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Hichem Karoui: Arab Think Tanks Conference
December 16, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

One of the most important meetings of the think tanks community in the Middle East is under way in Doha. It is the “Annual Conference of Strategic and Policy Studies Research Centres in the Arab World.” The event, which ends on Dec.17, is organised by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). Considering that more than 70 centres of research in the Arab world attend it, plus hundreds of guests (political leaders, diplomats, journalists, and all those who are interested in this industry), this is likely the first event of its kind in the Arab world. ACRPS plans to make of it a meeting where the Arab research community concerned with policy and strategy analysis could each year debate on its internal and external issues. There will be always two topics: the first concerns the issues facing the research centres, such as their relationship with the governments and the decision-makers, their legal condition, their academic autonomy, funding and sponsorship, etc. The second issue would be related to the overall political developments in the Arab world and the region. This year, ACRPS decided that the geostrategic shifts in the context of Arab revolutions might be particularly interesting to deal with. The directors of the research centres have been invited to talk about the first topic, while prominent academics would be tackling the second.

As indicated by the programme, beyond the conference, three considerations have to be scrutinised:

First, this stage in modern Arab history is as critical as vital, and we are aware that it is also irreversible. It is a stage where the Arab people try finally to recuperate their free will from those who have hijacked it for a long time. It is a stage where the Arab opinion at last proves it has an impact on the process of political decision-making.

Second, this new role of the Arab people has certainly drawn the attention of the international community and the world powers to new facts: the long-settled tradition of dealing only with the rulers, without considering the requirements of societies and peoples, is part of the past.

Third, the world powers are today expected to deal with the concerned Arab states from the perspective of mutual interests on the principle of “equal to equal,” not anymore based on “clientelism.”

These were the three considerations ACRPS wishes to be considered as a background of the debate.

The main axes of the second topic of the conference are the following:

International powers and geostrategic shifts: (The USA and geostrategic shifts in the Arab world. Russia and the geostrategic shifts in the Arab world. China and the geostrategic shifts in the Arab world.) Regional powers and geopolitical relations with the Arab world: (Turkey objectives and interests with the Arab order. Iran objectives and interests with the Arab order. India and Pakistan objectives and interests with the Arab order. Israel objectives and interests with the Arab order.)

Regional powers and geostrategic shifts: (Turkey and geostrategic shifts in the Arab world. Iran and geostrategic shifts in the Arab world. Israel and geostrategic shifts in the Arab world. Transnational organisations and trends.)

These are the main lines of the conference and the debate is expected to be particularly productive, given the delicate and rather ambiguous conditions of power transition in the countries of the “Arab spring,” and the eventual impact on the whole regional order, not to mention the international arena.

Today, the Arabs, their neighbours, and even international powers, are facing events on which they do not have a lot of control, and for which they have not been really prepared. We all agree that those revolutions of the “Arab spring” have surprised even the peoples themselves. We can hardly say that the protesters were expecting the results they got. Either in Tunisia or in Egypt, where everything started, few people believed that in a few weeks they would bring two police-state orders and their dictators to their knees. As it happened, the snowball effect crossed the entire region, and peoples and rulers became for the first time aware of their respective power and eventual weaknesses. Henceforth, the political consensus or the political contract is considered definitely negotiable. Whatever has been forced on the Arab societies, cannot stay indefinitely above questioning, whether it is a political order, a dictator, or even diplomatic or trade agreements (the gas affair between Egypt and Israel is a good example, showing the new trends of thought, the weight of the public opinion and the political and geostrategic shifts).

The continual troubles inside some countries (Tunisia, Egypt, for example) show that the old way of forcing societies into political surrender would not work anymore. Not only people want to express their will through free elections, but also doing that does not mean signing up a blank cheque to the new rulers. People intend to continue the struggle for the goals of their revolution, if they think those very goals have been deviated from their natural course.

Several dangers are facing the new order. Not the least of them, the growing and disturbing shade of radicalism, and the infiltration of some political movements by former and eventual terrorists. As we know, a provocative anti-Islam movie in the USA has triggered crowds’ moves and protests across the Arab world. It has been used by radicals to try to break the democratic and moderate orientation, in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. An American ambassador has been slain; moreover, a man who was known to be a supporter of the Libyan revolution. Nothing could be more harmful to the image of the new regimes as those distressing scenes of rampage, and crowd madness. It also shows the weakness and critical condition of the transition period and the dilemmas of the new rulers confronted with crises on which they have little leverage and even less experience.

All these topics and many others have to be debated. This is an academic conference, and therefore it is not supposed to come up with clear recommendations on how to deal with those challenges. However, the fact that many political leaders have been invited, along with diplomats, and experts from several countries, shows that this event may be a forum to deal with complicated issues, without any obligation for any party to implement certain policies or measures. The intellectual exchange is in itself a good tool to find the right ways in tackling the issues at hand.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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