08 February 2002 - 10 February 2002

Prospects in the Middle East

Chair: Dr Rita E Hauser

(In association with the Hauser Foundation)

Over the weekend of 8-10 February we considered developments in the Middle East which we had last discussed at Ditchley in 1997. We looked at some of the opportunities and challenges in the medium term while accepting that present realities would form the basis of how we might get from "here" to "there", and so it proved. The violence that has characterised so much of the recent past in Israeli/Palestine relations, and which sadly was the backdrop to our conference at Ditchley, was too immediate and too compelling not to occupy a great deal of our time.

Against that background we looked at the Middle East from the point of view of the political, security and economic issues affecting the region and tried not only to identify future trends but also to draw some conclusions for policy.

In a wide ranging discussion of change in the area, which had been described as "distressed" by one participant, many of us concluded that there was indeed an imperative for change. We thought there was a general desire for change amongst the peoples and that many of their leaders were also aware of its necessity. The long standing debate between secularism and Islamism was discussed. Some thought that the West had long ago made a strategic error in not backing secular Arab nationalism against the traditional leaders who, for example, in Saudi Arabia, had preserved Islamism. Many of the ills of the region were ascribed to corruption, lack of transparency or rule of law, minimum standards of human rights etc. At the root of all this, so we thought, lay a need to share power, to open up the systems of Government to reforms offering incentives to all sectors of the population, including minorities, so that they felt more included in the political and economic processes, not excluded or alienated from it. But we also acknowledged the real danger of reform getting out of hand. It was very hard to manage the dynamics of change so that they did not run out of control and end in chaos, a daunting prospect in an area in which important western interests were directly engaged. Comparisons were made with the process set in train by President Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.

In looking for an intellectual framework for considering how to try to bring peace and security to the region we were offered two potential courses for action. In the first, priority might be given to tackling State Sponsors of terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and in the second, a basket of core issues including Israel/Palestine, Israel/Syria, Israel/Lebanon might be tackled separately following which the peripheral issues could be addressed. The first of these approaches was thought to approximate roughly to the current US policy and the second to that of the EU. As far as the first was concerned, we were told by one or two participants that judgements varied with the position of the viewer. From the USA's point of view perhaps, the key threats might seem to be WMD and State Sponsors (even though we thought this was a general term for use in public and did not reflect the complex reality of what was really meant). But looked at from a local or regional point of view such threats might seem to be a reasonable response to overwhelming violence and pressure.

The second course provoked discussion of the EU's role in the area with a fair amount of criticism of the Europeans' failure to influence events on the ground or US policy. Supporters of the EU, while agreeing that greater EU engagement would be desirable, particularly at the present time, pointed out that the EU had already made a considerable contribution by, for example, keeping Jerusalem on the agenda, refusing to accept the legality of the settlements, negotiating association agreements, being the biggest aid donor and financing the Palestinian elections etc. Nevertheless the plethora of EU Foreign Ministers visiting the area testified to different national interests and the problem for the EU in speaking with one voice.

US policy came in for a good deal of analysis and, a fair amount of criticism. The President's reference to the axis of evil was, some claimed, an encouragement for hard-liners in Iraq and Iran. The use of religious vocabulary was bound to stir emotions in an area where Islamic sensitivities were already roused by what was seen as one sided US support for Israel. In addition it was argued that if the USA's position was to concentrate on WMD and State Sponsors then there probably was a major difference of opinion with its allies who were more concerned to tackle the underlying causes of terrorism and violence and not just the visible symptoms. One participant thought that the difference in approach could be explained by geography. The USA was distant from the area and was therefore content with a policy of containment. The Europeans were closer and were forced to follow a policy of engagement. ("Critical engagement" stressed another.) Others argued that US and EU long term aims were the same - to help to establish lasting peace and security - even though their tactics might differ. Differences of view on the Middle East between the US and its European partners were nothing new claimed another participant. The US tended to be dismissive of the EU's inability to coordinate a consistent and unified view, while EU Member States were inclined to assume that, if only the USA would put sufficient pressure on the Israelis to change their ways, a settlement would be achieved, ignoring the political risks to any US Administration in giving directions which were unenforceable. Another argument was advanced that the best way forward would be to look for regional solutions based on regional architecture which might lead to local cooperation and the internalisation of reform including human rights etc.

It was noted that al Qu'eda links had not been shown with Iraq and North Korea. The US was assumed to have extended the war on terrorism to WMD, influenced no doubt by the anthrax attacks in the USA following the events of 11 September even though responsibility for these attacks had never been established. A comment was made that the USA seemed comfortable with the thought of WMD in Israeli hands but not in others in the Middle East. In considering what might be done about WMD some thought that proliferation was inevitable while others considered this too defeatist and referred to South Africa and Taiwan as examples where proliferation had been stopped. Military action was not thought to be the primary option against proliferators, instead a mixture of diplomacy, intelligence, export controls, cooperation among like-minded states and on occasions, sanctions were preferred. Notwithstanding this, however, the basic US message was straightforward: there would be serious penalties for those who engaged in such behaviour. And added another participant, given the USA's overwhelming strength in a globalising world we should not rule out the possibility that if the USA developed its line on WMD it could create a momentum and a new atmosphere which would shape the actions of others.

