A New Era in the Middle East?
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over, the United States is shifting its focus away from the Middle East. How will other powers and forces, from China to sectarianism to climate change, drive events on the ground in the years ahead? And how should Washington navigate this complex environment without making further catastrophic blunders?
Watch Foreign Affairs Executive Editor Justin Vogt and authors Gregory Gause, Amaney Jamal, and Marc Lynch as they mark the launch of the March/April issue with a discussion of today’s Middle East.
Amaney A. Jamal
Amaney A. Jamal is Co-Founder and Co-Principal Investigator at Arab Barometer, Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, and Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.
F. Gregory Gause III
F. Gregory Gause III is Professor of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Faculty Affiliate at the Bush School’s Albritton Center for Grand Strategy.
Marc Lynch is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.
Prior to joining Foreign Affairs in 2011, Justin Vogt was the managing editor of World Policy Journal. Earlier, he worked on the editorial staff of The New Yorker and as an associate producer on documentary films for Frontline. His writing has been published by The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Justin_Vogt.
VOGT: The Middle East isn’t the region that’s in the headlines today. And one of the challenges of publishing a printed issue just six times a year is that you never know what might be happening by the time an issue comes out. One of the ways that we contend with that problem is this, whatever the topic we find the best experts to tackle the big questions, the ones that are going to be relevant when the issue comes out, the week after that, the month after that, and even years into the future. Those are the kinds of pieces that we published in this special coverage package of the March/April issue. And those are the kind of experts that we have with us today. You have the extremely impressive credentials for each of our guests. I’m not going to bore you by reading them, but I am going to tell you a little bit about each guest and introduce you to them.
Amaney Jamal is first. Lots of analysts have tried to grapple with what has happened in the Middle East in the past ten years as the promise of the Arab Spring mostly evaporated, authoritarian rule reasserted itself. But Amaney and her colleagues at the Arab Barometer Project has done so with a really admirable level of rigor and attention to empirical evidence about what people in the Arab Middle East are really thinking and feeling. And she brought those insights to bear in this terrific piece in this issue, which tells the rather sad story, to my mind, of the decline of enthusiasm for democracy in the region. Thanks very much for joining us, Amaney. It’s good to have you.
JAMAL: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
VOGT: Greg Gause is perhaps the single most trusted and respected American expert on Saudi Arabia. I like to think of him as the dean of Saudi studies. But his expertise extends well beyond the kingdom, and his essay for this issue is a very strongly argued, and clear-eyed, sort of sobering call to accept that in the Middle East, as he puts it, the hard reality is that dealing with extremely flawed regimes with blood on their hands is sometimes the only way to check the dangers of disorder. Welcome, Greg.
GAUSE: Pleasure to be with you.
VOGT: And lastly, Marc Lynch, who hardly needs any introduction for this crowd. Marc has a unique talent for explaining this complex, sometimes bewildering, region in very clear, accessible language. And his hallmark is really a kind of creative and original thinking. For example, arguing in this issue that our collective conception of the Middle East, and even the maps that we use for defining the region, are outdated and maybe even harmful to policy. Thanks for being here, Marc.
LYNCH: Thanks so much.
VOGT: Now, here’s how we’re going to proceed. I want to start by talking a bit about the war in Ukraine, because I know that that’s on everyone’s minds. And in fact, I want to hear a little bit from you all about how it looks from the Middle East and how it might affect the region, because I think there’s actually a very interesting story there. And actually, in your articles, although you couldn’t have foreseen this, all of you wrote about things that are actually in the back of our minds how, and maybe sort of express themselves down the road a little bit. Then we’re going to move onto some other important issues, including assessing the Biden administration’s record on the Middle East so far, the Iran nuclear deal, the Abraham Accords. And then we’ll take some questions from the audience.
What I’m hoping is that by the end of the session we’ll have a broader understanding of the major events that we’re witnessing today, not just the war that’s got everybody’s attention but also the other stories that, knowing the Middle East, we know are likely to not—they’ll be in the headlines soon enough, we just don’t know when. Amaney, let’s start with you. In your piece, you explained how the failure of democratic revolutions to usher in economic opportunity and stability, the things that people in the Arab Middle East really want, and that that failure has led many people in the region to look less fondly at America and its democratic capitalist model, and to start looking more fondly on China, and to a lesser extent Russia as well, and the authoritarian sort of state capitalist systems that we find there. I’m curious to know, how do you think Russia’s war on Ukraine and also China’s tacit embrace of it might affect that, if at all.
JAMAL: So thank you so much, Justin, for that question. So if we’re monitoring social media right now from the Middle East, what you see is that there is some concern about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, of course. There’s a lot of sympathy for the Ukrainian people. Having said that, I think what we need to keep our eye on is how the oil politics will play out in the region in the next few weeks or the next few days actually. So we see a lot of the authoritarian regime sort of holding back right now on oil. And I know Greg can speak to that. They’re trying to extract some concessions from the U.S. administration. And so if this plays out to be sort of like an Arab nationalist—you know, an Arab nationalist momentum, if you may, towards sort of checking the implements of the West in the Middle East, supporting Russia in that effort vis-à-vis the oil prices, this might play into further—a further pivot, if you may, Justin, towards Russia and China.
Two other factors, Justin, I think are also—you know, and, again, there’s a lot of sympathy for the Ukrainian people. There’s a lot of sympathy for displacement, for refugee flows. So this is what we see in the social media. But there are two other threads on social media that I want to draw to your attention. The first is that the way the refugee crisis—the Ukrainian refugee crisis is being portrayed, that these are Europeans, these are white people fleeing, these are civilized people fleeting as opposed to all—you know, those Arabs and the North Africans and the Muslims fleeing. This is not resonating well in the Middle East right now. And, again, it's sort of reinforcing this idea that the West, Europe, civilized Europe, will aways be Islamophobic and anti-Arab. So the pivot there might favor Russia and China.
