Trending Events - Issue 24 - Nov- Dec 2017

Worrying year!

Are “All these Fears” Towards 2018 Justified?
Sunday، March 11، 2018
Worrying year!

When a year ends and another begins, think tanks issue reports to analyze the strategic orientations that dominated the previous year or predict the major developments which the new year will witness. For a while now, we noticed that most think tanks focused on what the future may carry. Perhaps they do so because they believe there is no “added value” in reassessing what already happened or – and this is more probable – there are real demands for analyses and developing scenarios on what could happen, especially considering regional uncertainty and fears of clashes in the near future. 

However, there is a new factor as for some reasons, it was clear that 2018 stirred more fears than previous years, including the “horrible 2016". Meanwhile, assessments have voiced unusual worry about “collapses”, which this year may witness. Future Center realized this, at an early stage, in last December, the Adviser for our think tank's website suggested a headline for an article, “The worst is yet to come: Why do experts expect the escalation of international crises?”. It was one of the first distinguished analyses of the new year’s orientations based on the best-selling books in the past year, which were recommended by journals, academic figures and think tanks.

Of course, we “convinced” colleagues at the website to change the headline based on the saying “give them good tidings and do not make them run away” at the beginning of the new year. They simply said that there were practically no optimistic writings that indicate there is “good news” as early assessments noted there is unrest in the world that has witnessed rapid and unexpected developments. This is in addition to serious headlines about chaos, populism and rising threats that warned of history repeating itself. Other headlines discussed the decline of liberalism, loss of rationalization, end of enlightenment and rise of nationalism. It was clear, however, that they and the writers whose works were featured were greatly influenced by what Donald Trump will do and how it will lead to more 'confusion' globally.

These assessments did not come to an end but they expanded. More severe assessments were issued by influential parties and used terms that discuss more of the current and possible rifts which show that the world – according to the Munich Security Report – is on the brink. Everyone is now facing the reverse dilemma. The traditional problem was the inability to expect shocks and surprises which represent “problems.” However, amid these developments, it seems the issue may become about expectations of a major collapse that does not happen. There is a limit to bad scenarios before the different relevant parties decide to put an end to them, as long as the first rule in managing international relations is maintaining presence and not exiting the game.

Geo-Storm

In all cases, what is being said about the region is not different than what is being said about the world. This is in addition to a “psychological factor” that’s become clear in analyses and dialogues as everyone – except few parties – stopped believing that the region, which some of its parts in fact collapsed, can head towards “having some sort of a system” – especially when it comes to an Arab country. It became common for gatherings to propose analyses that are based on a haunch or worries that bad things will happen as sometimes there is “lack of comfort” towards what is happening and lack of understanding of some of the interactions. This is in addition to hopes that leaderships are aware of what they’re doing amid signs that warn “before the storm” erupts amid the lack of specific indicators.

The major source of worry in the Middle East is the possible waves of unrest that resulted – of what everyone knows it’s begun to happen – from geo-strategic transformations, which is a scary term that’s linked to changes in maps, borders, population, resources and regulations. These changes are due to enormous pressures, violent interventions and major deals. This leads to serious instability and unprecedented problems which there are no preparations as to how to deal with them, especially if Arab countries find themselves in the “observers” seat incapable of influencing operations that reorganize the 'situation' in the region.

Within this context, there are developments based on facts  that may lead to specific trends which worsen the confusion or worries of 2018. Some of them are:

1. Escalation of tensions related to superpowers’ policies. The Trump administration has been confusing, Russia’s policies lead to the formation of new facts and China and India have become closer to the region’s interactions more than ever before. There are questions on how policies are being developed in these countries and perceptions that problems between them may suddenly escalate or that tensions between them in other countries may slip into the region. Some of these countries interfered to amend paths, stop certain acts and amend formulas “while of course no one in the region desired to confront them.”  

2. Possibilities of direct clashes between regional powers such as Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Ethiopia. Political tools or proxy wars or indirect interference seem no longer enough to resolve conflicts between the region’s parties to the extent that most of them began to act in ways that imply that the next phase may include direct confrontations, which resort to force amid the lack of clear rules of engagement. The term “regional wars” surfaced again at a time when many no longer remember when the last major regional war erupted.

