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Khalil E. Jahshan, Executive Director, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW)

Khalil E. Jahshan welcomed the audience on behalf of ACW and its colleagues at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies as well as on behalf of ACW’s Board of Directors and Academic Advisory Board. He thanked ACW’s staff for their efforts in organizing the conference and the speakers for accepting the invitation to speak and traveling to Washington, DC. Jahshan introduced the topic of the conference, remarking that choosing the title, “The Arab World Beyond Conflict,” was a deliberate attempt to communicate that the Arab world is not “destined to be in conflict indefinitely.” “We feel that there is a way out,” he continued, notwithstanding the difficult situations in such Arab countries as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Palestine at present. He invited the audience to listen to the academics and practitioners gathered at the conference whose analyses will help illuminate the pressing issues and challenges facing the Arab world today. “We need to understand these conflicts in order to contribute to their solution,” Jahshan concluded.


Keynote Speaker: H.E. Amatalalim Alsoswa, former Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, former Yemeni Ambassador to Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator of UNDP, and Director of its Regional Bureau for Arab States

Amatalalim Alsoswa opened the conference by discussing the historical, economic, religious, and geographical importance of the Middle East and the Arab world, a region that has impact well beyond its borders. She said that an intellectual renaissance built on positive elements of cultural heritage is needed, and reform is required in education and socio-religious expectations. Alsoswa recognizes historical-regional rivalries but also claims that sectarian issues in the Middle East date back to internal and external influences of the colonial era. The failures of the region, she said, are due to defects in economy, education, and the judiciary, whereby an elite class benefits over the rest of the people. These issues have bolstered sectarianism, corruption, and tyranny.

Foreign political ideas have deeply affected the socio-political makeup of the Middle East, she continued; however, reform has been stifled by a lack of tolerance for opposing views, with religious fundamentalism leading to the persecution of others. Although she concluded that this denies the essential message of peace and has blocked the spirit needed in these critical times, she also said that religious groups must be allowed to play a role in governments in order to promote justice, equality, civil and human rights, and political participation.

Alsoswa argued that global trends regarding Middle East policy have changed dramatically, especially in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in such countries as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, among others, due to poor foreign and domestic policy. Current foreign involvement has now amounted to drone attacks, militia training, and arming various non-state actors. Alsoswa warned that these imbalances and the abuse of natural resources, such as water and oil, not only affect the environment of the Middle East but that of the entire world. She pleaded for a humanization of the international system and an end to the arms race.

Furthermore, safeguarding and rehabilitating the people of the region must become a priority, she said, as parts of the Arab world are plagued with high infant mortality, a lack of healthcare, and destroyed livelihoods. Unless these are addressed, Alsoswa said, the conflicts will not end. The first step for the Arabs is to recognize that it is in their best interest to make peace with one another. Alsoswa concluded that if the funds spent on war and corruption were spent on institution building, job creation, and youth development, the Middle East would be a better place.


Rami G. Khouri, Professor of Journalism and Public Policy and Senior Fellow, American University of Beirut

Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division, Human Rights Watch

Noura Erakat, Assistant Professor, School of Integrative Studies, George Mason University

Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director, Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University-Qatar

Moderator: Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis, Arab Center Washington DC

Rami Khouri stated that over the last 40 years, many local, regional, and international factors combined to impede state-building and diminish improvements in the lives of most Arab citizens. The Arab political economy model of a rentier system collapsed and ushered in a police/security state with a state-controlled economy. Drivers were domestic autocracy and incompetence; the end of cold war; the continued Arab-Israeli conflict; nonstop foreign military intervention that threatened sovereignty, statehood, and citizenship; and environmental degradation. Employment, poverty, education, inequality, corruption, water, electricity, public transport, informal labor, food security, and social safety nets suffered. Polling evidence since 2015 shows that around 66 percent of Arabs are either in poverty or are vulnerable economically. The most salient explanation is that “we don’t have an Arab world anymore,” he said. It has fragmented into four distinct groups of citizens: a struggling majority—about 55 percent—whose children are destined for lifelong poverty, marginalization, and pain; a smaller middle class—about 30 percent—that lives decently; a small wealthy professional class—about 10 percent—that earned its fortunes legitimately or through corruption; and a small but growing number of citizens—about 5 percent—who have essentially exited from their national life to emigrate, or to join terrorist groups, sectarian militias, or tribal and ethnic entities. Khouri described the situation in the Arab world as catastrophic; “poverty and vulnerability are deep, wide, and chronic,” he asserted. He likened this socioeconomic class of Arabs to African Americans in the United States in the 1940s, who were essentially “invisible people,” he said, with no political power and no agency.