The second factor also, Justin, at least in social media, is that while there’s a lot of celebration for the heroic efforts of the Ukrainians to fight occupation, there is a perception in the region when other Arabs or Palestinians are resisting occupation, they are portrayed as terrorists. So this is playing—being played up in the social media in ways that, again, sort of reinforce this idea that this Western alliance is always going to be Islamophobic and anti-Arab.
VOGT: That’s interesting. I hadn’t even considered that. You know, I’m—it’s sort of troubling to hear that that’s the perception. It makes sense, though. It makes a lot of sense.
Greg, I’m—that actually relates a little bit to what I wanted to ask you about the war. You wrote in your piece about the need for Americas to kind of hold their collective nose, so to speak, and work with less-savory regimes in the Middle East in order to assure order, stave off chaos. I guess what I’m wondering is whether—(laughs)—and I think I know the answer to this, but I want to hear you elaborate on it—is whether that—the war is putting additional pressure on that.
Amaney mentioned, you know, if we’re going to ban Russian oil, which it looks like we’re going to do, well, we might need oil from somewhere else. It’s not just oil though, right? There’s the prospect of food shortages resulting from cuts to Ukraine and Russia’s wheat output and agricultural output more generally. And I guess I’d love to know whether you think that this puts those regimes themselves in a kind of tight spot, trying to avoid choosing sides in this—in this conflict.
GAUSE: Right. Well, I think Amaney rightly pointed out that if you’re an oil producer, this isn’t the worst time in the world for you. In fact, you can—every time that oil prices collapse we say, well, that’s the end. Oil prices will never go back up. Well, and every time they do go back up. And so I think that if you’re an oil producer—and that cuts across the axes in the Middle East. That’s Iran, that’s Saudi Arabia, that’s Algeria, that’s Iraq, right? And so I think that it increases your international leverage, obviously, and it emphasizes your importance to outside powers, like China, like the United States.
The Saudis have had a very interesting relationship with Russia since Russia came back as a major oil producer and an oil exporter. And in fact, Russia and Saudi Arabia, in OPEC+, are the two most important actors in the short-term fluctuations in the world oil market. And they don’t always cooperate, but sometimes they do. I also think that the issue of wheat and grain exports is extremely important in North Africa and Egypt. And how that’s going to play out is really interesting.
The third thing that I’ve noticed in this in terms of the that are kind of affecting the Middle East is Turkey. I mean, the Erdogan regime has been up and down in its relationships with the United States. That’s for sure. And it flirted, of course, with Russia, including buying sophisticated weapon systems from Russia. But it seems like the invasion of Ukraine has brought Erdogan up short and has led him to at last question the value of a tilt toward Russia. So, you know, still early days in all of this, but I think that the ripple effects on the Middle East are important, but not enormously, immediately destabilizing.
VOGT: Do you think—as someone who’s argued that—you know, that American policymakers ought to take a sort of more, I don’t know if you want to use the term “realist” or a kind of more soberminded approach to these regimes—I mean, in a sense does this sharpen those decisions? Does it make you feel like, although it’s not for a good—it’s not for a good reason, it’s not for reasons anyone would want, that this will kind of clarify thinking about strategic choices in Washington?
GAUSE: It actually worries me, because it seems like the default for so many people in Washington—maybe not in the administration, which I actually think, not knowing anything about that part of the world, has handled it relatively well. But it seems like for so many people in D.C., and Congress, and in the chattering class, you know, the first—the first impulse is to talk about regime change. You know, the impulse—you know, how do we solve this? Well, you got to get rid of Putin. What can we do to get rid of Putin? I think that that’s just the kind of thinking that got us into such trouble after 9/11. And so I’m actually kind of worried that we haven’t learned that lesson. And it does seem to be, for so many people in the Washington discourse, you know, not the final option but the first option for dealing with any foreign policy issue. I think it’s very dangerous.
VOGT: I guess what I—point take—I guess what I meant was that it seems like the events that are happening in Russia and Ukraine make it perhaps more likely that arguments in favor of encouraging reform or putting more pressure on oil exporters, for example, in the Middle East, will those—will this have the effect of kind of pushing those aside? And if so, is that a positive outcome, from your point of view?
GAUSE: I think that it will just redouble the Biden administration’s hopes to get a renewal of the Iran deal, to bring Iranian oil back on. I actually don’t think the Biden administration has been as tough on Saudi Arabia as many people hoped it would, and as some of the rhetoric of the administration in early days indicated it might. The Saudis are playing hardball with us right now, but it’s also dangerous for them because the argument for U.S.-Saudi relations is—has nothing to do with values, of course. It has to do with the importance of Saudi Arabia as the central bank of world oil. And if the Saudis don’t play that role in ways that a majority of American policymakers see as destabilizing and damaging to the United States, just further calls into question the usefulness of the relationship.
VOGT: Marc, I’d like to—I’d like to hear your take on that. You, on Twitter, noting news that Biden is mulling a visit actually to Saudi Arabia. You wrote, and I’m quoting here, “What a terrible idea. Maybe they,” meaning the Saudis, “could behave like real allies first.” And then you sort of had an imaginary dialogue where they said, oh, we feel so abandoned, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi say as they work actively against every American policy. So I’m wondering, how do you see the dynamic that Greg just described?
