8-9 OCTOBER 2008 – REPORT: SEMINAR IN THE UAE
This Mission Report is presented for information only and does not necessarily represent the official view of the Assembly.
1. Over 160 participants, including some 50 members of parliament from NATO Member States and their counterparts from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Associate and Partner countries, met in Abu Dhabi for the second 2008 seminar of the Mediterranean and Middle East Special Group (GSM - Groupe spécial Méditerranée et Moyen-Orient). Organised in co-operation with the Ministry of State for Federal National Council (FNC) Affairs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this first NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) seminar in this Gulf country aimed to examine the nature of the interaction between the "Middle East and global challenges". To this end, it was structured around four thematic sessions,i preceded by a keynote address. The debates in these four sittings were stimulated by the presentations of 12 expert speakers from various backgrounds: governmental and parliamentary agencies, inter-governmental organisations, academic and policy research, journalism, as well as diplomatic and military milieus. The importance and the general framework of these debates were laid out, respectively, by the opening keynote addresses of H. E. Anwar Mohammed Gargash, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign and FNC Affairs, and Ambassador Álvaro De Soto, the former United Nations' Special Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.
2. Like other parts of the world, the Middle East is currently facing a plethora of unprecedented challenges. Being of strategic importance for the world's stability and prosperity, the Middle East is a region that is often found at the heart of the global solutions to these challenges. However, understanding the ways in which this region is affected by global challenges and its reaction to them is necessary for the optimisation of its contribution to the devising of global comprehensive strategies. Thus, convening around this subject, at this juncture and in the UAE constituted for the GSM both a priority and a valuable opportunity. As a pivotal country in the Middle East, the UAE's experience with economic and political reforms is unique and could be considered a measure for the way ahead in the region.
II. THE MIDDLE EAST AND GLOBAL ACTORS
3. As dictated by tradition, the objectives of the opening session of the seminar consisted of introducing the host country's views on the underlying themes of the event and outlining its policies on related issues, sketching out the rationale of the seminar and elaborating a general framework for the discussions to follow. On this occasion, in addition to the introduction of the seminar by the outgoing Chairman of the GSM, Jean-Michel Boucheron (France), the President of the NATO PA, José Lello (Portugal), delivered a brief introductory speech on the history and nature of the Assembly and the GSM, considering the importance of the event and the composition of the audience.
4. Before outlining the policies of the UAE in relation to a number of issues of direct relevance to the underlying themes of the seminar, Minister Gargash started out by highlighting the timeliness of this event, with reference to the need, in these "transformative times", for more dialogue and co-operation between NATO and the Middle East. On Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and international terrorism, the minister affirmed that his country's policies were driven by values and principles of development, tolerance, stability, negotiations and compassion. These foreign policy characteristics, he argued, originate in UAE tradition and culture. In the same vein, Minister Gargash qualified the progress achieved in the promotion of the role of women in UAE society as a "success story". He argued however that, because of the functional, as opposed to media-oriented character of the UAE's experience in this regard, outside onlookers fell easily in stereotyping which overlooks the UAE's "proud record" in this area. Similarly, the UAE's nuclear programme was said to be a model of transparency and openness for other countries with similar peaceful ambitions. In conclusion, Minister Gargash reiterated the importance of NATO's Istanbul Co-operation Initiative (ICI) for the UAE, reaffirming the overall positive respond it has received in the region.
5. Ambassador De Soto's keynote speech set out to provide an overview of the most acute challenges facing the Middle East, their origins and the impact that the policies and practices of local and international actors are having on this region. He conceptualised the origins of the most pressing of these challenges, which he identified as being, chiefly, widespread disenfranchisement and peace (or lack thereof), in dichotomous terms. He argued that exclusionary policies should give way to more inclusive approaches if the main problems of the Middle East are to be meaningfully tackled. To this end, he warned, Westerners need to look at the region with a more enlightened lens, emancipating themselves from the current inhibitions of what he referred to as "the West's heavy multi-faceted investment in the Middle East".
