My approach to the future of the Middle East is not based on academic research or a long presence in the region. But I can say that the problems of the region never left me, they have always played some role in my life. It started with the Suez Crisis in 1956 when as a young man I was confronted in the news with the British-French invasion of the Canal zone, one of the last gasps of traditional colonial practice, in this and in other parts of the world.
It opened my eyes to the realities of world politics, the plight of small states, risking becoming the pawns when the big powers settle their scores.
That is why I start by discussing the theory and practice of foreign intervention in the ME. This is a long history, stretching thousand years back with waves of conquerors establishing their empires partly or wholly based in central parts of the region. But let us not dwell on ancient kingdoms and start when the Ottoman empire dwindled. The vacuum created thereby was fast filled by new powers, the said imperial builders, Great Britain and France who divided the region between themselves and created states and borders not seen before. When their resources and their ambitions came to an end, United States took over their role in the region – the Suez incident was probably the turning point.
What role? What was the common denominator for the Ottoman era, for Britain and France and then for the United States? They all had the same role as power brokers and guarantors of status quo in the region, at least when the formation of stable nation states was in process. The Ottoman era did not produce or foster nation states ready for the next century and the new brokers could easily dominate the region by playing traditional rulers against each other and make good use of ancient cultural and religious prejudice.
One theory goes that foreign intervention is the reason for the plight of the region. Would it only had been left on its own and had it been able to shape its own future, the region would have thrived, and the glorious times of the ancient Caliphate would have dawned. However, I believe it is hard to accept that belief and I dare say that these foreign interventions were unavoidable.
You must believe when I tell you that I am no friend of foreign intervention and occupation, coming from a small nation which has seen enough of it and which has had to fight for its survival when a big power made territorial demands. - I must also hasten to say that these interventions have not been successful from a political, military, or humanitarian point of view. Most of them have been utmost failures, creating more problems than solving old ones.
Reasons for engagement have faded away
This is a good time to discuss the nature of foreign intervention in a period of change, in a region in turmoil. We have experienced a slow American diplomatic withdrawal from its involvement in ME affairs, at least since President Obama´s time. The three main reasons for US engagement were: Securing the oil supply from the Gulf states, containing the impact of Soviet communism, and offering security for Israel. They have lost most of their importance: Today US is no longer dependent on ME oil, the Soviet Union is no more, and Israel is stronger than ever.
Will the region be more stable, more peaceful and more content if the US continue along this withdrawal path, as many Americans seem to prefer, and no doubt many inhabitants in the region as well? The outcome is clear: The power vacuum it would create will partly be filled by regional state actors (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran) and the remaining part by new external actors like Russia and China. It is anybody´s guess if the new pattern would be safer, more peaceful and offer more security. Which of these powers would act as honest brokers in acute crises, who would protect minorities and small states (remember Kuwait!) and who would genuinely plan for a prosperous future of the whole region?
These are of course rhetoric questions. We do not know how the US ME policy will be implemented by the Biden administration; maybe we will see a new hybrid form of presence, a policy without direct intervention. In Washington, the jury is still out, and you note different signals. Some experts recommend full retreat, other say there is no way out, as there must be an obligation for a super-power worth the name to keep sea-lanes open, to promote human rights, stop proliferation of nuclear weapons and prevent open conflict. The first test for the Biden administration will be the renewal of the Iran nuclear accord: Can a balanced outcome be achieved which keeps its detractors at bay and cools down the tensions surrounding the issue?
The other test for US diplomacy is of course the war in Yemen: How to achieve a negotiated peace in a conflict which is destroying a whole nation and causing a human disaster.
The EU lacks a united voice
You may wonder why I do not mention the EU. The Union should have both reasons and ambitions to act as a positive source for different types of intervention, through economic, trading, and cultural means. But the Union has not, unfortunately, achieved such a level of its foreign policy integration that it would be able to speak with a united and strong voice. Nevertheless, the Union will have a continuing interest in stability on its Eastern shores -it is today struggling with the aftermath of an influx of millions of refugees from the Syrian and Iraq hotbeds and in addition facing a looming crisis in the waters around its member state Cyprus.