LYNCH: Well, I—excuse me—I think it has been clarifying, as you said, Justin, you know, just a clarifying moment. But I think it might be clarifying in a different direction than Greg suggested, because what it really shows is that as Biden tried to rally the world in support of Ukraine against Europe, pretty much every democratic ally we have in the entire world was on our side. And almost every country in the Middle East was on the other side, including the ones who are supposedly our closest allies. And that is very clarifying. So, yeah, central bank of world oil, but world oil’s over $150 a barrel right now. I mean, you have the UAE abstaining at the Security Council.
And, you know, in the article that I wrote in this month’s issue, I point at how you almost have to think about the Gulf in many ways as detaching from the Middle East in a lot of ways and looking east, and becoming—I mean, that’s where its economic interests really lie, with the energy supplies to Asia and, you know, the deep both human and economic interdependencies there. And so when the UAE—when Anwar Gargash was asked, you know, what—or he was tweeting about this and saying, well, you know, why did you do this? Why did you vote against America? And he said, no, no. We’re an Asian power. We are aligning ourselves with India and with China. And to me, that was a really good illustration of the kind of changes that I was trying to get at in that paper.
So it’s clarifying in a way that, you know, I really do think that a lot of the countries that we think of as allies, for the last decade at least, they’ve really been terrible allies. You know, trying to undermine democratization after the Arab Spring, lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement, intervening in Yemen, you know, really doing all kinds of things we didn’t like in Syria. And it’s just been not just the blip of personalities. Not just, you know, kind of a one-off thing. But it’s been a pretty systemic, ongoing thing. So everyone now is talking about—they’re hedging. And they’re talking about how this is a unique moment where they have to, like, confront these choices.
But I guess from where I sit, you know, they’ve been confronting these choices for the last decade, and they’ve kind of made their choices. I don’t really see them as American allies anymore. And I think that that is increasingly something which is—you’re hearing people talking about that now in ways that, I think, would have been quite unusual in the past. Just two other things really, really quickly, just to follow up on threads from earlier. I agree with you completely that the impact of the food crisis is going to be really quite severe, especially in North Africa and Egypt.
I mean, these are economies which have been hanging on by a thread, and we’re talking about massive increases in food prices, which is pretty much what happened about a year to two years before the original Arab Spring. And so I wrote in—last year in Foreign Affairs about how the Arab uprisings never ended. I really do see these drivers of instability, including the food crisis, coming in really hard. Now, maybe Saudi Arabia, with oil at $100 a barrel plus, can step in and help to ease those budget crises. But will they? And what would that actually mean for what the—how those regimes would behave and what they would do? So I see a real vicious cycle that could be settling in right now.
And then the last thing I would like to emphasize is what Amaney said about social media and Arabic social media right now. This critique, people looking at what’s happening in Ukraine and saying, gee, we’ve been told for the last ten years that boycott, divestment and sanctions are a terrible, illiberal idea. Apparently, those are a good thing. We were told that transnational foreign fighters are a horrible thing, and now you’re welcoming them. You know, we’ve been—we’ve been told that refugees can’t be allowed to cross borders. Well, look at them go. And there is this really strong undercurrent of critiques of the hypocrisy that you’re seeing across multiple contexts—from Syrians talking about—comparing, like, the degree of global response to what happened in their own case, to Palestinians looking at their attempts at resistance. There’s just a lot of this there and it’s important to not miss it.
VOGT: That’s really interesting. Actually, I want to bring that back to Amaney and sort of extend a little bit on this point, because I think it’s actually really important. If that’s what we’re seeing on social media, and we’re assuming that social media is reflective of some kind of, you know, slice of public opinion in these countries, Amaney what I guess—and this is sort of a perennial question for you and your work, right—is especially because, as you’ve written, you know, democratic society, democratic governance, the kind of push towards democracy has declined in the region in the past ten years, is there any way of expressing that—aside from Tweeting or going on Telegram or whatever, you know, platform that you use—is there any reason we should think that this sentiment, this swelling kind of sense of—you know, this critique of hypocrisy and anger at this—will express itself at the level of government? Or is this just something that regimes in the region, it’s just another thing that they can afford to ignore because that’s the model?
JAMAL: That’s a really good question. And I’m going to, you know, build on what—where Greg left off—where Marc actually left off on this point, which is that if we think of the conditions that shaped the Arab Spring, which, you know, at the source of those were economic frustration and a deep sense of lack of dignity and lack of social justice, right? Remember, democracy was only one way to sort of answer the calls and the needs of the citizens. But citizens will find other ways. So this idea that you have Arab citizens off the streets, if those food prices go up, if, you know, government subsidies are reduced further, we can very well see a new wave of protest across the region, which is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on existing regimes.
And, you know, Marc’s saying will Saudi Arabia, you know, step in to support Sisi and others? That’s to be determined. So that’s going to be something to watch. But this idea, Justin, that even in moments of war, or in moment where, you know, there could have been an opportunity for the West to sort of come out and say, look, you know, we’re going to unequivocally stand against the displacement of people, all people, we are reliving Syria in ways that horrifies Western audience, this would have been an opportunity rather than to say, you know, we’ve heard—we’ve heard accounts that simply have said that these are not—let’s remind our audience—these are not refugees from North Africa. These are Europeans. These people are white.
And this is just unnecessary. I mean, you have to ask your—you know, ourselves, like, what is the end goal with basically saying there’s human life and then there’s human life? And so this message is not going to resonate well. This is going to play into the discourse of lack of social justice, a lack of human dignity. It’s going to put pressure on existing regimes as well, especially if those regimes are seen as complicit with Western interests at the expense of their own populations, factor in the economic grievances. And we’re, like, it’s 2008-2009 all over again.
