Issues regarding Arab-European dialogue

I just spent three days at the Rome Mediterranean Dialogues event, where I took part in a panel on media and cultural issues in relation to ISIS. Listening to the discussions from European and Arab politicians and policy-makers, a number of points of interest or concern jumped out, which I just wanted to summarise here.

1. A ‘Middle East Marshall Plan’

This was repeatedly cited by Arab ministers in particular (we heard from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar), alongside the theme of stressing their governments’ anti-terror credentials to the Europeans: “we need your financial support.” The only indication of any kind of practical thinking came in former Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos’ suggestion of a European development bank directed specifically at helping countries of the southern Mediterranean littoral. However, no one really foresees any such thing happening.

2. Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Both Arab and Europeans were ensured a round of applause if they made a call for action to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea was that this would remove one of the main causes of grievance between the West and the Arab world. Unfortunately, we’ll heard it all before, for over 20 years in fact, during which Europeans proved incapable of moderating American support for Israeli positions and could not even prevent Israeli settlement goods finding their way into European markets. Now the two-state solution which Europeans are clinging onto appears more like an imperative to save Zionism from itself, since the infrastructure of settlement expansion has made separation of the occupied territories and the state of Israel extremely difficult to envisage. Even if the Palestinian Authority were to transform into a Palestinian state in name, its ability to provide a dignified life with political, economic and social rights ensured to all its citizens – not least freedom of movement – is highly questionable. That is why discourse on the conflict has shifted towards the question of bi-nationality.

3. ‘Mediterranean’ as frame of analysis

Europe is interested in the Mediterranean as a framework because it faces a refugee influx from non-European states on the Mediterranean. However, the geopolitics producing state dysfunction and refugee flows in those states is tied up with somewhere outside the Mediterranean: the Gulf. The centre in Arab politics and media has shifted towards the Gulf states. They dominate Arab media and their media is driven by the political concerns of the Gulf regimes. So North African states are framed discursively by powers outside their borders or even immediate vicinity. Secondly, they are subject to interventions beyond anything seen before the Arab uprisings: UAE, Egyptian and Qatari military, political and financial involvement in Libya, even a Saudi call at one stage for Morocco and Jordan (not Mediterranean) to join the GCC.

4. Crisis in Arab Sunni Islam

This notion is put about with two issues in mind: the emergence of radical groups such as ISIS and Sunni alarm at the empowerment of Shi’ite groups in the Arab region. On the first point, the crisis is not so much radical groups, who after all represent a very small, if sometimes effective minority, but rather the spread of religious conservatism from the Gulf since the 1970s. The prestige of secular Arab nationalism took a deadly blow in 1967, and in its wake Saudi Arabia became a priming ground for Salafi religious trends – many important figures spent time there, such as Albani, Muqbil al-Wadi’i, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, and Saudis such as Bin Baz of course, while movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood underwent a process of ‘Salafization’ through Saudi influence in Egypt and Brothers spending time in Saudi. These dynamics have had far more impact on Sunni Islam in the Arab region than al-Qa’ida or ISIS, who are more the latest symptom of an underlying phenomenon.

Secondly, the issue of ‘rising Shi’ism/Iran’ is first and foremost a Gulf regime obsession. It is shared to some degree by elites in countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, but is propagated by governments and religious establishments through media. Pan-Arab media takes on these concerns in turn, producing Arabs who replace concern over Israeli nuclear weapons with fear of an Iranian arsenal and express angst over alleged Shi’ite proselytization. Yet even in 2012-3 a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt took steps to normalize relations with Iran. Before the Iraq invasion of 2003 it was normal to hear commentators such as Mohammed Hassanein Heikal call for Egypt to realign with Iran as a natural ally. The discourse of crisis in Arab Sunni Islam is, in other words, to some degree a political manipulation.

5. The Problem as The Solution

Arab ministers turn up at such events to stress their security credentials before Western powers. Polite reference is  made to police state brutality and structural political and economic marginalisation, which those Western powers effectively perpetuate, through reference to problems of ‘governance’.

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