04 December 1992 - 06 December 1992

The New Face of the Middle East

Chair: Sir Patrick Wright GCMG

It was not very long since Ditchley last visited the Middle East, but there was enough fresh movement, not least the arrival of the Rabin Government in power in Israel, to warrant a fresh look. And we met also in the wake - unexpected to many in the region, and perhaps disconcerting to some - of the US electorate’s decision to replace a President who had made a big investment of effort, and significant commitment of political credit, in the Middle East by one with only limited known form. With the help of participation that was (despite a few undesired gaps) admirably broad, we had a conference which did indeed prove notably rewarding, as many seasoned veterans of such gatherings agreed.

The Arab/Israel issue had healthily lost some of its centrality, we noted, as well as some of its abrasive immobility, but its repercussions still went wide. The immediate optimism after the Rabin election had subsided; five months or so was nevertheless not long in such matters, and it was not necessarily matter for alarm that agreement still lay some way off. But the peace process was not yet so entrenched that it could not fail; some saw a window of opportunity that could close, especially if US interest seemed to fade. We unsurprisingly disagreed, firmly yet courteously, about where the prime onus lay as between Israel and Arabs for further movement in the substance of the negotiations.

The Gulf area, we recognised, was still in a difficult condition; security problems were contained but could not be resolved while the Iraq situation remained a mess. It was scarcely possible that it could remain long in its present situation; for all Saddam’s coercive power internally, either greater normality or greater fragmentation seemed likely. We were unsure about the nearer future while Saddam remained; what would happen about sanctions if he stayed but conformed with UN resolutions? Southern Iraq remained of grave concern, not least for the interface with Iran.

There was spirited debate over what to make of Iran: involve or oppose? Defenders complained that Iran was being set up as a (necessary?) demon to focus loyalties elsewhere, noted how beleaguered its situation must make Iran’s perceptions, and pointed to signs of benign internal development despite severe economic stress. The country was at a turning-point, and it would be historic folly for the West to re-alienate so big a player in the regional balance. Others were sceptical; Iran’s behaviour remained hostile in many directions - manipulation through Hezbollah in Lebanon, contumacious revival of Rushdie issues, major new arms acquisitions - and profoundly opposed to the whole Arab/ Israeli peace process; that was a severe constraint upon involvement possibilities.

We shared our growing awareness of the new Central Asian republics (mostly managing to avoid metaphysical debate about whether they were strictly part of the Middle East). They were diverse, largely artificial, and still shaping their identities. Russian remained their lingua franca, and they were not in any deep sense Muslim states; they probably did not look south-west for their most important connections. But to Iran and Turkey they seemed natural ground of opportunity (or of threat from competitors), and Turkey in particular might see itself as natural model and leader.

On more general issues across the region, we discerned almost everywhere problems of leadership ageing or otherwise of uncertain long-term legitimacy. Few could claim much success in solving economic problems amid growing pressures, and the waning of Arab/ Israeli confrontation might weaken an internally-useful distraction. Democratic structures were mostly defective by Western standards, with no adequate institutions for real alternation in government. This was not however susceptible to swift remedy; the collapse of Marxism and the demise of the Soviet Union by no means left the field to a clear Westminster/capitalist model for the states of the region. The practical course, many felt, was to work towards a customary “civil society”, with genuine rule of law and well-understood rights, fostered (insofar as outsiders could help at all) by a web of contacts, mostly non-Governmental, in support of forces like professional associations so as to mobilise resources of educated talent which at present often had to choose between becoming insiders in unsatisfactory structures and opting out of political contribution.

The West, we were reminded, must face uncomfortable choices. Any transition away from current elite-centred leaderships towards greater democracy and de-centralisation was sure to be bumpy; as the Algerian-election episode illustrated, the West and its economic interests would find that democracy and stability by no means marched together. (The democratic issue was not a matter only for the Muslim states; it was argued that Israel could not indefinitely justify the low level of Arab involvement in government.) It was important, at the same time, not to mistake the true significance of Islam. There was no necessary link between Islam and extremist counter-Western views of the state, and Islam was often the convenient badge rather than the genuine motivator of opposition to established structures.

We recognised that real opposition derived primarily from economic and resulting social discontents, as population growth and unemployment among the young converged. Resource transfers from richer countries to poorer had mostly not been well used, and their continued flow seemed anyway uncertain. Diversification away from reliance on oil was necessary even among the richer, and was making some progress; but without better government and especially better economic management the true capital resources of the region would continue to be masked, or often deployed outside it. In the field of natural resources, we were minded seeing no early risk, from the Western standpoint, to oil supplies, though in the longer-term heavy dependence on just five countries remained a concern. Water, we observed, was a high-profile political subject, but we heard argument that the underlying difficulty was not basic inadequacy of supply but inefficient use, especially in agriculture; in the Arab countries water was mostly treated as a free good and entitlement, without economic discipline.

We had not a great deal new to say - and most of it rather pessimistic - about military dimensions of the region’s problems. Most of us deeply mistrusted the continued inward flow of sophisticated conventional arms, but saw little likelihood of effective collective measures of constraint. We differed on the immediacy of nuclear-proliferation risk but agreed on its unpleasantness - and on the link with the conundrum of Israel’s ambiguous nuclear stance and whether it should, or could realistically, be dissolved.

