Middle East: An Everlasting Awakening

It is difficult to imagine a more controversial and, at the same time, promising region of the world than the Middle East. But this region was once the cradle of human civilisation, and it continues to play a role in its development, writes Valdai Club Chairman Andrey Bystritskiy.

A super-modern giant container ship stuck in the Suez Canal serves as a dramatic, graphic metaphor, both for what is happening in the Middle East and the degree of importance that the region has for the whole world.

In a sense, the title of the 10th Middle East Conference of the Valdai Club “The Middle East in Search of a Lost Awakening”, has acquired additional symbolism: the whole world held its breath for a week, waiting to resume shipping along one of its most important trade routes. Now that the ship has been freed, the only question which remains is when the situation will return to normal and what the accident will have cost.

There is also a reason to believe that sooner or later, the situation in the Middle East will improve and prosperity will spread to all countries in the region. Of course, a catastrophic scenario cannot be completely ruled out, but the region has been facing various kinds of problems for so long that it seems to have developed some experience avoiding the most dangerous and destructive scenarios.

In essence, the situation in the Middle East should be viewed in the context of global development, which seems to be reaching a fundamentally new level. On the one hand, it provides the region with new opportunities, but on the other hand, it confronts it with new challenges.

At the time of the past confrontation between the socialist and capitalist blocs, the Middle East was a place where two ideologically antagonistic systems collided, a place of competition, a struggle for different models of the future. There is no such binary confrontation today.

But now, like the rest of the world, the Middle East finds itself in a situation where the future is uncertain, and there is no shared narrative regarding development. This is fraught with great difficulties.

Due to the unusually rapid technological development of the world, the interdependence of countries upon each other is only growing. Humanity has never before, one may say, been so internally connected, so immersed in diverse and intense communications. At the same time, however, this interdependence is rather poorly regulated; it is full of distortions and potential problems.

A stuck container ship turns out to provide a gloomily apt illustration. The old and narrow Suez Canal, of course, was not designed to accommodate ships the size of a small city. Moreover, as it turned out, no one really thought about what to do in the event of an accident involving this class of ship.

To extend the analogy, we can say that the world’s elites, primarily those claiming the leadership of the Western world, are trying to push the ships of the new world through the Suez Canal of current policy. This can lead to consequences much more serious than a flotilla of container ships being stuck off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Thus, the latest statements by the US administration seem to have been made by people who live to some extent in an imaginary world. In a world in which Western countries, and primarily the United States, maintain moral, political, economic and military leadership. The trouble, however, with the kind of imagination, which generates such illusions is not only and even not so much in the desire for domination. So what else is new? The trouble is that this aspiration has nothing to do with plans for the future, with development, or with promising models of globality. On the contrary, there is a feeling that many Western politicians are stuck in the past, trying to reproduce the constructions of the times of the confrontation between the USSR and the USA. That time has passed. We need new narratives and a new understanding: that the world is indeed becoming multipolar, that globalisation, inevitable for the development of mankind, has taken new paths, that there are now many centres of globalisation, and that it is all growing out of regional associations and alliances. It is obvious that the Eurasian super-region is growing before our very eyes. Its boundaries are not yet clear, but it has serious prospects. Latin America is clearly trying to play a role of its own. Surprising, but, alas, insufficiently-discussed processes are taking place in Africa.

Naturally, the Middle East, with all its fragmentation and diversity, faces the need to rethink itself, its identity, its values, its role in the world as a whole and the role of the surrounding world in its own development.

This situation cannot be easy. In order to understand, predict and model how the Middle East will develop, one has to take into account a huge number of factors. These include a very complex demographic structure and the disintegration of traditional society.

There are also numerous contradictions between the countries of the region. Turkey has one view of what is happening, Iran has another, and there is no agreement between the Arab countries. This underscores the extreme unevenness of economic development. There are long-standing conflicts and much more.

It is possible to add all this into some more or less harmonious picture only if some common intellectual, ideological platform appears. A platform on which you can build a model of the future of the region, its connections with the outside world, and the principles of interaction of various subjects operating both in the region and beyond.

In general, it is difficult to imagine a more controversial and, at the same time, promising region of the world. But this region was once the cradle of human civilisation, and it continues to play a role in its development.