28 February 1997 - 02 March 1997

Security and Stability in the Middle East

In setting up this conference we had felt a touch of apprehension lest it turn out to be really two conferences, one about Arab/Israeli issues and the other about the Gulf. “The Middle East” was largely a British mind-construct; did it still coherently fit reality? In the event, while we found more than enough issues to discuss on each component, the interactions were evident and challenging.

We oscillated constantly between optimism and pessimism on the Arab/Israeli peace process. For optimism, there was evident momentum springing from the Oslo accord and its logic. No party would want to incur blame for the process’s failure, or for dissipating what had been achieved so far. Mr Netanyahu, for all his campaigning history, was now committed to the Oslo process and aware of the resulting realities, including the idea of Palestinian statehood; and though his coalition-maintenance problems seemed severe, it could not be in Likud’s interest to turn him towards Labour. Externally, Iran’s rejectionism now had little impact. But, said the sceptics/pessimists, the achievements so far were mostly procedural; the tough issues lay ahead – Jerusalem and settlement in particular were potential deal-breakers. Time and demography in the long run might not be on Israel’s side; had her leaders and people sufficiently grasped this, and the corollary that a deal that left among Palestinians and other Arabs a deep sense of insecurity or inequity would not safely endure, whatever the nearer-term facts of comparative power?

The sensitive Israel/Syria relationship was of key importance, we were sure, though different participants saw its current condition very differently, for example in relation to what had or had not been already agreed in dialogue over land for peace. Syria, we heard, truly wanted the peace process to succeed but saw herself as in some sense, even if informally, toe guardian of fairness to Arab concerns. A stable deal between Israel and Syria could not be wholly unrelated to the Israeli/Palestinian outcome; and it must of course deal justly with Lebanon, which each of the main parties saw the other holding as hostage or bargaining-card.

The current focus in this relationship was inevitably on politics and security, the most awkward field, but we were aware that issues of other kinds either would inevitably or should desirably play an increasing part. Here (as elsewhere in the region) questions about water resources would grow in salience; and the scope for wider economic cooperation - in which Israel’s particular assets could ultimately benefit all its neighbours - cried out for development if the region was to attract external investment and better tackle poverty and unemployment. There were, we were told, healthily-burgeoning cross-border links in private economic and social relationships, and in the operation of non-governmental organisations. Overall there seemed a deepening if tacit acceptance that military options for tackling problems were losing reality.

We asked ourselves briefly what part outsiders could or should play. The continuing importance of the United States was sui generis and manifest; but should Europe have a role? Many of us seemed sceptical, except (albeit a big exception) in respect of economic matters; on the political front Europe lacked coherence, and the peace process anyway scarcely needed the complication of extra players at the table or in the wings.

How much, we wondered, did Arabness now matter? Some of us felt that the concept - rooted arguably  in opposition, whether focused upon Ottoman or Israeli adversaries - could not be a prime or positive organising principle in the region, and had perhaps passed its peak of influence. We were not agreed about whether the Arab world was in basic transition - rulers had mostly been in place for a remarkably long time, but this might     not demonstrate stability of structure.

The impact of religion - on any view, a major dimension of the region - came recurrently into our debate. Its effect had often been divisive, and we heard a vigorous plea for effort to reverse this. We were reminded again, as in several past conferences, of the unwisdom of equating religious Islam with political “Islamism”, or assuming that religious conservatism implied a particular political agenda. We noted inconclusively a speculation that Islamic identity as an animating idea in the region’s politics might have passed its peak, as Arab nationalism had done - the Sudan experience had scarcely enhanced its authority, and Iran had conspicuously failed to export its own revolution.

