The Middle East Today: Where To?

Keynote speech by HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal delivered at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ 26th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference on October 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

The Middle East today is in a state of turmoil as never before. I will limit my talk to issues causing disorder and anarchy and on my hopes for a peaceful, secure, and stable region.

Looking into today’s prevailing conditions and state of affairs in the Middle East, particularly, the Arab region, we find no credible signs that call for much optimism: strategically, it is vulnerable on all fronts and is widely exposed to all possibilities. This strategic vulnerability is as old as the establishment of the nation-state order following World War I. However, catastrophic events during the past decades such as the recurring Arab-Israeli wars and conflicts, the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq-Iran prolonged war, the invasion of Kuwait, the invasion of Iraq, and constant foreign interventions have contributed greatly to this vulnerability. Coupled with this is the failure of many of our states in facing the shared and constantly looming threats to our existence and to our people. Poor social, economic, educational, and cultural policies, and the selfishness that characterized some Arab leaders’ foreign and domestic policies for decades are causes of this mess.

All of what we witness nowadays unfolding and that was exposed by what is called the “Arab Spring” is but an indictment of these policies and natural results of it. In Iraq it has led it to becoming a failed state with a collapsing society; the cause of Syria’s free falling into a swamp of blood, destruction, desolation, terrorism, conspiracies and foreign interventions; the cause of the sinking of Yemen into an inferno of conflict and civil war; the cause of the failure of the Libyan state; the unrest in other Arab countries; the cause of the spread of the transnational phenomenon of terrorism within many of our states; the cause of the spread of armed militias that are not under the control of nation states; and the spread of appalling sectarianism and other negative development. All that is a condensed representation of our deplorable state of affairs.

Our unenviable present was the future of our recent past, and the way we deal with our present is the future awaiting us. It is imperative that we must consciously learn from the pitfalls of the past. We must plan our future wisely and be alert at all times if we want to avoid a catastrophic future. We must courageously face the challenges that threaten our existence and attain a visionary approach to the future, if we wish to attain a decent place on the world stage.

We are facing immense challenges, some of them are in our hands to solve but others unfortunately are in the hands of others.

First, the preservation of the nation-state in the Arab world is of vital importance to the security and stability of its social components. Realization of such a goal cannot be achieved without creating a normal relationship between the state and its citizens, whereby the state becomes the guardian of all of its citizens, with all shades and colors, attending to their ambitions and aspirations and being the point of reference to their national identity.

Moreover, governments must respond energetically to reform needs and constantly strive to lead society toward better conditions.

We must strive to rescue Arab states, which are on the brink of collapse and disintegration and help their societies to overcome this perilous stage by helping them to create a new social contract that will save them from present miseries, restore their hopes, and fulfill their ambitions and expectations.

Second, the weakness, fragility and fragmentation of the Arab regional system which affects all of its political, economic, social and cultural institutions must be cured. This system lacks the necessary vitality to provide the minimum requirements to defend the Arab countries, let alone qualifying them to attain a respectable place within the framework of international order and the context of their people’s aspirations.

Despite the establishment of the Arab League, which oversaw the transition from colonialism to independence, and enacted agreements and treaties to secure the interests of all its members, the blind ambition to gain sole leadership by the rising nationalist socialists led to its decay and a paralyzed and empty skeleton devoid of any potential or vitality.

If we aspire to attain dynamic participation in the global order we must avoid repeating past ideological obstacles and petty attitudes and trivial competition about who is small and who is grand, who has deep and illustrious historical roots and who is of recent appearance on stage; squabbles that characterized attempts at cooperation throughout the past seven decades.

The failure of this system led to large scale strategic deterioration within the Arab region allowing the existence of a strategic vacuum that allowed Israel and the Iranian leadership and other powers to tamper with our countries and our social fabric. It is imperative upon us to repair the damage inflicted upon Arab communal efforts and be prepared for all possibilities, taking into consideration the damage of Israeli occupation of Palestine and the threat of the disruptive interference of the Iranian leadership in the internal affairs of our states; spreading their sectarian ideology; and attempting to export their crises to us while actively supporting sectarian terrorism. Even with the most celebrated “achievement” of Obama’s foreign policy, the nuclear deal, the Iranian leadership’s belligerent attitude toward their neighbors is evident in their continued outright occupation of the UAE islands, continued meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Bahrain. The danger posed by Iran is real especially when we realize that all attempts to reform Iranian policies went in vain. Despite the fact that we do not harbor any ill feelings toward Iran and its people as neighbors and brothers in faith, we must insure our regional security requirements and collectively strive to face these imminent and present dangers.

