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The Middle East in 2016 (part 5): Cultivating order

The Middle East in 2016 (part 5): Cultivating order
Published 15 Jun 2022 

Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: and part 4 here.

In February 2014 I visited Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border. According to official estimates it today houses around 80,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, although in 2014, the Jordanian police commander of the camp put the population at some 110,000.

The thing that strikes you about Za'atari is how flat, arid, dusty, and white the terrain is. On an overcast day, such as the day that I visited, the terrain, the white UNHCR tents and the pale sky all fade into one another. In fact, were it not for the dark-coloured clothes of the refugees and the blue UNHCR logos on the tents the whole camp might disappear into the landscape.

Za'atari is a great metaphor for the Middle East at the moment, and not just because it is harsh and bleak. Walk through the camp and you find surprises such as the enterprising refugee I spotted who had somehow contrived a garden out of the chalkly white rubble on which the camp had been built. Rocket, mint, and other plants rose barely a foot above the soil, forming a dense lawn over a few square metres; green shoots among the uniform bleakness of the camp.

In my previous post I argued that the focus of Western policy needs to be on helping to build a new, more stable, political order in the region, as the old order decays and in some states, collapses. This will require changes to the way most states are run.

The best way to do this is not for the West to dictate some new order in the Middle East (even if this were possible, which it isn't); nor is it to try to replicate the type of liberal democratic societies that have taken decades and in some cases centuries to build in the West. Instead what the West should do is to identify and cultivate indigenous green shoots of political, economic and social change that will, over time, create a less violent, more stable and more durable regional order.

Like the little garden I found in Za'atari, these green shoots do exist and in some instances are already being supported by Western donors. For example, Tamkeen in Syria, which is supported by UK DFID and EU funding, is helping local communities in northern Syria deliver services, but most importantly develop experience in local governance.

Likewise, despite the upheaval caused by the Arab uprisings in recent years, the start-up sector seems to be growing, if from a very low base. Money for these start-ups is also being generated. [fold]

It may even be the case that some of the youthful energy that went into the Arab uprisings is now being directed into business as the space for political activism shrinks. As one young Egyptian activist noted to me a few years ago, the failure of the uprising meant that he and some of his friends were returning to their professional lives. In his particular case he was going from being a videographer of the uprising to setting up his own advertising and video production company.

There are also more substantial and more obvious green shoots. Tunisia is one of these. Whilst Tunisia's transition to democracy has been fitful and difficult it is still the only country whose uprising can still be described as a relative success. In the same way as its overthrow of the Ben Ali regime inspired uprisings in other countries, the success of its transition to a new more durable political order could serve as a model for other countries in the region.

Act short-term, think long-term

Western governments have a long history of supporting governance and economic reform programs in the Middle East. Some of these have been very effective, but the effort in sum has also been, variously, half-hearted, grandiose and all too often sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

To be fair, encouraging, cajoling or even just nudging governments in the Middle East to undertake comprehensive economic, social or political reforms is hard work. Western governments do not have much leverage, or at least not much they are prepared to use. And it is relatively easy for even friendly Middle Eastern governments to portray these efforts as high-handed foreign interference, as has been the case in Egypt, for example. 

A 'green shoots' approach would have three main components.

The first would be a much more intensive, comprehensive and coordinated effort to identify green shoots of positive change. Rather than focusing just on emerging threats in the region, Western countries need to lend equal weight to identifying emerging opportunities, from local experiments in good governance to new sectors of economic entrepreneurship.

The second component would be a coherent and large-scale effort to support and protect these green shoots. This wouldn't necessarily mean, in the first instance, more money for the region. But it would mean in some cases a shift in where and how that money is spent.

Take for example US non-humanitarian (military and economic) aid to Egypt and Tunisia. The Obama Administration is planning to double its aid to Tunisia, and extend $500 million in loan guarantees, out of recognition that the country's political transition could be an important model for reform in the region. But excluding the loan guarantee, this is still less than a tenth of what the US is planning to give Egypt, which these days is not a model for anything in the region other than hyper-repression

The money and the expertise does not just have to come from Western governments, however. Foreign investment, for example, will be critical to the transformation of Middle Eastern economies. But Western governments and agencies can help ensure the money comes into the region by working with Middle Eastern government to reform investment and other economic regulations.

The effort to support green shoots also needs to be coordinated to ensure that financial resources are well directed, and that lessons learned are exchanged. Donor coordination has been difficult to achieve in the past, not just in the Middle East. But if Western countries can coordinate military campaigns in the region there is no reason why they could not coordinate good governance ones.

Coordination is also important in terms of leverage. Middle Eastern governments are well versed at playing off one Western donor against another. Coordinated pressure may not work in every case, but it will provide Western countries more leverage than they currently have.

That is not to say, however, that this effort to support green shoots of change in the region would, or should, in every instance be pursued in opposition to regional governments. Some regional governments will welcome technical assistance in reforming their economies or bureaucracies or indeed investments in new industries that produce large numbers of new jobs.

In some instances changes to economic or social order will be resisted, perhaps quite vociferously, by elites who feel their interests threatened. In these cases using political or economic leverage may be necessary, especially where elites either threaten or are an obstacle to a green shoot growing. But in other cases it may be possible to work around those elites, especially when it comes to promising but small-scale projects that might not initially seem threatening to them.

The question of how you work with or around existing regimes, including some that may be allies, also relates closely the third component of a 'green shoots' approach: an effective communications strategy.

Western leaders will need to communicate in some overarching way that the West's approach to the region is changing, while avoiding the mistake of the grandiose rhetoric of the past.

None of what I am proposing means that current, short-term efforts to deal with the consequences of the Middle East's disorder should be abandoned. Western governments should still be conducting a military effort to destroy ISIS, and it will still be necessary to conduct drone strikes against other extremists in the region from time to time. Western governments will also need to continue managing, as best as they can, the humanitarian impact and refugee outflows caused by the region's conflicts.

But these short-term fixes need to be matched by some longer-term plan to deal with regional instability in a sustainable way. I would argue than an approach focused on cultivating green shoots over the longer term is better than the alternatives: on the one hand, some grand scheme for regional transformation; or, on the other hand, doing nothing.

Critics will argue that all this sounds neat, familiar and perhaps even naïve in exposition, but very tough in implementation. My counter is that the West no longer has a choice. The old domestic orders in the Middle East will continue to decay and will need to be replaced. The West can either help some citizens of the region build new, more positive, more stable domestic orders; or it can sit and watch other citizens of the region replace the old orders with something much less stable and far less savoury.

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