6. Turning to the question of peace at length, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian context, which he described as being at the nexus of the pivotal regional issues of terrorism, Islamism and inclusion v. exclusion, Ambassador De Soto spoke about "the missed opportunities" to resolve this endemic Middle Eastern problem by way of highlighting local and international actors' "exclusionism". More specifically, he regretted the West's disdain of the "window of opportunity, now closed, which opened in March 2005" when Hamas concluded an agreement with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, whereby it committed to a truce and to participating in mainstream political processes. Missing this "opportunity for diplomacy", not only deceived Hamas and many Palestinians, but was also interpreted by the increasingly appealing wider Islamist movements as an indication that "democracy is a club for which they are not welcome to apply". Thus, contrary to past experience, posited Ambassador De Soto, this time around, the two-state solution is as chimerical as it has ever been, especially if one takes into account:
a) Israel's political configuration and "architecture of occupation";
7. For Ambassador De Soto, the answer to the Middle East's longstanding predicaments lies in "inclusiveness". With regard to Israel, acknowledging the "emerging new Palestinian paradigm" which derives from the deepening chasm between Palestinians is the only way forward, as it is impossible to make peace with one half of them and make war with the other. Palestinians, for their part, are advised to act in pursuit of national, beyond-partisan interests and should be encouraged to do so by the international community. In this vein, Ambassador De Soto noted with interest that many initiatives to this effect had been emerging recently under Arab leadership. He also urged regional governments to reach out to dissenters in their societies, for rethinking the contested "established order" in an inclusive manner may yield a better chance of stability. In conclusion, he recommended that the West and certainly NATO adopt "a fresh look at the war on terror", seeking fine distinctions as to the motives of different actors rather than perpetuating "age-old concepts of enemy and victory".
8. The ability of countries in the Middle East to respond effectively to many of the challenges they face is related to the state of their political reforms and the willingness of governments to involve wider factions of their societies in decision-making processes. Indeed, often, if not the direct corollary of systemic governmental incompetence, the most acute of these challenges are at least exacerbated by the widespread lack of good governance in the Middle East. The first session brought together UAE and regional officials as well as an independent expert with the aim of assessing the state of political reform in the Middle East and examining its correlation with the region's ability to deal with its most pressing problems.
9. Abdulaziz Al Ghurair, Speaker of the FNC, began by putting in local perspective the origins of unrest and instability in the Middle East, before highlighting his country's parliamentary experience. He pointed out that the common view held in the Middle East was that there was an apparent "agenda that seeks to perpetuate an unfair situation", whereby Israel is allowed to get away with violating international law and UN resolutions. In this regard, he denounced the "double standards and selectivity" characterising major powers' practices in the region. By the same token, Mr Al Ghurair restated his country's attachment to a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), warning that the possession of nuclear weapons by one country (alluding to Israel) will inevitably spur a dangerous arms race in the region. Finally, the FNC Speaker praised the increasingly important role played by his institution in the development of the UAE, welcoming co-operation with other parliamentary bodies such as the NATO PA for the purpose of exchanging experiences and good practice.
10. Providing a regional perspective on the issues under discussion, Ambassador Ahmed Benhelli of the League of Arab States summarised the existing and emerging challenges in the Middle East in seven main points:
a) "the irremediable" Arab-Israeli conflict;
11. Moreover, recognising the importance of undertaking meaningful political reforms in order to face these challenges, the Arab League's Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs outlined the efforts of his organisation for the consolidation of existing initiatives such as the establishment of a permanent Arab Parliament as well as a Peace and Security Council, the reconstitution of the Economic and Social Council and the strengthening of co-operation mechanisms with other international actors.
12. Adopting a more nuanced approach to the assessment of political reform in the Middle East, Dr Marina Ottaway of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggested three different definitions of political reform. Depending on each definition, the results of any assessment exercise will differ. Firstly, political reform is often equated with the Western concept of liberal democracy, recently increasingly assimilated to the Bush Administration's "freedom agenda". By this yardstick, Dr Ottaway sees "extremely limited" progress in the (Arab) Middle East as evidenced by the persistence of near-absolute monarchic and presidential rule, the emergence of dynastic tendencies in many republics, weak opposition and the overall lack of movement towards a "democratic paradigm shift". Secondly, political reform is, in some instances, defined as more political openness leading to a different picture from the one above. This conceptualisation is germane to the European Union's (EU) approach to the issue in the Euro-Mediterranean space as vehicled by its relevant neighbourhood policies. Here, Dr Ottaway observes the taking place of some "soft changes", especially in the areas of human/women rights and education reform, as illustrated by the experiences of Morocco and some Gulf states. Lastly, she put forward the definition of political reform as governance reform and institutional capacity building, arguing that this strand receives much greater interest from Arab governments than on the part of their Western counterparts. The former see it as a way of countering mounting socio-economic challenges whereas the latter tend to be sceptical, seeing Arab governments' interest as stemming from their desire to avoid meaningful political reform as is the case in Syria and Tunisia.
13. Concluding the first session, participants debated whether Israel's policies were often used as an excuse for the lack of regional co-operation and political reform. While this was said to be true in some case, in others it was argued that real issues were hampering reform progress. The Iranian question also constituted an issue of debate, with some stressing the danger Iran currently poses and advocating a tougher stance, while others recognised Iran's regional standing and called for more dialogue.
