The Eastern Mediterranean Region: A new perspective

The Eastern Mediterranean region, also known as the Middle East, continuously features on top of the international news. In fact, it has been in the news since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The problem is that it is currently the focus of global threats and most probably will continue to be so for at least the foreseeable future.

Conceptual inertia holds hostage decision-makers’ minds and actions. A re-boot is needed for a fresh constructive solutions.

In order to gain some future-oriented understanding, it is worthwhile to take a brief look at the history of the region.

History under the Ottoman Empire

The region was unified under a single, though corrupted, administration. But the second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of Nationalist movements concomitantly with a competing Pan-Arabic organized sentiment.

During WWI, Turkey – which was than the pre-eminent power in the region – sided with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empires. In 1916, the British and the French empires signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide the Middle East.

The triumphant Western colonial powers implemented their agreement in 1919.

Syria was given to the French who created Lebanon as an area with a Christian majority that presumably would be more friendly and controllable.

The British relinquishment of Syria had a grave and long-lasting impact. That area was promised to the Hashemites who rode with the iconic Lawrence of Arabia from Hejaz and helped him and the British to capture Damascus. As a substitute, the British created Trans- Jordania (currently-Jordan) in the Eastern part of Palestine and Iraq – in Mesopotamia. They installed the Hashemite emirs on the thrones; they were unable to return to Arabia – the vacuum had already been filled by their rivals, the Saudis.

The major problem in drawing the new maps was that interests and wishes of local people were not a consideration of the colonialist attitude of the period.

A “minor” problem was that Palestine was promised by the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to be established as a Jewish homeland at the conclusion of the war.

The British were granted a Mandate by the League of Nations to implement that agreement.

In Mesopotamia, three non-mutually-friendly ethnic-religious groups – Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurds – were put together under the rule of a foreign Sunni monarchy.

Indeed, post-WWI there was no consideration of tribal and religious diversity. New nations-states were quite arbitrarily created by functionaries in the powers’ capitals.

In addition, the mythology of the uniformity of the Middle East and the image of the noble courageous Arab were imprinted in Western minds by the story and later the movie of Lawrence of Arabia.

The first step for progress is a change of attitude – an unbiased regional definition. Even the designation of the region as the “Middle East” is a Eurocentric colonial-era remnant. If you travel from London, Paris, Berlin or Rome to India or China – the “Far East” – you go first through the “Near East” or the “Middle East.”

In the same way that the geographical delineation of the “Far East” is East Asia, the West Pacific Rim, and South Asia, a first step to a non-biased perspective of the Middle East is its region-focused definition as the “Eastern Mediterranean Region” (EMR). That definition is applied by the United Nations and its agencies, though exclusions and inclusions are subject to political considerations.

So, what are the realities of the region? What are the seeds of the near future conflicts? What, if anything, can the US and the rest of the West do to help prevent conflicts and resolve them? Prior to any assessment, it should be emphasized that a local perspective is essential.

Recently, it has been demonstrated that even long-entrenched regimes may be toppled, though media popular adjectives such as “the Arab Spring” as well as the generous use of “democracy” need to be further examined.

I BELIEVE that the main potentially combustible processes may be delineated along several lines: A) Religious and tribal conflicts B) Fundamentalism versus moderates C) Economic inequalities D) Individual liberties and rights and individual pursuit of happiness.

Here the focus will first be only on the first basic point; the others deserve further discussion.

Religious-tribal-territorial conflicts Iraq and Kurdistan A still evolving process is taking place in Iraq. The dictatorships of the monarchy and then the relatively secular regime of Saddam Hussein held together conflicting fragments, notably the Shi’ites and the Kurds, as well as Saddam’s own base of Sunni.

A new common denominator was created by the US, which has been perceived by all to be the occupying external military power.

Before America claimed success and withdrew from the country, supervised elections were held. As should have been predicted, Shi’ite parties won the majority because,as is the case in most countries in the region, the main consideration of voters is family (hamullah), ethnicity and religion.