We looked at the phenomenon of al Qu'eda terrorism and thought that it could be distinguished from social revolutionary or nationalist terrorism although it shared some of the same characteristics. It seemed to entail conflict between secular and religious communities in the area and reflected, so some of us thought, the marginalisation of Muslims and their feeling of humiliation. To this end some argued that there was a need to tackle the fundamental issues underlying these feelings which fed popular support for al Qu'eda, perhaps above all some sense of progress towards a resolution of the Palestine conflict.

In looking at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, some pointed to the apparently unqualified US support for Israel's actions in the current crisis which had created a backlash among Middle East Arabs generally and despair for the Palestinians themselves, while others argued that there was little the US could do as a practical matter given the situation on the ground. This was disputed by some who demanded that minimum standards of human rights had to be observed by all the parties to the conflict including the Israelis whose actions, it was claimed, were in breach of international law. Although the present situation provoked strong, and at times, opposed views, there was less disagreement on the possible solution. In the short term many of us thought this should be based on the Mitchell Commission plan, which, if implemented by all the parties, could meet their most immediate needs, followed by some form of the "Clinton Parameters" as the basis for a long term settlement. An argument was made that in terms of process, the Barcelona model, which envisaged tackling political, security and economic issues in three groups simultaneously, would have avoided some of the dangers of the present stalemate. Others thought that one of the great deficiencies was that the general public in the region had no clear view of the end game. Without such a goal, frustration and misunderstanding were bound to prevail.

In terms of public presentation some were inclined to think that more could be done to explain the situation to the public in our various countries and that a greater effort should be made by Governments in Arab countries to explain their points of view and what they wished to see as a final settlement. We noted that the temptation to avoid action by blaming others was widespread. It was an established practice between the Arabs and Israelis and also between the USA and its European allies who were often happy to unload onto the Americans their own failures of leadership and policy.

In looking at economic development in the area we noted that there were a number of serious problems which, if ignored, would cause political difficulties. We looked briefly at the question of water supply, but some thought this was less of a problem than popularly thought although the high costs of desalination made it an expensive option for a number of states. A high birth rate and high unemployment levels which were being added to every year were among the most obvious problems. A shrinking resource base was another, accompanied by poor governance and lack of accountability. In some states, however, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, we thought that there were technocrats and reformers in the system who had a clear idea of what economic reforms were needed. But they were constrained by having to work within the limits of what was considered to be politically acceptable by those who currently had their hands on most of the levers of political power. But even there we noted that in Saudi Arabia, for example, the influence of women on the economy in demanding financial services, was growing.

Nevertheless if these two economies were opened up, even slowly, to greater competition, they could become exemplars of reform in the area as well as creating wealth and employment. Iran, with the second largest reserves of natural gas in the world, could play a pivotal role. Concern was expressed that the "axis of evil" would play into the hands of the opponents of reform and slow the process down. The comment was made that at the moment it was hard to see why anyone would invest in the area other than in oil and gas exploitation. There were no other natural advantages and a lack of an educated workforce. And some added, large reserves of natural gas and other energy resources could perversely slow down reform by giving conservative leaders the revenues to avoid the hard choices they needed to make. In this sense we thought that states with fewer mineral resources like Egypt, Turkey or Morocco might have a better chance of economic reform in terms of developing export-based economies. The desire to trade, even across politically sensitive borders, was strong in most Middle East societies.

In our view the international community had limited leverage to promote reform in oil rich states. In Iran it would be important not to do damage by undermining the economic reformers. In non-oil rich states it was thought that there was possibly some greater leverage but, not withstanding the views of the economic determinists, probably not as much as we would hope for given the general state of political and security tension coupled with a certain cultural and historical resistance to economic and political change. We were warned against applying the template of western thought too rigidly to local problems. For this reason we were inclined to think that a multilateral approach might be the most effective way of tackling the economic problems of the area. Multilateral agencies and institutions could form coalitions to tackle problems in an integrated manner and assist local technocrats who were trying, from inside their systems, to change things. In this context regret was expressed that the USA was blocking Iranian membership of the WTO.

We looked in some detail at three of the key countries in the area - Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to see what changes might be underway and what their effects might be. Saudi Arabia seemed to present a series of paradoxes. Viewed in one way it could be described as a leading state sponsor of terrorism given the numbers of young Saudis who had fought for al Qu'eda in Afghanistan. Its record in human rights was a cause for concern and there were economic problems. Nevertheless there were signs of reform, and a younger generation who were thought to understand its need and the technical means to bring it about. Its present leaders were astute politicians and the general view of those among us with experience of the country was that it would muddle through, probably without regime change. Perversely, Saudi Arabia would probably have an easier relationship with the Americans if US troops left the Kingdom. But they were unlikely to do this as long as Saddam remained in power in Iraq.