VOGT: Wow. I want to—I want to shift to something that a bunch of you, all of you, had mentioned, I think, is the Iran nuclear deal. I think it’s the—if we didn’t have this war going on, it’s actually kind of amazing from my point of view, as a sort of news junkie and an editor at Foreign Affairs, to see. You know, there’s this major thing going on, these negotiations are pretty dramatic and they’re up and they’re down. And there’s usually—under normal news circumstances there would be this steady kind of tick-tock about what’s going on, how close are we to a deal? That stuff has really been—(laughs)—I mean, it’s just been relegated to the—to the peripheries of everyone’s sort of consciousness. But it’s happening.
And it looks—I mean, to judge from the reporting, and maybe you can tell us more about this, Greg and—you know, it looks like it’s—we’re on the verge of a new Iran deal. I’m curious, based on what we know about it so far, where do you think this stands? How do you see it? And what should we—how should we be thinking about this at this point?
GAUSE: I always thought that the Iran deal was a good idea. I thought the JCPOA was a good idea back when the Obama administration did it. I thought that the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from it under the Trump administration was a terrible self-inflicted wound. And if what you want from the Middle East is to not have to worry about it so much, it seems to me that the thing that will lead you to have to worry about it if you are in Washington is if Iran crosses a threshold that leads to a conflict with Israel. I think that there’s no American president who could avoid some kind of involvement in that, just given the history and where we are, and the immediate implications for things like oil prices, and for the security of Israel, and for the Israelis probably taking the offensive against Iran.
This kind of thing—if what you want to do is pivot to Asia, or even if what you want to do is reconcentrate on the building of a European containment wall against Russia, having to worry about a nuclear crisis in the Middle East is the last thing you want to do. And so—
VOGT: Can I—can I push back at you against this a little bit? It sounds—what I’m—where I’m—it sounds like you’re making the case for the original Iran deal, which, you know, be that as it may. Is there any—can you make this—is it basically the same case? Or is there—the fact of what’s happened in the intervening years, is there any new kind of data? Or is it basically like, no, the logic remains, if you can get something like you had last time it’s still worth it?
GAUSE: To me, the logic—to me, the logic remains because it pushes off this potential crisis point. I never thought that you could solve all the problems in the Middle East through the JCPOA. You know, solve one problem, or at least put it off and hope that, you now, the way things develop you don’t have to cross that threshold. I think it’s—I think it was a mistake, and it was just political rhetoric, for the Biden administration to say longer and stronger. I would say longer, and just get back to where we were. I mean, we were in a much better position after JCPOA on this question than we were before.
Now, I think that I have a different view than Marc does about regional—the post-2011 upheavals in the region and instability. I don’t see anybody as particularly purely counterrevolutionary and anybody as particularly revolutionary. But what you have to acknowledge is that Iran—and as Marc said in his article—Iran is probably the country that has benefitted the most from the instability in the Middle East. And they were profoundly counterrevolutionary in Syria. And so I think that it would be a terrible mistake for us to say, well, America’s friends, like the Saudis and the Emiratis and others, they’re so counterrevolutionary. They don’t want any change. Guess what? Iran doesn’t want any change in a lot of these areas too.
So we’re dealing with an atmosphere where there are—there’s no good guys. Sorry. There’s no good guys. So what do—what does the United States want out of all of this? And I think what we want is to avoid major blowups that will entice or compel the United States to have to reengage at levels that we never should have been at before, like the Iraq War. And I don’t think we’re going there. But if the—if the desire is to—is to spend less time, blood, and treasure in the Middle East, then let’s see it for what it is, not for what we might wish it would be.
VOGT: What do you think, Marc? Has Greg—first, has Greg kind of accurately described the difference between your view? And either way, is that where you’re at with the Iran deal as well?
LYNCH: I completely agree with Greg about the JCPOA. I think the original logic stands, and I couldn’t agree more that unilaterally withdrawing from a deal that was working was one of the worst strategic decisions I’ve really ever seen, followed by the imposition of this maximum pressure approach which just simply didn’t succeed on its own terms, and in fact made almost all the problems worse.
You know, my criticism of the Biden team on the Iran deal is more that they went so slow about it, that they—I believe that they should have just gone right in and said: Hey, we’re back. We’ll deal with everything later. And just basically—heck, I would have just had an executive order cancelling every executive order Trump ever made and just, like, get back to it. But clearly, they couldn’t do that.
VOGT: Why did they—what’s your understanding of why that—why did they take it a little bit slowly? What was the reasoning?
LYNCH: Well, because things had changed on the ground. Because in two years, with no JCPOA, Iran had begun enrichment. They had gone and made these developments. You couldn’t simply go back to normal. And so at that level, Rob Malley and his team were absolutely right, that you had to find a way to get a deal which could get you back to the status quo ante. You couldn’t just, you know, pick up as you were before. They were right about that.
And then, from all the reports that I’ve been seeing, they’ve been doing a pretty good job of identifying all of the landmines that the Trump team left behind—all of the sanctions that they tried to cordon off from any possible revocation based on a nuclear agreement. The Trump team really did everything they could in a very sophisticated way to seed the entire landscape with obstacles to a restoration of the JCPOA. And I think they’ve had to be very careful in terms of going through and doing that. And at the end of the day, they’re trying to overcome this incredible barrier of mistrust, which Trump intentionally created.
