Forum told of bleak predictions for Arab world in 2018

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By Shadiah Abdullah AL Jaberi

The Arab world will continue to be plagued by political tensions and there will no radical geopolitical changes in 2018, a political expert told participants at the Arab Strategy Forum 2017 held in Dubai.

During a panel, Dr Fawaz Gerges, Professor of International Relations at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), highlighted key factors that have had the biggest economic and political impact on Arab countries – Iran, Yemen, terrorism, US politics, and Syria. He stressed that the political landscape of the Middle East needs to be examined on several levels – local, regional and global – with all three being closely interconnected. Furthermore, he noted that several countries in the Arab world are plagued by internal crises due to a lack of confidence and trust among citizens and their rulers, creating space for radical extremists to fill the gap.

Dr Gerges said: “Some of the issues, such as domestic crises, have been prevalent for decades in the region. While 2018 will no doubt bring some changes, no immediate solution is clear, and many of the issues the Arab world faced in 2017 – such as the crisis in Yemen, the situation in Iran, the growth of terrorism, and the impact of the current US administration – will continue into 2018.”

He added: “In terms of the role of the US, the whole responsibility cannot be put on the current US presidency. In fact, it dates back to the invasion of Iraq. US President Donald Trump has completely changed the game and reversed the policies and progress of his predecessor Barack Obama with regard to the Middle East. What has become evident is a gap between talk and action, and a lack of strategic approach on the part of Trump, particularly in terms of the recent decision on Jerusalem, which was undoubtedly a grave mistake.”

Speaking on the situation in Yemen, Dr Gerges concluded that he expects the issues to escalate with more division and conflict on the horizon, rather than arrive at a political resolution. He added: “The triangle of Egypt, Sudan and Libya will see continued instability. The success of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in securing a second term will be critical for Egypt. In terms of terrorism, Trump’s decision on Jerusalem is expected to result in radicalization, the beginnings of which are already apparent.” Furthermore, he expressed concerns that certain terrorist organizations will take advantage of this situation.

On the other hand acclaimed Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed was optimistic about the future of the GCC union, largely due to political support from the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia’s nod to reforms. “After eight not-so-happy years with the Obama regime, we have a stronger political consensus with the Trump administration, where America’s Middle East policies have dramatically shifted the needle and changed the political equation in the region, helping the GCC countries forge a clearer political mandate and tackle the issues threatening the stability of the region.”

“There are three distinct divisions. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in one camp, Qatar in another, and Oman and Kuwait in the third camp. In 2018, these divisions will continue, but the GCC as an institution in itself will endure.”

“In the coming year, the legitimate government in Yemen will progress. The legal government will continue to make gains within the country. The key question is how this will impact the borders, especially in the mountainous regions with Saudi Arabia.”

“When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it is heartening to see a younger leadership pushing policy and reform from a fresh perspective, which will lead to tremendous change across the country’s social landscape. Coupled with its ambitious 2030 project and aggressive foreign policies, the GCC has a stronger member that will help hold the Council together with the UAE,” added Al-Rashed.

Former French President François Hollande and former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shared their predictions on key issues facing the world in 2018 in a session themed ‘The State of the World Geopolitics in 2018’ that concluded the Forum.

Moderated by Becky Anderson, Managing Editor and Anchor at CNN Abu Dhabi, the discussion explored a host of military and political issues. Topics related to the Middle East included the Palestine issue and the defeat of the (ISIS). On the global level, the veteran politicians addressed the situation in Europe in the run-up to Brexit. Holland said: “The EU and the question of Brexit will result in an opportunity for creating a stronger European policy, and better defense coordination. The Franco- German relationship will be especially critical in this new order.”

Gates pointed out: “The outcome of Brexit will be more painful than expected”.

Speaking about a solution to global terrorism, Gates said: “We need to have stronger coordination to defend our countries. We should be realistic – the elimination of terrorism is not achievable. But we can aspire to international efforts to prevent ISIS from assembling weapons of mass destruction or planning for massive loss of life. Since 9/11, the international community has developed a framework to deal with cross-border terrorism. Measures must be taken to limit these opportunities.”

He added: “We have to get to the root of terror. A sense of hope and political freedom creates an environment which is hostile to terror, but fighting terror is on a par with efforts to eliminate crime.”

Gates said: “Russian presidential elections are set for March 2018, and for this, Putin may drum up a political or nationalist cause to polarize people to vote for him.”

“Mexican elections are set for July next year, and [Mexican President] Pena Nieto’s ongoing corruption scandals may result in new leadership under Lopez Obrador, who is very anti- American. This may result in a crisis in US- Mexican relations.” He added.

For his part, Hollande said: “ISIS has been destroyed and it will have lots of difficulty in re-establishing its presence in areas where it has already been defeated. Its capacity in France has largely been compromised or eliminated. But individuals still carry out attacks and these can take place anywhere, so we need a high level of vigilance and protection in countries under threat of a terrorist attack.”

“The will of Iran will create a lot of tension in the region, and that’s why the credibility of Saudi Arabia will be even more important. However, I do believe that the nuclear deal with Iran will remain. Nobody should re-think the nuclear deal [with Iran] because we should fight against proliferation. “In North Korea, nuclear [arms development] will lead to tension but not in direct combat.” Holland added.

On the Palestinian front, the French President said: “The Palestinian matter will provoke trouble in countries that have solidarity with the cause, but there will be no major change in the political situation.”

Speaking about US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Gates said: “The decision was ill-advised and it hurts broader strategy in a sense that the administration was seen to be devoting time and resources on both sides of this issue. The announcement makes it difficult for Palestinians and has also created problems for our Arab friends and allies. One of the Trump administration’s big achievements had been improved relations with our Arab friends. While the announcement will not reverse that, it makes things much more difficult for our friends here.”

Hollande added: “It was not only a bad decision but a brutal one. It creates more problems, it breaks multilateral decisions, and it is harsh to the Arabs and Palestinians. Together, we must set out on the road to negotiations and solutions, and Europe has a capacity to act with or without US involvement.”

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