ECSSR Concludes 20th Annual Conference on Shifting Roles, Interests and Alliances in Middle East

  • 2 April 2015

The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) today concluded its two- day 20th annual conference entitled ‘The Middle East: Shifting Roles, Interests and Alliances.’ The conference participants emphasized the unwavering importance of the security of the Middle East to the international community; how to respond to the challenges facing the region such as the civil war in Syria; they explored the idea of collective Arab action in response to regional crises; national identity and how that has affected the course of events in the Arab change states; China’s role with the region; and the new Cold War between Arab states and Iran. The many high profile speakers of the two day conference almost unanimously agreed on collective Arab action being a solution to the challenges facing the region and that a solution to the problems will only be found within the region itself.

Opening the second day of the conference, Ambassador Richard Makepeace CMG OBE, Registrar at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, noted that due to the fact that the region remains strategically important for many countries, intervention in the affairs of its states by international actors is not a new phenomenon; and that new technologies such as fracking will not significantly reduce the importance of the region.

Ambassador Makepeace emphasized that the "‘ideological fight’ is one which will be won in the region." He continued that in the West, we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that historically everyone has always been welcome in the Middle East and that Muslims are not "part of the problem but they are part of the solution" to the challenges facing the region. This was echoed by Professor Ahmed Youssef Ahmed, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, upon noting it is time to focus on a collective Arab response to these challenges, praising the Saudi-led collaborative effort to bring stability back to Yemen.

Professor Paul Stevens, distinguished fellow at Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, opined it is not true that the US will lose interest in the Middle East when they become energy independent; their interests there are not only due to the abundance of oil; the oil market is interconnected thus, the US will continue to be concerned about things that affect the oil price; "oil is still an international commodity."

Professor Pan Guang, the Vice Chairman and Director of the Shanghai Center for International Peace, informed China aspires to build a ‘new Silk Road.’ He went on to say China sees the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in particular and the region in general as strategically important mainly due to energy security and investments and as such, they strive to maintain good relations with each state; they hope to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC states this year. He specifically noted that trade ties with Dubai are important for China as all trade with the Middle East is shipped on from Dubai ports and there are now hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens resident in the UAE.

Dr Marwan Al Muasher, the Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the fourth panel who discussed the future of the Arab political landscape that North African states who have been affected by the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ will find it easier than the Arab countries of the Levant to achieve a more stable environment due to the fact that their citizens’ have a stronger affinity to the state; nationalism and loyalty to the state are important mechanisms to maintain and indeed achieve stability.

Professor Ahmad Youssef Ahmed, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, noted the principle of non-intervention was over-looked by Arab states mainly due to the vastness of human rights abuses that were taking place in Libya, Syria and Yemen which ultimately spurred the countries into building a coalition of states willing to take action; a new phenomenon not seen in recent years. He advised caution when dealing with Syria however, noting opponents of the regime could well be worse than the regime itself. Professor Ahmad also cautioned that for joint Arab action to work, any failings must be assessed and resolved.

Professor Abdullah Al Shayji, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Kuwait University, lamented that policy in the Arab world had, prior to the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, come down to reflexive action responding to events. He highlighted that the center of power in the region has now shifted to the GCC and this is evident in ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ in Yemen.

He cautioned the ‘new Cold War’ between the Arabs and Iran is being complicated by the American stand-off with Russia, as well as the proxy wars taking place in the region.

Professor Al Shayji stated that China and Russia, through their policies of support for Assad, weapons sales and China’s veto power, are the new enemies of the Arab people. He concluded with an important observation- that the West is no longer an important target for terrorists; that most of the attacks that take place are launched by Sunni Muslims and the majority of the victims are also Sunni Muslims, which alludes to the fact that what is emerging is an ‘inter-Islam conflict,’ one which is not necessarily a Sunni vs Shi’a conflict. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who was in attendance in the audience, interjected to suggest that it was important to include Shi’a Muslims in any dialogue and that it was important not to fuel any Sunni- Shi’a conflict of which there is none; "we represent all Muslims," he concluded.

Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi- Director General of The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, extended his deepest gratitude to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and President of the ECSSR for his kind patronage and his resolute and enduring support for the ECSSR and its scholarly, intellectual and humanitarian activities and events in all areas and on all levels.

Dr. Al Suwaidi also expressed his deep appreciation to all the participants for their contributions for enriching the conference with discussion, interaction and participation which he said will undoubtedly contribute to the development of many proactive strategic visions through the resultant papers.