Middle East in Transition: An American Perspective

July 14, 2014

Talks & Interviews

Ambassador James Larocca

Ambassador James Larocca, Director, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA), former U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, 1997-2001 and Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge D’Affaires in Tel Aviv, 1993-1996, Prof. John H. Gill, a military historian and Associate Professor at NESA and Zachary J. Meyer, Forward Office Director, Bahrain were part of the NESA panel invited to deliver a talk on “Middle East in Transition: An American Perspective” at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance on February 16, 2012.

Ambassador Larocca began by saying that the Middle East was going through a period of extraordinary historical change, especially since the past one year. In order to fully comprehend and understand this process of change, he had visited several countries to gather first-hand knowledge about the changing conditions.

“… a process that would take many generations to play out, a revolution thatwould have many further developments before it settled.”

He expressed that the terms ‘Arab Spring’, ‘Arab Awakening’ or ‘Arab Uprising’ were not fitting description for the situation. Instead he asserted that “Middle-Eastern Transition” was more apt as it was a process and not a single or series of events. It was a process that would take many generations to play out, a revolution that would have many further developments before it settled. As the French Revolution and the American Civil War experience demonstrated that it took many decades for countries to settle on a suitable form of government, following such events.

Describing inception of the transition, though many considered the self-immolation of a young Tunisian vegetable vendor after being refused a license as the spark, a lesser known fact was that since then a 100 Tunisians had set themselves on fire. What started then, was not completed with the overthrow of Ben Ali, it was only the beginning. A similar impression applied to all of the transitioning Middle-Eastern countries. People were against tyranny, inefficiency, corruption, and desired dignity, self-respect, freedom of speech and political participation. However, the strategy and mechanism through which this could be achieved was not clear, and people still needed to decide and agree on the mode of governance. There was a lack of advanced higher education, academia, and research institutions in the Middle-East, and compared to South Asia, there were very few people studying Middle-East in the Middle-East.

Exemplifying Tunisia, he pointed out that the country had no history of a local government system. In contrast, the US had a strong system of local government for over a century before it became a country, and the public while satisfied with the performance of city, county and state governments, resented the central government. Similarly, Egypt had been centrally governed for over 30 years. But unlike Tunisia, Egypt’s economic problems were direr. Most Egyptians were living on less than two dollars a day and the economy was at a risk of bankruptcy. He expected a fundamental change in Egypt predicting a coalition government of the Muslim Brotherhood, economic technocrats and the military.

The process of transition in each Middle-Eastern country was different, though the desire to overthrow imperial dictators and move towards a new ideology was a common thread. In the case of Libya, foreign intervention was necessary for a change to take place as in the absence of robust institutions, conflicts and divisions among the population had resulted in a highly unstable and volatile situation. While Libya was resource rich with a small population, Yemen was a resource poor country of similar population size. A distinguishing feature of Yemen was its rich civilization and a strong family culture. The robust social fabric and deeply embedded cultural values of cooperation, sharing and helpfulness was an enabling factor for communities to endure and survive the economic hardships of this transitory phase. Also, the presence of a cadre of technocrats could help the country to move forward.

In Syria, the majority was ruled by a minority dictatorship. Unlike the Libyan transformation, Syria experienced what he described a “genuine revolution”. He expected the formation of a Sunni government while 50% of the population comprised of minorities including Christians and other Muslim sects. But, the Syrian situation was precarious and complex. Discussing Saudi Arabia, he stated that King Abdullah had recognized the need for change, and had responded by increased expenditure on education and employment generation. He expected a peaceful process of change in Saudi Arabia. He added that Tunisia, Jordon, Egypt and Yemen were going through the transition during an unfavorable time due to the simultaneous onset of global economic crisis. Though they were proud people and not accustomed to accepting foreign aid, however the economic situation now necessitated it.

In conclusion, he elucidated possible solutions asserting that all solutions were regional and the Arab League had failed to resolve regional problems, particularly in Syria. Existing international institutions would also be unable to resolve today’s problems. Though the UN could define codes of conduct, there was a dire need to reshape and develop regional institutions for conflict resolution.

The talk was followed by a question answer session. Replying to a question regarding prevalent religious extremism in the Middle East, he stated that specific solutions were required in each country. Democracy implied that minorities would have to pay a price for majority rule. With increased democracy, there was greater empowerment and freedom of expression, and aggression against minorities in such phases of transition was inevitable. Rise in violence and bloodshed would occur before a point of stability was reached.

In response to a comment on US foreign intervention in the Middle East, he stated that US intervention had been widely criticized and US assistance even rejected in some instances because of it carried an American flag. He stated that there were limits to what the US could do to resolve the situation.

In response to a question regarding the role of leader ship in preventing violence, he gave the example of Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, change was occurring in a peaceful way owing to the wisdom of the leadership. King Abdullah had set up local municipal councils to facilitate resolution of problems, such as: housing, energy, water and education were being resolved in a peaceful manner. Though not being discussed in the local media, there was remarkable peaceful systematic change taking place in Saudi Arabia, he claimed.