least

   because of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the successes of
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  Hezbollah as a Shia organization in 2006, the bloodbath of

  Gaza in 2009, and most recently, the flotilla disaster.

J. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis is not a comfortable

  one. Iran, a non-Arab, non-Sunni state, rhetorically

  aggressive, and feared for its agenda in Iraq as well as its

  nuclear ambitions, is not a natural Middle Eastern leader. Its

  ability to formulate the grievances of the Arab Street,

  however, has given it purchase, as has its stroppy

  perseverance at standing up to the US and Israel. The key

  element in this axis is Syria, lodged at the centre of the Arab

  world and itself headed by an elite clique that follows a

  version of Shiism. Bashar Assad is a more Europeanized

  and urbane man than his father, who has quietly asserted

  his power in Damascus – a far from foregone conclusion

  when he first took office. Syria too is growing up –

  emerging from its colonial legacy and severe alliance with

  the Soviet bloc during the Cold War with a stronger sense of

  its own identity and its role in the Middle East. Back in

  control in Lebanon, it is beginning to extend its wings: it has

  made up with Saudi Arabia, established closer relations
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        with Ankara and Washington, and adopted a clear position

        in regards to Israel. Syria is a country to watch, as we move

        from the present, into the future.

V. The Fifth Circle: The New Middle East Order

     A. In looking around the Middle East today, this is what I see.

        It is still a shatter-belt, but with several new powers

        surfacing– most importantly, energy-hungry China, but of

        course, still Russia, both of which are heartland powers

        coming up against US interests. Second, I see an increasingly

        dangerous regional competition between Iran and Israel to

        dominate the Middle East narrative. Third, I see the

        emergence of a couple of key new players, Turkey and

        Qatar, who are adding a new and pragmatic dimension to

        Middle East identity. Let me briefly look at each of these.

     B. China’s need for oil is sky-rocketing and it’s not surprising it

        is focusing on the Persian Gulf to quench this rising thirst.

        What is less known is how fast China has built trade and

        business links in the region. Its investment into Iran’s oil

        and gas infrastructure is significant, and has been little

        hampered by sanctions, which it has consistently watered
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down to make sure it can operate legally. On the other hand,

it currently imports significantly more oil from Saudi Arabia

than from Iran, and, just this past year, exceeded the US as

Saudi Arabia’s largest import provider. China’s role in the

region is not just economic, however. It represents an

alternative model to that of the US, namely market

authoritarianism, which does not concern itself with the

nature of the regimes with which it does business.

Surprisingly, this gives China legitimacy in dealing with

Middle East dictatorships and monarchies since its own

primary principles do not conflict with theirs. For US

negotiators to sit down across their Saudi counterparts in

Ryadh, for example, knowing that they are surrounded by

women who are not allowed to drive, may have their

children taken from them because they are unprotected by

family law, and cannot travel without their husband’s

permission, is to do business with a country that is

fundamentally at odds with US primary principles,

something both Saudis and Americans must constantly

grapple with. This is not an issue in Chinese-Arab contacts.
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   For the Middle East, China is generally good news, and the

   conflict between Chinese and US interests across this

   shatter-belt are likely to rise in the future.

C. Second, the standoff between Iran and Israel to control the

   Middle East narrative. It may be of some use to remember

   that good relations between the two did not end with the

   1979 Revolution – otherwise Iran Contra could not have

   happened. Well after the fall of the Shah, and until the end

   of the Cold War, Iran remained inside Israel’s periphery

   policy. It was only after the First Gulf War that regional

   geostrategic rivalry came to mark the relationship. Each has

   attempted to define the balance of power in the Middle East

   – and though couched in highly ideological language, the

   standoff has been distinguished by hard-headed tactics on

   both sides. Both have acted to ward off US policies in the

   region that could benefit the other, while using the

   Palestinian issue to garner support in their respective

   theatres of influence: Iran in the Arab world and east, Israel

   in the West. The standoff is exacerbated by Israel’s hidden

   bomb, which fails to surface in negotiations on Iran’s bomb,
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   making resolution of the latter unlikely until it does. Trita

   Parsi argues, ‘a negotiated resolution of this rivalry will

   significantly facilitate the resolution of other regional

   problems, rather than the other way around’. Yet, Obama

   has yet to find a way to integrate Iran into a regional

   framework for resolving issues such as Afghanistan, Iraq,

   and Israel-Palestine. At the same time, he is finding it

   challenging to adjust policy toward an Israel that is

   increasingly less valuable as an asset to US interests in the

   region. The result its that Israel and Iran squabble in a field

   unlimited by rules, which is inexorably bringing this

   dangerous neighborhood closer to war. When war across a

   shatter belt is what is at stake, it seems to me

   unconscionable for the US delegation, for example, to walk

   out of a UN meeting when Iran is giving a speech. Closing

   off dialogue is not how peace is secured.

