30 May 1991 - 02 June 1991

The Middle East: Developments, Future Trends and Policies

Chair: The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Howe QC MP

This was an ambitious conference with a much larger than usual attendance, from 17 countries. Moreover, the proposed range of topics was very broad. Nevertheless, a lot of ground was covered, and it seemed that in the course of the weekend we succeeded in establishing a connecting pattern.

The three working groups were set to examine respectively the situation in the Persian Gulf region in the aftermath of the war, the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and a series of issues including, geographically, North Africa and the Maghreb, and, functionally, Islamic revivalism, demography, emigration, water, aid and debt.

In discussion of the Persian Gulf region, there was a broad consensus that it would be much better for all if Saddam Hussain were to go; but there was less agreement on whether and if so how, that could be brought about, or if it were, what sort of regime would succeed. While it was claimed that the people of Iraq were to-day in much less awe of Saddam, indeed were openly mocking him, many felt that the mood could change if sanctions continued despite Iraqi compliance with UN requirements and Saddam managed to shift blame for the resulting shortages onto the West. Moreover, popular opinion in much of the Arab world, never so opposed to Iraq as some of the governments and attracted by the call for re-distribution of wealth, domestically and internationally, between the haves and have-nots (though after the war, few are haves), would increasingly come to identify with the hardships of the Iraqi people. Finally, there was no obvious alternative to Saddam. While some spoke optimistically of disaffected military commanders turning on him, others were sceptical - it was a typical one-party system, not a one-man dictatorship, and the fortunes of many were tied up with Saddam. Finally, some wise voices experienced in the area, believed that in a relatively short time even the Lower Gulf governments would be mending their quarrel with Iraq.

These Gulf states were thought by most to be relatively stable and not greatly affected by the war, with the exception of Kuwait, where the gap between those who had fled and the resistance was wide, where many of the latter were armed and where demands for greater participation, especially from the women, from second- class Kuwaitis and expatriate Arabs who had resisted, were strong. The ruling family moreover was divided, and leadership was neither strong nor far-sighted. But even in Kuwait, which was still wealthy though short of liquidity, political demands, e.g. for a return to the 1962 constitution, were relatively modest and trouble might be avoided if commercial activity could be quickly restored. Saudi Arabia would be watching democratic developments warily, however.

Possible security systems for the Gulf region were discussed. While some, particularly the practitioners, believed there was still life in the concept of the Gulf Cooperation Council reinforced by Egypt and Syria (GCC+2), others were sceptical and believed that without Western, notably US, backing (which in their hearts many in the Gulf counted on) it would not provide insurance against future trouble. Moreover, in the long run, many believed that a regional security system could only be effective if it involved Iraq and Iran. The latter, a country of great resources and by far the largest population, had to be brought into the international community and the sooner the obstacle of the hostages could be removed the better - Iran ought also to receive a share in any reparations from Iraq that might be on offer.

How to treat Iraq remained controversial. At one extreme, a few argued for the indictment of Saddam and his close collaborators on war crimes charges, or his forcible removal from the scene, while others, on the assumption described above that he would survive and achieve growing sympathy in the Arab world, believed that we should have to learn to live with him and might have to contemplate permitting oil sales, if only to raise money for essential (and permitted) humanitarian imports (thereby de-fusing some Arab sympathy), perhaps by hypothecating a proportion of the revenues for that purpose - a proposition that was technically feasible, but might prove difficult politically.

On the Israel-Palestine question, much of the discussion was all too familiar. There was debate whether we had a window of opportunity, but agreement that expectations were high. Appeals were made to abandon the trading of concessions in favour of a leap of imagination including, for example, a description of the kind of settlement which might be obtained and the advantages it could bring, including a Middle East free trade area. The old problem of Palestinian representation remained unresolved; but Israeli intransigence on issues of substance, it was suggested, might in negotiation yield to greater flexibility (cf. Camp David). The Arabs, some suggested, accepted more than in the past that Israel was part of the Middle East and Israel must seize the historic opportunity. Perhaps the US and the Soviet Union, or, even better, the five permanent members acting through the Security Council, should simply convene a conference and challenge the parties to come. The plight of the Palestinians and the Israeli economy both argued the urgent need of a settlement, and others in the area, especially Jordan (though King Hussain’s post-war position was stronger than ever) were in a similar state. At all events the so-called peace process was preferable to war which some felt was otherwise inevitable. However, the conditions of life of the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip called for urgent redress - perhaps the Strip could be handed over to some international administrative body, though the practical problems might rule that out. The United States must not wash its hands of the problem and the Europeans must accept a full share of responsibility, if the charge of “double-standards” was not to stick.

The theme of arms control kept recurring in relation to both areas. While welcoming President Bush’s initiative, some felt it contained little really new and that any regime that was in effect discriminatory, e.g. by leaving Israel with a nuclear monopoly, was unacceptable (though it was suggested that Israel might prefer to abandon territory to relinquishing her nuclear capability). Again, the five permanent members of the Security Council, who were responsible between them for most arms sales to the region, could play a role, e.g. through a self-denying agreement. A UN register of arms sales as proposed by Mr Major could help. Arms control agreements and confidence-building measures among the regional states on the model of the CFE and CSCE were premature in the absence of a political settlement, though realistically none of the countries in the region could afford to spend money on armaments and every step must be taken to discourage them.

