In the last four years, and as unprecedented tectonic changes swept over the Middle East and North Africa, regional policymakers looked towards Western analysts and think tanks in attempting to understand the new reality. This approach might be finally changing, as new regional think tanks among them is Beirut Institute are gaining foothold, by introducing a more pro-active indigenous strategy in addressing the region’s future.
Rethinking regional politics cannot happen absent of its youth and women.Joyce Karam
As its name would suggest, Beirut Institute is based in the Lebanese capital but has managed through its first annual summit earlier this month in Abu Dhabi to bring forth a global network of policymakers, youth activists, from as far as Australia and as close as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The idea was to “brainstorm ideas in light of events and changes in the Middle East, post-Iran deal and Russian repositioning, and to go beyond the security prism”, the institute’s founder Raghida Dergham and my colleague at Al-Hayat told me this week.
Unlike many conferences on the Middle East, Beirut Institute Summit (#BIS2015) was not monolithic in its agenda or participants. It is indigenous in its structure and the voices it brings to the forefront. Key names in the Arab art scene, such as directors Nadine Labaki and Jihane Nojeim, shared the stage with former US military General David Petraeus and technology guru Ken Lee. There were also Saudi, Emirate and Libyan women who defied in their statements for liberalism, every stereotype about their lives and vision.
Politically, the debate at Beirut Institute Summit was blunt and far reaching. At the four closed policy circles for the 120 participants, there was no time wasted on assigning blame or looking backwards. A frank regional and U.S. self assessment was put forward to “find solutions, and preempt crisis rather than wait for the next Marshall plan” says Dergham. Iranian, Egyptian, Russian, and Saudi experts exchanged views with those on the “other side” such as ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda or former President of Slovenia Danilo Türk.
In the open sessions, the diversity and spontaneity of the crowd stood out on stage. There was retired U.S. diplomat Robert Blackwill lamenting the Arab Spring as “profoundly damaging to the Arab world, it undermined the regimes which helped create stability", and later two opposite sides of the Washington political spectrum analyzing the Barack Obama policy on Syria. Petraeus criticized the decline of U.S. role and called for safe zones in Syria, while former White House coordinator Phil Gordon acknowledged its failure but called for a new approach.
Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih advocated a new “regional paradigm”, while Bahraini business leader Khalid Janahi called for direct dialogue between Iran and the GCC countries. Former Saudi head of Intelligence Turki Al-Faisal proposed a comprehensive ceasefire in Syria and “going to the Syrians to decide their future.”
“We wanted to provoke new thinking, to push the envelope” says Dergham. This new approach was also vivid in the youth and art panels. Labaki decried self censorship in the region, while Nojeim voiced hope in the transformation of the region through its youth and activists. Dergham explains the emphasis on youth and women for being “natural agents in confronting extremism, and as evidence that regional challenges are not just about assigning women a quota or laying out geopolitics.” Dergham’s journey in journalism is seen by many as a testimony to Arab women success and latitude.
The two-day-summit in Abu Dhabi concluded in a declaration and will be followed up by key recommendations handed to policymakers worldwide.
Some of these recommendations will possibly incorporate ideas from the final declaration including the call “decisive multi-lateral action to bring end to the current conflict in Syria” by undertaking “immediate action to address the humanitarian crisis, including specific and increased assistance to the refugees and the establishment of humanitarian safe-zones.” It also calls for “creation of a legitimate vision for post-conflict Syria, underwritten by a GCC fund to support the critical need to rebuild infrastructure, social services, and the critical elements of the state that have been destroyed by the years of conflict.”
It brought new focus to intra-Arab structures and disagreements, urging “efforts to strengthen intra-Arab relations, moving beyond the traditional impediments to our collaboration to deepen our economic, social and cultural relationships, including through necessary reforms.” It also reiterated the call for a two state solution and went a step further in working towards “joint peace treaty between Israel on the one hand and Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.” Other individual ideas such as reestablishing the U.S.-Egyptian alliance, setting out a clear plan for Libya could make their way to the recommendations list.
Beirut Institute’s first summit has already left its mark on the regional policy debate by blending in grassroots voices with renown global analysts and policymakers. Rethinking regional politics cannot happen absent of its youth and women, and that’s the message that resonated loud and clear in Abu Dhabi.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam
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