Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; and part 3 here.

In the first three parts of this series I focused on what I think will happen in the Middle East. I didn't, and couldn't, cover everything, so I focused on those things happening in 2016 that would be most consequential beyond 2016.

In the second half of the series I will focus on things that Western policy makers should do to respond to unrest in the Middle East. A good place to start is the so-called 'Obama doctrine'.

Jeffrey Goldberg's now infamous article on US president Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy has lots of people up in arms about lots of things. American allies, including those in the Gulf, are fuming about being described as 'free riders' by the US president, for example.

But there has also been some muttering amongst Middle East watchers about Obama's claim that tribalism, seemingly broadly defined to include sectarianism, is the source of much of the region's problems.

Surprisingly, less controversy has been generated by Obama's comment in relation to his Cairo speech in 2009:

…I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting — problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. 

I will come back to governance in a moment. But here is Obama making a call for a reformation in Islam not that dissimilar to that made by former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott. 

I don't agree with Obama that tribalism is at the heart of the region's problems. Nor do I agree with Obama (or Abbott for that matter) that the problem is some fault in Islam that requires a reformation of the religion (even if that term actually made sense in an Islamic context, which it doesn't).

But this is not my point here. What I am trying to highlight is the current tendency of Western policymakers to make problems in the Middle East appear so utterly intractable as to make any effort to address them futile.

It is almost as if the problems are made bigger to ensure that efforts to address them are kept smaller: for example, drone strikes as a substitute for a comprehensive approach to countering terrorism in the Middle East.

There are two ironies here. First, mostly the 'little' things that Western countries do in the Middle East, while necessary in the short term, often make matters worse in the long term: for example, pragmatic alignment with dictators whose overuse of repression radicalises their own citizens who then direct their violence at the West.

The second irony is that the big things we identify as the problem are not really the problem. Take sectarianism. It's frequently mentioned as an explanation of the current disorder in the Middle East. There are clearly sectarian dimensions to many of the current conflicts in the region, most notably in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but it is not a cause of these conflicts in the way many people think it is.

As I argued in part 2, the Arab uprisings were not the cause of the region's current disorder but a consequence of the decay and in some cases collapse of the old domestic political order in the region. The heightened sectarianism (or tribalism for that matter) that we currently see in the region is similarly a consequence of the failure of the old order.

Indeed, it is precisely because nothing has yet emerged to replace the old order that people in the region have, where possible, fallen back on their sect or tribe for security. Or political leaders and pretenders to power have exploited sect or tribe in an attempt to build their own new political order. We see this most clearly in Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State both feeds off sectarian tensions created by the Assad regime in Syria and the former Maliki regime in Iraq, but also fuels it in an attempt to consolidate and expand its self-declared Caliphate.

With the exception of some pretty marginal hardline currents, most Sunnis and Shi'ites in the region couldn't care less how the other practices their faith. Islam is innately pluralist. Even with Sunni Islam, for example, there are four main schools of jurisprudence: in effect, four different ways of practicing the faith.

In other words, mostly there isn't an innate hatred of other sects. Where the sectarian question does become tense, and occasionally violent, is when the question turns to who rules states and how.

Typically, citizens of the region don't think in terms of the ruling system, they think in terms of the ruler and ruling class. In states where there is a significant sectarian divide, communities fear the consequences of one sect ruling over another. Iraqi Sunni's fear rule by Iraqi Shi'ites; Syrian Allawites fear what will happen to them if Syrian Sunnis assume power.

But to mitigate or resolve that fear does not require a resolution of a centuries-old schism in Islam; it means finding a way to run societies where one sect's or one tribe's control of government does not make those from other sects or other tribes fear for their interests; or indeed for their lives. There are various ways you can do that: building broad-based governments; devolving power by adopting federal structures; or creating governments that are so effective in in delivering security and prosperity to all their citizens that their sectarian identity does not matter. The point here is that this is not a theological, or tribal or identity problem, it is fundamentally a governance one.

Building a new order

At this point in my post I would expect any Western policymaker reading this, or observers of largely failed Western efforts to build governance in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be howling with indignation, or at least with laughter.

'Focus on good governance you say, I would rather try solving a centuries-old schism in Islam', many would be snorting.

My retort is there is no getting around this problem. In my last three posts I highlighted different degrees of the governance problem in the region: in Syria, where there will be no end to humanitarian suffering, refugee flows and radicalisation until a new political order is constructed; in Egypt, where efforts to renovate the old authoritarian order will probably fail and result in new rounds of instability and violence; and in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the need for deep and serious economic reform of the old order is becoming urgent.

These are by no means the only states where a new way of running states and societies is required. In Iraq, the Abadi government still has to find a way of ruling a country riven by sectarian tensions. In Jordan, the country is increasingly being kept afloat by foreign aid, which only serves to paper over the deficiencies of its current economic and political model.  There are plenty of other examples.

Of course, 'promoting good governance' can mean a lot of different things, from supporting human rights to advocating democratisation. What I am talking about here, however, is a sharp focus on the things that will over time —  in some cases a very long time — contribute to more sustainable, durable, and stable domestic orders in Middle Eastern states.

This means focusing on things such as: increasing the size of the public sector in ways that make it a central driver of economic growth and job creation; improving the ability of the bureaucracy to deliver services to the state's citizens; improving the quality of education to make the citizens of Arab states more employable; reducing an over-reliance on repression to avoid radicalisation; and making politics and decision-making more transparent and consultative.

None of these ideas are new to observers of the region, or indeed to the drafters of the various Arab Human Development Reports who anticipated many of the problems the region is having today, and will have tomorrow unless these issues are finally addressed.

Some might contend that this is all too much for the West to take on financially, politically or even intellectually. Or they might argue that even if we could transform governance in the Middle East, why should we? Surely this is something that the governments and citizens of the region need to manage.

Ultimately, the people of the region have to take responsibility for transforming their own countries; in fact, many of them want to, as the Arab uprisings demonstrated. Indeed, one of the things that Western policymakers need to avoid are grandiose schemes, even well-intentioned ones, for regional transformation that bear little resemblance to the way that locals wants to change their states and societies.

But it is too much to expect that the locals will manage this transformation successfully on their own, especially in the current period of chaos and crisis. The West needs to help and has good reasons to do so. Working with the right governments, groups and individuals in the Middle East is a way to share the burden that these efforts will involve. Exactly how Western countries should do this will be the subject of my next post.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Cordella Persen