Sarah Leah Whitson listed three internal factors that are “central features of conflict” in the Arab world: economic marginalization, human rights abuses, and de-development of civil society. She characterized these as deliberate strategies of conflict-avoidance by Middle Eastern governments, which see the empowerment of their civil societies and accountability of their governments as existential threats. The response of civil society is to dismantle corrupt and unaccountable governments, Whitson said, using Egypt as an example of a state that experienced a form of political pluralism under President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, although torture and abuse remained endemic. The consequent electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood was later quashed by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, which—among other things—shut down all civil society organizations and political opposition, including secularist parties, and arrested and banned human rights activists and a free press. At times, she said, these strategies work to keep societies shuttered, weak, and utterly without power to face their oppressive governments; other times, these strategies backfire, leading to protests and sometimes even revolutions.

Noura Erakat discussed law as informed by politics, the actors involved, and the historical context of the situation, specifically concerning the question of Palestine and what she characterized as “Israel’s strategic deployment of Occupation Law to incrementally take Palestinian land without the Palestinians on it.” She said that Palestine has existed as a “state of exception” from a legal standpoint since 1922, and Israel has used its power and its alliances to create alternative legal models regulating the treatment of Palestinians. These legal models and their language represent colonial continuities that have placed Palestinians outside the normal state of law and have permitted the removal of Palestinians from what is now Israel and from occupied Palestine. Palestinian legal protest has been unable to alter this condition: the Palestine case was a legal exception that rendered them ineligible for commonly accepted rights in the first place. Erakat continued that any possible recourse for challenging this exclusion has been, and must be, predicated on the legal exception. The Middle East peace process in 1991 focused on achieving independence through US and Israeli acquiescence; it neutralized Palestine’s capacity to challenge the political structure and, since that time, diminished the emancipatory potential of legal strategies. These factors, combined with Israel’s economic, political, and military prowess, have made international law more beneficial to Israel’s interests than to Palestine’s. Stateless Palestinians have used the law to serve their cause; however, ensuring that international law serve an emancipatory purpose requires a direct challenge to the structure of power that created the initial oppressive status. Erakat concluded that international law has actually worked to disadvantage Palestinians in achieving sovereignty.

Mehran Kamrava addressed the causes of insecurity in the Arab world, citing the occupation of Palestine as a major one. He said that since 2011, developments have created an “architecture of international hierarchy” where pro-US regional powers, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are juxtaposed with Iran and Turkey, countries that do not see the region through an American lens but through their own interests. The others are “middle powers”—some of these states are neutral and some support a US-engineered hierarchy—and fragile or weak states that cannot advocate for their own interests. The “security dilemma,” he argued, is that increasing one state’s security means increasing another’s insecurity. Another reason for the chronic insecurity of the broader Middle East, he noted, is identity politics and the “re-sectarianization” of the region. The trend of the politicization of Islam, coupled with the “breakdown of traditional diplomatic norms” in the Arab world and the GCC, have allowed the principal political actors to play by their own rules. Some of the bigger questions, he said, are how the Trump doctrine will evolve, especially since Trump does not play by the traditional rules; the direction of Saudi politics and what will happen to the GCC; the dynamics and succession in Iranian politics; what will happen to the weak states, such as Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria; and the future of energy. He concluded that “for the time being, unfortunately, our region will remain unstable.”


Conversation with Luncheon Keynote Speaker: The Honorable Thomas R. Pickering, former US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; and former US Ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel, and Jordan

In a luncheon keynote conversation with ACW Executive Director Khalil Jahshan, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, touched on key challenges facing the United States at home and abroad. He noted that the US isolation in the United Nations is “increasingly apparent” and that the UN Security Council is “in a constantly challenged state” as the divisions among its principal members leave the institution “in tatters.” Pickering argued that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has been “through a period in which the prevailing philosophy,” where the American military force was considered “sufficiently great,” replaced diplomacy in dealing with international problems. As a result, the two US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “remain unresolved.”

Pickering noted that Washington is deeply divided between the White House and Congress on the issue of US relations with Moscow. He remarked that US foreign policy toward Russia is “in the area of demonization,” a trend that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “primarily responsible of when he wanted to shore up his popularity decades ago.” On the US foreign policy decision-making process, Pickering said that it is primarily linked to domestic politics. He argued that the White House is always put “on the pedestal” in the age of social media and “is forced to react to every issue around the world,” hence “national politics become above national interest.”

Pickering said that despite the inconsistency in US foreign policy over the decades, there are continuing US relations with the Middle East. Given the Trump Administration’s policies in recent months, he noted that “it is difficult to see a light” in the current US attempt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Pickering said that resolving this conflict cannot be “one sided” and that there is no alternative yet to the two-state solution. As for how the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis has impacted US efforts to counter terrorism, Pickering said that “you have a double problem when you deal with a fractured international grouping: convincing them to accept your ideas and to get together to deal with your ideas.” He noted that there should not be a “divide and conquer” mentality since all GCC members are “US allies and supporters.” He concluded that “exploiting differences and taking sides” is counterproductive and undermines the US capacity to resolve this crisis.