Syria, it was agreed, though its Ba’ath regime was no better than that in Iraq, was a vital element in any settlement in the Levant and the rapprochement between Syria and the PLO was noted. Syria could not be cold-shouldered, and pressure applied to Israel must be matched by pressure on Syria. Concern was expressed about the Syrian role in Lebanon: though the end of the fighting was to be welcomed, nobody relished the prospect of Lebanon becoming a Syrian fiefdom and recent developments in relation to South Lebanon did not augur well.

Turning to the Maghreb, the conference noted the de-population of the countryside especially in Algeria, where, while overall 70% of the population was under 25, in agriculture the average age was 55. The flight to the towns had not been accompanied by the creation of jobs in industry. The result was urban poverty and pressure for migration, now largely cut off to Europe, the traditional outlet. Governments had largely run out of ideas and the possibility of the election to power of Islamic parties arose from that, not from any better ideas they might offer. In general it was argued that the West, where the remedy for many of the troubles of the region was perceived as lying with democratisation (not clearly defined, but involving at the least elections in a multi-party system), must not complain if lslamist parties were returned: in that event the West’s approach must be calm and, except on issues of human rights, distanced. Islam was not monolithic and second-generation Islamists should be distinguished from first. Relations between Islam and the West were an important topic, but for another conference.

Of the functional issues, water and demography were the most pressing, though the link between the two (the idea that people were the major consumers) was discounted. Agriculture was by far the greatest consumer and water-shortages, particularly acute in the Jordan river complex but growing in the Tigris/Euphrates system and a potential problem in the Nile basin, called for reformed, less water-intensive, agriculture, with the emphasis on quality vegetables and fruit for export (the economic and social implications for competitive producers in Southern Europe were not explored). The water crisis was firmly discounted as a catalyst of political settlement, but Turkey’s readiness to export water was noted.

Population growth has been the subject of a recent conference at Ditchley. On this occasion it was suggested that careful presentation (e.g. family spacing as an alternative name) and the introduction of social security systems (which in turn required the introduction of taxation systems, absent except in Jordan) could prove helpful.

Debt, aid and migration were also discussed. How was it that debt had rocketed, e.g. in Egypt, after the abandonment of the Nasserite planned economy? Perhaps planning and the control of capital outflows had their virtues. Aid, with all the other calls on the donors, would be in short supply and Japan could not be taken for granted as a source. The crying need was for more competent and less corrupt government.

To sum up, the conference did not, and was never expected to come up with solutions to the many perceived problems of the region. It did however focus attention on them and point a possible way forward in some cases: the urgent need for an imaginative initiative over the Israel-Palestine problem, perhaps involving the UN; the need for a non-discriminatory arms control regime, not only in the interest of reducing the arms race, but in the economic interest of the regional states; the potential role of the five permanent members of the Security Council in these two areas; the probability that however much we might wish otherwise, we were going to have to live with the present regime in Iraq, or something very like it, and that in the interests of the Iraqi people, including the minorities who would be left behind when Western forces withdrew, of general security in the Gulf region and, more widely, of achieving a settlement in the Middle East, we might have to temper the terms of the post-Gulf war settlement with Iraq; the importance of bringing Iran into the community of nations; and finally the importance of working out relations with Islamic revivalism, where that emerged, through elections as perhaps in Algeria, or revolution, as in Iran.

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

Chairman: The Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Howe QC MP


HE Monsieur Lakhdar Brahimi

Professor Robert O’Neill
Dr Amin Saikal

Ms Zeinab Badawi
Mr David Bradshaw
Mr Adel Darwish
Mr Hugh Dykes MP
Sir David Gillmore KCMG
The Hon David Gore-Booth CMG
Professor S F P Halliday
Sir Peter Holmes MC
The Rt Hon the Lord Hunt of Tanworth
Dr Roger Owen
Mr Nigel J Robson
Dr Avi Shlaim
Mr John Simpson
The Rt Hon Sir David Steel KBE DL MP
Sir Michael Weir KCMG
Sir Patrick Wright GCMG

Mr Andrew Robinson

Mme Bassma Kodmani-Darwish
M Jean-Marie Guéhenno

HE Dr Mohamed I Shaker

Professor Dr Wilhelm Hankel
Ambassador Reinhard Schlagintweit

Dr Shahram Chubin

Dr Ahmad Chalabi

Dr David Kimche
Mr Makram Machool

Sra. Laura Guazzone

HE Dr Kunio Katakura

Professor Ghassan Salamé

Dr Omar AL-Hassan

Dr Abdullah El-Kuwaiz

Mr Geryld B Christianson
The Hon Walter L Cutler
Mrs Rita E Hauser
Dr Joseph A Kechichian
Dr Geoffrey Kamp

Ms Judith Kipper
Senator Charles McC Mathias
Mr John W O’Connell
Mr William B Quandt
Mr Pierre Salinger
Congressman Stephen J Solarz
Mr John F Stacks
Dr Michael Van Dusen
The Hon Richard N Viets
Professor John Waterbury
Mr J Robinson West

Dr Evgeny G Kutovoy
Professor Dr Georgiy I Mirsky