Traditionally, the Iraqi Shi’ites have been aligned with their Shi’ite Iranian neighbors. This will most probably continue. The Sunnis will be increasingly frustrated at their new oppressed minority status and religious violence will be increased. Eventually a civil war,or more accurately ,an inter-ethnic war, may erupt, as was the case with another former dictatorship-Tito’s communist Yugoslavia which disintegrated into it’s ethnic components.

Once they became independent and following violent ethnic conflicts, they have been adapting to live peacefully with each other. This has been facilitated by the integration of the fragmented Nations into a more comprehensive coalition – the European Union.

What is the solution? The people of Mesopotamia should not continue to undergo Yugoslavia-like bloodshed when the outcome is quite predictable.

Iraq was an artificial creation; it should be encouraged to complete a peaceful separation process.

Most important is the recognition of a fully independent Kurdistan! The Kurds in Iraq are already autonomous. This is a fact that the Iraqi Shi’ite government already admits.

Indeed, an independent Kurdistan would encourage demands by Kurds in Turkey and Iran as well as eastern Syria to join their homeland. Turkey is a strong US ally, while Iran∂s government is currently a strong enemy. The adjustments of these two opponents to the separatist and eventually independent Kurdish movement might not be easy for them.

An independent Kurdistan is inevitable; it will control oil fields and other natural resources. It∂s strength will be an inspiration and material support for their brethren in the neighboring regimes who will enhance their armed struggles. The feasibility of violent interventions may be lower if the US and the EU stand strongly for the principles of self-determination, justice and human rights.

UNREST IN the Persian Gulf countries may be next! When “Middle-East oil troves” are considered, the primary oil and natural gas deposits are concentrated in mainly two areas – the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

A second, conveniently less apparent fact, is that most oil areas are populated mostly by Shi’ites (Kurdistan as well as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are exceptions).

The Shi’ites’ populated oil deposits are ruled by Sunni dynasties. Even most of the Saudi Arabian oil-rich fields and reserves are in the Persian Gulf coastal area, which is home to the Shi’ite minority.

The socioeconomic-demographic situation in the Gulf has been undergoing rapid changes.

While the traditional feudal rulers who control most of the wealth attempt to share some of it with their citizens or at least provide them with direct benefits, the percentage of the citizens – who were few to start with – is shrinking due to the influx of foreign workers needed by and benefiting the booming economies.

For instance, in the United Arab Emirates, Emirati constitute fewer than half of the residents. Other Arabs, Iranians, South and East Asians as well as Westerners are already a majority. Kuwaitis constitute only 45% of the inhabitants of their own homeland. In Qatar, only about 40% are local Arabs.

When will the population be dissatisfied with the relative crumbs that are shared with them? When will foreign workers feel that these lands are also their lands? When will Iran support a political Shiite cessation movement from Saudi Arabia? A movement that may take arms? Will the old Arabia and Gulf dynasties be dragged into an oil war that may be marketed to their populations and the other Muslim world as a Shi’ite jihad with a strong (justified) uprising of the socially oppressed? An uprising driven by increasing food prices and frustrations of financial inequity is not unheard of. Pooley and Revzin (2011) described the former Tunisian president Ben Ali as “The leader who was toppled by a vegetable cart.”

The following string of revolutions in the region are at least in part attributed to rising food costs creating a direct link between (pita) bread and politics.

The Gulf states import 90% of their food supplies and are struggling to provide sufficient water to their growing populations. Therefore, volatility in commodities’ prices and availability may cause dramatic effects on Gulf societies.

Especially foreign workers feel the crunch but even citizens’ food rations and subsidies only cover the basics.

Therefore, food inflation may cause frustrations among large segments of populations and drive them to demonstrations which might turn to be violent.

This is not a far-fetched scenario. The dynasties are fully cognizant of its plausibility and are trying to keep a delicate fragile balance in their countries. It is questionable if they would be successful.

They may survive if they gradually transfer political power to non-family citizens and let the elected government run and benefit from the Natural Resources. Eventually, they will turn the royal crowns to culturally-adapted models of the British and Scandinavian countries.

This is better done prior to pending revolutions. In this way they may maintain much of their financial wealth.

The immense economic powers are already turning into global corporations. Locally tolerant economic competition would only enhance social stability.

