Recent headlines suggest that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are about to get together to fix the horrific Syrian situation, and maybe much else in the Middle East besides. The assumption seems to be that the major external powers, in this case, Russia and the USA, have the means to “solve” the regional turmoil and restore stability. Deals can be done and great power diplomacy can impose agreed settlements—just as in the past.
The recent Lords enquiry into the transformation of power in the Middle East starts from different assumptions. The picture presented to us by a long list of witnesses, old and young, and from all walks, has been that this is now a totally transformed region. It is a vast zone of shifting alliances, fragmented power centres, seething with rival militias and cells, which is simply no longer amenable to traditional diplomacy, especially western diplomacy, or to moves on the global chessboard of the conventional kind.
Instead the report identifies a mass of strong trends destabilising almost every Middle Eastern country, large or small. This is a region of youth—60 per cent are under thirty. It is a region of digital empowerment and connection with ubiquitous mobile communications energising non-state groups, challenging governments and creating organised alternative power centres on a scale never seen before. It is a region of staggering contrasts between wealth and poverty, of massive youth unemployment and protest, revolt and sectarian conflict. It is also a region whose function and importance as the world’s chief energy source may be closing down. And in contrast to past decades it is a region which looks increasingly to the east, rather than the west for both economic and political connections.
New regional powers have emerged but they face disruptive trends and existential threats. Saudi Arabia still has the oil but it also has internal tensions and social pressures which make it vulnerable. It has the constant challenge of Iranian rivalry. It also has a shattered Yemen on its doorstep.