TRENDS Research and Advisory, in cooperation with the Atlantic Council, launched its first annual conference on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, under the title: “Middle East Security in a Changing World: Building a Sustainable Regional Security System”, which was held over two days at the Council’s headquarters in Washington, with the participation of important political figures and experts from different parts of the world.

Dr Al-Ali: Positive shifts in the region pave the way for building a sustainable regional system

The proceedings of the conference began with the welcoming remarks by Dr. Mohammed Abdullah Al-Ali, CEO of TRENDS Research and Advisory, in which he stressed the importance of the conference and the new visions, ideas and perceptions that will be presented by the participants. He expained that building a sustainable regional system in the Middle East is possible, based on the positive transformations that have been achieved in recent years, especially in the defeat of ISIS, the signing of the Abraham Peace Accords and the sustainable solutions they seek to emerging and future challenges, in order to ensure security and prosperity in the region and the world.

Subsequently, Tom Warrick, Director of the Future of the DHS Project and non-resident senior fellow with the Middle East programs and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, welcomed the participants and said that TRENDS Research and Advisory is a prominent research center in the Middle East and North Africa that guides international policy-makers by helping them understand perspectives from the region in order to make informed decisions about the Middle East. Warrick later contributed to Panel I by pointing out that the Middle East is undergoing profound changes at all levels – in security, politics, economics and social affairs – and that international powers are competing for influence in the region. He stressed the importance of multilateral cooperation in the region, and also drew attention to the importance of the threat posed by Iran, as the Iranian model of supporting non-state militias undermines the security and stability of the countries in which those militias are located.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal: There is an urgent need for a new regional order that seeks to overcome pitfalls and obstacles

His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal, Founder and Member of the Board of Trustees of the King Faisal Foundation, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, delivered the opening remarks in which he highlighted that what we are witnessing today is a new international political beginning, and that the West should reconsider the future based on the geopolitical changes that occurred in the past few decades, especially the change that occurred in Afghanistan. He added that the Western failure in this country led to the defeat of the major powers, especially the United States and NATO, which would have a great impact on the developments in Afghanistan and the rest of the world, given that this experience in Afghanistan, with the great confusion it brought about for the US and the West, would lead to a great deal of uncertainty in global politics.

His Highness indicated that talking about the security of the Middle East is not easy, that security in this turbulent region is linked to the world’s major powers, and that there are many transformations that raise global and regional difficulties and challenges. He added that the United States of America has been dominant over the past seven decades, but that its commitment to the Middle East has not continued with the same momentum, given that the Palestinian issue is still stagnant, and that this casts a shadow over security and stability in the region. He said that the continued failure to solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem makes it difficult for other countries in the region to enter into a peaceful settlement.

His Highness explained that given the number of conflicts and crises in the Middle East, and the strategic importance of the region, there is an urgent need for a new regional order to establish peace and stability in the region, and that the United States and other major international powers must contribute to the building of this new order, without interfering in the internal affairs of the countries of the region. He also pointed to the importance of establishing a joint institutional entity that would manage Gulf cooperation with Iran.

His Highness touched on the Gulf-US relations, considering them to be one of the main pillars for establishing stability and peace in the Middle East. He expressed his concern that the current US administration will not differ from previous administrations in valuing US-Gulf relations in order to curb Iranian ambitions, and stressed that Biden should build on what was previously achieved in the Middle East. He added that there is no consensus about the best way to work in the Middle East, although we can be guided by some lessons and paths that may benefit us, such as a regional agreement on non-interference or the peaceful settlement of disputes, and that this guidance from historical experiences can contribute to solving the region’s problems.

Joey Hood: Biden has developed a strategic vision for long-term relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa

In the keynote remarks of the Conference, Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, US Department of State, said that US President Biden has developed a strategic vision that commits to long-term relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, which is based on commitment to an agenda that helps us build sustainable prosperity in the region. He noted that there are important transformations taking place in the Middle East, especially the rise of the People’s Republic of China, which has become a global influence that harnesses technology in surveillance and repression and continues to strive to control peoples.

He stressed the importance of benefiting from the momentum created by the Abraham Accords in order to establish security and peace in the Middle East, as well as the continuation of US cooperation with the countries of the Middle East in order to face challenges, including the crisis in Syria and Iraq, which coincide with the drop in agricultural crops and the lack of rain, thus creating a crisis in food security. They also include the commitment by the Lebanese leaders to achieving the aspirations of their people towards freedom and accountability, as well as the commitment of the United States to guarantee freedom of navigation in the Middle East for the sake of the whole world. He noted that the US administration believes that the definition of security should change, and this happens when we expand our vision of protecting fundamental freedoms.