Israel and Palestine

As should be apparent by now, considering the civil war in Syria, the continuous protests in Egypt, the percolating tensions in Iraq, the nuclear threats by Iran and the expected 2014 takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, as well as some other conflicts, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the pre-eminent dangerous issue in the Middle East, though it has been illuminated as such by many Muslim leaders, a concept that has been adopted by US policy makers.

Israel has been a continuous antagonistic common-denominator of the Arab world. Gradually, this has been changing; two regimes -Jordan and Egypt, entered into official peace agreements with Israel and several others maintain some de facto relations.

Situations may shift with change of governments, as was demonstrated when the relative bi-directional cooperation during the Shah’s regime in Iran was replaced by threats of annihilation of Israel by the current regime.

Conclusion In 2012, we were confronted with the reality that many people in the Muslim world do not like the US (to say the least).

Extremist youth attacked US embassies and consulates in over 20 Muslim countries in which they burned American flags. (They did not attack European Union’s embassies and did not burn French, German or Israeli flags).

In most cases, these were not “terrorist attacks”; there were protests against a despised power.

Americans cannot live in denial and bury their heads in the sand. Many people in the region (as well as in other regions) “do not like them.”

They respect the US’s economic, technological and military might, and they wish to catch up with the technological achievements, but many do not want the US to impose its force and culture on their domains.

Academics from the region want partnership and cooperation according to their priorities. They feel patronized by the Americans for their biased perceptions and insensitivities.

Domestically, the American conversation strives to encourage pluralism, cultural diversity and sensitivity.

This should be emphasized as a matter of fact and even more so in foreign affairs and interactions.

It is of importance to notice that other domestic US issues are also common denominators in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, mostly the conflicts between religious and social fundamentalists and moderates, as well as ingrained economic inequities, though,of course the colors and flavors of the conflicts are locally different.

The main distinction between fundamentalists and “moderates” is the extreme conviction and intolerance of the first group. Many times they also attempt to impose their life-style on others. Many moderates believe in Islam but conduct their life in different shades of observance and traditional costumes. Tolerance of diversity and respect to others’ ideas are the trademarks of “moderation,” technology is not.

Savvy applications of updated technological advances have been documented by suicide bombers and organizers of large-scale social protests alike.

The notion of “individual pursuit of happiness” is deeply culturally determined. We may take this notion as a departure point for change in US policy in the region (and in any region).

The American attitude needs to be changed from “We know best what you need and how to achieve it,” to priorities and solutions that are initiated by people in the relevant countries and the region.

Solutions should be site-adequate, locally acceptable, implantable and sustainable. The US and the EU should only provide financial and technical assistance when requested and needed.

A benevolent pursuit of individuals’ well-being and cooperation with middle-class moderate local people would empower them in their struggle with the fundamentalists in their countries. Moderate Muslims suffer the encroachment of religious extremists on their day-to-day life.

Fundamentalism’s restrictions on individual expressions and rights are coupled with the convictions that they have a mandate from God to impose their views and way of life on everyone else “for their own good.”

They gain more power by their genuine concern for the poor who follow them not only because of religious convictions but also based on their social and physical well-being services.

This notion leads to the acceptance of diversified value systems. We are not dealing with a conflict between Good and Evil. Zealot Muslim Fundamentalists strongly believe that they are the “God-obiding good people” and Americans are “the bad guys.”

Many Americans believe in the opposite. Hopefully, the cultural differences should not lead to a cultural clash.

The crusades to the Holy Land and the Middle East took place a thousand years ago. Nobody needs a contemporary repeat of these self-convinced zealots’ clashes.

Implementable operational solutions

What can the US government and the American people do? First and foremost, they should acknowledge that people in the Eastern Mediterranean have different culture,values and ways of life. We can not delude ourselves that we can change them.

Even when there are power struggles, can we apply European terms as “the Arab Spring” (inspired by the mid-1800s “Spring of Nations” and the mid-1900s Czech revolt against the Soviet Union)? Can Americans celebrate “democracy” following every coup? Can the US expect other cultures to adopt the American model of democracy? A change of attitude is needed to change our image from that of forceful intruders, from insensitive-economically- driven neo-colonialists to benevolent partners for progress.

