On November 2-3, the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative hosted a conference with TRENDS Research and Advisory addressing “Middle East Security in a Changing World: Building a Sustainable Regional Security System.” The two-day conference featured opening remarks by His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Founder and Trustee, King Faisal Foundation, and keynote speaker Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, US Department of State. The event also included input from Mohammed Abdullah Al-Ali, CEO and Founder, TRENDS Research & Advisory; His Excellency Yousef Al-Otaiba, Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States; and former US Ambassador to Oman Marc Sievers, now Director of the American Jewish Committee in the Gulf.
The event also featured panel discussions addressing six main topics on Middle Eastern security: “Redefining Middle East Security in an Era of Transition: A Twenty-Year Vision,” “Countering Violent Extremism and Terrorism in the Middle East and Beyond,” “The Future of Middle East Security: International Priorities,” “The GCC Perspective on Building a Sustainable Regional Security Order,” “New Diplomatic Initiatives in the Region: The Quest for Stable Alliances,” and “Beyond Regional Security: New Perspectives and Future Visions for Human Security.”
- HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal argued that security in the Middle East has always historically been linked to dominant powers in the world.
- He noted that the unfolding drama in Afghanistan indicates the end of an era categorized by foreign military intervention in the region aiming to constitute and shape countries according to a foreign design.
- With growing uncertainty about the future US role in the Middle East, Prince Turki said that allies and partners in the region are rethinking and reconsidering their future away from the dominant western paradigm that has dominated geopolitics of the region in the past few decades.
- The world is facing immense challenges, explained Prince Turki. If not met responsibly by the international community and dominant world powers, it will only continue to drive uncertainty, threatening the world’s future and the human progress that was achieved over the past few decades.
- Prince Turki hoped what happened in Afghanistan wouldn’t widen the state of polarization in politics and create a vacuum. Such threats entertain geopolitical risks and present major risks to multilateralism, globalism, and world peace. Further polarization could take us back to an era of power politics when the world was divided between two camps.
- No region in the world feels the dangers of strategic confusion more than the Middle East, added Prince Turki. Strategic confusion entails a state of mistrust, sharp polarization, multiplicity of issues of conflicts, and competing actors dealing with situations on an ad-hoc basis. This confusion is responsible for releasing all kinds of political, social, religious, and sectarian forces that have fueled non-state actors, terrorist groups, and regional and international interference in the Middle East.
Highlights from keynote speaker
- Joe Hood echoed President Joe Biden’s objective of achieving a clear strategic vision in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—one that commits the United States to a more sustainable set of long-term relationships with partners in the region. He argued that these relationships must feature an affirmative agenda that focuses on solving shared problems and building shared prosperity.
- Hood noted that the states that will be best equipped to meet future security challenges must have resilient and inclusive governments that treat civil society as a partner rather than an enemy. Middle Eastern states must recognize their people’s fundamental rights, including freedom from oppression, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press.
- Discussing the US role in the region, he articulated that the current administration is pushing MENA governments to increase transparency and accountability as the clearest way to boost legitimacy domestically and internationally.
- People in MENA are expressing their political will and demonstrating against corruption, their governments’ failure to deliver on reforms, and economic stagnation spreading across the region, added Hood.
- He also emphasized concerns regarding the deteriorating socio-economic and political situation in Lebanon and Tunisia. Hood urged Lebanese leaders to implement reforms that are responsive to demands for transparency and accountability and called on Tunisian President Kais Saied to return to a democratic path.
- Hood emphasized the dangers China poses to MENA. He highlighted that entities of the People’s Republic of China offer the promise of stability with high-tech surveillance tools, but, instead, are a state attempting to enact strict measures of social control, which poses a threat to the region.
The GCC Perspective on Building a Sustainable Regional Security Order
- Abdullah bin Khaled Al Saud highlighted security challenges the region has grappled with, including destructive ideologies, extremism, terrorism, sectarianism, and armed non-state actors often funded by MENA states.
