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.
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.
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.
British were granted a Mandate by the League of Nations to implement that
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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).
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.
situation in the Gulf has been undergoing rapid changes.
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
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
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
Therefore, food inflation may cause frustrations among large
segments of populations and drive them to demonstrations which might turn to be
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.
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
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
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
Conclusion In 2012, we were confronted with the reality that many
people in the Muslim world do not like the US (to say the
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
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.
American conversation strives to encourage pluralism, cultural diversity and
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
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
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.
should be site-adequate, locally acceptable, implantable and sustainable. The US
and the EU should only provide financial and technical assistance when requested
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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.
preferably be pro-active (as opposed to reactive), sustainable and lead to
naming squares in honor of the US instead of burning American flags.
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.
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
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
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
People voted for Hamas because they were impressed by the
genuine concern for the well-being of the weakest populations.
an infrastructure of education, health and well-being services, many voters
bought their claims of being the supporters of the “small victims in the
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
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.
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
In order to ensure innovation, up-dated adaptation and
flexibility, and avoid inertia, all appointments should be for limited time
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
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.