Noha Aboueldahab, Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center

Sultan Barakat, Director and Professor, Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies

Bessma Momani, Professor, University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs; and Senior Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation

Robert Malley, President, International Crisis Group

Moderator: Vivian Salama, White House Reporter, The Wall Street Journal

Noha Aboueldahab noted that accountability for human rights violations before and during the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011 has had mixed results since those responsible for implementing such accountability also tried to evade it. The question has been and remains the nature of a transition and what the goals are. On the rare occasion that there was an accounting of abuses, the results have been contentious. However, she stressed that there have been some successes after the Arab Spring with the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission and with Syrian lawyers and civil society activists who have been building cases against high level violators of rights in the Syrian war. Aboueldahab recommended that a rethinking of transitional justice approaches is needed in ongoing conflicts and authoritarian contexts. In the Arab world, she asserted, transitional justice should be seen as an ongoing process instead of an outcome through which victims and activists can pursue the necessary objective of finding meaningful justice for crimes committed by repressive regimes.

Discussing state-building in the Arab region, Sultan Barakat looked at how it is affected by the conceptual, practical, institutional, and regional contexts and advised that the Arab world should distance itself from the concept and reality of adopting a western model. He said that adhering to such a model only perpetuates the images inherited from the Sykes-Picot agreement or the American neoconservative “grand strategy” pursued in the 2000s. These, he asserts, do not appreciate fully the changes that have taken place in the Arab world since 2011. Importantly, the Arab region’s citizens, and its youth, want to be treated with dignity and respect and to lead their own development strategy. Such a strategy, according to Barakat, should be a holistic, problem-solving outlook that draws on numerous kinds of interventions from communities, interregional development projects, targeted counterinsurgency operations, and stabilization and state-building mechanisms, among others. To Barakat, these different approaches and operations should be regional in nature, draw on local participation, and be broadly supported, youth empowered, and technologically enriched.

Bessma Momani focused on the importance of economic development and the reconstruction of Arab state institutions as two essential pillars for development in the Arab world. She emphasized that the failure of economic liberalization and of the process of economic reform is at the root of economic stagnation. She criticized the mega-projects that Arab regimes are fond of and advocated for reinvigorating economic change and employment opportunities for a burgeoning population of youth. She also encouraged building institutions that can lead economic transformation, Gulf states to wean themselves off hydrocarbons and to create diversified economies, and labor-rich countries to strengthen the private sector for employment and innovation. Momani had sharp words for “crony capitalism,” which she thinks is incompatible with meeting the political and economic needs of the Arab populations that are ready for applying the principles of accountability, meritocracy, and transparency in their societies and economies. The Arab Spring, she said, was “a wake-up call.”

Robert Malley looked at the nature of Arab states, characterizing it as over-centralized with leaders who are intent on maintaining their control of institutions to the detriment of the citizens’ wishes and needs. Arab states are non-inclusive and in their present form, they thrive on marginalizing wide sectors of society. This has resulted in a perception of illegitimacy in the eyes of those governed by the states and dependent on them. At the same time, what the Arab world is experiencing today is the total opposite of over-centralization; some states are experiencing a disintegration into equally powerful institutions like security services (as is happening in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen). Malley criticized what he saw as the instrumentalist approach by some outside actors looking to preserve their interests and influence—he gave the example of the support the United States is giving to Kurdish forces in Syria. He was particularly concerned about the general fragility of Arab states, being over-centralized as well as disintegrating. He advocated for an intermediary stage, de-centralization, whereby local forces are integrated in their own governance with some cooperation and assistance from outside actors, those who can assist in the development and growth of civil society and organizations.


Linda Bishai, Director of Research, Evaluation, and Learning, American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative

Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow-Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

Marwan J. Kabalan, Chief of the Policy Analysis Unit, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha

Daniel Brumberg, Associate Professor, Georgetown University; Non-resident Senior Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC

Moderator: Sherine Tadros, Head of the New York Office and UN Representative, Amnesty International

Linda Bishai started with the question: what is keeping the Arab world from recognizing its multiplicities? She argued that exclusive notions of Arab identity are continuing to drive conflict in the Arab world. Conflicts can be built on any facet of identity, she said, such as ethnicity, race, class, gender, language, and religion, among other factors; if a person feels unaccepted in one of them, the challenged identity increases in importance and starts to dominate. “It’s an in-group survival mechanism,” she explained. When exclusion is disempowering and discriminatory, groups feel marginalized. Access to political power and resources are threatened. She said that the Arab-Israeli wars, and their heavily militarized responses, in the mid-twentieth century drove the passion toward pan-Arabism and narrowed the definition of Arab identity. The rise of Islamist movements filled a gap in answering local needs and feelings of belonging that governments could not address. She urged an inclusive and pluralist vision for Arab citizenship built on respect and support for individual rights, including the rights of women, and one that would help provide a model that could inherently preclude the formation of violent movements.