I mean, I personally—like, how could the Iranians possibly trust the United States when we unilaterally pulled out of a deal that they were honoring, and when you have key senators and members of the Republican Party openly saying, hey, as soon as we take office again, we’re going to cancel this again. That’s an incredible leap of faith for Iran, or frankly for any country in the world, to look at the United States and say: This is a country that we can make an agreement with, that they’ll honor their agreement. So I think that Trump’s decision there just left a really, really painful and enduring legacy.
And so even though I have criticized at times the slow pace of the U.S. negotiations, I’ve a tremendous amount of respect for the care and caution that they’ve taken in terms of trying to get back to some place where you can overcome these—this really, really deep fissure which the withdrawal from JCPOA created. If they get it back in shape, as Greg said, that doesn’t solve all the region’s problems. It was never meant to. But it does take a really big one off the table. And then it kind of opens up a really interesting question, one that you asked us kind of in the pre-game, that—about, you know, what does that mean for Israel’s relations with the other Arab states, the Abraham Accords, and this growing open strategic relationship between the Emirates and Israel, possibly Saudi Arabia?
And, you know, at one level you could understand the Abraham Accords as basically a very straightforward, realistic move. Something that Greg Gause has been calling for for years, you know, with his argument about strategic under-balancing, right? There was a very clear need for a strategic alliance against Israel—I’m sorry—against Iran. And Israel and the Gulf have common interests, and it’s only their norms and—you know, norms and support for the Palestinians which prevented them from doing this. And now they’re doing it because, as a realist, presumably because of their fear of Iranian rising power.
So if Iranian rising power gets under control and the risk of war gets taken off the table—God willing—maybe that gives an opportunity for them to really—these countries—to really start thinking seriously about what do they want to achieve? What kind of regional order do they want to achieve with these now—they’ve paid the cost already for going public. What do they want to do with that now, if it’s not go to war with Iran?
And I think those are questions which have hardly even begun to be explored because, as you said, it’s like we’re living through a season finale of an HBO series, right? You’ve got the war, you’ve got the JCPOA, you’ve got all these things coming together at the same time—too many plotlines all ending at the same time. Hard to keep them all in focus. But, you know, when this ends everyone’s going to sit down and have, like, a boring conversation about what just happened. And what that conversation looks like is really hard to—we don’t really know.
VOGT: Yeah, the writers for 2022 could—you know, we have some notes for them. I’m going to move to questions in a minute.
LYNCH: They could have paced it out a little bit better.
VOGT: Yeah. (Laughs.) I’m going to move to the audience questions in just a minute, but actually I want to ask you, Amaney, talking about the Abraham Accords. You know, the discussion of it is usually, understandably, at this very kind of high level of strategic thinking. And, you know, we’re wondering about how various interests are playing off each other. I’m kind of curious to know, have you—has Arab Barometer done any work on how this kind of realignment looks to ordinary folks in the Arab Middle East, and whether that—you know, it’s a similar question to what I asked you before—whatever it is that they’re thinking about it, will that translate into anything? Do their governments have to be responsive to that in any way?
JAMAL: So this is—this is, again, you know, another pattern that exists. Which is when it comes to strategic interests of the regimes in the—in the region, they very—more often than not, are not reflecting the preferences of their societies. Which is a sore point, right? So there is this conviction among the publics of the region that for something like the Abraham Accords to exist and to sort of be honored by regimes, you must ignore public sentiment. Which means, you must have authoritarian structures in place that neglect or do not reflect the preferences of their societies. So this is sort of building into that discourse among Arab citizens that if there was ever going to be true democracy it would undermine the strategic interests of some of the regimes, and certainly would undermine something like the Abraham Accords.
But I do want to tie the discourse, again, being sort of, like, trying to reflect the—what’s the sentiment of the populations, to think about where Arab sentiment is vis-à-vis the Abraham Accords, we must also sort of understand how the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal really sort of left a stain in the region, right? So all the while you have hawkish Iran finally sort of succumb to international pressure, come to the table, be checked by international actors. And then the U.S. unilaterally withdrawing and saying: We’re not interested in peace. This is regardless of—it’s much more complicated, but this is how it played out. See, you had Iran come to the table invested in peace, and the world rejected that.
And so why did the world reject that? To pave the road to the Abraham Accords, where Israel could bypass the Palestinian cause and really get to the heart of the money with the—with the Saudis and the Emiratis. Voila, the Palestinian conflict will be buried. Everything is done well. This is the discourse, and this is the way it’s playing out among the citizens. And you couldn’t make that leap without neutralizing or at least ridding Iran from that equation. So that’s sort of how the pieces fall into place, at least from the Arab discourse. But going back to your point, Justin, is there support for the Abraham Accords among the publics of the Middle East? No, there isn’t.
Maybe—you know, what we find systematically across the board in the Arab Barometer, there’s no more than 10 percent support for the Accords in any of the countries. Maybe in Lebanon among the Christian minority there’s more support. Obviously, that’s—you know, it’s not about theology; it’s more about sectarian politics there. So the Abraham Accords were seen as a way of sort of, again, not addressing the aspirations for peace, for dignity, for social justice for all the people in the region. It plays into that scenario. And, again, the United States sort of being seen as orchestrating some of these movements in that direction.
GAUSE: Justin, could I just say one thing about the Abraham Accords?
VOGT: Yeah, of course. Please do.
GAUSE: Well, two. One, Amaney’s absolutely right. It’s interesting that the UAE is the country that was out in front on this. And, you know, only 10 percent of the people who live in the UAE are actually citizens of the UAE. So it’s a country that can really ignore, to an enormous extent, public opinion, because 90 percent of the people who live there aren’t part of the political public. Secondly, I thank Marc for an oral citation to an obscure article that I wrote a while back about under-balancing in the Middle East. But I actually think that the idea that the Abraham Accords are evidence of declining American power in the region, and the locals having to kind of form their own alliances is 100 percent wrong.
