17 Nov 2021

Middle East Security in an era of transformation: TRENDS and the Atlantic Council outline emerging challenges

Dr. Stephen Blackwell

A two-day conference entitled “Middle East Security in a Changing World: Building a Sustainable Regional Security System”, held from 2-3 November, outlined some of the key issues and challenges confronting the region in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Middle East is witnessing rapid changes with major repercussions for regional security and stability. Some of these changes originate from within the region, while others are related to broader shifts across the world, such as the after effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and emerging and potentially transformational new technologies. In recent years, the region has seen relative improvements in its security and prospects for sustainable development. The decline of civil conflicts after the Arab Spring era, the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the signing of the Abraham Accords have brought new opportunities for regional peace and stability.

Nevertheless, the current alteration of the Middle East’s political reality is arguably the outcome of the US and its allies’ strategic confusion. The main source of this is the culmination of the Western mission in Afghanistan, which may be seen as the end of an era of foreign military intervention in the region and the shaping of local regimes through foreign intervention. Current regional trends are also naturally influenced by new trends in global politics. There remains the possibility that the failure of the US and its allies in Afghanistan along with their semi-failure in Iraq could continue to have significant consequences on the region and the wider world that may lead to more uncertainty, polarization, power vacuums and disruptions of the balance of power.

Other challenges to achieving viable and sustainable regional security also remain. Fast-paced technological transformations, obstacles to development, and the competing approaches of regional and international powers will have considerable impact on the future of security in the Middle East. In addition, other issues, including the fight against terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, the key governance challenges confronting the region, the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban, and existing and potential inter-state cooperation on combating violent extremism, remain central concerns to governments of the region and international actors.

The future of US regional policy

On the one hand, the US remains committed to the region and the necessity of upholding the interests of its allies within a secure regional order. In this context, US President Joe Biden has articulated a clear strategic vision committing Washington to a more sustainable set of rules and long-term relationships with the US partners in the Middle East. In this vision, these relationships must focus on solving shared problems and building a future of prosperity.

The Biden administration has placed human rights at the forefront of US foreign policy. The administration’s policy is also based on the conviction that the states that will be most equipped to meet the security challenges of the changing world will be those with resilient, inclusive governments that treat civil society as a partner rather than an enemy and recognize the fundamental rights of its people including freedom from oppression, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Promoting inclusive, effective governance and resilient states is vital for tackling both the security problems and the ones that lay ahead. Regional countries cannot address the challenges of the future if they are too weak, unstable and inward-looking, nor will they be able to tackle the real or imminent challenges posed by climate change.

On the other hand, there is a view widespread among regional actors that the US is set on withdrawing from the Middle East. It is arguable that the US is abandoning its regional friends and allies, which is not a good recipe for regional security and prosperity. The hope remains that the US can assist in establishing a stable regional order based on a principled security rules framework for the region’s states free of foreign interference.

One possibility is a regional security framework based on the Helsinki Process, which helped to cement European peace on the basis of the principles of non-aggression, non-interference in domestic affairs, respect for sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of conflicts. However, while the Arab-Israeli dispute persists, the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a barrier to establishing such a regional mechanism. The potential US disengagement from the region is a pivotal factor that has led many countries in the region – including those in the GCC – to adopt a more pragmatic approach in terms of addressing their shared interests and concerns. This is, of course, not enough to establish a security framework but it is a must-have prerequisite if efforts to build such an all-inclusive framework are to stand a chance of being successful.

There is, however, a dramatic set of changes in the US military forces with new concepts of global power projection emerging, which will inevitably force the US to work with its strategic partners in the region. The nuclear arms race is being revived while the uses and abuses of cyberspace are changing radically.  What might be termed as “white area conflict”, which is designed to use economics and civil structures to achieve military goals, may become increasingly prevalent.

Regardless of the Biden administration’s attitudes to the Middle East, its central focus is on China and Russia. In fact, President Obama previously raised the issue by highlighting the need to rebalance Asia. National defense strategies to this effect adopted subsequently were developed by General Mattis. The Biden administration has in many ways continued with the same approach, though it is still unclear how much it will change US forces both globally and in the Middle East region. How this strategy might develop will remain uncertain for at least the next two fiscal years, though it is probable that there will be changes to US force deployments in the Gulf. Regional threats and uncertainties will remain high, and there is some uncertainty over how the US might approach Iran, Yemen and Libya.