3. Emergence of new tension zones in the region as traditionally speaking, the number of conflicts which erupted was much more than the number of conflicts resolved. Due to Qatar’s behavior, the Gulf situation reached its current phase where there are severe tensions. “Military terms” became in use in the East of the Mediterranean, with Arab and European countries being mentioned within the same category for potential conflicts. Protests with uncompromised slogans erupted in countries governed by historical or chronic formulas, terrorists have been transferred from one area to another by brokering deals and ill intentions made some countries  engaged in negotiations to consider “severe options.”

4. Unspecific transformations in the nature of “non-traditional conflicts” as the limits of conflict arenas which specify the nature of the next clashes were easily identified but the case is no longer as such as there are other conflict tools and approaches that will not be fully understood until they are actually resorted to. Wars over resources, naval battles and missile attacks will develop. However, foreign infiltration of countries, extensive cyber attacks, the quick employment of artificial intelligence and social media battles will lead to disturbing developments.

5. Increase of domestic unrest in Arab societies as some Arab societies were torn apart. Their situation is now bad but they are coping with these tragedies. What is also upsetting is that the situation which pressures countries and that sometimes pressures their policies have led to domestic rifts. The case is no longer about violating the state but about behaviors resulting from worry, fear and lack of confidence. This produced unusual social phenomena and perhaps general instability as well as 'abnormal relations' between individuals and groups. There are real warnings to that.

6. Fears of “unintended consequences” of major decisions as the leaders of some major countries in the region took huge decisions that led to transforming their internal situation or their foreign orientations. At some point, it seemed they were moving outside safe zones which they’ve gotten used to. This led to radical questions and warned of serious scenarios. Many fears were linked to the possibilities of unintended consequences that were not taken into consideration before and which do not only influence the concerned countries but also their alliances as well as countries close to them. However it later turned out that unlike what was thought, they are actually “calculated threats.”

What if?

It’s clear that almost all roads lead to a bad scenario but it’s also clear that something is wrong as all assessments are hinting at the same thing. It’s almost that they are all too bad to be true. This requires critique as there are no inevitabilities. Just like we had the problem of lack of expectations, now we have the problem of excessive expectations. There are three points here:

1. Security studies, which theoretical framework is governed by most think tanks, tend to expect the worst as this is what they do. They are not “dovish” and they do not base their work on wise orientations or on political tools used to manage conflicts. Resorting to force is the main thing as it’s more analytically secure. Managing most problems mentioned support this analytical method but there are situations that show that countries do not underestimate the use of power or escalatory behavior and do not go to the end, otherwise “everyone’s war against everyone” will erupt in the region. Of course there is some behavior which is difficult to understand.

2. “What if" is a very important question, even if it’s just about possibilities. It’s based on not ignoring secondary or restraining factors. So can the opposite be true sometimes? There is a small example to this. When the only possible scenario to the Syrian crisis at the beginning was about “Post- Assad” and what will happen afterwards, a think tank organized a panel entitled “what if Assad stayed.” At the time this seemed like brainstorming or a waste of time. It turned out that the question was worth asking. What’s interesting is that this was not realized later but during the panel itself. It was thus a strong possibility based on reasonable points but no one wanted to see it as such.

3. Walking behind collective thinking is wrong as it’s not always accurate. There’s no need to be reminded of the shocking examples when the sweeping majority thought that Trump will not win the presidential elections in the end of 2016. Those who thought differently had to doubt their sanity. Therefore “the red team may win” and superpowers’ influence may shrink and regional powers may not slip into war. Rules of engagement may be formulated in new tension zones, deterrents may develop within non-traditional conflicts or they may pay attention to what’s happening in societies. It may turn out that the calculations of worrying decisions were “understandable.” Of course there are no guarantees that any of this may happen.

There is the idea that 2018 will not be a good year and it probably won’t. However, it may not be that 'bad' due to developments that represent “good news”, the exhaustion of all parties, the fact that they may defeat one another, learning from previous experiences or the dominance of influential interests whose representatives may increase. Another possible reason is involved parties in the Middle East reaching a conviction that middle-ground solutions and mutual interests are important, which is completely realistic, due to growing fears of reaching the brink.