Trade is a path towards peace and stability

Panel I began under the title “Redefining Middle East Security in an Era of Transition: A 20-Year Vision”, and was moderated by Stephen Blackwell, Scientific Adviser and Director of Strategic Studies at TRENDS Research and Advisory. In the panel, Omar Al-Ubaydli, Director of Studies and Research and Director of Economics and Energy Studies at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies, the Kingdom of Bahrain, talked about the security and development dimensions of regional economic cooperation, and indicated that with the diminishing material influence of European powers and their successor, the United States of America, there is still an opportunity for their intellectual influence to play a pivotal role in achieving peace in the Middle East. He noted that the Middle East has an opportunity to be the latest application of the classical liberal theory in international relations, and cited glimpses of success through potential Saudi energy exports to Iraq, and efforts to combat international piracy in the Indian Ocean. He stressed that the failure of most alternatives does not leave the main players in the region any choice but to try trade as a path to peace and stability.

The climate has a role to play in the Middle East security

Aisha Al Sarihi, Research Associate at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, Saudi Arabia, said that climate change will play a key role in shaping the security of the Middle East, given the real threat posed by many climate changes to some countries in the region. She noted that more than 66 percent of the water resources in the region come from outside it, which may affect the capabilities of the countries of the region and lead to the outbreak of disputes and conflicts that cause regional instability.

She noted that most Middle Eastern countries have ratified the Paris Climate Agreement and taken strict measures to deal with climate change. She added that for the first time, three countries in the Middle East, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, have announced implementation plans to reach zero percent of carbon emissions over the next few years.

Dialogue for a stable security system

Hesham Al-Ghannam, Senior Adviser and Director of the International Studies Program at the Gulf Research Center Cambridge (GRCC), explained that several indicators call on us to be optimistic about the future of the region, which is expected to witness competition for influence therein. He stressed that without collective security and putting an end to conflicts in the region, there would be no stability. He explained that the formation of a stable security system in the Gulf region requires a security dialogue that includes the countries of the region and Iran, and the settlement of existing crises, particularly the Yemen crisis which awaits resolution and requires exerting pressure on Iran and the Houthis.

He indicated that there is much evidence of Saudi Arabia’s desire for a security dialogue with the countries of the region, both friendly and non-friendly ones, despite the Iranians’ mistake in linking the solution to their problems – with the United States and the West – with solving their problems with the Gulf states. He explained that while competition between the countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) is healthy and expected – being part of the development process of those countries –  the reaction of the Gulf countries, including Qatar, to the statements of the Lebanese Minister of Information George Kordahi constitutes a new model for cooperation between those countries after a period of disputes.

Panel II, entitled “Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism in the Middle East and Beyond”, was moderated by Lorenzo Vidino, Director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, the United States of America. Anne Speckhard, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, the United States of America, explained that ISIS is no longer inviting terrorists to come to Syria, but now asks them to launch terrorist attacks in the countries in which they are located, and to retaliate, from their positions, for the fall of the “Caliphate State”. Speckhard said that the organization uses detainees to propagandize its grievance. She also pointed out that Afghanistan has become a theater of operations for the organization after the withdrawal of the United States therefrom.

She stated that the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism has conducted several interviews with defectors from ISIS and some of its victims, all of whom confirmed in documented testimonies that this organization is corrupt from within. She added that the program has partnered with Facebook to run a campaign against ISIS media and to prepare statistics of who watch those videos, as it turns out that the majority of them are from the Arab world.

Louis Audet Gosselin, Scientific and Strategic Director at the Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV), Canada, said that the most prominent motives for extremism and joining terrorist groups is the feeling of marginalization, exclusion and lack of justice. He pointed out that there are some jihadists who spread false information that influences many Muslims, as was the case in Syria at the hands of ISIS. He stated that this perpetuates a wrong mental image of Islam and Muslims in the countries of the world.

Patrice Brodeur, Associate Professor at the Institut d’études religieuses, Université de Montréal, Canada, spoke about combating violent extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. He noted that the region has formed a climate for political Islam movements which have exported their ideology across the world, and that threats are increasing due to multiple extremist discourses. He indicated that this issue can be confronted through dialogue between different sects and religions in an integrative and not competitive manner and by focusing on “the correct formation of the mind and spirit” through formal and informal educational systems, which call for investment in them at the level of countries of the world, and through the media, including social media, in addition to economic institutions and social organizations across the world. He stressed the need to expand scientific studies related to countering violent extremism, and to pursue open ideologies that take into account differences between people, as well as the need for knowledge security, that is, the security that comes from recognizing that all human beings deserve a meaningful life that is rooted in the approach of human fraternity.

