2024 Arab Strategy Forum: Diplomacy and World Events
A good part of diplomacy or political savvy is listening. If you want to shape the future – you need to be in the corridors, pursuing a listening strategy. This seemed to be a strength of the Cold War. For example, the Russians knew USA was building an atom bomb simply because publications on the topic from American scientists stopped in 1940. Or, you can think of the Kissinger effect – he listened via “shuttle diplomacy” and analyzed detailed recordings of meetings, and used his knowledge to use egos or fear to his end goal (and the process was slow – years). Of course, managing echo chambers is also a serious part of the diplomatic agenda – the quiet whisper is as important as the loud echo. Unfortunately, many of today’s world leaders seem to be focusing on the loud echoes resounding from biased social media narratives (which can be paid or engineered) rather than listening to people on the ground.
Definition: Diplomacy is the art and practice of building and maintaining relationships and conducting negotiations with people using tact and mutual respect. It is relational.
This one-day session of the Arab Strategy Forum was held 20 years after the Iraq invasion. It quickly became clear there was a sense of sadness of the mess left back in Iraq due to a UK- USA invasion that left a quarter of a million dead), the chaos in Syria and the other regions. All of which still did not have the institutional governance structures in place for the stability of the region (highlighted by Dr Fawaz Gerges, Former director of London School of Economics and Political Science). The MENA region is one of the most crisis prone regions in the world. One of the challenges the region faces is when outside governments try and set up or prop movements to bring in their form of democracy. But the process of change introduced does not work – as highlighted by the many examples of failures. His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a commissioner in the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, former KSA’s General Intelligence Presidency, and former ambassador to both the USA and UK, spoke with sadness on how they had advised Saddam Hussein not to invade Kuwait, but he did not listen.
At the opening, HE Mohammad bin Abdullah Al Gergawi, Minister of Cabinet Affairs and Chairman of the Arab Strategy Forum spoke of three shifts:
(1) the conflict between Palestine and Israel - will it be a road to peace or a prolonged war? (2) the role of Gulf Countries in the international stage
(3) the state of political destabilization (in 2024, 75 countries will vote).
He asked the question: What does the world want from the Arab region and what does the Arab region want from the world? He reiterated that the protection of human values is important though there seems to be some bias in how we are valuing lives. Still, he said that Hope was outweighing Despair.
There was much debate in the Forum by multiple participants on whether USA had lost its way (here is an interesting article) and its place as a superpower, and whether that was a role it still wanted (and again to be highlighted military might is not what makes you a superpower in the long-term). Some interesting perspectives on the role of USA in the region that were made at this Forum which I have captured (I have put this on Twitter/X too). Contributors to these points were Dr. Ghassan Salame, Founding Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs, Nabil Fahmy, Former Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs; Francis Fukuyama, Professor of Political Science, among others).
1. Increasing internal polarization has made the American model of democracy less attractive as a role model for governance
2. Increasing isolation and protectionism have also led to the decrease in influence in global politics
3. Increase in reactionary measures - rather than proactive international strategies have weakened diplomatic strength
4. Threat of the deterioration of institutional structures of governance are also a worry and the world watches with most Americans - as 2024 will be a pivot year (but you can also see the impact on IGOs like the UN Security Council). It is also important to note that 75 countries are going to elections (4.2 billion people) and the increasing worry, is that the far right is gaining more momentum and weakening globalization
5. The US lens of techno-democracies versus techno-autocracies may limit the opportunities for American international policies (another interesting article from another region: here) - By the way, it is estimated that USA has spent US$16.1 billion on the war supporting Israel.
Various speakers highlighted the fact we were moving towards a multipolar world and the challenge will be to manage tensions between countries through mutual dialogue without upsetting the stability of the region which is needed for economic prosperity.
What should the Arab world do?
1. Regional Peace and Stability
There was a strong feeling that the Arab world needs to take ownership for the Arab world. In the case of Palestine, there was an emphasis that human lives needed priority. There was a strong feeling that the response to 7 October violence which was condemned resulted in the reciprocal killing of Palestinians even though they were not part of Hamas. For perspective, The Eurasia Group highlighted that over 350,000 lives were lost in the 75 years since Israel was formed. That the cost the war was directly since October was 22000 Palestinian lives, 50,000 causalities and over 50% destruction of infrastructure in response to the 1400 killed by Hamas. BTW, it was reiterated at the Forum – ALL lives are precious. The indirect humanitarian costs are over US$ 6,4 million for Palestinian refugees (most of which are hosted in Jordan and Lebanon which are aid dependent countries). The speakers reiterated the five factions of Palestinians needed to articulate together what they wanted (Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank, other parts of Israel, refugees, diaspora) and the Arab world would support them. This Palestinian issue is complex and with a long history (more here).
2. Leverage Soft Power for Economic Prosperity
The region had a tremendous amount of soft power that was historical (ancient trade routes and seats of learning, connected tribes) and contemporary (events like COP (Egypt and UAE); FIFA (Qatar 2022 and KSA 2030; Expo Dubai 2020/22 and KSA 2030), tourism, and media (example Dubai and Abu Dhabi in movies). The work on trade was highlighted: example, UAE and KSA joining BRICs. Further, Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds, are some of the largest worth 34% of global funds of a value equivalent to US$3.8 trillion. There was a need to use that soft power innovatively to shape regional events for the prosperity of the region.
Transformative changes that have been made. The example of KSA was highlighted and mentioned that these types of radical changes are not impossible. Currently, nine Arab countries are in reform. However, in the panel “20 years since Iraq Invasion”, it was reiterated that governance structures and security architectures could take decades to build. According to the Word Bank, in 2019, Middle East countries have instituted the most reforms in the world.
4. Create Jobs
The Arab world has a huge young population that needs jobs (~100 million p.a.), hence, the ability of Arab entrepreneurs to create jobs for the region was critical. Dr Jihad Azour, Director of the Middle East and Central Asia at the International Monetary Fund, stressed the urgency as some parts of the Arab world were facing high levels of inflation (Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon – more here).
Bassem Youssef, Egyptian comedian, television host, and surgeon, explained that media narratives of Arabs need to change - they need to stop showcasing just the places but start highlighting narratives of their people - the rich historical and contemporary stories and characters. He spoke about Dr. Helmy, of Egyptian origin, who saved a young girl from the Holocaust. As one of the other speakers highlighted, humans have agency, the problems are not going to be solved externally. There were significant opportunities to shape the future, despite the current challenges.
Just to end with a quote of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai,
“The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. It isn't something you await, but rather create.”