We asked ourselves, but did not wholly answer, where pan-Arabism now stood. The Gulf War had in that regard been a catastrophe, and organisations like the Arab League seemed on their own to have little effect. Many regimes, it was suggested, based their local legitimacy more on difference from than true community with other Arab states.

Our discussion of outside interest and involvement in the region made slender reference to Europe, or to Japan; we all regarded the US as inevitably the key such player. We were alert to see how high the issues would rate among President Clinton’s priorities - less high by initial preference, perhaps; but events, or general considerations of external credibility, might simply compel otherwise.

These notes do poor justice to a rich range of contribution (I have not reflected, for example, an informed exchange on Lebanon). The overall impression was of encouraging scope for movement, as the weight of external frameworks lightened and many issues became more addressable, alongside a formidable range of multifarious difficulty, with almost everything linked to everything else. Within the range, the swing of emphasis from political and security-related issues towards economic and social ones seemed evident. But even that was at another level a political judgment, and the action required of a political kind; good government and good economic management were unlikely to be separable in the long run.

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

Chairman: Sir Patrick Wright GCMG
Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Head of the Diplomatic Service (1986-91)


Dr Amin Saikal
Reader in Political Science, The Australian National University (ANU), specialising in politics in the Middle East, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, (Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, ANU

Sir Trevor Chinn CVO
Chairman and Chief Executive, Lex Services pic; Director, Arrow Electronics, USA; member: Governing Council, Business in the Community; Board of Governors, Jewish Agency; President and Chairman of Board, Joint Israel Appeal; Chairman, Britain/Israel Public Affairs Centre; Chairman of the Board, Centre Européen Juif d’lnformation, Brussels

Mr Michael Field
Journalist and consultant; Financial Times (1983-92); author

The Hon David Gore-Booth CMG
Assistant Under Secretary of State (Middle East), Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Dr Rosemary Hollis
Research Fellow and Head of Regional Security Programme, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, London (specialising in Middle East issues)

Sir Peter Holmes MC
Chairman, Shell Transport and Trading Co pic

Dr Rana Kabbani
Author and Lecturer

Mr Patrick Seale
Author on Middle East affairs

Dr Avi Shlaim
Alastair Buchan Reader in International Relations, and a Professorial Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford

Sir Michael Weir KCMG
Director, 21st Century Trust; Chairman, British Egyptian Society; President, Egypt Exploration Society

Ms Valerie Yorke
Middle East Editor, The Economist Intelligence Unit Ltd

HE Dr Norman Spector
Ambassador of Canada to Israel and High Commissioner for Canada to Cyprus

Mr Ayman Yassini
Director, Trade Development Group, Canadian Chamber of Commerce and President, Board of Directors, National Council on Canada Arab Relations, Ottawa

Mr Gehad Madi
Counsellor, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt, London

Monsieur Michel Jobert
Politician and Lawyer

Herr Andreas von Hoessle
Director, Middle East Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bonn

Dr Helmut Hubel
Senior Research Fellow, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtiges Politik, Bonn

Mr Joseph Alpher
Deputy Head, Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies (JCSS), Tel Aviv University

Dr David Kimche
President, Israel Council of Foreign Relations

Signor Giacomo Luciani
Assistant to Chairman’s Energy Adviser, ENI

Mr Manabu Shimizu
Director, Development Studies, Institute of Developing Economics, Tokyo

Dr Chibli Mallat
Director, Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and member, Advisory Board, Centre for Near and Middle East Studies

Professor Ghassan Salamé
Director of Research, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS); Professor of Political Science, Paris-1 University, Institut d’Etudes politiques, and the American University in Paris

Dr Ahmed Khaldi
Editor, The Arabic Quarterly Journal for Palestine Studies; specialist in Middle East strategic affairs.

Miss Karma Nabulsi
Scholar, Balliol College, Oxford University

Mr Alexander Golitsin
Counsellor, Embassy of the Russian Federation, London

Mr Ghayth N Armanazi
Head of Mission, League of Arab States Office, London

Dr Abdel Hamid Bouab
Chief, Resource Mobilization Unit, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Development

Professor Michael Barnett
Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Professor Robert O Freedman
Dean of Graduate Studies & Professor of Political Science, Baltimore Hebrew University

Mrs Rita E Hauser
President, The Hauser Foundation (1992-); and Counsel, Stroock & Stroock & Levan (attorneys), New York

Dr Joseph A Kechichian
Consultant on national security affairs, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica

Dr Phebe Marr
Senior Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University

Dr Aaron D Miller
Senior Member, Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, involved in formulation of policy on the Middle East and the Arab-Israel peace process

Professor Martha Brill Olcott
Professor of Political Science, Colgate University and resident scholar, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia PA

Ms Gail Pressberg
Director, Centre for Israeli Peace and Security, Washington DC office of Americans for Peace Now

Dr William B Quandt
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

The Hon Richard N Viets
Founder and President, Aspen Hill Enterprises Ltd (specialising in Middle East and Eastern Europe consultancy)

Dr John Waterbury
William Stewart Tod Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University; author

Ms Robin Wright
Foreign Correspondent for Los Angeles Times, The Sunday Times, London, CBS News, Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, author