However, every sensible politician, businessman, civil servant, and cleric in the region should have the European experience in mind. The continent suffered tremendously from two world wars in the last century but has in the last 75 years been able to build a collective security entity that has completely prevented violence between the members states of the Union. Is it not this model, this very creation which is lacking in the ME region? I will return to that question shortly.
My feeling is that we, for the time being, will continue see the ME region as a patchwork quilt of divergent and conflicting power houses, mostly with incompatible national interests. The struggle for regional dominance will continue and states will seek alliances with outside powers as before, allowing them to interfere in a way that sometimes can be helpful, sometimes toxic.
With this rather pessimistic scenario in mind, I am forced to ask: What can individual actors and organisations do to improve the conditions for ordinary citizens and their societies which must survive regardless of the big political and geopolitical game? Much could be done if the region would be safe from new conflagrations, unrest in the form of popular uprisings like the Arab Spring, or as regular war. However, future popular movements can gain broad support and moral acceptance, both at home and abroad, if authoritarian regimes are unable to implement reforms and offer social and economic improvement.
Let me first mention three conditions which I have applied for Africa in some of my writings. These three are the basic needs of a functioning state and what is lacking in the failed states in the African continent: No ongoing conflict, a functioning judicial system, and a minimum of corruption. Of course, you could add other important conditions, but let us look at one of these three, namely No-conflict, which is the first and foremost condition. Without a peaceful environment, without stability, a sustainable society will not emerge. The civil society will struggle, foreign investment will shun the region and money and experts will disappear to luckier shores.
Intricate web of potential conflict
There are two ways to proceed from here. Either you accept that you must build domestic institutions, public administration, and civil society under duress, always fearing that improvements will be backsliding because of internal or external security threats. Or you mobilise all your efforts and your influence towards one primary goal: The improvement of the security environment in the region. I will now discuss the security issue.
What we see in the ME region is a rather total breakdown of the concept for collective security. The situation has gradually become so complicated that we must fear that some of these states can be sleepwalking into a major war in the region, with devastating consequences. I need not describe the sore points, the tensions and the unsolved conflicts and name the countries involved – in one way or another, most countries are part of this intricate web of potential conflicts.
European history can also offer a lesson about the destructive nature of alliances. The First World War started because all major and middle-sized countries were part of treatises that obliged them to come to the defence of another country which was attacked or was the aggressor, claiming prevention. As we understand today, these chains of alliances forced countries into a war that most of them did not want. The war broke out in the absence of an all-European collective security arrangement.
Is it possible or even realistic to speak about a Grand Deal, a Master Plan, to regulate the many conflicts of interest prevailing in the region? I fear many of us would say it is wishful thinking, “a pie in the sky”. But let us for a moment call it a Black Swan, something which is rare but suddenly could emerge. Many political and academic plans have been launched with the aim to move towards a comprehensive security arrangement between state actors.
I am afraid that many in the region still dream of dominance achieved through sectarian or ethnic-based bargains. This would only mean continued tension and conflict. No, such efforts will not recognize the security interests involved - only by accepting the existence of these interests, a balanced deal could possibly emerge.
Again, I do not feel it is necessary to describe the well-known security concerns of Iran and Saudi-Arabia, of Turkey and Iraq, of Israel and Jordan. United States and Russia are actors with some degree of legitimate concerns. It will demand a great deal of stateman-ship to patch together these conflicting interests, but it is possible, at least theoretically.
Preconditions of a lasting peace
Wiser people than me have outlined theoretical and practical pre-conditions for a comprehensive approach to a regional security arrangement. First, you need viable state actors who can sit down and discuss. A lasting agreement is best served if signed by reconstituted post-war central authority actors. This also means that states must incorporate a greater part of the many subnational groups in the process, otherwise these will certainly refuse to legitimize any agreement reached between sovereign states.