Shadi Hamid addressed the idea of the incorporation of Islamist parties in Arab governments as the way to achieve full inclusion. He posited that democracy would inherently call for their inclusion, saying that giving voice to the opposition is crucial. “A big part of democracy,” he said, “is learning how to hate each other peacefully.” Using the definition of Islamism as “the belief that Islam and Islamic law should play a central role in public life,” Hamid offered the examples of the Nahda Party in Tunisia and Hezbollah in Lebanon as participants in the political system. He pointed to countries outside the Arab world that have found a way to normalize Islamism, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan; although they have their faults, Hamid noted, all of them are significantly more democratic than the vast majority of Arab countries. He suggested that the Arab world should stop having a repetitive debate about legalizing or banning Islamist parties. Even if an Islamist party’s platform itself is undemocratic, he continued, it remains important to include it; he used the example of what many perceive as Donald Trump’s exclusivist and undemocratic agenda, saying that one cannot always safeguard against such a scenario in a democratic society. He said that generally speaking, the majority of the leaders in history who have been anti-democratic have hailed from secularist parties.

Marwan Kabalan focused on the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East and asked, is it a symptom or a cause of all the ills of the region? He asserted the danger of linking the phenomenon of sectarian conflict to seventh-century political writers, thus reducing it to a Sunni-Shia divide. This would be like saying that this conflict is not solvable or too difficult to solve, Kabalan maintained, or that the reality of hundreds of years ago applies to the present. Rather, he cited a multiplicity of factors and events that would help explain the rise of sectarianism in the region such as the 1979 revolution in Iran and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Indeed, the growth of sectarian politics in Iraq and Syria led to the rise of the Islamic State, and this impelled the regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to employ proxies in states experiencing rebellion—thus igniting the current Sunni-Shia war and the failure of the Arab state. Kabalan offered suggestions for moving forward such as not framing conflicts in ideological-religious terms and pushing for rebuilding the state in the Arab Mashriq, including establishing checks and balances so it is not controlled by an elite. He envisioned more representative and democratic regimes that would command the loyalty of their citizens, especially if governments place a priority on economic and social development.

Daniel Brumberg said that conflict is a key element in all societies, and governments tackle it through containment, negotiation, or suppression. Cynical regimes, he continued, have been adept in manipulating groups that felt that a transition to democracy would take away many of their rights and privileges; Brumberg called this a “manipulation of fear.” The escalation of sectarian conflicts, and the partial or full collapse of many Arab states since the 2011 uprisings, underscores the failure of political elites and institutions to provide effective democratic and autocratic mechanisms for addressing identity conflicts. This put groups that had previously depended on the protection of autocracies in a vulnerable position. He asked, can contending groups forge a negotiated compromise, or will authoritarian rule be sustained by repression and reliance on the security sector? For example, Tunisia’s unique democratic pact and transition depended on the readiness of Islamists to make major concessions, thus reducing their fear of democratic change. Another example he offered was the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose leaders failed to address the fears of non-Islamists; this helped to drive the latter back into the hands of the military, leading to the July 3, 2013 coup. The experiences of Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, Brumberg argued, have probably convinced groups that most fear the uncertainties of democratic change that they have no choice but to handle sectarian conflicts with an iron first.


Tamara Kharroub, Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC

Tamara Kharroub provided the closing remarks. She emphasized that the focus of the conference was on the theme of building: from capacity building and human development to constructing transparent and inclusive state institutions and establishing regional relations and strategies. “These issues matter not only because of US national security or for counterterrorism and stabilization efforts, but because human rights, development, freedoms, and equal opportunities are important values to support in and of themselves,” Kharroub said.

She highlighted three main takeaways from the day’s presentations. First was the importance of interrelatedness in dealing with the region’s troubles. The crises facing the Arab world are intersecting and intertwined and need to be considered in that respect; in fact, a united Arab world would have advantages especially with regard to development and sharing resources and expertise, and in re-forming relations with international actors for a new and mutually beneficial global order. The second main theme reiterated by conference presenters was good governance. Kharroub noted that the mere existence of state intuitions and structures is not enough—they need to be accountable, transparent, and inclusive. The third point she highlighted is the importance of investing in people and granting them agency through human development, education, and rights and opportunities.

Kharroub concluded that the primary message from the conference is that while the Arab world is grappling with a continuous balancing act between security and stability on one side, and freedoms and equal rights on the other, the absence of stability cannot be a pretext to do nothing about rights and freedoms. This is in fact an important part of ACW’s mission: emphasizing the values of human rights, democracy, and civil liberties as central in providing Arab perspectives to US foreign policy in the region.