An efficient system to counter violent extremism

His Excellency Ahmed Al-Qasemi, Executive Director of Hedayah Center, the United Arab Emirates, said “We in the UAE believe that extremism begins with the hate speech that terrorists promote to spread their ideas.” He added that this discourse produces advanced cases of terrorism and violent extremism, and indicated that it is not possible to combat terrorism and violent extremism through security tools alone, but rather through an integrated strategy or plan that includes security, social, economic and political tools, because dealing only with security problems of terrorism and violent extremism may generate counterproductive results and increase sources of extremism among extremists.

Al-Qasemi indicated that the Hedayah Center seeks to bridge the gap between countries in developing national strategies to confront violent extremism and terrorism. He explained that some countries lack a clear definition of combating violent extremism because they believe that combating terrorism is conducted in isolation from combating violent extremism. He stressed the need to understand the motives that stand behind violent extremism, with an emphasis on the differences that occur between the real and virtual worlds, as well as the need to build an efficient system to combat violent extremism and obtain the support of relevant institutions, and then direct this support to building national capacities with the aim of developing communication strategies with local and international actors to enable us to prepare the appropriate national plans.

Marginalization and injustice lead to extremism

Louis Audet Gosselin, Scientific and Strategic Director at the Canadian Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, reviewed some visions for preventing violent extremism when the state fails to do so. He stressed that the feeling of marginalization and injustice is a primary motive for individuals’ participation in violent extremism. He highlighted the importance of the most effective prevention programs in helping efforts to reconnect those individuals with pro-social activism and develop a sense of belonging to the wider community, despite the difficulty of implementing such programs in areas where state authority has almost collapsed, as has been the case in many areas in Mali and Burkina Faso in recent years, where combating violent extremism was sought mainly through armed repression, empowering local community militias, as well as renaming long-term development initiatives and promoting the so-called “moderate” religious voices.

He explained that some of those measures are counterproductive in the long term and promote extremism – as non-state militias have committed large-scale humanitarian violations – and tend to fuel conflicts between communities and do not bring about important results against a well-trained armed rebellion. He pointed to the danger of neglecting to address some important factors, such as the absence of a justice system, or the marginalization of entire societies, and stressed the importance of strengthening moderate Islam, promoting dialogue between societies, developing a sense of belonging to the wider community, and providing individual support to those in prison.

Nothing could be worse than a war between the US and China

Panel III, entitled “The Future of Middle East Security: International Priorities”, was moderated by Dr. Nath Al-Dalala’a, Main Researcher at the Department of Strategic Studies at TRENDS. Anthony H. Cordesman, Professor Emeritus in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the United States of America, indicated that there is an internal change in the US military as it transitions into a force able to deal with China and Russia, and that therefore we are talking about wars of another kind, which requires that we work with our partners in preparation for these kinds of wars.

He pointed out that there is some uncertainty on the part of the administration of US President Joe Biden regarding relations with the Middle East, given that analysts believe that the United States does not talk about the Middle East seriously, and that there is only talk about what is sub-regional. He explained that international data indicates a growing demand for energy in Asian economies, especially in China and India, and that there is talk in the United States now of achieving energy independence, but that there is a change in the countries that are dealt with in this field.

Cordesman warned that the possibility of a war in Taiwan would severely threaten global oil trade routes, especially those that pass through the Arabian Gulf and along the Strait of Hormuz, because most of the oil trade takes place by sea. He stressed that nothing could be worse than a war between the US and China over oil exports and revenues, which, if it does occur, would of course affect the Middle East region. He noted, on the other hand, that Russia, despite its real military threat, does not compete with the US economically like China. He stressed the importance of maintaining the partnership relationship with Arab countries, and emphasized the need for coordination in military capabilities.

Russia expands in the Middle East

Anna Borshchevskaya, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the United States of America, said that Russia has sought to strengthen its relations with the countries of the Middle East, and that President Putin has tried to build good relations with various actors in the region, from both governments and the opposition. She indicated that Russia has a military presence in the Middle East, and is expanding it to enhance its power and access to the region’s ports. She indicated that Russia relies on the uncertainty left by the US in the Middle East, and believes that its withdrawal from the region will be very beneficial to Moscow.

Chinese perspective of Middle East security

Wen Wang, Professor and Executive Dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University, China, said that in recent years the security situation in the Middle East has improved, social stability has been enhanced, and the pace of economic recovery has accelerated, adding that regional security and development should lead to a reduction in the interference of external forces, thus achieving sustainable economic development. He explained that China aims to achieve cooperation with the Middle East through the “Belt and Road Initiative”, promote economic growth through green investment and trade, and establish a prosperous, peaceful and stable future in the region.

03 November 2021