This year’s annual Al Jazeera Forum, entitled “The Arab world in transition: Has the future arrived?” took place from 12-14 March 2011. Coming at a momentous time for both Al Jazeera and the Arab world, the forum brought together activists, analysts, journalists, and academics, to address the implications of recent and developing events. Al Jazeera’s Asad Hashim interviewed MEI Director Michael C Hudson for his views: watch here.
By Shadi Hamid
Obscured by the WikiLeaks revelations and controversies reverberating in Arab capitals is a bit of news arguably far more important than the latest embarrassment for Arab leaders. On December 2nd, the tiny, oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar managed to win the coveted 2022 World Cup bid, beating out the U.S. and Australia in one of the more unlikely upsets in recent sports history. The New York Times’ Nate Silver called the decision “astonishing,” others were simply confused. It was both a brave and risky move for the FIFA committee. For Qatar, however, and the broader Middle East, it has the potential to be a game-changer.
Arab countries are not accustomed to victory in the global arena. The past few years in particular have been, by even the region’s high standards, depressing. Whether civil conflict in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, or the political deterioration of Egypt, the region has at times appeared to be in free fall.
But not in Qatar. The World Cup is just the latest success in an impressive run for the Qataris, who currently enjoy the world’s highest GDP per capita as well as its fastest growth rates. More importantly, the win is a vindication of Qatar’s odd, and often creative, foreign policy.
In 1995, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father in a bloodless coup, becoming the new Emir. Under his leadership, Qatar made a strategic decision to distinguish itself from its competitors in the Gulf, particularly Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The country, home to less than 300,000 citizens, has since become an increasingly influential player on the regional and international stages. The revenue generated by Qatar’s deep oil reserves of course helps. But it is the use of this revenue that has set Qatar apart. Rather than spending it on costly weapons systems – Qatar’s military expenditures are quite low by Gulf standards – the country has focused its attention elsewhere. Qatar is already home to “Education City,” which hosts campuses for Georgetown, Northwestern, and other top American universities. One of the world’s largest collections of modern Arab art is set to open by the end of the year. The Qatar-based Al Jazeera, one of the region’s freer and most widely watched news networks, projects the country’s influence around the world.
Meanwhile, the region’s pro-Western pillars, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, are declining both in spite of and because of their closeness to the U.S. As the State Department cables released by Wikileaks have shown, these countries are crippled by the wide gap between leaders and their citizens. The former go along with American policy, whether on the Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or counterterrorism, while the latter decry Western influence and sympathize with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. And managing the divide is not getting any easier: in several Arab countries, U.S. favorability ratings are lower under President Obama than they were in the final years of the Bush administration.
By contrast, Qatar has steered a middle path, hosting the largest pre-positioning U.S. military base in the world, while still managing cordial, and increasingly close, relations with Iran. As we saw with the 2008 Doha Agreement, in which Qatar brokered peace between the Lebanese government and the Hizbollah-led opposition, when you have leverage with both sides, it’s easier to strike a deal. Qatar has also mediated between the Palestinians, Yemenis, and Sudanese, with varying degrees of success.
Could this be the new model for the Middle East? Qatar’s independent and assertive policies defy easy characterization within any of the region’s camps. And, now, the World Cup gives Qatar an internal deadline to build, expand, and project influence well beyond what its size would suggest. The country already plans to invest nearly $100 billion in infrastructure in the coming years, including $35 billion for a metro and rail system, as well as the longest oversea bridge in the world, connecting it to Bahrain.
But Qatar’s ambitions for greater influence come at a cost, and many are watching the country’s emergence with wariness. Because it is home to Al Jazeera – as well as a number of prominent political exiles – Qatar has had strained ties with some of its neighbors. Neither is the country very popular in Washington, particularly after signing defense cooperation agreements with Iran.
