Shifting sands

By Lu Wenao Source:Global Times Published: 2019/6/16 20:12:47

Education key to easing tensions in Middle East

Safwan Masri, executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Global Centers | Beijing

Editor's Note:

Recent dynamics in the Middle East have shadowed the stability in the region,  Global Times reporter Lu Wenao (GT) talked to Safwan Masri (Masri), executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, to share his thoughts over the region.

GT: The US is keeping up the pressure on Iran. But US President Donald Trump said he is not seeking a regime change there. What do you think is the US' ultimate purpose of pressuring Iran? 

Masri: It's not entirely true that President Trump has softened his tone on Iran. You get mixed signals from the White House. He is saying that hopefully there will not be a military confrontation, but I don't think he has ruled that out either. And he said that he's willing to talk to the Iranians; we'll see. Let's not forget that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel are playing a critical role in shaping the US administration's policies toward Iran.

The fact that the US sent 900 additional troops to Saudi Arabia and Qatar relates to what Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has said: there are credible threats from Iran. Things are escalating, that's how the US sees them. 

Trump's motivation has always been that he did not think that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is a good deal. He does not think it has curbed Iran's nuclear development capabilities, and he wants any future deal to not only deal with Iran's nuclear capacity, but also squeeze Iran and put pressure on it to curb its influence across the region. That's his ultimate goal. 

GT: Saudi Arabia hosted a summit with Qatar PM attending earlier this month. Do you think it means the tensions between Qatar and other blockading nations have eased?

Not necessarily. Qatar was not initially invited to the summit, and it was because of US pressure that Saudi Arabia agreed to invite Qatar and it agreed to send somebody. But it was not the Qatari emir who went; it was the prime minister. Whereas for other Arab countries, it was the top leadership that went. 

Also, during the summit, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia said that the solution to the crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council would only be possible if Doha returns to the "right path." 

Qatar has always lived in the shadow of Saudi Arabia, ever since its independence in 1971. Qatar has worked very hard over the past couple of decades to set itself apart and become a regional power in its own right. 

GT: Saudi Arabia is trying to unite the Arab world against Iran. Do you think that means we are a step closer to an escalating conflict? 

No. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. Arab countries have indeed felt threatened by Iran's presence in places like Syria and Lebanon, and its influence in Iraq and in Yemen. Also, over the past few years, we've seen the rise to power of new leadership, in particular the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, but also Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. They are trying to redefine the power dynamics in the region, and to provide "leadership" for the Arab world. For this new, emergent Arab leadership, curbing Iran's influence is consistent with elevating their own influence and leadership within the region. Confronting Iran is rooted in ideology and sectarianism. 

GT: The US is touting its "ultimate plan" for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but it faces strong opposition from Palestine and Iran. Do you think the US is on the right way to resolving the conflict?

Masri: Regardless of what is rumored about an "ultimate deal," it does not seem to bode well for the fate of the Palestinians. President Trump does not really inspire confidence in terms of how he is trying to resolve the conflict.  

The "ultimate deal" has been delayed multiple times, and now even further, given Netanyahu's inability to form a government by the deadline. Israel will have new elections on September 17, and it's unlikely that Netanyahu will want to have a deal revealed before then. Otherwise, it would make it very difficult for him to be dealing with such a thorny topic during his campaign for re-election.

Then if you wait until after a new government is formed to unveil the "ultimate deal," you're hitting November and the focus of Trump on his own reelection campaign. 

It's unclear where this "ultimate deal" is going. The Palestinians have understandably rejected the invitation to participate in the Bahrain economic conference this month, because that is sort of putting the economics ahead of the political resolution to the conflict. Whatever "ultimate deal" is presented, it is going to be so unfavorable to the Palestinians that they would reject it, at which point Trump would likely give a right-wing Israeli government the green light to move ahead with whatever it wants to do. 

The prospects are very gloomy. The issue here is that moves that may be appealing politically in the short run, whether it is for the US or Israeli administration, may have long-term consequences that are counterproductive to those who are involved.

GT: Many people pin the responsibility on Israel for the chaos in the Middle East. What's your opinion? 

The creation of the state of Israel and the consequences of that creation have certainly contributed to conflicts and to frustration by the peoples of the Arab world, sympathy for the Palestinians, and an understandable sense of injustice that has been enforced by Western powers. But let us also not forget that there have been factors and dimensions that have contributed to the situation that we see today in the Arab world that have leveraged the conflict with Israel for the benefit of most regimes in the region. 

And then there are other factors that have contributed to the chaos that exists today: authoritarianism, lack of opportunity for youth in employment and education, corruption, human rights abuses, sectarianism, and religion.

It would be misleading to either pin everything on Israel or to diminish the Israel factor. 

GT: Diplomatic relations in the Middle East went into a stalemate like in Qatar, Syria and in Iran, and it seems there is no chance of solving the stalemate if they keep sticking to current policies. What's your take on this? 

Masri: Things have been in a stalemate for a long time. There are always shifting dynamics in the region. We're dealing today with new dynamics that did not exist 20, 30 years ago. In a post-colonial Arab world, the centers of gravity were Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, but that's no longer the case. Now, the centers of power are Doha, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Countries within the region have almost always been more divided than united. The situation is very tenuous because of existing conditions. Other situations, like Trump being in the White House add further complexity. It's very difficult to predict exactly how all of this will be resolved and will evolve over time.

GT: Efforts from generation to generation are needed to solve the issues in the Middle East. Could you please specify what efforts should be made in this generation? 

Masri: One of the most important efforts to address many of the problems that plague Arab nations is education. 

Look at the Arab Spring in 2011. People on the streets asked for better opportunities, better economic opportunities in particular, participatory administration, greater freedoms, and an end to corruption and authoritarianism. 

All of those demands were local; they were not pan-Arab, they were not Islamic. And they did not even deal with the Palestinian issue. Underlying a lot of these demands were greater opportunities for the youth, greater participation by the youth, and the opening up of civil society opportunities for people so that they can start participating in determining their own fate. 

Underpinning all of this is an investment in education. And by education I don't only mean numeracy and literacy, but the values that underscore school curricula and education systems: critical thinking, debate, openness, tolerance, and citizenship. These are things that our populations have been deprived of for generations. If we are going to hope for a better future for the Arab masses, we need to start there.

Posted in: MID-EAST

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