It is the diversification of contemporary global energy markets that provides the international community with the opportunity to treat the Middle East once more as another typical region of the world, with sometimes vexing but not intractable disputes between neighbours.
By Matthew Parish
It has been said that grand plans for the Middle East never work. That may be because there has never been one until very recently. Middle Eastern crises have flared up recurrently since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. In response, the Great Powers of the time have developed strategies for dealing with the problem. But none of them addressed the challenge of the region as a whole. There has never been a coherent strategy. There has never been a grand plan.
One is reminded of the Treaty of Sèvres; the Sykes-Picot agreement; the Treaty of Lausanne; the founding of Saudi Arabia; the partition of Palestine; the Suez crisis; Security Council Resolution 242; the international response to the Lebanese Civil War; the international reaction to the Islamic Revolution in Iran; the first Gulf War; the Oslo Peace Accords; the US-led invasion of Iraq; and the international response to the Syrian Civil War. This patchwork of responses over a century does not represent any sort of strategy. It is at best an ad hoc melange of largely ill-conceived responses to a range of interconnected problems. The Middle East cannot be dealt with one problem at a time, because all of its problems are interconnected.
It is often said that the problem of the Middle East is that it has no democracy. This is surely far too quick. It is right that the region has only a relatively modest history of democracy. But that is true of several regions of the world that have thrived in the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. Moreover the Middle East is one of the few regions that has been the subject of a mostly successful democratic transplant: Israel. Efforts to write off the Middle East as an enduringly anti-democratic abyss, or as a uniquely benighted corner of the world by reason of its culture, religion or history, are intellectually lazy. The temptation to wrap very different problems in common vocabulary, the most recent and egregious of which was reference to the so-called Arab Spring (really a series of diverse regional events the only common connection between which was arguably a transfer of power between generations), must be resisted. Even if we are to endeavour to fashion a grand plan, none of its components will be easy.
Because all the problems in the Middle East are interconnected, the international community must adopt a strategy that encompasses the entire region or it will be incapable of assessing whether any individual tactical step in response to a specific crisis is likely to have subsequent adverse repercussions. The history of Great Power intervention in the Middle East is a series of repeat illustrations of the law of unintended consequences. Ineptly addressing one problem exposes oneself to a series of subsequent problems in other parts of the region that nobody anticipated. The invasion of Iraq arguably led to civil war in Syria. Few people anticipated that, but with the benefit of hindsight the connection was clear enough. Unsealing the ethnic lid on one minority-governed Levantine country ultimately exposed ethnic tensions in its neighbour.
While history is always useful in understanding a problem, there is a limit to what study of the history of the Middle East can tell us in fashioning a grand plan to solve the region’s current problems. That is because the history does not go back far enough. The Ottoman Empire held the region together as a series of vilayets, a system of regionalised feudal government. Peoples were mixed at the border with the Persian Empire, as is common amongst the shifting frontiers of competing empires. At the end of the imperial period, the region was divided into a series of states in large part at the whim of the European powers that occupied the prior Ottoman governmental space. The most well-known example of this is the Sykes-Picot line dividing the Levant in two between regions of British and French influence. There is only limited insight to be gained into the historical and economic dynamics of a region by studying the minutes of European powers’ foreign ministries agreeing how to divide their newly-acquired and hitherto little-known possessions.
A better approach might be to list a series of geopolitical objectives for the region, all of which seem rational but which collectively appear elusive. The following five objectives are listed in no particular order. One is the acquisition for Israel of credible security guarantees in a region of countries with traditionally hostile diplomatic postures, building upon pre-existing regional relations Israel has already developed during its recent history. The second is reintroduction of Iran to the community of nations, and facilitating its economic development such that its aggressive foreign policy is mitigated. The third is ensuring political stability in the Levant (most specifically Syria and Iraq), so as to facilitate the conditions for those countries’ economic development. The fourth is ensuring the economic and political development of the Gulf states in the face of what is anticipated to be ever-lower oil prices. The fifth is to secure the status of the Kurds in a way that does not threaten Turkey, which considers the Kurdish question to be Turkey’s most fundamental security concern.