To be friends with both sides – to host a major U.S. military base while simultaneously holding joint training exercises with Iranian frontier guards – is a difficult balancing act during an ostensible Arab cold war. It helps that Qatar is less dependent on foreign assistance than, say, Egypt, long the world’s second largest recipient of American aid. Because it enjoys the protection that comes with having U.S. Central Command on its territory, Qatar is less concerned with the sort of controversial arms deals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates signed recently with the U.S. Meanwhile, with a small population and minimal internal opposition, a few creative, ambitious leaders can, on their own, decisively shift direction on foreign policy. Fifteen years ago, few knew where Qatar was and fewer cared. The country’s leaders had almost nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.
By virtue of their traditional weight and influence, countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been cautious, status quo actors. Adventurous foreign policymaking, for them, is a risky proposition. Domestic factors matter as well; Bahrain and Kuwait are similarly small but have been plagued by political gridlock and sectarian tensions.
All of this makes it difficult for countries to follow Qatar’s path. Qatar, however, is not entirely alone. Turkey is another rising power that has learned many of the same lessons. Traditionally part of the U.S. orbit – and the only Middle Eastern country that has any meaningful military cooperation with Israel – Turkey has studiously built up a reservoir of goodwill with Syria, Hamas, and, perhaps most importantly, the Arab public, much of which views Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan with far more respect and admiration than it views its own leaders.
The rise of both Qatar and Turkey comes at opportune time. In the wake of WikiLeaks, Arab leaders are questioning whether the U.S. can remain the sole arbiter of the Middle East. Most governments in the region have been content to either embrace or defy U.S. dominance, while others, particularly Qatar, have found success by working with all of the regional actors from Washington to Tehran. Everyone likes a winner and the winners – this time at least – are charting a different course.
Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
(The Atlantic, December 13, 2010)
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For internal circulation
4 Jan 10
The furore after polls in Iran, the snub delivered to America by Israel and the continuing war in Iraq hint at a new year full of problems from the past
By Patrick Seale
The year 2009, which began with Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, has been one of great torment and much misery in the Middle East. Even the ascent last January of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has not been enough to bring a semblance of peace to a profoundly troubled region.
At first, Obama’s arrival seemed like a gift from paradise. Here was a highly unusual, brilliantly eloquent leader who promised to reinvent America, and heal the ravages of the Bush years. But the immense hopes he aroused — especially in the Arab and Muslim world — have not yet been fully realised. But one must not despair: Obama’s mandate still has three years to run.
In spite of Obama’s efforts so far, the situation remains unsettled and potentially explosive in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and in the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict, bearing witness to the enduring nature of the crises in these countries, but also to the inability of an enfeebled US to impose its will.
For 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet empire that followed, the US seemed to be the world’s unchallenged superpower, able to dictate terms to friends and enemies alike. One of the striking lessons of 2009 is how fast this supremacy has been eroded.
Several factors have contributed to it. The following must be counted among them: the enraged response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks; the lamentable influence of pro-Israeli neo-cons on America’s Middle East policy; the catastrophic Iraq war; the ill-judged “Global War on Terror”, widely seen as a war on Islam; the grave international financial crisis triggered by Wall Street’s unbridled greed; and, not least, the rise of China — a shift in the global balance of power, which the splendour of the Beijing Olympic Games brought home by television to every living-room across the world.
Nothing illustrates the decline of American power better than the defiant rejection of American wishes by both Israel and Iran, as well as the evident reluctance of European allies to contribute more than token forces to the war in Afghanistan.
It would seem that Obama’s unenviable task will be to manage the US decline as best he can.
In Iraq, Obama has pledged to end America’s military involvement, bringing Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure to a close. But this has not brought peace to that shattered country. Terrorist explosions, each with its terrible toll of dead and wounded, continue to rock Baghdad and other cities.
The region will have to suffer the consequences of Iraq’s destruction for many years to come. Among these consequences are the unfortunate sharpening of Sunni-Shiite tensions and the overturning of the balance of power in the Gulf to Iran’s advantage. History will no doubt judge the invasion and occupation of Iraq as one of the great crimes of our time.
One of the most spectacular developments this year has been the explosion of protest in the Islamic Republic of Iran which followed last June’s rigged elections. President Ahmadinejad — and indeed Supreme Leader Khamenei as well — are being challenged not only by repeated mass demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere, but also by a split in the ruling elite. Severe repression has failed to deter this growing opposition. The result has been to reveal to the world a picture of another Iran — brave, youthful, educated, aspiring for real democracy, while remaining true to Islamic values. It remains to be seen whether this movement will be crushed, or whether it will eventually shape Iran’s future.
