Conflict in the Middle East with Jane Kinninmont
SELHuG meeting, June 2019
Jane is the Director of Programmes at The Elders Foundation, having previously been a research fellow in the Middle East section at the international think-tank Lancaster House.
She presented a lavish smorgasbord of facts & opinions about political, social & cultural affairs in many of the countries of the Middle East. The attitude in most Western countries to events in the Middle East is greatly distorted by prejudices around religion, particularly Islam, oil wealth, imperialism & the new Cold War between the USA, Russia & China. The result is a very narrow focus, mainly on immigration & terrorism.
In practice, the issues that most concern the people of the Middle East are very much the same as elsewhere – jobs, housing, marriage &, increasingly, mental health.
Jane said that the population of the Middle East area is roughly half a billion. Of these, around two thirds are under 30. Educational levels are quite high but employment opportunities are very low. Curiously, the higher are a person’s educational qualifications the lower are their employment prospects! This young population is completely modern in its use of technology & social media – they have Facebook & Twitter accounts & expect to own cars & washing machines just like everyone else. Consequently, there is a severe clash between young people’s aspirations & their opportunities.
Three of the world’s most deadly conflicts are in the Middle East – in Iraq, Yemen, & in Syria where half of the population has been displaced & one third are refugees outside the country. There are many reasons for these conflicts & they generally have long underlying histories. Partly they are down to the social & economic factors already mentioned, but governance, nepotism & corruption are also crucial. Political power is concentrated within a privileged minority & there are generally no mechanisms for the transfer or devolution of power. Consequently, the ruler is a ‘strong man’, & it is always a man, who uses every available device to stay in power – there is no succession mechanism other than conflict & overthrow by force. The
organisations that have been used elsewhere to help resolve such conflicts are biased or weak: pressure by the US to resolve conflicts in Syria, Palestine & Iraq has been very one-sided, the UN is ineffectual, & regional bodies like the Arab League are very weak.
Efforts to create employment in the area have been eclipsed by the distorting effect of the oil wealth – why work on a production line when government handouts are worth so much more than wages? Saudi government aspirations to create a new high-tech Silicon Valley have not been met with any enthusiasm by those with knowledge & money in California.
Jane gave us plenty to think about & her presentation was followed by a very lively discussion. John, supported by Assad, suggested that, since so many of the problems originated with meddling by colonial powers, there should be a Truth & Reconciliation process to enable us to “fess up to our crimes”. Tony asked about the role of religion & Jane replied that, somewhat like the situation in Ireland, religious differences were often used as an excuse & justification for conflict but the real causes lay elsewhere. She cited Iraq, where religious differences were certainly exacerbated during the American occupation whereas in Kuwait, Sunni & Shi’ite adherents live happily side- by-side. Anna asked about the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Jane replied that the de facto ruler, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, seemed to be relaxing social norms, such as allowing women to drive, while at the same time tightening political controls.
Time constraints forced Hester to suspend the discussion at 9.15 but it continued well into the evening in the Rose pub opposite. Jane had given us a very well-informed & interesting presentation.
Some further reading, recommended by Jane:
Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks
The Politics of Chaos in the Middle East by Olivier Roy
The Arabs by Eugene Rogan
The Arab Youth Survey