04/18/2018, 20.18
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Amid chaos and opportunities, intellectuals and politicians trace the future of the Arab world in Dubai

by Fady Noun

For some, the future lies with an alliance between Gulf states and Egypt. However, deep cleavages are an obstacle to the goal of unity. The Arab League and existing states have proven a failure. The Iranian obsession and the nationalist attitude belong to the past. Wars, economics and democracy are challenges whose solutions must come from within.

Dubai (AsiaNews) – The Arab world is sick. ‘Repercussions of Chaos and Challenges of the Stability Industry’ is the complex topic of a three-day symposium on the region’s geopolitical situation.

Organised by the Arab Thought Foundation, the symposium was held on 10-12 April in Dubai, a surprisingly futuristic capital in an Arab world that imports more than it produces and copies more than it invents. Many spoke out against the excessively bleak picture that some drew about the situation. Sadly, the reality is actually even more alarming.

In order to understand the "chaos" that permeates and drains or even fragments the Arab world from within, but especially to draw a roadmap towards stability, Prince Khalid bin Faisal Al Saud, who set up the Arab Thought Foundation, turned towards the Lebanese scholar Henri Awit, who personally embodies the synthesis of Arab and Western civilisations, and has been able to surround himself with a team of very high-level consultants.

Son of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, assassinated in 1975, Prince Khalid relies also on his younger brother, Turki al-Faisal, the top man in the kingdom’s intelligence agency and a former Saudi ambassador to the United States. Prince Khalid, who is governor of Makkah Province, does not see himself as a politician, a view that did not stop him during the closing session of the symposium from saying that the future of the Arab world will now depend on the momentum generated by an alliance between the Gulf countries (mainly Saudi Arabia and Emirates United Arab Emirates) and Egypt. In his eyes, this is the core of the resistance to "chaos". "We will not let others decide for us any more," the prince stressed, referring to the states and forces that are now dividing Syria and setting the fate of many of the 22 states that make up the Arab League.

Facts and expectations

Unfortunately, the facts are undermining Prince Khalid’s expectations. From the Maghreb to the Gulf, via Egypt and the Mashreq, the 300 to 400 million Arabs who belong to different subsets are desperately struggling to gain access to modernity and mastery of their own destiny.

Most of them buy technology in vain, whilst neglecting the difficult but indispensable path they must follow to gain the political maturity that comes with it, especially in relation to education and democracy. With 50 million illiterates, the states of the Arab League are still far from deploying the efforts needed to achieve improvements in this area. With their dynasties and dictatorships, they are far from meeting the poignant calls for democracy and justice that come from their own peoples.

Moreover, if one were to believe the vice president of an Iraq wounded by successive wars, Ayad Allawi, who spoke at the conference, after Libya and Syria, "the forces of destruction" do not seem to have run out of steam and, like a devastating cyclone, "are heading for the Gulf."

The reputation of political scientist Joseph Maïla is well established. A former dean of Saint Joseph University, he is now professor of geopolitics at ESSEC (Paris) after leading the Catholic Institute of Paris. Prof Maïla moderated one of the central round tables of the symposium, which brought together international specialists from the United States, China, Russia and the European Union. The round table was followed by a second debate, which was open to representatives of regional and international organisations like the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA), and the Arab League.

"The novelty of this conference, he said for L'Orient-Le Jour, “is that it was open to all the points of view in the Arab world, and we must be grateful to Henri Awit, who knew how to raise it to a certain level of international credibility, by varying the points of view. Its great interest is that we are in the presence of concerned thoughts about the future of the Arab world. This conference is a sounding board for the questions, anxieties, and feelings of Arab leaders and their peoples.”

“We know that this questioning will remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. The Arab League does not exist. Arab states are weak. It is thus just wishful thinking. But we should not treat it as a joke. This is not about powerlessness, but about anxiety. There is growing evidence that inter-Arab wars or divisions have benefited the region’s non-Arab states, namely Israel, Turkey and Iran, which are gaining prominence and deciding to some extent the future of the region. So there is a kind of jolt: the Arab world is being reshaped by others rather than by Arabs!"

Iranian influence

"The obsession with Iranian influence is very detailed," said Maïla. “The belief in an Iranian strategic expansion plan is widespread. Of course, this plan overlaps with the Sunni-Shia divide, but in reality, it is a plan for developing a strategy of domination and hegemony."

"What struck me too," Joseph Maïla noted, "is an Arab nationalist tone that is a little out of date, and perhaps surrealistic. It emphasises the role of the nation state; the discourse is Arab nationalist. There is an insistence that we must take control of ourselves against foreign intervention, by going back to the nation-state that must be secured, intelligently, through a rapprochement between state and the people. Many speakers focused on this topic, from Fouad Siniora and Ahmed Aboul Gheit to Prince Turki and Nassif Youssef Hitti (Holy Spirit University of Kaslik). Yet the paradox is striking between a discourse that speaks of the Arab nation as a whole, and a reality that disappears every day more and more on the ground."

For Florence Gaub, senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), the Arab world is "at the moment of choice". Her reading of events is more emphatic than Joseph Maïla’s. "The Arab world is in crisis, and who says crisis says choice,” she noted. This is the etymological meaning of the word crisis in Greek. For the Arab world, it is time to choose, first of all in terms of security. Author of a study on the reconstruction of the Lebanese army after the civil war, Florence Gaub is on familiar ground.

"Arab countries are experiencing external wars, but their real problem is internal wars, civil wars, which Lebanon knows well," said the young analyst. “I said in conference that I did not know how to solve them. Neither does the international community. Otherwise, the Lebanese war would have ended much sooner. A prevention system does not exist; it must be invented. It takes intellectual and creative efforts to do it."

The challenge of democracy

"The second challenge for Arab countries is democracy," she went on to say. “Democracy generally comes from a movement for social justice. Social inequalities in the region are very important. We must find a way to achieve a minimum level of economic equality," she said.

"The third challenge is economic in nature. It will be about how states will benefit from the strengths of the region. It is indeed a very young region – half of the Iraqi population is under 19. According to projections, the percentage of young people in Saudi Arabia, relative to the total population, will continue to rise until 2050. This is both a great challenge and a huge asset. Young people are creative and hardworking, but they must be given the opportunity to show these qualities. Beware: there is a correlation between youth unemployment and political incivility. It is a statistical fact: as soon as youth unemployment exceeds 30 per cent, there is a chance of destabilisation. We must find an answer to that."

"Why ask such questions?

“This kind of conferences is held for that purpose,” Prof Gaub said. “I'll go further in my reasoning: I think it's the right time to do it. The region’s countries have been independent for decades. The time has come for them to be as intellectually independent and to think by and for themselves. I heard someone say that the Arabs are 600 years behind. That is not the right way to think.

“Certainly, some levels of development are not the same, but that does not mean that you have to follow, economically, in the steps taken by the West. It is high time to break free from the idea that there is only one model and you have to adhere to it. To learn is to take and innovate. I think the time has come to do it. Prince Turki spoke of the existence of a "strategic vacuum" in the region. I think, for my part, that there is no strategic vacuum, but a unique opportunity to free the Middle East region from its dependencies. There is no reason not to do it. This region belongs to those who live here as do all other regions of the world."

By its many political voices, by the representativeness of the various speakers who mixed with officials and intellectuals from virtually all Arab countries, the Dubai symposium was a moment of reflection and political imagination highlighting a crucial moment in the history of the Arab world.

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