Those are the goals of any person ambitious or foolish enough to seek to re-craft the Middle East. These problems have never all been addressed together. Even if one were to develop a plan that did address all of these issues, is now the right time to do so? It may be so, because a period of devastating war in the region (2003 to 2018, covering the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq through to the tail end of the Syrian Civil War) is now coming to a conclusion. It is typically amidst the ashes of war, when all conventions have been broken, that new ideas can be fashioned. The war-weary on all sides are looking to start afresh. There is then the possibility that innovative thoughts can be pushed through, in a way in which geopolitical innovation is impossible when blocked by the barricades of peacetime.
The recent history of the region has been ugly, replete with resentments between nations, religious and ethnic groups, and its history full of bloody coups. It may or may not be worth asking why this is. The explanations typically proffered (which tend to revolve around assertions that this or the other side have acted disproportionately immorally) tend to be as facile as the assertion that recent Middle Eastern history has been atypically bloody. The world has been amassed with conflicts since 1945 in which many people have died. The Bosnian war was more than ten times as bloody on a per capita basis than the Syrian Civil War, and it lasted for half as long. Quality of governance in the Middle East has recently been poor by Euro-Atlantic standards, but that is true of many or even most parts of the world. Therefore we might instead seek to address the problem by reference to a more objective metric, related to the economic, geographical and security challenges facing the various countries in the region. We might begin with one of the smallest, Israel, since on any account Israel is key.
Modern Israel is a country of almost nine million people with an economy focused upon science, technology and tourism. It has a land dispute with the Palestinians, but more gravely it faces a perennial security crisis. The country has been the subject of attempted invasions during the course of its short history, and one major regional power – Tehran – periodically makes statements threatening to eliminate the country. Israel has borders with other countries or territories that are or have been in various states of civil unrest, and from which military attacks have been made or threatened by non-state actors. The result is that Israel spends a disproportionate quantity of its GDP on security and defence, with a series of associated social costs. Israel would like to live at peace with its neighbours, for reasons of economics, trade, investment and diplomacy – and reducing its security costs. Nevertheless by reason of multiple prior conflicts, Israel has inherent scepticism in peace commitments on the part of its neighbours. But this can be overcome. Israel has diplomatic relations with, and has remained at peace with, its former military adversaries Egypt and Jordan.
The next country to consider is Iran. Iran is a large semi-arid country of some 82 million people that operated under a regime of approximate Anglo-American suzerainty until a religious revolution in 1979. It has been ostracised from the international community because its religious revolution inspired an aggressive regional foreign policy that it is questionable was ever in the country’s national interests. As a result Iran is economically and institutionally underdeveloped, its hydrocarbon and science and technology sectors lacking investment. Most fundamentally, by reason of climactic considerations and its large population Iran has chronic water shortages and is in need of foreign technological and financial investment. Like Israel, Iran has an over-extended military capacity that, critically, is largely engaged in needlessly threatening Israel via deployment in war-torn southwestern Syria and also operating through proxies in southern Lebanon. None of this is important to Iranian national interests. Iran has no border with Israel, makes no territorial pretensions upon Israel, and makes no money from its conflict with Israel. The purpose of the conflict seems barely more than to keep an otherwise redundant branch of the Iranian army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, busy.
The contours of a middle eastern peace agreement between Israel and Iran are therefore relatively straightforward: diplomatic recognition, cessation of military hostilities, exchange of intellectual property and technology, and mutual investment between two countries that have no objective reason to fight. This would surely also alleviate the crisis in the Gaza Strip, which Iran is at least partly responsible for perpetuating.
Now we must consider Saudi Arabia, geographically by some way the largest country in the Middle East but with a population of only some 33 million. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia is a high-income and highly developed country but whose economy is premised almost entirely upon hydrocarbons. Like a number of Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia suffers from Dutch Disease by reason of its reliance upon hydrocarbons as the mainstay of its economy: its currency is overvalued, which inhibits diversification of the economy. Saudi Arabia has an arid climate and, like Iran, a youthful population (more than 50% of whom are under 25) that has grown exponentially in recent decades. Saudi Arabia has rather the opposite problem to that of Iran: whereas Iran’s future prospects are bright, but present development are inhibited by poor international relations, Saudi Arabia’s zenith is arguably approximately now, as the country hordes the revenues from its prior domination of the global oil markets through its leadership of OPEC with a view to facilitating diversification through government-driven industrial policy. This is necessary because the prevailing direction of hydrocarbon markets is downwards.