- Al Saud also argued that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has experienced a paradigm shift driven by leaders enabling key segments of society to reach a better, more sustainable future. He added that this shift has been realized through the GCC’s attempts to streamline technologies, enhance connectivity, and address common challenges such as climate change.
- Mohammed Al Sulami discussed the relationship between the Gulf states and Iran, emphasizing the fluctuating nature the relationship has endured since the 1979 revolution. He noted threats posed by Iran, including its nuclear program, ballistic missile program, and behavior and activities across the region.
- Vice Admiral (Ret.) Fozzie Miller called for greater security cooperation among Gulf countries to counter regional threats. However, he remained skeptical about the prospect of such cooperation, noting increased regional domestic tension as a threat to the GCC union.
- Highlighting the recent impacts of the Abraham Accords, Miller emphasized that new opportunities for cooperation in the region could increase the military capacity of Gulf states, which is pertinent in countering the Iranian ballistic missile threat.
- Fahed Al Shelaimi emphasized external challenges facing the GCC, including Iran’s role in the region, Turkey’s involvement in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood, and Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors.
- Al Shelaimi also discussed the importance of climate change in the region, advocating for the GCC to diversify its economies and decrease its reliance on oil revenues as the world shifts to “new sources of power.” He also relayed concerns over water security in the region.
New Diplomatic Initiatives in the Region: The Quest for Stable Alliances
- Professor Uzi Rabi highlighted growing concerns over Turkish and Iranian aggression in the Middle East. He argued that the Abraham Accords offered a multi-layered agreement that was not only based on geopolitics, but a people-to-people dimension as well. This partnership is vital in countering security threats facing the region.
- Mohammed Baharoon emphasized the opportunities for the development of regional security cooperation mechanisms through the Abraham Accords. He asserted that the deconfliction mechanism, which is accompanied by economic integration measures found in the Abraham Accords, provides the potential for greater cooperation in combating key threats facing the region.
- Shira Efron discussed the linkage between economics and insecurity in the region. She pointed out that regional cooperation among the current four signatories of the Abraham Accords could lead to $150 billion in new economic activity and 180,000 new jobs.
- Emphasizing the opportunities brought on by the Abraham Accords, Efron contended that, if diplomatic normalization with Israel expands to other countries, it could promote the prospect of a regional free trade agreement, which has the potential to create some four million new jobs and over $1 trillion in new economic activity in a decade.
- Ahdeya Ahmed shared personal narratives on the importance of religious diversity in her life and emphasized the challenges of waging peace as an Arab journalist. She suggested the establishment of an entity to protect journalists like her who want to promote greater partnership with Israel.
Beyond Regional Security: New Perspectives and Future Visions for Human Security
- Noting future threats that pandemics and bioterrorism could pose to the international community, David Bray argued that the Middle East could play a vital role in monitoring the risk of biothreat agents. He advocated for solutions that use artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and sequencing technologies to better position the global response to biothreats.
- Evanna Hu described the importance of recognizing the intentions behind the development of technologies. She pointed out that technology cannot change a country’s intent. However, tech diplomacy could offer opportunities for greater cooperation. She emphasized the role that actors in the Middle East could play in leading the collaboration efforts.
- Hu noted the fact that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that it has to be adopted and trusted by not only tech consumers, but also governments and international organizations. She echoed remarks made by Bray on the role technology can play in mitigating the climate crisis facing the region.
- Abla Abdel-Latif linked water security to human security in the region. She also highlighted challenges the region faces in mitigating demographic changes like overpopulation. Additionally, Abdel-Latif pointed out that women in the workforce are vital for the advancement of human security in the region.
- Jennifer Counter discussed the impacts of digital communication on human security in the region. She argued that extremist groups have been able to fundraise, recruit, and coordinate by using digital spaces and by taking advantage of new communication channels.
- Counter identified the benefits of digital communications for the region and the world in giving voices to underrepresented groups. She recommended that governments facilitate conversations to prevent the abuse of information and communications technology so that it isn’t misused for nefarious purposes.
Yaseen Rashed is a Young Global Professional with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.