Steven A. Cook
The Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
Council on Foreign Relations
Arab Center Washington DC
On September 17, Arab Center Washington DC Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan hosted Steven Cook in a webinar to discuss the latter’s recent article, “The End of Hope in the Middle East,” published on September 5, 2020 in Foreign Policy. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.
Cook began by stating that the authoritarian rule in the Middle East that was shaken by the Arab Spring revolts has seen a resurgence and that his article was an attempt to look at the reasons behind it. Specifically, he explained that not only has authoritarianism returned after the revolts but that it has become stronger and more entrenched. In that vein, he said that contrary to what some believe, authoritarianism is not a specific feature of Arab culture or Islam. Rather, a “cultural artifact” of authoritarian rule has taken hold of Arab society. He said that he does not think “there is something inherent about Arabs or Muslims” that makes their region more accepting of repression. What he is quite surprised by, however, is that poor government and governance are not the only problems, adding that what makes this situation worse in that the people of the region have simply been forgotten by their governments. The state pushes its own interests and does not feel that it is responsible for its people. Because this is the case, he argued, it should be understandable why extremist groups find it easy to penetrate some groups and societies.
The dearth of hope, Cook asserted, emanates from the fact that the devastation in some Arab societies is so widespread that putting them back together has become very difficult. There is a general dissociation between the ruling elites and the people, which encourages the further separation between the two; such divisions and the dismemberment of Arab states will never be an answer to problems, he added. What is important, Cook said, is that conditions must change so that societies are able to correct past ills. He stated that Europe has had its own difficulties historically and millions of people died in conflicts there, but Europe managed to put itself back together again. The situation in the Middle East is very complicated and the agents for necessary change are not present, he said.
What is helping the current malaise is a permissive international environment. Cook noted that the international community does not even seem to care about what is going on in the Middle East, let alone try to help in resolving underlying causes of strife. The United States cannot solve the problems in the region because it does not really know or fully understand them. For its part, Europe is mostly concerned about the refugee problem that might overwhelm its borders. Cook stated that he does not “see much political will in terms of Europe and the United States to be involved in fundamental changes in the region.” He also opined that if Russia or China replaced the United States in the Middle East, this will not have much influence in terms of the authoritarian character of the region’s leaders.
In answer to an audience question about Jordan, Cook said that he is worried about developments that could seriously affect the country. The UAE-Bahrain-Israel agreements, in particular, have put the Hashemite kingdom in an unfamiliar and difficult position, as it suddenly appears to have lost its importance for both the Gulf region and Israel. He expressed concern about the renewed talk that “Jordan is Palestine”; this is a worrisome prospect in light of Israel’s plans of annexation in the West Bank, which he characterized as a process and not simply a declaration by Israel. While UAE-Bahrain normalization with Israel is a positive development, he said, it is done for the parties’ interests and not for the purpose of resolving the Palestine question. Cook stated that “the Emiratis and the Israelis believe that their geostrategic position … is better if they normalize relations.”