As we go to press, the world is bereft of one of its most admired leaders: Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, an enlightened monarch who ruled for nearly 50 years. His Majesty was an example of emulation for his own people and the wider international public. He was the sole Arab leader not to sever relations with Egypt over President Sadat’s accord with Israel in 1978. When I interviewed him 25 years ago at the midpoint of his reign (by fax for Vol. III, no. 4), the Oslo process seemed to offer hope for a just Arab-Israeli peace. His Majesty had even received Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Muscat, an unprecedented diplomatic milestone at the time. He deserves great credit for his efforts in a just cause. Sultan Qaboos accomplished many significant diplomatic feats over the years, and his success in developing his own country speaks for itself (see the remembrance by Middle East Policy Council president Richard Schmierer, former U.S. ambassador to Oman, p. 176).
In other sad news, a notable leader of the Middle East Policy Council, Frank Anderson, passed away in late January. He was president of the Council from 2009 to 2012. Frank served for 27-years with the intelligence community, primarily in the Middle East. His efforts in the region, in particular his behind-the-scenes engagement with the PLO, contributed to important policy initiatives, including the Oslo Accords. Everyone on the Council staff and Board of Directors appreciated Frank’s warmth and good humor, as well as his regional expertise and his anecdotes from more than a quarter century of living dangerously.
Speaking of danger, the coronavirus pandemic circling the globe has halted life as we used to know it. As I write this the impact on the United States continues to grow, and most predictions are not optimistic. While the journal team is working remotely to send this issue to press, a plan for shoring up the U.S. economy has just been signed by the President. A worrisome aspect right now is wishful (and political) thinking in lieu of a science-based policy response by the Trump administration. In the Middle East, prospects of potentially dire health scenarios are crowding out a needed focus on devastating regional crises: How many Syrians will die of exposure on any given night seeking refuge and a safe haven? How many young Palestinians will be killed or maimed today by Israeli snipers? How much more suffering and devastation will the Yemeni people have to bear?
And the impact of the U.S. in the region? How would Israel’s unilateral implementation of the Trump-Kushner “deal of the century” affect the country’s democratic character? According to Martin Indyk, under the plan Israel would be officially permitted to create Bantustans inside its newly annexed territory, changing Israel from a democratic to an Apartheid state. And how about the calamitous knock-on effect of shredding Israel’s long-standing treaty with Jordan? The accommodating government in Amman has long provided a buffer zone for Israel with Iraq, but that role would be unlikely to survive the loss of the Jordan Valley and the holy sites in Jerusalem (see Koprulu, p. 71, on the risks to Jordan’s stability). And terrorism? One fact about terrorism is known: the main cause is land theft, as political scientist Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has devoted his career to explaining (Dying to Win). Pape spoke at a Middle East Policy Council Capitol Hill conference September 8, 2008: “The Global War on Terror: What Has Been Learned?” After showing videos of al-Qaeda members explaining their motivation in idiomatic American English, Pape summarized it: “to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists prize,” whether in Lebanon, Palestine or the Arabian Peninsula.
And then there is the matter of how Washington and Tehran might find a way back to diplomatic — vice military — wrangling. In early January, with his Senate impeachment trial looming, Donald Trump ordered a drone strike on the convoy of IRGC commander Major General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani’s killing triggered a retaliatory and largely symbolic missile strike by Tehran on a U.S. base in Iraq, inflicting injuries but killing no American or Iraqi personnel; it did, however lead to the tragic shoot-down over Iran of a Ukrainian jet carrying 176 passengers. Although sporadic attacks and reprisals between U.S. and Iranian-back forces continue to take place in Iraq, the region has so far been spared the broader escalation of hostilities feared by many
Instability is growing, though the Arab world has long been plagued by it. In this issue, Eric Bordenkircher calls it “Lebanonization” (p. 41). A timely reminder of the appropriateness of this term was the news on March 9 that Beirut had just defaulted on a $1.2 billion Eurobond, a catastrophe for more than its own citizens. The uprisings that sparked optimism a decade ago are still producing ill effects. Renowned specialists on the subject, Marina and David Ottaway, have written the lead article for this issue: “The New Arab Uprisings: Lessons from the Past” (p. 30). Their book on the old ones, ironically named the Arab Spring, is also reviewed inside: A Tale of Four Worlds (see Schmierer, p. 153). In their contribution to the current issue, Leonid Issaev and Andrey Zakharov bring the focus down to the specific case of Libya (p. 56). The shredding of the Syrian political fabric has spawned numerous horrors, such as Turkey’s incursion of October 2019 into Syria’s Kurdish area, the subject of the contribution from Michael Gunter and Hakan Yavuz (p. 86).
Some of the despair underlying the 2011 upheavals can be traced to the failure of “liberalization,” intended as an improvement over the command economies of autocracies and military dictatorships. Figuring out how cronyism and its associated corruption actually work is maddeningly complex, frustrating the search for relief, never mind a cure. This is the subject of the review essay by Robert Springborg of Crony Capitalism in the Middle East, edited by three World Bank economists (p. 169). In brief, the means of cheating are these: closing off some people’s access and granting protection to others; reducing regulations for the favored and affording them credit; “privatizing” state businesses; and sheltering the lucky few from global competition. The .01 percent win big and the rest lose in a class system that stifles innovation and productivity. No wonder the youth are willing to risk their lives to change the system.
The Persian Gulf and Russia also have a place in the contents of issue #143. The recent move by Saudi Arabia to put pressure on Moscow by increasing oil production to drive down the price points up the high stakes. An article on the oil market by Shin and Mahmudlu (p. 102) and a piece about the less familiar topic of Islamic banking in Oman by Winai and Babicci (p. 115) will be of interest to both general readers and specialists. Another under-analyzed subject, the common ground between the United Arab Emirates and Russia, is probed by Samuel Ramani (p. 125). Finally, Mark Katz reveals the policy similarities of the tsars, the Soviets and Vladimir Putin (p. 141). Geography really is destiny, despite pop psychology on the Deutsche Volk, the Slavic soul or the Arab mind — the “Other.”