Experts discuss a vision for a more stable Middle East

Photo of the first plenary panel at the 2017 US-Islamic World Forum.
Editor's note:

The following offers highlights from the first plenary session at the 2017 U.S.-Islamic World Forum. You can find summaries of the other plenary sessions here and here.

Conflicts in the Middle East may be far from over, but it is not too early to begin discussing how the region would be stabilized and what stands in the way of that vision. On September 17, for the 2017 U.S.-Islamic World Forum, the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World brought together a panel of experts to discuss stabilization in the Middle East. Brookings Vice President and Director for Foreign Policy Bruce Jones moderated the event.

Jones asked the panelists to identify the major challenges to stabilization and reconstruction in the region. Abdallah Al Dardari, a senior advisor on reconstruction for the Middle East and North Africa region for the World Bank, pointed to the need for better understanding of the political economy of countries in conflict. He noted that local players have grown dependent on war economies and will likely resist reconstruction efforts, or at least exploit them. These actors need to be interested in peace and order for reconstruction and stabilization to be possible. Dardari asked: “How do we make the peace economy more rewarding than the war economy in the region?”

Annika Söder, the state secretary for foreign affairs of Sweden, argued that global and regional powers’ pursuit of their own national interests will hinder stabilization efforts in the region. These efforts instead need to be homegrown. She said: “We need some kind of approach where external actors will need to be dealt with, and not forget that it’s the people that will need to rebuild the country.”

Although Adama Dieng, the United Nations special advisor on the prevention of genocide, shared Söder’s skepticism of external actors, he also suggested that they can play a positive role in stabilizing countries after the end of civil wars. When talking about Syria, Dieng said: “Countries must set aside national and strategic interests and cooperate to bring the ongoing civil war to an end.” Both Dieng and Söder spoke about the need for Iran and Saudi Arabia to end their sectarian proxy wars, which will hinder stabilization.

Challenges aside, the panelists also discussed a vision for the future and how to pave a path toward a stable Middle East. Samar Haidar, the former executive director of the Arab Human Rights Fund, stressed the important role that civil society can play in stabilization and reconstruction efforts. First, she argued, international actors should pressure governments to enshrine human rights principles in new constitutions drafted in a post-war environment. Second, she called for lifting restrictive laws on NGOs, enabling civil society to operate more freely and providing them with legal channels to challenge violations committed by the government.

Haidar also emphasized the importance of providing quality education and jobs to youth who have the most to gain from stabilization—and the most to lose if it fails. Dieng agreed, and reminded the audience that “the young people are ready to sacrifice, which they have shown and demonstrated. Tomorrow, we need to make sure that they are a part of the process.” He added that their participation is critical for post-war governments to secure legitimacy in the eyes of the public and the international community.

One major change these post-conflict societies will experience, Al Dardari pointed out, is the inevitable reconfiguration of the economy. “The ability of national institutions to be covering all of the geographic and demographical spaces has been weakened, which requires the emergence of local powers and civil society and private sector … [which] will emerge to provide these services.” According to Al Dardari, governments will no longer be able to act with impunity, and will find it increasingly difficult to engage in corruption. Instead, he argued, decentralization will help promote consensus and cooperation between the government and other sectors, which was largely absent in the past.

The panelists also agreed that stabilization not only requires inclusivity in the economy, but also politics. Söder spoke on the importance of empowering civil society, while Dieng called for greater emphasis on reconciliation and transitional justice. He cautioned that if communities are not given the tools to heal, they could seek retribution against others, which will deepen divides and religious tensions.

When audience members asked whether it was realistic to have a conversation about stabilization given the present turmoil, Jones said: “There are such unrelenting cynicism and brutality of the political actors that we are confronting … they don’t need any help from us to drive serious cynicism. It’s always helpful in forums like this to explore the boundaries of a more optimistic future.”

Dina Yazdani helped author this post.