As decision-makers meet in Abu Dhabi, it is important for this vital bloc not to retreat into its tragedies or be consumed by anger, writes Raghida Dergham
Trump's nuclear decision should not hinder a greater vision for the Arab region
Just because there are alarming political and security developments in the Arab region hindering its ambitions does not mean it has to stop thinking in visionary terms and start planning in strategic terms. It is unhealthy for this vital bloc to retreat into its tragedies or to be consumed by anger from what others are doing to and in it.
It is from this standpoint that the Beirut Institute think tank was launched, to leverage the diversity, creativity and capacity of the region in its search for solutions and bring together stakeholders to discuss how to shape the future.
Yet the Beirut Institute is an Arab think tank with a global dimension. Its goal is to exert positive influence in both directions, through frank and constructive engagement that does not ignore facts but takes them into account in order to devise new approaches.
Over the next two days, a distinguished group of Arab and international decision-makers will meet at the second Beirut Institute summit in Abu Dhabi, whose focus will be “to construct the Arab region’s engagement in the emerging global future”. This is less of a theme and more of a duty that thinkers, leaders and ordinary people must assume to move us from despair to hope for the future.
However, none of this is to downplay the seriousness of political developments and their impact on the summit. Indeed, the gathering comes in the aftermath of US President Donald Trump withdrawing his country from the nuclear deal with Iran – a development that will impact the Arab region both in the present and the future and requires profound consideration of its immediate and strategic implications.
When current and ex-Arab League chiefs Ahmed Abulgheit and Amr Moussa sit on the same platform as current and ex-GCC security general Abullatif Al Zayani and Abdullah Bishara, they will inevitably hold an important talk about the odds of either direct military confrontation with Iran or genuine reconciliation with Iran in the future of the Middle East.
Another session on new priorities for the region will bring together Prince Turki Al Faisal, general David Petraeus, Lebanon’s interior minister Nouhad El Machnouk and Libyan former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril. This session must tackle in depth what US goals currently are in the Arab region, from the Gulf to Libya via Lebanon, compared to US policies under former president Barack Obama.
What Mr Trump has done with Mr Obama’s nuclear deal is a dangerous gamble, unless he is confident in and ready for the necessary next steps. Indeed, one of the strongest cards Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has is sabotage and terrorism across the Arab landscape and beyond, if Tehran should feel cornered. This would also embolden hardliners in Iran and prompt the IRGC to escalate against Israel and step up its foreign incursions in Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
The Europeans in particular are amplifying this very real threat, as they seek to maintain the nuclear deal because tearing it apart has huge costs for them. The Arab region also faces high costs for the end of the deal, albeit from a different angle.
Mr Trump effectively challenged Germany, France and Britain to end their political hypocrisy under the guise of commercial interests. He has given the three European powers that co-signed the deal with the US, Russia and China an opening. He has said he did not care how the “bad deal” is reformed as long as its flaws and shortcomings are addressed. Nevertheless, Europe’s leaders dismissed Trump’s clear warnings that he was intent to withdraw from the deal unless he obtained European commitments to address the flaws, only to wake up too late to his seriousness and the risks for their companies, which are engaged in massive contracts with Iran.
It is these business dealings that had motivated the Europeans to cave to Iran’s demands, including allowing the IRGC to expand militarily in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and dominate Lebanon through Hezbollah.
So what happens now? The onus is on the Europeans primarily. Mr Trump has exposed Europe’s harmful duplicity and it is up to them to make a move.
For their part, the Arab countries are divided. Some support Mr Trump’s decision and some oppose or fear its repercussions. However, they are almost united in their resentment of Europe’s behaviour in the Arab landscape over the past few decades. This means that the current moment of truth could be an opportunity to engage in a reform process with multiple goals, including mending the imbalance in the European-Iranian-Arab dynamic.
Discussing how to induce a positive shift in these troubled relations, including Arab-Iranian relations, is part of what the Beirut Institute is trying to do. What is unacceptable in all cases, however, is to freeze the Arab region’s march towards progress and surrender by fear from the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS or possible reprisal from the Islamic Republic. We must not reduce the Arab region to conflict and terrorism for it is a fertile land for talent, ambition and determination, despite all appearances.
Beirut Institute is a workshop for ideas and actions, bringing together multiple generations to speak in the language of empowerment and resolve. When I founded this think tank eight years ago, I enlisted my daughter, who was still a university student at the time. As I set out to continue the institute’s work and overcome the many hurdles facing it, I was not alone but was fortunate to have an excellent board of directors, led by Prince Turki, who put his faith in us.
We were also lucky and grateful to be hosted for our summits by the UAE in October 2015 and now again this week, a testimony that the institute works for the entire Arab region.
Beyond geopolitical challenges, the summit will hold sessions titled "beyond fear: toward a pragmatic embrace of tomorrow" and "innovative government: excellence in the public sphere".
Participants from the US, Russia, China, Europe and the Arab region will hold both closed and open meetings to discuss the next chapter in the Middle East’s story but the question remains: who writes the future in the region?
The Beirut Institute Summit will run today and tomorrow in the St Regis hotel, Abu Dhabi Corniche