D. What brings real hope for the region is the emergence of

   two unlikely states in the role of pragmatic counter-balance:

   Turkey and Qatar. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes,

   Turkey is becoming the modern avatar of the Ottoman
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   empire. The hope it inspires is palpable among Gulf Arab

   states and Iran alike, as a bridge across the Arab Cold War,

   and leader on Middle East issues . Its choice, recently, to

   abolish visa requirements for Arab states, means it has

   established a visa free zone much like the EU, contributing

   to increased trade and exchange. It is a strong player in Iraq.

   It attempted to further negotiations between Israel and

   Syria at the Damascus summit in 2008. Most recently, in

   partnership with Brazil, it brought Iran to an agreement for

   the first time in four years over the nuclear issue – an

   achievement it is unwilling to forfeit, in that it is still

   pushing Iran to continue with the process, regardless of the

   recently passed UN sanctions. Though seeming to have

   turned away from Europe , Turkey’s bridge-building

   eastward in fact makes it all the more valuable as a

   European ally.

E. And then there is Qatar , bent on becoming a ‘nation forum’

   within the Middle East, where enemies can talk, and peace

   agreements can be inked. It is currently the richest nation

   in the world, a tiny state without history, friends, or foes.
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Host to a vast US airbase, it has etched out a place for itself

that is neither pro-US nor pro-Radical. Qatar has made a

point of breaking camp ranks. After inviting the Iranians to

the first meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council it had ever

attended in 2007, Qatar followed up by inviting then Israeli

Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, to Doha to discuss Iran’s

nuclear threat. One of Qatar’s coups was to bring hostile

Lebanese factions together to sign a national accord in

2008, called the Doha Agreement. Qatar’s effort to become a

negotiating haven for Middle East dispute resolution is

driven by security concerns: Entertaining Iran and Israel,

the al-Houthis and the Yemeni government, the Taliban and

the US, Qatar’s safety is better secured, not only because it’s

making negotiation possible, but, because they are talking.

The rise of both Qatar and Turkey as credible, non-aligned

Middle East diplomatic powerhouses reflects the emergence

of a new modern Middle East identity. By this I mean an

identity being added to the mix – rather than replacing

other identities. What makes this exciting is that the impact
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   of an Arab actor can have implications that have not been

   experienced until now.

F. Here is an example. In late May Qatar, not for the first time,

   offered to carry out infrastructure reconstruction efforts in

   Gaza in exchange for re-opening Israel’s diplomatic mission

   in Doha. The Israeli mission, opened after Lipni’s visit, was

   closed by Qatar after Gaza. Qatar timed its offer to coincide

   with the resumption of the proximity talks, and the

   expectation that a goodwill gesture by Israel might be

   opportune. As it turned out, Israel declined, leading to the

   subsequent aid flotilla tragedy.

G. The point I wish to make, however, is this. Had Israel

   accepted, a new dimension to the Gaza story would have

   been enacted. New York University professor Alon Ben-Meir

   observes that by working with Hamas, Qatar’s involvement

   in Gaza’s internal affairs could possibly, over time, helped

   moderate Hamas’s position. ‘Indeed,’ he says, ‘the only way

   to distance Hamas from Iran is to encourage it to return to

   the Arab fold’. This, however, requires ‘constructive, gainful

   and lasting engagement, especially by official Arab
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         governments, which are harder to rebuke than aid

         organizations’. Qatar – frequent host to Hamas and

         Hezbollah, but also, host to Israel and the US – could have

         initiated the process, and thereby paved the way for others

         to follow.



VI. I’ll end on this – for we have extended the telescope and adjusted

      the sighting. But wait, look at that! The picture is already

      changing! Thank you.

				
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