Discussion on the Current Situation in the Middle East

December 20, 2018

A globally recognized expert on the Middle East provided a sweeping presentation of the historical roots and strategic alliances behind the region's current challenges and opportunities in a visit to Santiago in early December. Safwan Masri is author of an acclaimed book on the history of Tunisia and the Executive Vice President for Columbia Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University. He is a senior research scholar at the School for International and Public Affairs and is an honorary fellow of the Foreign Policy Association.

His talk was organized by Columbia Global Centers | Santiago and hosted by the International Editor of El Mercurio, Juan Pablo Toro.

"The Middle East of today is quite different than 20 years ago", he explained, and has been defined by a lack of regional leadership. What is resulting are poles of power revolving around Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, with Turkey, Russia and Iran influencing power dynamics.

Masri traces current instability to the 2003 invasion and subsequent destabilization of Iraq by the United States. Since then the Middle East has seen greater tensions between the Sunni and Shia denominations of Islam, the rise of ISIS, the Arab Spring, and civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya which has lead to proxy wars and the participation of Turkey, Russia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia is emergent and fueled by petrodollars and leader Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has been ruthless in his pursuit of political control, Masri stated. There have been 600 executions in the last four years, 48 beheadings in recent months, and journalists are regularly detained and abused, he said. And then there was the brutal assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi in October. Amidst this brutality, Prince Mohammed overturned a longtime rule to allow women to drive, permitting him to claim to be a reformer, Masri said. It is a misleading effort.  "Any step is a good step, but these are superficial things. He is not the great reformer that everyone says he is. These cosmetic changes served an important purpose", Masri explained. "...to get the West off of his back".

According to Masri, Iran continues to be a major threat to Saudi Arabia and has triggered unlikely alliances with Israel and United Arab Emirates:  "Iran is destabilizing for the ruling elites of Saudi Arabia and other countries because it has the capacity to provide political, military and even economic leadership for other countries".

The Israel and Palestinian conflict is latent, with attempted negotiations by the US envoy Jared Kushner in an "Ultimate Deal" failing to materialize. "A year ago we were holding our breath to see what this Ultimate Deal was all about," explained Masri. "I think we are no longer waiting".

The younger generations provide him hope. "There is a greater awareness of human rights issues and there is a greater awareness by the millennial generation of justice", he said.

"I lived in a time of pointing fingers…'You are wrong, I have suffered more'", Masri added. "We need to step back a little bit and allow for a new generation to discuss paths to reconciliation".

Masri's book Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly was released on the Columbia University Press in 2017.

See pictures of the event here