Every Arab agreement with Israel, in my mind, is basically an Arab agreement with the United States. And for each of the Abraham Accord countries, there were very specific things they wanted from the United States and got from the United States as part of the Abraham Accords. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting things going on between the Emiratis and the Israelis, you know, economically, politically. But the core, I think, of the Abraham agreement was more about the continued relevance of the United States in the region, not its departure.
VOGT: OK. It’s a good point, an interesting point.
Let’s pause there and switch over. I’ll stop peppering you with questions, and you can have some from our terrific audience.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question is a written submission from Emil Naka (sp), who wonders what you all think of the argument that many Arab regimes have not seriously objected to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine because of their affinity toward dictatorship? Putin has been severely criticized by the Biden administration for his autocratically drive behavior. If he loses, will the West redirect its focus on Arab autocracy?
VOGT: Who wants to take that one? I think all of—any of you would be well positioned. Anyone have a particular yen to answer that question?
GAUSE: Hi, Emil (sp). Hope you’re doing well.
So I think that the Arab—general Middle Eastern reaction to this is much more governed by short-term power politics considerations, including in Israel, which was not as vociferous as some in criticizing the invasion and is attempting to mediate, thus trying to maintain a relationship with Putin that many European countries don’t seem to—don’t seem to see as possible these days. So I actually don’t think there’s going to be much change in the United States approach to the Middle East, no matter how this turns out. I think the Biden administration has an approach to the Middle East that is really not going to be affected that much by however this runs out in Ukraine.
JAMAL: Perhaps it’s fair to say that some of the Arab countries have come around in terms of, you know, the UAE was sort of ambivalent, has become more opposed to the Russian incursion, the Saudis. Smaller states like Qatar and Kuwait have had to remain more neutral, kind of, like, hedging their bets, you know. So it does seem that the moves are more strategic than signaling support for just autocratic rule, per se.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Audrey Kurth Cronin.
Q: Hi. This is Audrey Kurth Cronin from American University.
I just want to ask about the shift toward China and Russia when it comes to the Middle East. The United States hasn’t engaged in wholesale transfer and crushing of their domestic Muslim populations, as the Russians did in Chechnya in 1944, as Putin did in 1999. You know, basically, as he put it, in his words, flushing the Chechens down the toilet. And we certainly haven’t had been behaving as the Chinese have with respect to the Uyghurs. So where, if anywhere, on the radar scope is that behavior showing up?
VOGT: Marc, do you want to take that?
LYNCH: Yeah, sure. Audrey, great to see you. So I think what it suggests is that for the most part Arab governments, at least, don’t care about that. They just don’t care at all. They focus on their strategic interests in energy and security and the like. And in fact have, for the most part, done whatever they can to downplay and minimize the coverage in the Arab media of the Uyghur—of the Uyghur crisis and crackdown. And I think they do this as a way, again, just to smooth and facilitate the operating of kind of real politic and their pursuit of their strategic interests in Asia.
And in terms of Russia—you know, and it’s the same basic thing. I think that there are very specific grievances that much of the Arab public has had for a very long time about—with the United States, whether it’s its position on Israel, its position towards Arab autocracy, its position towards Iraq, and all these things. We all know the story. And I think that the treatment of global Muslim populations ranks fairly low down that list. And so I think that’s why you’re not seeing the kind of—you know, the kind of focus on that, which might create a pro-American tilt, which you might otherwise expect.
VOGT: Amaney, did you want to add to that at all? I wonder, because that was a point that you had initially sort of made.
JAMAL: Yeah, no, I think this is exactly right, what Marc has sort of captured in his response. The Arab regimes want to make sure this stays off the radar of Arab publics. They are pivoting towards Asia. They see China as an emerging sort of, like, you know, strong ally. So if this issue sort of disappears and remains invisible and, you know, let’s just be honest, the Chinese government has also done a very good job of making sure that this is not an issue that dominates headlines. Then it’s all good and dandy. The point is, is that if, again, like similar to other patterns in the region, if there are, like, real gains coming to Arab governments from their ties to China at the expense of what’s happening with the Uyghur population, this will become another sore point for Arab publics.
VOGT: It is interesting, though, Amaney. I mean, we—just to ask you a little bit more about this and following-up on Audrey’s question—there isn’t the kind of explosion on social media that you talked about, about the anger at, you know, oh, well, these refugees are OK and these ones aren’t. But is it fair to say that you don’t see that kind of—expressions of that kind of stuff when it comes to the other issues about China, about Russia? I mean, is that—or, is it—is it suppressed? Where is the difference there?
JAMAL: I think it’s suppressed. But I also think, Justin, there is in the region a large strand of Arab nationalism, right? So the cause that are near and dear to citizens in the regions are the ones in their own backyard, whether it’s the Palestinian issue, the Syrian issue, Lebanon right now. You know, things are happening in their local neighborhoods. So that—you know, is there an Arab bias, if you may? Perhaps this is what we’re seeing. But again, you know, thinking about other conflicts, whether they were, you know, about Bosnia, Rohingya, other groups, these did generate a lot of solidarity among the publics of the region. So again, I think it’s about also what’s near and dear—what’s going on in the headlines. And remember the level of suppression of information available to populations. China’s doing a really good job keeping this issue out of social media as well, which is where everybody’s sort of turning to for information. Yeah.