Meanwhile, Iran has forged ahead with uranium enrichment, a programme driven as much by prickly nationalism as by the need to acquire a deterrent against military attack.
Neither negotiations nor sanctions have persuaded Iran to give up uranium enrichment, nor even the threat of a military strike by Israel and/or the US. The world may, after all, have to live with an Iranian bomb. The consequence may not be as bad as some fear. It may even contribute to peace by establishing a regional balance of power.
The war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly President Obama’s biggest challenge. He has bowed (possibly against his will) to the request of his military commanders to send more troops. But very few observers believe this will ensure victory. A negotiation with the Taliban — and especially with the powerful Pashtun tribes that live astride the Afghan-Pakistan border — will eventually be necessary if the nine-year war is ever to be brought to an end.
Crises and myopia
What of the long-stalemated Arab-Israeli conflict? Determined to resolve it, Obama sprang into action in the very first hours of his presidency, naming the veteran negotiator George Mitchell as his special envoy. But after much frustration the one success so far has been to wring out of Israel’s reluctant Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a partial, 10-month colony freeze, which excludes Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel continues to colonise.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, continue their interminable feud, as if indifferent to the damage this does to their cause.
Tolerably good news has come this year from those squabbling twins, Syria and Lebanon. With help from France, Qatar, Turkey and other well-wishers, Syria has emerged from the isolation in which the Bush administration had attempted to confine it. The young President Bashar Al Assad is attempting with some success to build a modern state, but his efforts — and his country’s image — have been marred by human rights abuses and a crackdown on dissent.
Meanwhile, Lebanon, having elected its former army chief, General Michel Sulaiman, as president in 2008, has now, after endless months of sterile bargaining, a new government under the majority leader Sa’ad Hariri.
He was able to reach a compromise with Hezbollah — the most robust element of the opposition — under which the Shiite movement will retain its weapons to defend the country against any future Israeli assault.
In spite of the domestic and regional turmoil, Lebanese banks have continued to prosper, while the irrepressible Lebanese — or at least the affluent middle classes among them — have continued to enjoy themselves, as only the Lebanese know how to.
To complete the picture, mention should perhaps be made of Yemen, afflicted by serious disturbances both in the north and the south of the country; of Egypt, obsessed by the unresolved question of the succession to the long-serving President Mubarak.
I have two choices for the winners in 2009: they are Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
These two powerful states have emerged as the stable and sensible “big brothers” of the region. Turkey — led by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Davudoglu — has won the admiration of the world by its active diplomacy, aimed at spreading peace, prosperity and good neighbourliness across the region.
Turkey may not yet have joined the European Union — as it deserves to do — but it has rapidly forged friendly political and economic ties with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other countries, including its old adversary Armenia.
It has even taken cautious steps towards settling its quarrel with its Kurdish population, although these efforts received a setback in December when riots broke out following the dissolution by the constitutional court of the main Kurdish political party.
Saudi Arabia has this year consolidated its position as the Arab world’s leading country, distinguished by its great wealth, by the size and varied talents of its ruling elite (both royal and non-royal), and by the consensus-seeking style of government and reformist policies of King Abdullah. The Allegiance Council (Al haya’ Al baya’) the king created in 2006 is well-placed to ensure the continuity of good governance in the future.
Among King Abdullah’s many achievements in 2009 were the benign influence he has exerted within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the curbing of radical and often obscurantist clerics at home, and the launch of KAUST, which is the long-awaited King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a graduate centre of scientific excellence.
Pointers to the king’s reformist vision are the fact that the campus of this new university is co-educational — the first in the kingdom — as well as the appointment, for the first time, of a woman, Noora Al Fayez, to the post of deputy minister for women’s education.
These are highly positive developments, but they cannot obscure the sad truth that the Middle East, plagued by many unresolved conflicts, remains at the centre of the world crisis.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
Gulf News, Dubai – 1 Jan 10