ECSSR 20th Annual Conference Launches to Discuss Middle East, Shifting Roles, Interests and Alliances

  • 31 March 2015

Under the auspices of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces and President of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), the ECSSR today inaugurated its 20th Annual Conference entitled, "The Middle East: Shifting Roles, Interests and Alliances," in the presence of Fouad Siniora, former Prime Minister of Lebanese Republic and a plethora of intellectuals, academics, researchers, and a number of members of the diplomatic corps and the media. The two day conference will be held at the ECSSR complex in Abu Dhabi.

The proceedings of the 20th Annual Conference opened with welcoming remarks from Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, Director General of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, through which he conveyed greetings of His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to the participants at the conference and his wishes for success.

Fouad Siniora, former Lebanese Prime Minister, delivered one of the keynote addresses in which he lauded the model represented by the UAE as an Arab unification experiment since its establishment at the hands of the founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

"This experiment is a success story based on the fact that unity is strength. The UAE is a good example to be followed in the Arab world, where unity turns weakness into strength. The UAE is also a good example of diversity and acceptance, in addition to being open to the modern world, whilst retaining the national character and a tradition of independent decision making," Siniora added "Today, the Arab region is experiencing a period of uncertainty, especially with the growing role of non-state actors. A unified Arab strategy is required to confront the many challenges facing the region, including the uncertainty of whether the current political boundaries will remain; the growth of extremist organizations such as Da’esh; the ambiguity of the future of the Arab-Israeli peace process; and the future of economic and social conditions in the Arab region.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been a serious threat to the Arab region, removed Iraq from its historic role in the regional security system, and demolished the Iraqi state that existed since 1920. When the US withdrew from Iraq, the latter fell under Iranian hegemony, forcing it to suffer from a sectarian war and the growing influence of the forces of extremism and terrorism.

Iranian control over Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, weakening these Arab regimes, cannot be ignored, as it seeks to export its revolution to the Arab region, and further, for its continuous pursuit to destabilize the region by way of supporting sectarian militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

There are many non- Arab actors exerting influence in the region. Israel continues to occupy Arab lands, preventing the establishment of an Arab state; Iran has a heavy hand in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen; Turkey seeks to play a growing regional role; the United States, which has contributed to strengthening the role of Iran and destabilization of the region through the execution of its policies; Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and perhaps communication with it may help stabilize the region; and finally, militant and terrorist movements. However, Operation Decisive Storm is a good example of Arab moderation forces working together to restore regional stability.

Arab moderate forces should raise the level of their response to these existing threats through three main fronts. Firstly, by revisiting the Palestinian issue, which is the prime source of all problems in the region and should be resolved on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. Secondly, activation of joint Arab political, security and economic action is urgently required. This will not be possible without restoring the leading role of Egypt in the Arab world by alleviating the burdens of the domestic economic and security shocks it now suffers. There should be a restructuring of the Arab League in a manner that boosts its regional role. Operation Decisive Storm and the joint Arab action in Yemen represent a practical application and action of this kind should continue in the future. There are also a number of economic challenges which should not be overshadowed, including population increase, the deterioration of economic conditions and high unemployment rate among the youth, which in turn constitutes the greatest challenge. We need to create 50 million new jobs in the near future in order to absorb new labour market entrants. Thirdly, we must confront extremist and terrorist groups and reform the content of religious discourse by reforming our own religious institutions.

The work of Arab moderate forces on these three fronts should be accompanied by work with external powers and an enhancement of cooperation with them on the basis of common interests and non-interference in Arab affairs. The world has an interest in the stability of the Arab region and it also has a responsibility to achieve this by helping to rid the region of the situation of despair and provide strong support to moderate forces in Syria in their fight against the criminal regime," Siniora further said.

Ambassador Mohammad al-Orabi, former foreign minister of Egypt, delivered a speech in which he praised the civilizational model represented by the UAE in all fields and the forward-looking scientific research role played by the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR). He described the ECSSR as a prestigious Centre which is considered today as one of the best think tanks in the world for its objectivity, research activity, publications and events. He expressed his appreciation for the sponsor of this important intellectual conference, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and for Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi.

Ambassador Mohammad al-Orabi, former Egyptian foreign minister, noted that his presence among the conference participants today coincided with grave events threatening Arab nations, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf. Several forces have joined efforts to undermine the modern Arab state, and "we have to confront this threat with joint Arab action," he urged. The recent Arab Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh is the best example of joint action for which we aspire for. Joint action has changed from the realm of a wish to action with the formation of a joint Arab force.