14. Energy security is one of the global challenges at the heart of which lies the Middle East. With a considerable proportion of the world's oil and gas reserves, this region holds the key to satisfying growing global energy needs. However, the potential of Middle Eastern energy producers is often undermined by "nationalist" tensions between consumers and producers owing to their seemingly diverging priorities. To examine the role of the Middle East in the current energy juncture and to identify ways of optimising its potential in satisfying transatlantic energy demand, the second session brought together energy officials from international organisations and the UAE government.
15. Noé van Hulst, the Secretary General of the International Energy Forum, defined current global energy trends as consisting of growing demand, the prominence of fossil fuels in the energy mix and increasing interdependence between consumers and producers. Dwelling on the last trend, Mr van Hulst advised against alarming people in the Western world about their dependence on foreign energy sources given, he argued, the dependence of Western economies on many other "foreign commodities". This, he asserted, is the result of the nature of the global economy, which is based on principles of trade and comparative advantage. Moving onto energy challenges, Mr van Hulst identified availability, deliverability, affordability and sustainability as constituting the main global challenges, central to the overcoming of which lie Middle Eastern producers. In this regard, he called for more dialogue in order to improve investment, transparency and sustainability and highlighted the added value of his organisation as a recurrent gathering between consumers and producers to help achieve sustainable energy security for all.
16. Providing a Gulf producer's perspective on the issue, Ambassador Hamad Al Kaabi, the UAE's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and David Scott, from Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority, argued that the Arabian Gulf "provides a disproportionately large contribution to the world energy mix" through both oil and gas exports. In the absence of geologic uncertainty and investment problems, three main challenges were identified as posing serious risks to the ability of Arabian Gulf producers to "keep the oil and gas flowing". These are:
a) regional instability and threats to upstream and downstream infrastructure;
17. To overcome these challenges, the UAE energy officials proposed the following as potential areas of co-operation between NATO and Gulf producers for the purpose of ensuring transatlantic energy security
- training and technology offerings to increase the security of Gulf production facilities;
18. Subsequent discussions focused on NATO's increasing interest in the issue of energy security as demonstrated by the Bucharest Declaration and on the potential of co-operation between the Allies and the Gulf producers. There was disagreement on the extent to which the question of energy security should be politicised, in reference to the Iranian nuclear programme, but encouraging the exploration of alternative energy sources caused less contention.
19. Co-operation between NATO and countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has since 2004 been elevated to a higher level as a result of the introduction of the ICI. Common strategic interests between the Alliance and these countries are the driving force behind this co-operation initiative. However, the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing instability in the region have imposed a redefinition of priorities for many of the Gulf States given the shifting regional balance of power. The third session of the Abu Dhabi seminar aimed to obtain an insight into the security perceptions of the GCC countries and to provide an assessment of the added value of NATO's ICI. Animating the debate on these issues were a NATO official, a former US and UN military intelligence official and an academic from the region.
20. Michael Gaul of NATO's Political Affairs and Security Policy Division began by reminding the audience - on the eve of NATO's 60th anniversary - of the Alliance's transformation since the end of the Cold War. He highlighted NATO's contribution to security in the world through the deployment under its flag of more than 60,000 troops worldwide, while insisting that, more than ever before, co-operation with other international organisations (UN, World Bank, EU, local NGOs, etc. ) has become a necessity in the face of contemporary challenges. With regard to the ICI, Mr Gaul reported satisfactory levels of political consultation with the Gulf countries and expressed the hope to see Saudi Arabia and Oman join the initiative to endow it with more political and strategic impetus.
21. Delivering a more critical outlook on NATO's role in the Middle East, Scott Ritter, former US military officer and UN weapons inspector in Iraq in the 90s, argued that NATO was nothing more than an appendage of US policy in the region. He defined the latter as being primarily belligerent and military in nature, as seen in Iraq and Iran, and argued that its is often driven by domestic political motives rather than objective factual evidence. Moving to the Iranian issue, Mr Ritter claimed that NATO's analysis of the situation reflects that of the US, because of its tendencies to rely on "information provided by others as sound intelligence". To him, "Iran is a problem, not a threat" and should be treated as such using diplomatic rather than military means. Referring back to the presentation of Ambassador Al Kaabi of the UAE, Mr Ritter argued that, like the UAE and other oil producing countries, Iran's nuclear programme is informed by economic considerations. Mistakes made in Iraq should be avoided, he concluded, advising that NATO should not go down the same (dangerous) path in the Middle East as the United States.