VOGT: Thanks for that question, Audrey.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Gideon Rose, who asks: With Europe and the West newly armed and unified, Russia isolated on the opposite side of a new Cold War, and China, India and much of the Middle East playing their own independent games, is this crisis showing us what post-American hegemony, multipolarity looks like in practice?
LYNCH: Yes. (Laughter.) I think that’s a—the short answer is the best answer on this one, Gideon. Yes.
VOGT: Anybody else want to add to that?
GAUSE: Yes. (Laughter.)
VOGT: OK. Amaney, anything else?
JAMAL: I agree. I agree too, yes. (Laughs.)
VOGT: OK. Well, maybe—
LYNCH: I mean, no, I—you know, Justin, I might elaborate just a little bit.
VOGT: Yeah, go ahead.
LYNCH: Because we don’t know how this is going to end, right? We have no—I mean, so, you know, Gideon, the way the question is framed is the assuming that Europe and the West are newly armed and unified. Well, let’s say that three years from now there’s still a grinding war with insurgency going on in the Ukraine, and Donald Trump is reelected and immediately pulls the United States out of NATO. Well, all of a sudden, it’s not such a unified Europe and the West anymore and Putin has won. And so I think that we don’t want to a teleology here in which what’s happening two weeks into the crisis is reflective of what it’s going to look like two or three years from now. I think that there’s a lot of bets that still need to be hedged here.
GAUSE: And Marc’s point does emphasize that what happens domestically in the United States, and in other places, is going to have an enormous impact on how a multipolar world works itself out, I think. And that’s true in the Middle East too. I mean, you can imagine if the concatenation of circumstances that Amaney pointed to leads to upheavals in Egypt, I mean, that will—that will change the region. If there are—if there are, you know, in the post-Khamenei period in Iran if there are serious changes of Iran’s view of its role in the region, that could—that could also affect, in a more ameliorating way, the politics in the Middle East.
VOGT: I mean, another way of putting this maybe, if you agree, is that—and Gideon’s question, I think, is getting at this—the factors, the things we’re looking at now as contingencies are things that for so long we assumed were not actually contingent. You know, they were fixed. And now they’re all in play again. And that’s actually why this is such a confusing moment, I think. Thanks for that question, Gideon.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Chip Pitts.
And I apologize if this has been asked and answered, because I had to join late. But building on the two last comments from Greg and Justin, given the fact that things are up in the air—and part of that, of course, is due to the really unprecedented disinformation and misinformation environment domestically and globally—and I recognize that you’re all commendably realistic and not being aspirational here, or too optimistic. What, in practice, could the U.S. do to increase the chances of more optimistic scenarios, seizing the opportunity and instead of, you know, retrenching autocracies, to actually open up things in the Middle East and globally to reverse the democratic decline, and so forth? That’s my question. I’ve been dismayed to see, for example, otherwise very thoughtful people just embrace the idea of uncritically mending relations with MBS in Saudi Arabia and so forth. So please—you know, please give us a little hope here. (Laughs.)
GAUSE: Don’t look at me for that.
VOGT: (Laughs.) OK. Marc, Amaney, want to be bearers of hope? You want to—you want to cheer Chip up?
LYNCH: Well, I don’t know if I can cheer him up but, I mean, it has been quite striking how, you know, after—you know, especially after the campaign, the Biden campaign, to see how virtually completely issues of democracy, human rights, everything have just completely dropped away from American, you know, rhetoric or actions in the region. And I think that is a conscious choice of triage, to focus on the things which really matter and not kind of—you know, not sink more effort into what are seen as lost causes. I see very, very little room for the United States to put any meaningful pressure towards democratization or anything right now, although they could be a lot more outspoken on human rights.
Where I think the changes are going to come from is—and this is my biggest disagreement with Greg, with whom I agree about many things—but whether or not the United States puts its bets on these autocrats, that doesn’t mean they’re going to survive. That when they continue to misgovern their countries and they continue to repress rather than reform, and then the next wave of economically driven protest hits, you know, the United States isn’t going to be the one who caused it, and they’re not going to be able to save them.
What follows after that, however, is very, very difficult to know, because democratic transitions were tried and, across the board, they failed, including in Tunisia, which one of the questions in the Q&A asked about, where, you know, Kais Saied’s coup against democracy has essentially ended the only surviving successful Arab transition, and brought it back to square zero. So the upheaval I think is very likely to come from below. It’s very difficult for me to see how that is captured and tamed into any kind of negotiated democratic transition. So, yes, I have hope that the current regimes won’t be able to hold on, but not great hope that what follows them is necessarily going to be what we’d like to see.
JAMAL: And, Chip, to be a little bit more, I guess—I guess, you know, optimistic in this pessimistic moment, I think what I—if I was advising anybody on next steps in the region, I would say: Let’s not—let’s not make matters worse, to put it mildly. Like, so against a backdrop of Afghanistan, against the backdrop of sort of economic misery, a decade that sort of brought just a lot of instability in the region, the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear treaty, Abraham Accords, now in this critical moment will the U.S. embrace authoritarian regimes in the region and embolden them to further—to further repress their own populations in the region? That is not going to play well among the population.
So if we think things are bad right now, they can get qualitatively and discernibly much worse if we sort of see this complete embrace of authoritarianism. I’m really worried about this, Chip, given what’s going on with now the whole issue of oil, because we are going to rely on Saudi Arabia like never before. People are already saying the conversation is happening with—you know, with the regime there to get more oil in our markets. That’s going to embolden the Saudi model in the region. That model has not done well for the populations of the region.