Iraq generated a variety of views. On one hand we thought that the US Administration wished to see a regime change, although they had not worked out how to achieve this nor were we certain what sort of regime might replace Saddam. Some urged the USA to "cool it" in its rhetoric and attitude to Iraq. There was also a feeling that, whatever their merits when they were first introduced, the present sanctions regime should be replaced by "smart" or targeted sanctions. On Iran, we thought that isolating the country would be counterproductive and only serve to strengthen the hand of the hard-liners. A policy of critical engagement which meant what it said in terms of criticism, where necessary, of Iran's policies, was preferred. We also thought that the EU had a real opportunity to adopt an independent line and influence the future course of events in Iran to a much greater extent than it could in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

In some final comments we were reminded that, in the Middle East above all, we needed to be clear who we meant by "we". For an area so deeply penetrated by outside influence from the industrialised countries of the West the benefits from a particular course of action might seem quite clear to outsiders. But the advantages to the local "we" might seem quite different. We were also warned about becoming too involved in the blame game. Presidents Bush and Sharon had come in for a great deal of criticism, but the latter had come to power at a time when the security situation had been deteriorating and the former's policy had not yet fully emerged. Nevertheless, thought a final commentator, there was indeed a need for a substantive dialogue between the USA and the EU because there did seem to be a real gap between their analysis, perspectives and policies on an issue which affected them all deeply.

I am grateful to Dr Hauser for her skilful chairing of the conference, the fourth on this subject which she has attended, and for the support of the Hauser Foundation for the conference which helped us to invite participants from a wide range of countries. I am aware that in the space of a short note I will not have been able to do justice to the many weighty, and at times conflicting, arguments that were advanced. Perhaps nowhere is it more true than in the Middle East that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Another Ditchley Conference was suggested and it is a subject we will clearly need to return to on another occasion.

This report reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: Dr Rita E Hauser
President, The Hauser Foundation; Director Council on Foreign Relations; a Director, American Ditchley Foundation

Mr Ghayth Najib Armanazi
Consultant on the Middle East; Former Ambassador, League of Arab States; Editor-in-Chief, 'Arab Affairs'
HE Roderick L Bell
Ambassador of Canada to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Mr Michael Binyon OBE
Diplomatic Editor, The Times
Mr Marwan Bishara
Lecturer in Political Science, American University, Paris; Commissioner for the World Council of Churches
Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG
Managing Director and Senior Advisor, Deutsche Bank AG London
Professor Rex Brynen
Associate Professor, McGill University, Montréal
Mr Peter David
The Economist: Foreign Editor
Mr James Downer
Head of Middle East Peace Process Section, Near East and North Africa Department, Foreign and Commonweal Office
Professor Anoush Ehteshami
Director and Professor of International Relations, Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham
Dr Oded Eran
Former Chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians
The Hon Mr Wyche Fowler
Chairman, Board of the Middle East Institute, Washington DC
Mr Guy Gantley
Middle East/North Africa Economic Adviser, Foreign and Commonwealth office
Mr Stéphane Gompertz
Minister Counsellor, French Embassy, London
The Hon Sir David Gore-Booth KCMG KCVO
Special Adviser to the Chairman, HSBC Holdings plc; former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Sir Andrew Green KCMG
Former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria
Dr Jerrold D Green
RAND: Director, Center for Middle East Public Policy
Dr Mark Heller
Principal Research Associate, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University
Mr Peter Hinchcliffe
Honorary Fellow, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Programme, University of Edinburgh; Former Ambassador to Kuwait and Jordan
Dr Rosemary Hollis
Head, Middle East Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs
Mr Robert Jackson MP
Member of Parliament for Wantage; co-chairman, Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding
Dr Ahmad Samih Khalidi
Senior Associate Member, St Antony's College, Oxford, editor-in-chief, Journal of Palestine Studies
Mr Christopher W Long CMG
Director, Foreign Service Programme, Oxford University; Former British Ambassador to Egypt
Mr Christopher J Makins
President, The Atlantic Council of the United States
Mr Michel G A Massih QC
Barrister at law
Dr Beverley Milton-Edwards
Reader and Assistant Director, Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict, Queen's University, Belfast
Professor Timothy Niblock
Professor of Arab Gulf Studies, and Director, Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter
Dr Farhan A Nizami
Director, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Oxford
Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi
Fellow in Israeli Studies, St Antony's Middle East Centre and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Oxford University
Dr Joel Peters
Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheva, Israel
Dr Philip Robins
University Lecturer in Politics and International Relations; Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford
Mr Greg Shapland
Middle East and North Africa Research Group, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Nadim Shehadi
Director, Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford; Associate Fellow, Middle East Programme, Chatham House
Professor Avi Shlaim
Professor of International Relations, St Antony's College, University of Oxford
Mr Steven Simon
Assistant Director and Carol Deane Senior Fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Dr Phyllis Starkey MP
Member of Parliament, Milton Keynes South West; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers
Dr Lawrence Tal
Vice President, Middle East Business Relations, Shell Exploration and Production International
Mr Joav Toker
Correspondent, Israeli Television, Paris
The Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG
Life Peer; former British Ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia; Governor of the The Ditchley Foundation
Mrs Valerie Yorke
Senior Research Fellow, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics
Mr Alexander Zasypkin
Deputy Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow