Blog The way ahead for a still violent Middle East

The way ahead for a still violent Middle East
Five years after the Arab Spring, the Middle East remains as volatile as ever, with historical alliances damaged, economies torn by wars and slumping oil prices, and a power vacuum allowing the rise of violent extremism from Pakistan to West Africa. 

Against that grim backdrop, panelists at the AIC 2016 on April 7, see no end in sight to the upheaval rattling the region.

“I think, as an objective matter, the Middle East will remain in a revolutionary violent cycle for some years to come,” said Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University who previously served as US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

Since 2011, younger, tech savvy, more violent Jihadi leaders have emerged, changing the face of extremism in the region, said Talmiz Ahmad, a former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

“I see a scenario where there will be a coming together of various Jihadis, all the way from Pakistan to the Mediterranean,” which will “broadly coalesce around the caliphate,” declared by ISIS, Ahmad said.

The panelists agreed that shifting US policies had rattled historical allies – notably Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, but disagreed over whether and how the US should reengage. Burns sees the need for a serious US strategy to defeat ISIS and to rebuild relations with moderate powers in the region.

“What is missing right now in the Middle East is an absolute focus by the United States to reengage with the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Kuwaitis, and the Israelis, to have the Unites States ... return to the role of trying to create a strategic consensus” among its allies, Burns said.

Ahmad countered that it’s time for major Asian nations to step into a leadership role.

“I believe that the time has come for major Asian countries to fill the strategic vacuum that has emerged across that region,” Ahmad said. He added that China, Japan and Korea should participate, but advocated for India to lead a broad Asian coalition.

Iran’s potential to emerge from years of debilitating sanctions is at the heart of much of the regional destabilization. But the country needs to reduce its ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia, which has slowed its reintegration into the regional economy, said Afshin Molavi, a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

“This Saudi-Iran cold war is one of the largest chains holding Iran back,” Molavi said. “The (gulf) region as a whole, if you take their GDP, it would be something like the 12th or 13th largest economy in the world, right across the gulf from Iran, and it’s not a relationship that Iran is taking advantage of in any way,” Molavi said.

Watch the full replay of the keynote panel discussion featuring: Afshin Molavi, Nicholas Burns and Talmiz Ahmad