Sykes Picot: A Century Later

Sykes-Picot: One Hundred years later

Oxford, 21 September 2016

Thank you Nader for your kind introduction.

Honored guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen

The nature of the challenges and threats ahead of us are the most complex we have ever faced. They range from major global economic crisis and dislocation, global warming and climate change, epidemic and pandemics, demographic ticking time-bombs, poor governance and flagrant corruption, transnational threats and terrorism, and finally geopolitical upheavals and meltdown of national political order in a number of important Arab countries.

Since the 1970’s, the Arab region has stagnated in several areas. While Arab countries have increased their Human Development Index by 66% in the past forty years, with significant improvements in literacy rates, health care, and overall standard of living, They remain lacking in the areas of political and economic development.

The population of Arab countries has practically tripled since 1970; but rapid urbanization, inefficient investment, and a failure to confront a surge in unemployment have contributed to near negative economic growth rates.

The Middle East, today, is in a state of chaos unmatched in its modern history. The weakening of state authority, terrorism, and strategic hostile rivalry  between state and non-state actors have set the conditions for a humanitarian crisis unseen in modern times.

But this Hobbesian viewpoint belies the young men and women who live in our region. Who under a great struggle, sought to create a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Over the past six years, the world has witnessed these youngsters, as they stood up to the tyranny and injustice brought against them.
What we have now, is the aftermath of these movements.

Having been freed from the shackles of diplomatic double-speak, I can say clearly: That the conditions present today are not a result of the ideals and aspirations of the youth of the middle east-but in the total implosion of the Arab political order.

In order to understand the historical tensions underlining the modern day quagmire, we need to go back exactly 100 years to a place very close to here.

In fact, just across the road in Lady Margaret Hall, a graduate of this fine institution; Gertrude Bell would help to carve out the modern-day Middle East.

As the ideal Arabist, Bell would use her charm, fearlessness, and more importantly, her intellect, to shape British Imperial policy that resulted in the Sykes-Picot agreement which shaped today's Middle East .

This year marks the 100th anniversary of that agreement, and today, we see a resurgence of the dynamics of ethnic/sectarian and tribal clashes.

In short, we are at a historic moment. The region's political order is in a state of fundamental disequilibrium. From the unraveling of the Sykes-Picot architecture, the emergence of nuclear Iran, to the unprecedented challenges to the legitimacy of the Arab political system, global peace and stability are at stake. The international community needs to joint efforts in constructing a viable trajectory for regional soft landing. The world can learn from the wealth of knowledge that the GCC has accumulated over the past few decades in managing regional issues.


The GCC bases its policy on a set of principles that clearly explain where it stands on such crises and their regional implications.

First, The legitimacy of the state rests with its people, and its purpose must be the protection of their rights, safety, and wellbeing.

Second, the Arab-nation state is the core construct undergirding the people of the Arab world. Any attempt from foreign influencers to undermine this system is rejected and any changes to the system must come from within.

Third, transnational ideologies that do not recognize the territorial integrity of Arab states represent a major threat to our collective security.

Fourth, as a people of common language and identity, the GCC believes in the strength of cooperation and thus encourages bilateral relations and multilateral institutions that foster closer relations between Arab states.

Fifth, International law is paramount in preserving regional and international peace. The role of international organization in the oversight of these laws must be ensured.

Based on these guidelines, we see that security and stability are a priority regardless of where the dust of continuing crises settles. I will point out 5 ongoing regional crises and how we in the GCC are dealing with them.

First. Iran

An enduring challenge to these ideals comes from a key player in regional politics- Iran. Iran continues to pose both as a security and a geopolitical threat to the stability of the region. Aside from being the leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran is also the backer and principle beneficiary to the destabilizing activities in the region.

The challenge of Iran comes from its desire to establish a sort of regional hegemony through its malign activities. From its meddling in the internal affairs of Arab states to its funding of sectarian proxies in other states, Iran has elected to play multiple hands at once in the hope that some sort of arbitrage can come about from the preoccupation of its neighbors.

One of these hands has come through the Iranian Nuclear program. While the GCC has reiterated that Iran is well within its rights to pursue a peaceful program, their behavior belies their rhetoric and increases regional and international anxiety. The GCC’s commitment to the NPT regime is ironclad, and we endeavor to create a region without WMDs. The GCC is eager to see the continued retirement of non-peaceful nuclear programs after the term of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action expires.

