Between the Middle East and U.S., a growing gulf

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Rarely do gatherings of international policy wonks and officials produce defining or crystallizing moments. More often, jet-lagged participants end a day of talking with a bedraggled retreat to the bar. But with the topic being the Middle East, a two-day forum in this Persian Gulf city found its spark in an exchange between a leading local academic and one of Washington’s more prominent think tankers.

Like much that goes on in this oil producing region that so often seems to flaunt its relatively recent wealth, the conference and its setting reflected the divide between appearances and what people are thinking. In the vast spaces of the Emirates Palace Hotel, a massive edifice of marble hallways rivaling the Pentagon, there was the echo of conference speakers referring to “a dark tunnel of pessimism” and to a Middle East whose main export is refugees. (That reference was one of the rare ones about the hundreds of thousands fleeing Syria and other conflict zones, but to Europe, not to their Arab brethren in the Gulf. There was also scant mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)

But pessimism was the order of the day for the crowd of several hundred local movers and shakers and Washington think tankers and a smattering of Europeans, Russians and Chinese at the Second Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, sponsored by the Emirates Policy Center and the Atlantic Council in Washington. (The former was the host for this writer.) It is one thing to read of Gulf Arab worries about an Iran soon to be unshackled from
international sanctions, quite another to be surrounded by constant talk of that country, especially as it allies with Russia to prop up Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad. From Washington, the internal conflicts of Yemen seem especially remote, but not to the United Arab Emirates who are doing much of the air and ground fighting against rebel forces.

And lurking above those worries is the big and unavoidable question of the current and future role of the United States and whether the Gulf states are looking to the end of the unspoken pact of their petroleum in exchange for security guarantees from Washington.

It fell to a UAE academic, Mohammed bin Huwaidan, whose blunt quotes are often fodder for the local English language newspaper The National, to most sharply advance those worries. Asserting he was not in the prediction business, he rattled off several: that events in the Middle East would shape the international system for two coming decades; that the state system of 400 plus years was under threat and that the world was returning to ideological conflict after a brief respite. The result, he said, would be the UAE moving to fill the power gap in its region. As he concluded, there was a smattering of applause from the locals in their flowing white gowns and burnooses.

Which brought a retort from co-panelist Jessica Mathews, senior fellow and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“Why are you applauding?” Mathews asked, since the speaker had just evoked a list of negatives.

But it was not as if the Washington visitors had arrived with rosy scenarios. Mathews, herself, said the states in the region had to prepare for a world moving off carbon. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution followed her with the reminder and prediction that the Middle East is consumed in four civil wars — Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen — that could spread like a virus. President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser James Jones criticized the administration for creating the perception that the U.S. Is pivoting away from the Middle East and then added his critiques of two other administration policies. He dismissed as symbolic the dispatch of 50 U.S. special forces to Syria and said the Iran nuclear deal would at best buy time. But his suggestion of a NATO-style security arrangement in the region, seemed to find little resonance among fellow conferees.

Perhaps the ultimate example of how these conferees, as well as officials, can talk past each other came in an exchange between former Bush administration official Frances Townsend and a cluster of Gulf state participants. As they expressed their frustration and concerns about the Iran nuclear pact, she asked why Gulf leaders had not voiced these same sentiments at the Camp David meeting with President Obama earlier this year. Their collective response was a shrug of the shoulders.

Amid all the talk of the U.S. seeming to retreat from mounting chaos, a measured perspective came from a Chinese academic, Suolao Wang of Peking University. Is the rising power China ready to play a more active role in the region, especially after being doubly shocked by the turmoil of the Arab Spring and Russia’s intervention in Syria? He answered his own question with another. Would the Middle East, the domain of empires since ancient Rome, welcome the arrival of yet another outside power?