He noted that there are numerous challenges facing the Arab world today including the failure to reach a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; the growing nuclear capabilities of Iran and Israel; low rates of development in Arab countries, where societies are largely composed of young people; the spread of extremist and terrorist groups and organizations such as Daesh (ISIL); sectarian and ethnic conflicts which contribute to fuelling the intervention of regional and international powers; the clear rise of the role of non-state actors, driven by a desire to fragment the Arab nation-state; the internationalization of Arab problems which has seen the files of major Arab issues transfer to non-Arab hands, as is the case in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq; and the role played by some non-Arab regional actors in an attempt to fill the strategic vacuum.

"Daesh seeks to undermine the integrity of brotherly Iraq, and Egypt calls on the present governmental team in Baghdad to proceed towards restoring Iraq’s links with its neighbouring countries as well as renewing the concept of the nation state in order to prevent the consolidation of the concept of division of a sectarian, ethnic or geographical nature."

"Yemen suffers today from disintegration that threatens the country and all Arab security and Egypt has declared its participation in the positive Arab effort to achieve stability in Yemen, to ensure and maintain the integrity of Arab national security against external interventions that spread chaos and instability.

The Syrian crisis is still at a standstill after four years. It has slipped, as a result of political and security errors, into a spiral of violence and chaos, the cost of which is being paid by the Syrian people. Egypt, however, is dedicating its efforts to finding a solution to the Syrian crisis, with emphasis on complete independence from any external influences. Therefore, a conference for Syrian national forces will be held in Egypt this spring which will hopefully lead to a political solution that will protect Syria and its people from war.

Libya is one of the most pressing challenges facing the region. The situation has become more dangerous and threatening as terrorist and jihadi organizations have exploited the instability to expand and acquire more influence. As a result, the region is now facing a cross-border terrorist threat."

Ambassador al-Orabi added that Egypt is regaining its position at the heart of the Arab world and it is fully determined to address the challenges the Arab region is facing.

The first panel, entitled "The Current Political and Strategic Landscape in the Middle East," chaired by Salem Mohamed Humaid, Director-General, Al Mezmaah Studies and Research Centre, began with Paul Salem, Vice President, Middle East Institute, United States, presenting a paper, entitled, "Arab Change States and Regional Powers: Shifting Interests and Alliances," in which he explained that the Arab world has been swept by a storm of changes since the uprisings of 2011. This has led to profound political change in some countries and civil war in others. It has also enabled the rise of a radical terrorist proto-state in the heart of the Levant. Meanwhile, these fast moving developments have impacted the role of regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt, and altered the position of the region among global powers.

Salem examined the interconnections between developments in these states and the changing policies and fortunes of key regional players. He also examined the competing and converging interests of regional powers; the impact of their policies in key parts of the Middle East; and the way forward in terms of building regional security and stability.

Raghida Dergham, New York Bureau Chief, Al Hayat newspaper, and Executive Chairman of the Beirut Institute in the Lebanese Republic, presented her paper, entitled, "The Current Situation in the Arab States in Change."

She noted that Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia have all experienced significant changes in recent years as a result of the so-called "Arab Spring." This has affected inter-state relations in the region as well as relations with external and non-Arab regional powers; Iran and Turkey in particular are benefiting from the changes taking place in the Arab arena. The fall-out from the changes brought about by the so-called "Arab Spring" has also affected relations between Arab change states and major non-regional powers. This, in turn, is reflected in the policies of these states towards the Arab region. At the forefront of these powers is the United States of America, the policy objectives of which have ranged between continuity and change. Dergham also noted that the changes taking place in the Arab states have had a significant impact on regional balances in general. As a result, Iran has been able to take advantage of the situation by attempting to expand and strengthen its influence in the region, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and this will have significant consequences for existing and future regional alliances.

Richard Barrett CMG OBE, Senior Vice President of The Soufan Group, presented his paper, entitled, "The International Coalition Against Terrorism: Opportunities and Challenges," in which he pointed out that the past 13 years have witnessed a continuous campaign against terrorism, and yet we face more widespread disruption from armed non-State actors today than we did in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in the United States in 2001. In most parts of the world, the actual threat from terrorism to political stability, national identity and social cohesion is minimal, but in others, terrorist groups have developed into insurgencies and even proto-states. Even where terrorism is not, in fact, a significant threat, it can dominate the political and social agenda, challenging the concepts of a multi-cultural society, posing questions about the role of religion in government, and throwing doubt on the continued viability of national borders.

Mr. Barrett added that terrorism, therefore, has created a new world disorder without allowing time for a considered international response to the challenges it poses, challenges so serious that even states which pride themselves on their observance of universal values have pursued policies at odds with their international commitments. Emotion has often trumped analysis in policy-making and changed the nature of political leadership.

Barrett concluded by saying international consensus centres around opposition to terrorism without any agreed definition of what terrorism is. This has led to broad agreements on policy and operational responses that are marked only by a common lack of impact. Old tools have proved inadequate to meet the terrorist threat, but the world has been slow to develop and adopt new ones.