22. Providing a "local" perspective on NATO, the ICI and GCC security issues, Professor Abdullah Al Shayji of Kuwait University disagreed with Mr Ritter's overall assessment of Iran's intentions, arguing that it is seeking to capitalise on the current juncture to "impose hegemonic status in the region". However, he stated that the Gulf countries did not need to be reminded that Iran was a threat and asked why the same not was being done with Israel, which, more than Iran, is considered a threat to the region's security. As far as the ICI is concerned, Professor Al Shayji recognised that, four years on, it was still widely misunderstood in the region owing to its lack of visibility and association with US policy. As to the attitudes of the GCC countries to the initiative, he argued that they were informed by the following
a) the absence of an "indigenous balance of power" in the region to face Iran's mounting influence;
23. Despite the ICI's limited record thus far, Professor Al Shayji acknowledged that co-operation with NATO could provide Middle Eastern countries with expertise in dealing with nuclear fallouts and crisis management, positing that an eventual role for NATO in post-US-withdrawal Iraq and in post-conflict Israel/Palestine could be envisaged and indeed recommended if the Alliance's image in the region is to be improved. In this vein and in conclusion, engaging more with civil society organisations of the region was advised by Professor Al Shayji as a necessary public diplomacy strategy for NATO.
24. The debates that followed these diverse presentations focused for the most part on the issue of Iran. To many members of the NATO PA, Mr Ritter's assessment appeared misleading and not reflective of reality. NATO legislators refuted en bloc his views on NATO's relationship with the United States as well as his assessment of the Iranian threat. For Mr Ritter, Iran had legitimate interests to defend in the region and only "diplomacy, respect and responsible attitude" could help breaking its current unwarranted isolation.
VI. INTER-CULTURAL DIALOGUE: THE LINCHPIN OF GLOBAL SECURITY?
25. Many of the 21st-century conflicts have been conceptualised in inter-cultural terms, reinforcing pre-existing perceptions as depicted in Huntington's "clash of civilisations" thesis. Tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds, fuelled by the activities of over-exposed extremist forces on both sides, have been portrayed as the source of conflict in the world. Accordingly, events like the attacks of 9/11, the Iraq invasion and the war in Afghanistan are all portrayed in Manichean terms. The last session of the seminar sought to analyse the various aspects of the current inter-cultural debate, by looking at Saudi Arabia's inter-faith initiatives, inter-community relations within Europe and Turkey's EU-accession negotiations.
26. Beginning with Maha Akeel, Managing Editor of the Journal of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference,ii who presented King Abdullah's inter-faith initiatives, which culminated in the Madrid World Conference on Dialogue in July 2008, the session set out to identify different actors perceptions' of the origins of inter-cultural tensions and how best to deal with them. Ms Akeel argued that inter-cultural and intra-cultural dialogues were two sides of the same coin as they lie at the heart of perceptions of the "other" both within and outside a given society. She confirmed that "misunderstandings, misinterpretations and ignorance" were the three major factors leading to intolerance and extremism, adding that economic realities and media practices often exacerbated inter-cultural tensions.
27. Rasmus Alenius Boserup, for his part, highlighted the effects of globalisation on the trans-national conflict patterns as reflected by the Danish "cartoons crisis". As the Director of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute in Cairo, Mr Boserup recalled the course of events which led to this crisis, showing how traditional channels of communication in both Denmark and many Muslim countries were overtaken by trans-national forces of ignorance and opportunism. He concluded by outlining the objectives of his institution whose overall aim is the promotion of Euro-Middle East dialogue rather than strictly Danish-Arab relations.
28. Finally, Professor Ilter Turan of Istanbul Bilgi University revisited Turkey's relations with the transatlantic community by way of highlighting the fluctuation of its identity definitions by the "West". He argued that, despite being surrounded by European countries, Turkey's European identity was still being questioned. Furthermore, after shedding light on Turkey's secular and modernist traditions, Professor Turan suggested that there were more differences between Orthodox and Catholic Christians than between the former and Turkish Muslims. As a result, he believed that Turkey's exclusion would send a negative signal to Europe's fifteen million Muslims - a number set to increase significantly in the near future. Inter-cultural dialogue was said to be about allowing "empathy and predictability rather than subscribing or internalising the values of others".
29. The last session's discussions revolved around the role of governments in the management of inter-cultural issues. It was agreed that more involvement on the part of the public authorities could help contain emerging crises by condemning their instigators, thus disallowing extremist forces and encouraging moderate dialogue.
i The emergence of new challenges and political reform in the Middle East, the role of Gulf energy producers in responding to the global energy challenge, NATO's Istanbul Co-operation Initiative and security perception in the Gulf, and inter-cultural dialogue.
ii Maha Akeel spoke in a strictly personal capacity.