We recognised, as we turned to the Gulf, that it might well in the next decade come to supplant the Jordan Valley as the region’s prime cockpit for conflict, even if not by force of arms. Its huge resource potential - not only in oil - partnered an awkward ménage à trois in local-power terms, with historic antipathy between Iraq and Iran compounding the fact that neither country was in good general standing internationally. There was no prospect of stability without external involvement - above all, that of the United States - to hold the ring and ensure balance and confidence. The discomforts of this were evident enough. In-region responsibility was unhealthily lightened; a focus was provided for criticism of regimes receiving or supporting US military presence; the United States was complained about whatever it did or did not do; and there were domestic US risks from defence-budget constraints or involvement-fatigue. But we found it hard to discern any satisfactory alternative structure in prospect - the West was condemned to load-bearing in the Gulf.

Iran was of course at the heart of our Gulf discussions. We recalled its massive population and potential and its historic sense of identity, but also its poor economic condition, its failure to win external friends, and its perception of encirclement. Western understanding, it was suggested, too little recognised Iran’s key interfaces not only with Russia but eastwards, for example with Pakistan and Afghanistan (whence the Taliban rise, outdoing the Iran leadership in its version of Islamic zealotry, had had a disconcerting impact). We were reminded that internal stresses and factions meant that Iran was by no means a consistent and monolithic actor in foreign affairs, and that partly for that reason it posed little real external threat. We found it hard to judge what likelihood there was of significant change in the regime’s character or behaviour. There were some internal incentives toward change, and a clamant need to attract outside investment The régime seemed however to remain broadly impervious to outside pressures; neither the ostensibly-rigorous exclusionary policy of the United States nor the softer dialogue-inclined disposition of some (not all) European states could point to clear achievements. The prime effect of such differences in approach might lie in intra-Western tensions. We recognised, uneasily, that those tensions (as well as intra-regional ones) might be heightened if the investigation into the terrorist attack on the US barracks in Dhahran pointed the finger at Iran with a clarity which Congress could not let pass. The prime motivation of US coldness towards Iran (a coldness to which there were fewer offsetting interests than for Europe) was however now concern less about terrorism than about weapons of mass destruction - a concern felt in large measure on Israel’s rather than direct US account.

We spent much less time discussing Iraq, though there too we noted increasing differences, at least of emphasis, between US and European inclinations on how to treat Saddam Hussein’s regime. It was argued (and not only by non-US participants) that the concept of “pariah” states was doubtfully useful and might even serve Saddam’s interest and retention of power. But we detected no ready path towards acceptably de- escalating the constraints imposed after the Gulf War; and the threat of the country’s descent into chaos continued to loom over policy options.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, so many participants believed, the prime need remained for economic development, to ease unemployment and gross inequality of wealth (both fertile breeding-grounds of political radicalism), and for political evolution to broaden citizen involvement. Education and job-creation (rather than the direct replacement of expatriates) were key ways forward. There was movement, we heard, towards less- personalised patterns of government in Saudi Arabia, though rapid change should not be looked for. The Gulf Cooperation Council, unimpressive as its performance was in its “front” role of security cooperation, was proving of some utility in other aspects of dialogue. Economic interdependence underpinning growth would be participant from the region, few truly unavoidable issues of conflict (though another suggested that a wary eye be kept on Yemen, with a large population and very little water).

The importance of Turkey, and its inescapable involvement with its regional neighbours to the south and east, was continually recalled in our discussions. Issues like the Kurdish problem and the Tigris/Euphrates headwaters compelled Turkish engagement - simple conformity with US strategies of ostracism for Iran and Iraq was not an option, and Turkey must moreover be deeply involved in any regionwide dialogue.

The need for better dialogue within the region was indeed a major leitmotiv throughout our conference, The Middle East was bedevilled by misperception and demonisation, and more objective mutual understanding ought to reduce conflict risks, to improve the addressal of transnational issues like water and the environment, and to enhance the economic-development prospects which must in the long run offer the best hopes for internal stability and peace not over-dependent on Western ring-holding. That said, we perceived as yet no ready patterns for shaping effective regionwide dialogue - especially with Iran, where it was perhaps most needed. Suspicion and mistrust remained widespread, and recent suggestions for new devices - for example possible evolution towards an Organisation for Cooperation in the Middle East - had found little responsive echo, whatever their theoretical merits. The West should no doubt encourage dialogue to help manage the region’s complex interactions; but this could not be imposed, or credibly led, from outside.