GAUSE: Well, I have to say that I think that it would be lovely if the region were different. But it’s not. And I think the idea that these authoritarian regimes won’t be able to handle the next upheaval is very possible. But in between, what is the United States supposed to do? And I think the United States should deal with the realities that we see in front of us. And again, you know, I wouldn’t want to live in Saudi Arabia, although I have spent some amount of time there. But the model—the model, as I think many people in the Middle East see it—the Dubai model, and what MBS is trying to do in Saudi Arabia, is actually quite attractive because it has—it has not had the same kind of economic crises that other parts of the Middle East have.
Now, that’s because oil, obviously, and in Dubai smart policymaking for decades, to make Dubai a global hub. It hasn’t led to any kind of political reform. In fact, just the opposite. But I think we would be mistaken to say that that’s not an attractive model for many people in the Middle East. Where do—where do ambitious young Arab entrepreneurs and thinkers—maybe not the thinkers—but the technocrats and the IT—where do they want to go? They want to go to Dubai. They do not want to Cairo. And, God help us, they don’t want to go to Baghdad or Damascus.
VOGT: Interesting. Let’s take another question.
OPERATOR: In a similar vein, our next question is a written submission from Lauren McLennan (sp), who asks: If attempts at democratization of the Middle East is not the answer, and may in fact fortify and legitimize repressive regimes, how do we begin to address and ameliorate the overwhelming human costs of instability in the region?
GAUSE: I think that we should do more to end the Yemen War. And I actually think that going back into JCPOA might actually help that, because the only external player that has any kind of influence on the Houthis are the Iranians. And I think that the amelioration of human suffering is something that is extremely hard for outsiders to do. But there’s—that’s one area where I think that we can. And, look, I think the Biden administration has at least done—has made the right noises on this, and is willing to push the Saudis on this. And now I think what we need is—we need an Iran that’s willing the push the Houthis. And let’s get—let’s get a cease—let’s get, at a minimum, a ceasefire in Yemen, and some kind of discussions with the process. That would be my number-one for immediate things that could be done to end human suffering in the region.
VOGT: Although, Greg, isn’t the—isn’t one of the counterarguments against the deal that the effect of it is actually to embolden Iran to, you know, further meddle in places like Yemen? Is that not—I mean—
GAUSE: I think that’s nonsensical, right? Because we had that argument before, the original JCPOA. And I said to myself, are the Iranians less active than they were before JCPOA? No. Not in the least. And we’ve had now a natural experiment about this with JCPOA suspended and maximum pressure. Has Iran been less active in—with the Houthis? Has Iran been less active in other parts of the Middle East? Not at all. That argument is not kind of, well, there’s one side or another side. It’s just wrong.
VOGT: We’ve had the test. The results are—
GAUSE: Yes. We’ve had the test. We’ve had so many tests on that, and that argument has failed every single one. F. Send it back down to grade school.
VOGT: (Laughs.) Marc, what do you think on this question, whether about Yemen or about the other—the question really, as I would understand it, is: OK, if you’re going to be—if we’re going to pretty skeptical of a kind of active democracy promotion or active kind of attempt to, you know, get a more representative form of government and maybe lift people’s fortunes that way—if we’re not really going to do that, if we can’t do that right now, is there anything that the U.S. can do that might help, at least on those terms?
LYNCH: I mean, I’m in line with Greg on that the first and most important thing you can do is to try and put an end to, or at least stabilize, the civil wars in the region. And we’ve come a long way on that. Like, Libya today is not stable and it’s not moving towards democracy, but at least there’s been a rough ceasefire and, if not a ceasefire, you know, kind of stable frontlines, and much of the active fighting went away. And a big part of that is because external powers stopped throwing quite so much fuel into the fire. Same thing in Syria, which is a horrible human tragedy and it’s just the epicenter for so much that’s wrong in the region right now. But since Assad has more or less won the war, the wave of refugees going out and the less of the external money and guns coming in has at least, you know, kind of stopped putting more pain into the—into the mix.
Same thing in Yemen. If it could just stabilize and stop escalating, you could at least then begin trying to have some kind of treatment. And I think that there you also need to look at kind of the ongoing, you know, long-running conflicts, the Palestinian issue which has just been more or less completely ignored for many, many years now. And as you can see in Jerusalem, you see in Gaza, it’s not stable. It’s not something which is you can just keep on the backburner forever, which is where we seem to want to keep it. So I guess, you know, no new wars. Try and, you know, settle down, stabilize existing wars. And try and figure out, you know, kind of how to, you know, then start dealing with the kind of generational impact of the refugee flows and state failures of the last, you know, two decades.
And then I don’t think this starts with 2011. It starts with Iraq in 2003. And we are just continuing to—we have an entire generation now. We’re talking about, you know, people who are twenty years old who know nothing but state failure, war, sectarianism, displacement, and the like. And so, you know, in terms of trying to deal with the human suffering in the region, which I think is the right way to think about it, you know, there’s just—the first—the first step is simply to kind of stop adding additional trauma and then begin to try and find ways to kind of bring things slowly back to something more manageable. I know that’s very vague and broad but, you know, it’s a systemic region-wide issue which has been going for quite some time.
VOGT: If we had time I would push you for specifics, Marc.
LYNCH: Good thing we don’t.
VOGT: I’m afraid we don’t have—(laughs)—you lucked out. I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. We could keep talking about this for a whole ‘nother hour, I’m sure, and not lose any steam.
I do want to thank our terrific panelists, Greg, Marc, Amaney. Thank you so much for your time. And thank you all for attending.
LYNCH: Thank you so much.
JAMAL: Thank you.
This is an uncorrected transcript.