The Middle East in 2020

The Middle East in 2020

Event Information


The Middle East Policy Council held its 100th Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, April 17th: “The Middle East in 2020.” The event was virtual and held through Zoom due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The event took a broad look at where the Middle East stands in 2020 and how the foreign policy of the current Trump administration has upended, reimagined or continued traditional U.S. engagement in the region. The panelists focused mostly on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and Iran, while also addressing the ongoing Syrian civil war and the changing economic and political realities in the Gulf States.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Roger Cohen (Columnist, New York Times); Mona Yacoubian (Senior Advisor on the Middle East and North Africa, United States Institute of Peace); Kirsten Fontenrose (Director, Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Atlantic Council); and Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council).

Mr. Cohen bid “adieu to a certain America” whose foreign policy was based on continuing a post-World War II set of institutions, values and alliances. This conception of America appears to be waning, particularly during the current Trump administration, where U.S. foreign policy is more “based on hypocrisy than honor” and “politics has been replaced by theater.” In practical terms, this shift is seen in the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal with no vision for its replacement and a “farce” of a peace plan recently unveiled to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which amounted to both a “buyout and a misjudgment.” Despite the United States’ diminishing engagement in the region, Mr. Cohen sees hope in the youth of the Middle East, many of whom share the same values that used to guide U.S. foreign policy.

 Ms. Yacoubian believes that existing dynamics in the Middle East will be accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. She noted that the pandemic could exacerbate existing challenges such as the high levels of forceable displacement in the Middle East that are already some of the highest globally, and rates of poverty which are already as high as 80% in Yemen and 90% in Syria. On the state level, she noted how vulnerable Iraq will be to the oil price collapse, Lebanon’s lack of success at managing the financial crisis there, and the continued instability in Syria which Russia sees as a “test case” for its foreign policy in what Moscow terms a future post-West world.

Ms. Fontenrose discussed Iran and Saudi Arabia with emphasis on how economics might impact their relationship with the United States. With respect to Iran, she explained how Iran is “standing in its own way” on many of its stated foreign policy objectives. For example, continued Iranian aggression is the main reason the Trump administration hasn’t withdrawn more troops from the region, something that it would otherwise like to do. With respect to Saudi Arabia, she envisioned a continuation of the “good cop, bad cop” approach where President Trump publicly supports the Saudis while the U.S. Congress questions some of their actions. The U.S. – Saudi relationship will also continue to be linked to energy, she explained, and the evolving dynamics of world oil prices, the strength of the U.S. shale industry, and domestic politics in both countries.

Mr. Schmierer described the changing landscape for the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and an evolving global role for the Gulf States. He explained how Israel progressed from being called a Jewish homeland to a Jewish state, and how U.S. support for Israel used to be bi-partisan but has become increasingly partisan. These developments have forfeited the long-standing role of the U.S. as an honest broker, with the U.S. instead supporting Israel in achieving “maximalist” demands, despite its increased relative security in the region. He underlined the continued need for each Gulf State to diversify their economies away from reliance on energy revenues while reducing sectarian conflict, something the Saudis can further by continuing to support a more moderate clerical circle to oversee the promotion of Islam abroad.

The full video from the event will be available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Mr. Roger Cohen

Columnist, New York Times and International New York Times

Former Foreign Editor, New York Times


Ms. Mona Yacoubian

Senior Advisor on the Middle East and North Africa, 

United States Institute of Peace

Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Middle East Bureau, USAID


Ms. Kirsten Fontenrose

Director, Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, Atlantic Council

Former Senior Director of the Gulf, National Security Council


Amb. (ret.) Richard J. Schmierer

President and Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council

Former Ambassador to Oman



Amb. (ret.) Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley

Vice Chair, Middle East Policy Council Board of Directors

Former Ambassador to Malta



Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council

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