Terrorist threats

Over the previous 20 years of combating terrorism since 9/11, the main lesson has been that no safe places should be provided for terrorists to establish themselves and therefore fund, recruit and attack innocent people and governments. In particular, terrorists should not be allowed to seize territory from which to launch lethal assaults. ISIS’s online activities no longer encourage its supporters to travel to Syria to fight, but rather to do so in their home locations. Since its territorial Khalifate was destroyed, ISIS uses the hashtag BAQIYA, which means “we are still here”. The group’s propaganda uses the plight of their detained operatives to gain support and raise money. In addition, it should be noted that ISIS has shifted its attention from Iraq and Syria to other regions, including Afghanistan, Africa, Indonesia, and the Maldives.

Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiatives have been refined to become more proactive and less reactive in terms of the promotion of social cohesion and common citizenship. Interreligious dialogue in the Middle East is a relatively young field and its growth is directly connected to the major political and social dynamics shaping the region, including the growth of religiously expressed violence. The political context of each country affects the development of interreligious dialogue in powerful ways. Most interreligious dialogue organizations perceived local and national political challenges as the most difficult dilemmas they faced in their work.

In addition, such dialogue activity in the region remains local in scope, at the initiative of faith-based organizations, and oriented to serving basic community needs. There remains great sensitivity from multiple types of organizations to the foreign interests and influences that may be tied to interreligious dialogue activities. It is noteworthy that there is growing support in several countries for interreligious dialogue activities which strengthen citizenship values, even as the exact meaning of those values may change across national contexts.

In this context, more room is needed for more substantive participation and dialogue outreach to youth, women, conservative religious communities and religious groups that are considered to hold extremist beliefs. In some instances, strategies of education have been recognized as an essential form of action which might effectively build dialogue organizations’ capacity to participate in the reform of religious education or education on diversity in the region.

Terrorism or extremism is not a constant, single type of threat; the approach towards it should not be constant either. An effective national action plan should, therefore, be a “living” document to be built and molded in stages. As a pre-requisite, measures to counter violent extremism should be defined in national terms. Definitions and terminology, as well as an understanding of countering violent extremism, need to be accentuated before proceeding further. The link between terrorism and extremism also needs to be understood and comprehended properly.

Nevertheless, it should be cautioned that ideological responses based on strengthening “moderate” Islam have in some instances led to the stigmatization of young Sunni Muslims with the assumption that extremism doesn’t exist in other communities. While there is no simple solution in such a context, general objectives of prevention of radicalization must remain focused on avoiding stigmatization, strengthening dialogue between communities, developing a sense of belonging to the wider society and offering individual support to extremists, including in prison, in order to offer them an alternative way to contribute to society.

The CVE and security dimensions of communication are also important, especially in terms of strategies and policies governments can implement to better protect their citizens. Indeed, new media and a constantly expanding digital space represent a double-edged sword for people’s safety as many actors, primarily terrorist groups, are willing and capable of reshaping them to pursue their own agenda. Unfortunately, extremist groups have benefitted the most from the digital space as it allowed them to extend their fundraising and recruiting efforts and network beyond the traditional physical constraints, as proved by the massive mediatic impact of ISIS.

Predicting Iranian policy

The relationship between Iran and the Gulf states witnessed ups and downs, and there were many challenges on this issue because of the Islamic Republic’s ideology of exporting its revolution and using non-state actors to destabilize countries elsewhere in the region. Nevertheless, the wise response from the Gulf was to solve mutual problems, especially during Khatami’s time in office, though this approach broke down during Ahmadinejad’s era. In terms of any international deal with Iran, the GCC countries must be neutral. The withdrawal of the US from the region cannot be achieved without addressing the regional security concerns that stem from the current situation. A failure to reach a fair and balanced agreement will exacerbate Arabian Gulf security concerns. It is essential that the current conflict in Yemen is resolved, as the establishment of peace in the country could be a good starting point for de-escalation and the formation of an all-inclusive security framework that benefits the region.

The 2015 nuclear deal is dying a slow death while Iran is advancing its nuclear capabilities and increasing its highly enriched uranium reserves thanks to advanced centrifuges. Tehran has continued its cooperation with the IAEA, albeit marginally. The break-out time needed for Iran to develop a nuclear bomb has been significantly reduced, while a variety of tried and tested sophisticated delivery systems – cruise and ballistic missiles – have been prepared. The fear of Iran’s still-secret enrichment and nuclear bomb fabrication facilities is a credible one.

Iran’s nuclearization, if realized, could trigger other regional countries to kick start their own nuclear weapons programs, in the same way that China’s nuclear weapons led to India’s and, subsequently, Pakistan’s development of its nuclear arsenal. If Iranian statements can be of any guide, they have often justified Tehran’s quest for nuclear deterrence by referring to the Pakistani bomb or the Sunni bomb as a security threat. Nuclear deterrence confers strategic superiority or strategic parity, as well as adding prestige to countries equipped with such weapons. If the Middle East and Turkey are to be kept out of the nuclear race, the West, China, and Russia must curb Iran’s nuclear activities first. Rewarding Tehran’s rogue behavior and apathy towards its international nuclear obligations and IAEA safeguards is equivalent to discouraging the Gulf states, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and others from complying with the crumbling NPT.