On the issue of Iran’s meddling in the domestic politics of Arab countries, there can be no compromise. Promoting sectarianism within the region is not only counterproductive, but self-defeating. Weaker neighbors do not guarantee a more dominant and influential Iran. Quite the contrary, this is not a zero-sum game ; more unstable region will harm all parties.

Second. Syria

Syria, today, is a geopolitical Chernobyl whose fallout is spewing instability and extremism all over the region and the world. The resultant refugee crisis has reached a level unseen in modern times. The world has watched how the Syrian regime has turned the peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian people into a sectarian conflict; the world has watched as the Syrian regime brought into Syria Hezbollah, the Iranian revolutionary guards, and, finally, the mighty Russian military machine in order to subdue the brave Syrian people; without success. The world watches as innocent civilians have been deliberately targeted. And yet, the world refuses to provide these innocents either the means to defend themselves or safe havens that halt their slaughter.

Unfortunately, strategic competition between great powers is one of the key causes for the continued quagmire, and thus, the international community are at an impasse. It is often said that there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria. This may be partially true, but it is misleading. The central problem in Syria is the unwillingness of the international community to balancing the military forces between all parties that will enable a negotiated settlement. We have already begun to see the effects of policy failure on mass migration throughout the world, and the longer it takes to come up with a solution, the worse these effects will be.

The cost of inaction in Syria has displaced 9 million people, 4.5 million have fled to neighbouring countries, and over 470,000 have been killed.

Third. Yemen

This regional upheaval has also effected countries close to and within the GCC.
The situation in Yemen is a major threat to the security of the GCC and the wider region. Yemen has historically been a close partner to the GCC in tackling regional issues. And due to geographic, historic, and strategic factors, Yemen’s stability and security has always been a strategic interest for the GCC.

The 2011 Yemeni revolution threatened to bring about the collapse of the country, but with GCC support, a new path towards a political settlement was paved. This brought about the abdication of then Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh, and a transitional period that would result in the forming of a new social contract. This initiative was stifled, when the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels hijacked the Yemeni state amidst the turmoil and attempted to rewrite a new future for Yemen.

The UN attempts to broker an agreement with the Houthis would turn out to be fruitless, and all subsequent overtures would be rejected by them. Working within the UN security council, the GCC had no alternative but to liberate Yemen from the Houthis and return it to all Yemenis who wanted a stake in its future.

With the backing of UNSCR 2216, the legal right to go to war was granted. While war is not always the best path forward, the situation in Yemen required a certain military and security environment that would allow a political settlement to occur. This environment would facilitate the restoration of the legitimate government of Yemen. In my country, Kuwait, we have held negotiations between the legitimate Yemeni government and the Houthis, but unfortunately, the Houthis continued derailment of talks have born no fruits.

Fourth. Terrorism

The threat of terrorism is one that continues to play a large role in destabilizing the region. ISIS, Hezbollah, and AL-Qaeda are exploiting vast power vacuums in certain Arab states. Furthermore, the perceived rebalancing of great powers in the region have given rise to a new type of terrorism. The most alarming aspect of which is the ideology itself. Technology and social media help disperse these messages to a receptive audience all over the world. An audience that is becoming increasingly desperate, angry, and hopeless. These conditions create the perfect storm from which these terrorist organizations can recruit.

The region and the international community must defeat these ideologies by working together to counter terrorist messaging.

Fifth. The Arab Israeli conflict

Whatever the geopolitical changes in the region may be, they will never change the nature of the over looming challenge of far longer gestation, a situation that lies at the center of so many difficulties faced by our region. That is the plight of the Palestinian people. Solving the Palestinian and Arab Israeli conflict is imperative to a peaceful region. The responsibility for continued failure in reaching a just solution to this just cause rests on The Israeli government. Israel’s ambitious design is no less doomed than the Iranian one. Unless UN Security Council resolutions supporting the peaceful resolution of this conflict, and the Arab Peace Initiative are accepted by Israel, bloodshed and destruction will continue.


In conclusion, since its inception, the GCC have succeeded through diplomacy, international alliances, and internal cohesion in preserving the stability and territorial integrity of its 6 member states. We believe that through such means we can still deal with the ongoing crises facing our region. However, in the absence of world leadership and the reluctance of world powers to act responsibly, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate with profound implications on global peace and security . Let us hope that the world come to its senses, soon.

Thank you

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