We must rectify the power imbalance vis-a-vis Iran; any disequilibrium will no doubt allow the Iranian leadership to exploit all gaps to infiltrate our countries. In this regard, I believe that the experiment of the GCC is a pioneering and successful one in the Arab world despite the current Qatari crisis that was caused by Qatar’s chirping outside the flock. It is my hope that this crisis ends by bringing Qatar to harmony with its other sister states in the GCC. Therefore, regardless how this crisis ends, we must maintain and develop the GCC so that it can lead to economic integration through intensifying cooperation in all spheres and surmount all obstacles in the path of its goals. Furthermore, sustaining the GCC, due to its geo-strategic importance of immense energy reserves and its geographical location that connects all continents as well as its being the center of Islam and Arab culture, can play a major role in protecting its interests and contributing to lifting the Arab world out of its mess.

Third, fragility, stagnation and internal weakness of many Arab states at all political, governmental, economic, social and cultural levels call for drastic remedial measures to cross over to the future whereby they can effectively respond to the needs and aspirations of Arab societies and absorb all of their diverse social components, thus preventing the rise and spread of extremism and terrorism and guarding the integrity and stability of these states.

These reforms will facilitate a positive interaction with globalization and with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and benefit from its dynamism. Fears – whether imagined or real – must not become an obstacle in the way of our attempt to safeguard our identity, faith, and values; or prevent us from responding positively to modernity. Our identity, values, and faith are deeper than what the nay sayers claim.

I am optimistic that many countries have woken up to the inevitability and indispensability of reform and moved in the right direction. This trend must not stop for any reason whatsoever.

Fourth, terrorism remains a serious threat and a strategic challenge facing the Arab states, especially when it is camouflaged in religious forms that taint the purity of our faith and attempt to hijack it. Without serious confrontation with terrorism at all levels and eradicating its causes, our counties will never enjoy stability. This terrorism is not only the terrorism of Da’esh or al Qaida that is waning, but also terrorism perpetrated by all powers and Iranian supported extremist sectarian militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and others. This cross-border terrorism poses an existential threat to the nation-state in our region; it requires that all should cooperate to defeat it and create the right climate to treat its root causes. However, obsession with it, though justified, should not blanket our eyes of strategic issues that determine causes and breed terrorism.

Fifth, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a real challenge to the Arab future; it has been and still remains the cause of hampering many of the Arab projects during the past seven decades and other international initiatives about the future of the region. Without a just solution that takes into consideration legitimate demands, this area will never experience stability and will remain exposed to all negative possibilities because it involves all parts of the Arab world. The solution to this problem is not in our hands only but is an international responsibility. Ignoring the solution on the part of the United States and other capable powers will only hamper all of their initiatives in the Arab region.

In this regard, we must not forget the fate of regional initiatives presented post Oslo and which were doomed due to the faltering of the peace process.

We are all aware that the Arab countries welcomed the march toward peace which commenced in Madrid with the hope of solving this conflict within the parameters of international norms and the UN decisions, and that they entered into negotiations with Israel to reach the desired peace.

The Arab states did not stop at that but participated in all the efforts and the multilateral negotiations with the hope of creating the right climate and mutual trust; some even went far in their relationship with Israel to encourage her to seek the road to peace. The Arab Peace Initiative of the late King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia remains as the only viable solution to this seemingly intractable conflict. I am not here to illustrate all the attempts to settle this conflict; all of you are privy to their details.

What I wish to emphasize, which is relevant to the subject of this speech, is the following: just peace has not been achieved; all efforts pertaining to the future of this region and the negotiations about engineering a new future for it, went in vain.

The perpetuation of this conflict will continue to be a cause of threat to the security and stability of the region, even if Israel and its allies claim that the cause of the region’s instability is what is happening at the present and has no direct relation to this prolonged conflict. They ignore that the banner headline that the terrorists use to recruit their followers is the suffering of the Palestinian people. The Iranian leadership have named their main interventionist arm The Quds Brigade. The Israeli people, themselves, are in danger of turning in to an apartheid state, enslaving the Palestinian people and facing the potential sanctions the South Africa faced when it was the apartheid state.