There is also a need to comprehend the danger posed by Iran’s security model, which is predicated on the dominant security role of the Militias that operate outside of complete government authority and are an anomaly in the contemporary state’s monopoly of military power. The risk is that this model may become appealing to nations where the state is weak, such as Iraq, Yemen and Libya. In this way, Iran is still trying to export its ideology to its neighbors.

The Abraham Accords

From the UAE perspective, the main priorities have always been peace, economy, and people-to-people understanding.  The Abraham Accords are not intended to target any specific country.  The agreement was designed as a stabilizing factor and were driven by an intention to prevent annexation of Palestinian territories. The normalization of ties in exchange for suspension of annexation underpinned a deal which salvaged the two-state solution. This goal reflected the emphasis on diplomacy, stability, and prosperity as the focus of the Abraham Accords.

Within the region, there is a desire for peaceful coexistence, along with greater promotion of the philosophical foundations of coexistence and an imperative to establish peace and work together to confront issues relating to climate change and artificial intelligence. Building on the breakthrough achieved by the Abraham Accords, the normalization of relations between Morocco and Sudan and Israel is just another example of how a fresh diplomatic approach and strategy can provide the greatest outcomes for all parties concerned.

Looking at the bilateral benefits of regional cooperation among the current signatories, namely the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, it is possible that enhanced economic cooperation could generate up to US$ 150 billion in new economic activity and 180,000 new jobs. If the normalization expands to additional countries, and the region enters a free trade agreement, the benefits could be much larger. In such a scenario, 4 million new jobs and more than US$ 1 trillion in new economic activity could potentially be created over a decade. If this were also complimented by imaginative policy measures and, potentially, a new “Marshall Plan” for the region, such measures could also ensure that these benefits are equitably distributed among populations across the region. Thus, a new chapter in the region’s development could perhaps be opened.

The peace deals between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are watershed moments in modern history. If other nations follow suit, the new Middle East will become a stronger, more stable region. Normalization would also encourage moderate ideologies based on a perception that countries can flourish and be stabilized with long-term plans. Normalization will also enable the region to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia, which have resulted in religious discrimination. Through expanded trade and growth, the region’s nations could make significant progress politically, culturally, socially, and economically through cooperative diplomatic efforts with more countries adopting the peace measures that began with the Abraham Accords.

Prospects for the future

Today, the Middle East region has an opportunity to be the newest case study for the classical liberal theory of international relations. There have been recent glimpses of success, with Saudi Arabia’s potential energy exports to Iraq and international counterpiracy efforts in the Indian Ocean, but the road ahead remains long and arduous. Nevertheless, the failure of most alternatives leaves the region’s key players with little choice but to experiment with trade and commerce as conduits to peace and stability. Fortunately, there are many opportunities for mutually beneficial exchange as exemplified by the Abraham Accords, and they could be a genuine starting point for a lasting solution to the region’s security challenges.

In terms of environmental challenges, climate change is real and a serious cause for concern among many countries in the Middle East. Indeed, the region has recently witnessed both the highest recorded temperature – 50° Celsius in Iraq – and significant extreme weather events, such as the cyclone Shaheen, which struck the northern coast of Oman in October 2021. Therefore, in a fragile desert zone, climate change represents a multi-dimensional threat that could exacerbate the challenges that are already negatively impacting the water-food-energy security nexus.

The Middle Eastern countries’ commitment to mitigate climate change has been manifested both at the intergovernmental and national levels. Building on the 2015 Paris Agreement, which has been widely recognized as a common basic framework for positive climate action, the Middle East countries have translated this commitment to the regional level through the Middle East Green Initiative. By building on common research programs, the latter represents an attempt to foster effective cooperation on climate-related issues. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain declared their commitment to achieving net-zero-emission targets by mid-century.

The path leading to long-lasting peace, stability, and security at the regional level can only be successful if a three-pillar approach comes to inform the relations among the Arabian Gulf countries. First, state sovereignty and territorial integrity have to be recognized as the cornerstones of efforts to strengthen security and development. Second, any form of malign activity or foreign interference in local domestic affairs has to be prevented. Third, countries must be prepared to invest time and resources in nurturing a respectful mutual coexistence.

Achieving a durable security architecture in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf will benefit not only the region, but also the entire world. The US and other major powers have an important role to play in encouraging the region’s efforts to secure stability, development and prosperity. The challenge for all actors now is to work together to achieve normalization and prepare the next generations for the challenges and opportunities to come.

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