We can infuse technology and professional skills. We can facilitate movements of tolerance and acceptance of diversity (if we are sincere). We cannot impose our culture on people who are immersed in their own.

“Culturally sensitive” is not only a euphemism and a cliche for preachers and academics, it starts with the realization that some others wish to continue to be “others.”

That said, sensitivity also means the realization of diversity and the will and ability to see under the surface and realize the common denominators across the superficial and not so superficial differences.

The common denominators exist, but they should be determined by the people in the region. Americans see themselves as having goodwill. Past administrations established remarkable assistance programs. They are well-funded and they work. But who decides what is important; what are the priorities? Regretfully, decisions about priorities and disbursement of funds are made in Washington, DC. American experts are consulted and usually they also opine from a Westernized- focused perspective. This is acceptable for private foundations, which may distribute their donated funds according to their pre-determined priorities. Public national funds should be spent by federal agencies to promote US interests.

US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean region should be clearly defined.

They should preferably be pro-active (as opposed to reactive), sustainable and lead to naming squares in honor of the US instead of burning American flags.

THE US should establish itself as the benevolent supporter instead of intruders and enforcers. American interests in the Eastern Mediterranean region and its people will be strengthened when several concepts are operationalized.

A.) Ask local experts what is important for their countries and the region’s well-being. Support and promote peaceful programs that are locally initiated by local governments, local municipalities and local NGOs.

B.) Invest in build-up of local human and services’ capital and capacities.

C.) Nurture, promote and invest in Middle-class and assist organizations that may participate in Governance and may compete in take-over of regimes-if necessary situations arise.

D.) Build social services infrastructure and delivery systems that will be clearly identified with middle-class-moderate organizations. Their American funding and professional support should be clear to the recipients.

It should also be clear that foreigners are supporters and assistants. They are not the decision-makers; they do not tell the locals what and to do and how to do it.

In these activities, we should learn what gave the Hamas political movement a majority in Palestinian elections.

People voted for Hamas because they were impressed by the genuine concern for the well-being of the weakest populations.

They built an infrastructure of education, health and well-being services, many voters bought their claims of being the supporters of the “small victims in the villages.”

Voters were not necessarily swayed by the anti-Israeli terrorism, though, following the electoral win the Hamas violently gained control over the Gaza Strip and turned it into a rockets base against Israel, to the detriment of their own civilian population.

It is of interest that the Hamas followed a path similar to the Israeli ultra-religious party – Shas, which gained its initial electoral power by building social services infrastructure and demonstrating a genuine concern for the weaker Israelis of Eastern decent. Genuine efficient social services are the bridge to human hearts.

E.) Funding should be transferred from reductions in current US military support, the Sunni dynasties in the region should be persuaded to financially contribute some of their oil and business revenues for well- being not only of their citizens but the people of the region in general.

F.) If they wish to survive, they should adapt to the changing reality of the Eastern-Mediterranian: They should consider turning their countries to Constitutional Monarchies ,adapted from the models of The United Kingdom and Scandinavia. The family wealth may be partially retained (the Queen of England is one of the richest women in the world), but it should be shared with the citizens,according to the people∂s decisions.

G.) Political power should be in the hands of elected and not appointed officials. This may sound naively idealistic, but its implementation should be according to the situation in each country, through a gradual process that should be initiated by the current rulers, before accumulating frustrations and stress cause a crisis. The US can play a productive role in this process.

H.) A new Eastern-Mediterranean-American-Well- Being Delegation should be established. Its homebase should be in the region (not in Washington DC), with local American-friendly representatives in the region’s countries. It should be coordinated with, but independent of the State Department. The delegation will closely work with the region’s ministries of health and well-being, will coordinate regional advisory forms and will have its own adequate funding.

In order to ensure innovation, up-dated adaptation and flexibility, and avoid inertia, all appointments should be for limited time periods.

Indeed, the current US foreign-policy decision-makers may not like letting go of some of their control. But they should face reality that the on-going policy brought the US mostly burning flags and besieged embassies.

Let’s start a new page, a positive one for a change!

The writer is Chair of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, Chair of PEMRN and Professor and Director of BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright Awardee for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own,they do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright program or any other USA agency.