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Event Summaries
December 1, 2016

Event Summary: ‘The Middle East Predicament’

Henry Jackson Society

By Talia Jessener

On Thursday 24th November the Henry Jackson Society were delighted to welcome Dr Daniel Schueftan, Director of Security Studies at the University of Haifa, to give his views on the predicament that is the Middle East.  However, perhaps this term has been used too lightly, as during Schueftan’s opening remarks he claimed that the entire region was beyond repair; not so much a predicament as a hopeless case. He justified this by referencing the millions of Arabs leaving the region, and the millions more who wished they could, claiming that once people can no longer see a future for their children, the worst has already happened.

He asked how a region that 100 years ago contained so much potential had self-destructed so quickly. And it is true that at one point the Middle East had much going for it: it was a haven for oil, agriculture and fertile land even before one considered its geostrategic importance. Yet, as he went on to explain, today, the region is collapsing. Not only have we witnessed the disintegration of sovereign states such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but, even more troublingly, entire social and political structures are now crumbling before our eyes.

This is worrying because the breakdown of order in one part of the region has far reaching cross border consequences. States that are not even directly embroiled in conflict, such as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, are now acting pre-emptively to assert their reactive regimes lest their country too should be overrun with chaos and talks of reform. As Schueftan observed, the Middle East’s negative experiences with change has now led to a position where no leader will even attempt to try it: a situation severely unconducive to the flourishing of freedom.

When questioning how the Middle East came to be in this situation, Schueftan traced the root of the problem back to one word: culture.  Rather than external factors, such as colonialism, he believed it was the lack of pluralism embedded in Arab culture that had caused so many problems. He claimed this lack of willpower to bring women into the workforce or to give them rights has led to stagnation of Arab economies in contrast to other countries that have embraced both women and technology. Furthermore, the cultural trend towards high birth rates means that countries are almost becoming too big to be helped.  This is a scenario already happening in Egypt, who have almost three times the population they can cope with. He also claimed there was a problem with the Arab mentality in that only a negligible amount of the population were prepared to speak up and admit there was a problem in the first place.

When it came to what the West can do to alleviate the situation, Schueftan’s answer was, sadly, very little. He pressed that we must prioritise upholding the stability of Egypt and Jordan as the anchors of the Middle East, claiming that if these countries fall, so will the region. However these countries must be supported without having democracy forced upon them. Schueftan argued that in a society lacking plurality, there is a danger of allowing a democratic majority rule, and it was the lack of understanding of this issue that led to the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon.  The West must also teach these countries how to restore their agriculture, perhaps through learning the water management processes that has so benefited Israel.

However, although Schueftan had suggested a few solutions, he reminded the audience that the Middle East was likely to remain an area of dysfunctionality for some time yet. Ultimately, both Middle Eastern and Western leaders need to stop trying to achieve something that looks good, but actually work for something that is good in itself. Until this happens, he lamented, the question of the next eruption in the Middle East is only a matter of time.