It would be wrong to end this account on too downbeat a note, whether on the problems of organising dialogue or on the damaging impact there might be regionwide if the Arab/Israeli peace process were to fail. Our conference found many strands of optimism; it would be essential to keep these alive, and to build around them.

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

Chairman : Sir John Coles GCMG

Permanent Under Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office


Professor Amin Saikal
Director, Centre for Middle Eastern and Central Asian Studies, Australian National University

Profresor Bahgat Korany
Department of Political Science, University de Montreal
Mr Andrew N Robinson
Special Coordinator, Middle East Peace Process, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Dr Ibrahim Karawan
Senior Fellow, Middle East Security, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London

Dr Michael A Köhler
Directorate General I, Directorate H (Mediterranean Affairs), European Commission

Monsieur Roland Dubertrand
Deputy Head, Centre d’Analyse et de Provision, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères
Dr Bassma Kodmani-Darwish
Head of Middle East Studies, Institut Français des Relations Internationales
Monsieur Jean-Pierre Langellier              
Middle East Correspondent, Le Monde

Professor Dr Udo Steinbach
Head, Deutsches Orient-Institut, Hamburg

Dr Shahram Chubin
Executive Director, Research Centre on Politics and Security, Geneva

HE Ambassador Moshe Raviv
Ambassador of Israel to the United Kingdom       

Dr Hussein Agha
Member, Research Committee, Institute for Palestine Studies

Mr Afif Safieh
Head, Palestinian General Delegation, London

HRH Prince Faisal bin Salman Al Saud
D Phil thesis on Iranian foreign policy, St Antony’s College, Oxford

HE Ambassador Ozdem Sanbcrk
Ambassador of the Republic of Turkey to the United Kingdom

Mr Andrew Bums CMG
Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Ambassador to Israel, 1992-95
Sir Trevor Chinn CVO
Chairman and Managing Director, Lex Service pic
Mr Derek Fatchett MP
Opposition front-bench spokesman on foreign affairs
Dr Rosemary Hollis
Head, Middle East Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Sir Alan Munro KCMG
Schroder Asseily & Co Ltd; Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, 1989-93
Mr Geoffrey D Paul OBE
Formerly Editor, Foreign Edition, and Israel bureau chief, Jewish Chronicle
Mr John Roberts
Author and consultant on Middle East, Caspian and energy security issues
Dr Patrick Seale
Author, journalist and political consultant on Middle East affairs
Mr John Shepherd CMG
Assistant Under-Secretary of State and Director, Middle East and North Africa, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Professor Avi Shlaim
Professor of International Relations, St Antony’s College, Oxford
Ms Barbara Smith
Writer on the Middle East and the UN; previously Middle East Editor, The Economist
Sir Sigmund Sternberg OStJ KCSG JP
Chairman, International Council of Christians and Jews
Sir Cyril Townsend MP
Director, Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding
Mrs Valerie Yorke
Coordinator, Economist Intelligence Unit’s PEACE-MEDIA project, funded by the European Union

Dr Georgette F Bennett
President, Rabbi Marc H Tanenbaum Foundation, New York
Mr John B Craig
Director, Arabian Peninsula Affairs, US Department of State
Mr Dean E Fischer
Diplomatic Correspondent, TIME Magazine
Dr Gregory Gause
Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Vermont
Professor Farhad Kazemi
Professor of Politics and Middle East Studies, New York University
Dr Joseph A Kechichian
Consultant on the Arabian/Persian Gulf region
Dr Roy Mottahedeh
Chairman, Committee on Islamic Studies, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University
Dr Don Peretz
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, State University of New York at Binghamton
Dr Gary G Sick
Senior Research Scholar and Adjunct Professor of International Affairs, Columbia University
The Hon Helmut Sonnenfeldt
Ernest Scholar, The Brookings Institution
Mr Howard M Squadron
Senior Partner, Squadron, Ellenoff, Plesent & Sheinfeld; former President, American Jewish Congress