Saudi Arabia is Sunni and Iran is Shia. That distinction used to be a lot less relevant than it is now. It has become increasingly pertinent because as profits from hydrocarbon markets tail off competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran is increasingly perceived (at least by Saudi Arabia) as a zero-sum game: to the extent that Iran is able to develop its oilfields for international markets, Saudi Arabia’s influence in those markets depreciates. Syria and Iraq are two religiously mixed countries between the Gulf and Iran that have suffered from aggravation of this religious dispute as hydrocarbon profits are reduced. Both Levantine countries were plunged into ethnic conflicts that evolved into proxy civil wars on behalf of regional or other Great Powers, as part of problems relating to the transition of power from ageing dictators with no obvious mechanisms to choose their successors.
The Kurds are a stateless people in respect of whom statehood was anticipated by the Treaty of Sèvres (1916) in the midst of World War One but then eliminated by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Kurds, ethnically Persian but in religion Sunni, are spread between Iran, Iraq and Turkey. While the Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed autonomy since at least the First Gulf War (1991), and the Kurds in Iran benefit from a federal system of government, Turkey has long been wary of the Kurds by reason of an extended guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey from 1984.
US President Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was arguably a form of grand plan for the Middle East. It sought to balance American reliance upon Saudi and other Gulf hydrocarbons against an opening of the Iranian economy in exchange for denuclearisation of Iran. Iranian nuclear proliferation was perceived by the United States as a danger to its regional ally Israel. The principal problem with the JCPOA as a grand plan for the Middle East was that it did not give Israel enough. Preventing nuclear proliferation on the part of a state that itself feels under threat (as does Iran, from US-Israeli potential military actions) and is therefore determined to develop those nuclear weapons as a deterrent, is very difficult. Moreover nobody fires nuclear weapons, and hence the dangers of nuclear proliferation are sometimes exaggerated. What Israel wants – and what the JCPOA did not give Israel (that was not invited to the negotiations and was not a signatory to them) – is diplomatic recognition by Iran and a cessation of Iran proxy military activities, that have no sense in terms of the Iranian national interest but cost Israel to preserve a security buffer. Neither of these things were addressed by the JCPOA. Hence the JCPOA to became a failed grand plan for the Middle East.
Objectively, there is a constructive bargain to be undertaken between Israel and Iran. Because Saudi Arabia sees its own confrontations with Iran in zero-sum terms, Saudi has the potential to serve as a spoiler in any such deal. But that would be a pessimistic lens through which to view Saudi motives, notwithstanding the unfortunate affair of Jamal Kashoggi’s dismemberment in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Another way to understand Saudi Arabia’s travails is to acknowledge that this vast country, and a number of its Arabian Gulf neighbours, need all the help they can receive from the United States and Europe to diversify their economies and ensure their long-term futures. It would be exceptionally short-term a perspective for Saudi Arabia to try to spoil a peace agreement sought by its informal de facto regional ally Israel, with the consequence of further damaging Saudi’s relationship with Israel’s ally the United States. Full regularisation of diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia (currently existing only informally) would facilitate the technological investment needed to re-align Saudi Arabia’s economy. In reciprocation, Saudi Arabia could facilitate permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian land dispute.
Hence a grand plan for peace in the Middle East might involve the following strategic components, although each one would have to be negotiated and executed in the most meticulous detail. Iran withdraws paramilitary forces from Israel’s borders. Iran and Israel exchange diplomatic representation, then begin trade and investment relationships. Syria and Iraq are subject to revised federalisation to accommodate the hopes and concerns of their respective Sunni, Shia and Kurdish population groups. Saudi Arabia and Israel establish formal diplomatic and economic ties. Israel and the United States support Saudi Arabia in diversification of its economy. Then there is one final step in the path towards peace, that must for now remain unmentioned.
It is a fight for the dominance of oil markets historically concentrated in the Middle East that has rendered a grand plan for the Middle East elusive. It is the diversification of contemporary global energy markets that provides the international community with the opportunity to treat the Middle East once more as another typical region of the world, with sometimes vexing but not intractable disputes between neighbours. This essay sets out only the beginnings of a road map for a grand bargain for Middle Eastern peace, but it hopes to have explained why such a roadmap might now be possible whereas previously it was not.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.