The Middle East: Nova Et Vetera


There is nothing more fitting than to start with the motto of St Catherine:

Nova et vetera or The New and The Old

I think this is a truly fitting motto for our theme today, as we try to understand and be more knowledgeable about where we were and where are we heading. 

That is the way we learn the nature of things. Speeches are often difficult to get right. At best they are funny, uplifting, or thoughtful. Since this is a conversation about recent developments in the Middle East, it is hard to promise anything but the last. There was nothing funny or uplifting about the political convulsions, that gripped the world last year and that continues to roil our region. 

From London, in the heart of western world - To Aleppo, in the heart of the Arab world, we share a feeling of sadness and mutual condolences, as we witness the savage killing of innocent civilians. 

To be sure, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the Middle East, while millions of refugees now roam the world. Terrorism has reached its pinnacle, and metastasized into the so called Da'esh. Key states in the region are now fighting for their very existence.

Old global powers; the architects of Versailles United States, United Kingdom, and France that have shaped the 20th century Middle East, are nowhere to be seen. The new actors, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are now the ones calling the shots.

In fact, one consequence of the political dynamics in the Middle East today is the surge in nationalist, sectarian, and populist rhetoric in key states across the world.

This year in this part of the world, for example, 4 of the six founding members of the European Union will have elections. France and Netherlands already had theirs. And in 2 weeks, elections will be held in Germany then in Luxembourg.  The populist forces in all these countries are on the march. This rise of populist movements, which is not simply a European or American phenomenon- will have profound effects on the very foundation of global peace. To be sure, the post WWII architecture of peace and prosperity governed by the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions are under extreme pressure. 

Ladies and gentlemen, the stakes are high and we are truly in dangerous times. Harvard professor Graham Allison warned us about “Thucydides Trap". A condition by which a rising power rivals and challenges a ruling power, resulting in a catastrophic war and mayhem. This can't be more evident than in Europe and the Middle East.

What are the Security Implications of these developments?

First, it will likely mean that the politics of the United States and Europe will turn inward and gravitate towards isolationism. The rise of Populism will reinforce those isolationist, nationalistic, and xenophobic propensities.

Following 8 years of weakened American engagement in the Middle East, which many feel has created a disconcerting vacuum, it looks like we must wait a little bit longer, until the contours of president Trump's approach to our region, becomes clearer.

Second, it is clear that populists will push for "beggar thy neighbor" kind of policies, that aim for national self-interests and threaten to undermine historic treaties. The Bretton Woods Agreement-the foundation for a free international monetary and trading system- is in peril due to populist forces bucking against globalization and a discontent about migration.

This populist movement is inherently anti-free trade, and will add to an already uncertain and nervous global market.

We have learnt all too well that aggressive non-market policies in support of populist forces will always fail; populist economic policies simply don’t work.

What are the Implications on GCC Security?

Turning to my region, we in the GCC feel directly the reverberations of these alarming trends. It has manifested itself in several ways across the region; from the failed states in Yemen and Libya to the ongoing crisis in Syria.

The international community can no longer merely manage crisis in the Middle East. Our focus must shift to resolution. Failure to take early action will lead to disastrous consequences, and will impose a heavy economic and humanitarian toll. Such inaction insures that crises will inevitably produce their own set of sub crises.

The Palestinian Israeli conflict vividly demonstrates what happens when we fail to make the difficult choices. For over 60 years, the Palestinian issue has been a source of regional instability, extremism, and numerous wars. And, for 60 years, no single Israeli felt secure and no single Palestinian received justice. Even though the political solution is within reach, there is still a lack of political will to take the necessary steps required.

In Yemen and Libya, despite all the difficulties there are positive mechanisms in place and roadmaps for a political solution. we must work collectively to realize these solutions. The GCC is actively working to support these processes.

In Syria the region and the world cannot afford to walk away from their responsibilities. We must double our efforts and find a constructive solution to the conflict. Unfortunately, prospects are not encouraging and the Syrian crisis continues to tear apart the Syrian people and their society. The geopolitics of the crisis and the regime's belief that it can secure a military victory, are the major obstacle to peaceful resolution.

But the clear, present and imminent threat to regional security, is the evil forces of extremism and terrorism. The link between extremist ideology and terrorist acts is a clear one.

They should be confronted simultaneously. This understanding is essential in our effort to confront extremism and terrorism. Various tools are required in this lengthy battle. Including control over financial flows and the deconstruction of the extremist ideology and narrative. In short, a unified nation state, devoid of sectarian rhetoric and practice, remains our best insurance against the politics of extremism and instability.

We in the GCC are strong advocates for an international effort to empower nation states over the dangerous rise of sectarianism. The Arab world continues to pay a heavy price for the sectarian agendas promoted by regional actors and non-state groups. Their expansionary and divisive politics breed hatred and erode the very foundations of our states and communities.

The current ugly trend prevailing in regional politics, is an accumulation of past failures, regional milestones, and countless revisionists who are trying to redefine the political role of religion. To be sure, we are now paying a heavy price due to this lethal combination.

It is vital that we as a region, defend the pluralistic nature of our societies against those who promote division and sectarianism. Here, it's critical that Iran ceases it's meddling in the affairs of Arab states. By employing sectarian methods in instigating instability in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, Iran hopes to establish itself as the region's hegemonic power.

Iran was further emboldened by the recent nuclear deal with the P5+1. Interpreting it as acquiescence by international community for its regional expansion. This was truly an historic opportunity for Iran to have embarked on a constructive and respectful approach towards its Arab neighbors. Instead, Iran has chosen to continue its subversive activities and sectarian policies. 

And despite all these misgivings, the GCC has repeatedly stated its desire to initiate dialogue with Iran. Such dialogue must be genuine and constructive, and based on the golden rule of international relations; the principal of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. Iran must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Arab states. In other words, Iran must act as a state willing to work with its neighbors to insure regional stability rather than undermining it.


I have already described the tumultuous transition that is under way in the Middle East, and the historical forces underlying this transition. But as the American inventor Charles Kettering once said, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."

Is there a way out of the current predicament?

Is there a road map to reconcile the irreconcilables and restore stability?

Do we have a model? And do we have a role model?

Despite its current political troubles, the GCC is, indeed, well positioned to create a model of moderation, tolerance and dynamism. A model that is unified in its promotion of stable, open, and dynamic region. A model that promotes cultural openness, religious tolerance, and the empowerment of women. We must be creative and smart in our war against deception, defamation and misinformation. We must master these 21 century tools to help us navigate through these dangerous and treacherous waters. 

Make no mistake. We are engaged in a contest of wills with those who wish to stoke these populist, nationalist, and sectarian impulses-all of which are fundamentally tribal and not fit, for the 21st century. 

The movements of ideas, of initiatives, of dreams must be cultivated and protected. Reason must prevail.


The Oxford Energy Seminar is a fully residential, educational conference for government officials, industrialists, managers and other professionals involved in either public or corporate decisionmaking in the field of energy.

The seminar has been held annually, in September, since 1979. It is now widely recognised as an important international forum on energy.

The Director of the Seminar is Mr Nader Sultan, the Dean of the Seminar is Dr. Louise Fawcett and the Assistant Director of the Seminar is Dr. Bassam Fattouh.


Oxford - 12 September 2017

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