This would presuppose that countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen have achieved a satisfactory degree of political and military stability. However, it may take time before these three states have regained that stability and it would be a mistake to put all security arrangements on hold until that happens. Partial agreements are better than no agreements, so the opening (peaceful) shots should be discharged by the stable states, small and big ones.
Into a sustainable agreement you must also include prescriptions and rules for minority rights, both linguistic, religious, and ethnic ones. Nothing can be more destructive than trying to ignore and suppress these rights – this is a lesson the majorities should learn looking at other parts of the world.
Another ordinary mistake is that demands for regional autonomy are interpreted as a first step towards secession. A well-drafted autonomy agreement can strengthen a nation state whereas a denial of autonomy can lead to the weakening of it. The issue of autonomy is important when states need to patch together the unity and trust that has been lost in the last decade or more.
I realise I am moving into the second option, when no end to the break-down of security can be seen. In that case, investment in minority rights and autonomy is still an asset to regain the trust in failed nations. I could also add local and cultural autonomy. I can hear the objection: Look at Lebanon, do not go too far in allowing a free hand to those who have the leverage and power to demand it. Right, but autonomy should be a matter of wise statecraft through balanced agreements. In some case you may need international guarantees or external guarantors to achieve that. I could refer to the Aceh agreement in Indonesia, mediated by President Ahtisaari of Finland.
Long-term stability and prosperity must be sought through a continuous investment in education. As a former Finnish minister of education, I may be allowed to refer to my country´s PISA results. I will not bother you with my 3 personal keys which I think are needed for education success; I will only emphasize that it is a mistake to anticipate that investments in academic excellence is the miraculous solution. No, everything must begin at the bottom level, raising the quality of basic education, starting already at the pre-school level.
Crucial role of the next generation
Another point which I wish to highlight is the demographic future of the ME states. There are different patterns: A large diaspora (Lebanon, Syria), small indigenous populations (Gulf states), with a large import of foreign workers. The strength of a nation in a longer perspective is not in its wealth today and in its military equipment, but it lies in the next generation: Is this generation willing to fight for a better future in the home country? Not only good education, but also job opportunities are essential (Saudi Arabia).
In this context, I suggest that it would be wise policy to consider a more generous attitude towards the migrant workers staying in the region. In the long run, it is counter-productive to waste their skills and their experience, believing that there always be a huge supply of newcomers. Why not give a slice of them a chance to become integrated into the society and give them a path to citizenship, (in the way President Biden proposes for 11 million immigrants in the US)? I am aware of the fears that small nations can be overwhelmed by immigration, but these doubts can be dispelled through a careful analysis of the needs and of the speed of such a process.
A nation is dependent on its image in the world. A good image is one of the most valuable assets and gives better protection against interference and aggression than a tank brigade. A good image is best built by nations which adhere to international norms concerning rule-of law, upholding a reliable judicial system. This is good for business, it is good for tourism, it is good for lasting relations with many important partners (and of course for the citizens themselves!) This is why my last point refers to democracy. I have no naïve dreams that the authoritarian regimes around the world will turn democratic in the sense I understand the ideal. I accept the reality that societies and nations are entangled by their history, their cultural and religious traditions. Nevertheless, I like to point out that the world enters a phase when many nations must choose their allegiances: Do you move in a more authoritarian direction or are you willing to accept and adhere to the fundamental rules inscribed in the UN conventions?
We do not need a Middle East region as a battleground of values, but we need a region who can formulate solid and lasting values that give it a respected place in the modern world. If leaders and interest groups pick governance models and policies suitable to their short-term interests, we will not witness the renewal needed, the recreation of Arabia Felix.
Pär Stenbäck is a former Finnish politician who has been an MP, Minister of Education, and of Foreign Affairs in the years before 1985. For a period of twenty years, he held leading positions in the Red Cross movement, among these as Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Geneva). He is a founding member of ICG and the European Cultural Parliament ECP. He received the honorary title as Minister in 1999. Today he is chairing the New Foreign Policy Society in Finland (NUPS) since 2017. He contributes regularly to news media.