Sixth, is the relationship of Arab governments with their citizens, If an Arab citizen of any Arab state does not have a proprietary relationship with his or her government, is it a wonder that that citizen feels marginalized and attracted to nihilist convictions or sectarian identity? Citizenship of all the people in a just and fair society is the only guarantee against these impulses. Education, rule of law, and owning one’s well-being will bring about the stability and harmony of Arab societies.

These challenges are but a few among many other strategic ones that are closely connected to the path of our future. Without facing them, our future will resemble our present, if not worse. Despite all of that, we must cling to optimism. Saudi Arabia,is steadfast in the face of these challenges, striving to find the right solutions and move forward.

Saudi Arabia has managed for many long decades to preserve its stability and national security. Despite the internal and external challenges, crises, and serious threats that it faced, it continued to be committed to its policies of development in all fields and, by the grace of God, will succeed in the face of present threats and future uncertainties. It will continue to grow and develop and fulfill the aspirations and goals of its people.

The surest path for maintaining our security and stability is through our commitment to maintaining the unity of our social fabric, a constant synergy between the citizens and the leadership, the continuous positive response to their hopes, dreams and aspirations, and the keen attention to the implementation of social justice, equality and freedom.

The state must persevere in remedying any defects in our economic, social, educational, cultural, and security policies, and enhance our national identity and values. All citizens are the trustees of our country and our state.

Our leadership is addressing the economic challenges arising from dependency on one source of income, into diverse and vibrant sources. Saudi Arabia is a work in progress. We move forward, commit mistakes, and rectify them. They are our mistakes and the means of rectifying them are our means. We accept advice from our friends, but the clothes we wear are sewn by our tailors, not by the most talented fashion designers in Paris, New York, or London; and definitely not by the tailors in the bazar of Tehran.

It is fair to say that the US foreign policy in the Middle East, during the reign of the past two administration contributed immensely to this state of affairs. By destroying the Iraqi national state, failure in responding in time to the massacres of the Syrian people, ignoring the rise of non-state actors, the absence of a serious will to solve the protracted issue of Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands, and disregard of advice of friends and allies in the region were major causes of regional disorder. It is my hope that the Trump administration remedy the ramifications the shortsighted policies of the previous administration in the region.

As a good friend, you, government, media, and citizenry, have been urging us, throughout our friendship, to reform ourselves. Over the years, we have listened to and benefitted from that advice. We still have some way to go before we are satisfied that with our ways. Vision 2030 is the platform on which we aim to proceed with our political, social, and economic reform. Some critics have labelled it as too ambitious. What is wrong with ambition? Our course is set. Our leadership, King and Crown Prince, are committed. Our people are decided.

Round about is fair play. I offer you the following advice:

Reform your political system. Your people are polarized. Your political parties are at each other’s throats. There is no consensus. Is it okay with you that your supreme court has legalized political bribery as a right? Is it okay with you that one man one vote is abrogated by a long outdated electoral college? Is it okay with you that your media has no boundaries and accountability as your executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government do? I and many other of your friends around the world are asking these questions because what affects you, good or bad, affects us. We want you strong and stable. Hopefully, you will continue to be the beacon of human progress and development, and not a socially and politically riven body politic that eats itself from inside.

We in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are attentive to the sense of responsibility and noble intentions and, as emphasized by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz on all occasions, we will cooperate and collaborate with all who mean well in order to deal with all the challenges facing us. The aim is to bring security, stability and peace to our countries and our people to attend to our future and therefore world peace and security.

Author: HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal

HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal is chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies and a co-founder of the King Faisal Foundation. He served as ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States from September 13, 2005 until February 2, 2007. He also serves as a member of the board of trustees of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies and has been co-chair of the C100 Group, an affiliate of the World Economic Forum, since 2003. Prince Turki was appointed an advisor in the Royal Court in 1973. From 1977 to 2001, he served as director general of the General Intelligence Directorate, the Kingdom’s main foreign intelligence service. In 2002, he was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

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