Global Uncertainties - What Lies Ahead in the Middle East

H.R.H. Prince Turki Al Faisal is Chairman of the Board of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, having formerly served as Director of Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency and his country’s Ambassador to the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom

The esteemed Foreign Affairs magazine accurately described our times in its special centennial issue of September/October 2022 by calling it “The Age of Uncertainty.” Indeed, our world is in a state of uncertainty and therefore a strategic vacuum and confusion. Alas, there is more polarization in global politics. International strategic confusion and polarization are caused by the conduct, policies, and rifts in relations between major powers that dominate the supposedly “rules-based” international order. The relative peace and security that the world has “enjoyed” since the end of World War II, embodied by multilateralism, interdependent world economy, globalism, and human achievements during peacetime are all seriously under threat by this state of uncertainty. Our world is by its nature multipolar, as reflected in the geographic diversity of the veto power-wielding UN Security Council members. However, multipolar, bipolar, and unipolar orders each mirrored the balance of power of their respective times and did so in all aspects. Our world today is not the world of 1945. Therefore, thinking of a new approach for restructuring a new international order is urgently needed to manage the transformation of our multipolar world in an orderly and peaceful fashion. If successful, we will escape what American political scientist Graham Allison has called the “Thucydides’ Trap” in his 2017 book Destined for War, which discusses the future of Sino-American relations.

Avoiding such a trap requires answering the constant calls to reform the UN system and making it reflect the changes in the world order. This particularly pertains to restructuring the UN Security Council. Reforming this system should correspond with the aspirations of the international community and reflect the structural changes that are transforming our world.

H.R.H. Prince Turki Al Faisal delivers a speech at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government


Unheeded Calls for UN Reform

During the early 1990s, many initiatives at reform were introduced. Still, all calls and plans for reforming the UN system went unheeded by the five permanent members of the Security Council. The chief initiative among them was commissioned by the members themselves. The need to reform the UN system was the main conclusion of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, set up by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2003. The panel consisted of 16 experienced figures, drawn from different parts of the world, and chaired by former prime minister of Thailand Anand Panyarachun. This group aimed to assess existing threats to international peace and security, evaluate how well our policies and institutions have done in addressing those threats, and recommend ways on how the UN could be strengthened to provide collective security for the twenty-first century. This report was clear in stating that all UN principal organs needed change, including the Security Council. It offered two alternative formulas for expanding the Council’s membership. However, it is unfortunate that all the recommendations that dealt with restructuring the UN bodies were ignored by the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Ever since, many leaders in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have been calling for such reform, urging the world to think of alternatives to the unfairness of our existing world order. Even U.S. President Joseph Biden, in his speech during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly called for such reform. Biden stated that “Members of the UN Security Council, including the United States, should consistently uphold and defend the UN Charter and refrain from the use of the veto, except in rare, extraordinary situations, to ensure that the Council remains credible and effective. That is also why the United States supports increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent representatives of the Council.”

This talk came to light during the Ukraine war, which was seen as an attack by Russia, a country that stands at the helm of such a rules-based international order. This deplorable attack on Ukraine unleashed a campaign that demanded adherence to international law, the principles of the UN Charter, and the rules of the international order. These legitimate demands were the dominant theme around the world, especially in Western capitals. However, such demands soon evaporated from the international discourse in light of Israel’s disastrous war on Gaza—a denotative demonstration of hypocrisy and double standards by the champions of the rules-based international order.

China and Russia, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, have also been calling for a multipolar world without really defining what this would mean. Both of these great powers occupy seats at the helm of it. However, they have not yet presented an acceptable and implementable reform plan for the UN. Similarly, they have not supported real reform, free of their geostrategic aspirations. The most significant countries of the Global South are at the forefront of efforts to reform international multilateralism. They are working to find alternatives to the “underrepresented and decaying” international institutions.

Sustaining what is regarded as a liberal rules-based international order, without being fair, inclusive, equitable, and reflective of our international reality will not be viable if the state of international strategic confusion continues.

Our world does not need another world war in order to produce a new world order. The progress of humanity in all aspects of life, the realization that we share a common destiny, the belief that peace and security are a common goal for everyone on earth, and the achievements of the last eight decades in dealing with all issues affecting human lives, necessitate that all countries work seriously to reform the UN system—making it correspond with the aspirations of the global population.

The state of continued uncertainty on the world stage is leading to volatile behavior by irresponsible powers and leaders. This may lead to catastrophic consequences. The failure of the great powers to tackle the issues of world peace is to blame for the current fluidity of international politics. The disastrous war against Ukraine is only one example that shows how fragile our world is and how much we all need to hang on to the principles of international law. Our hope is that this war will come to an end with the preservation of Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. However, more escalation and polarization, wider confrontation, a return to the dictates of geopolitics, power politics, spheres of influence, and the long-forgotten practice of conquest are a prescription for continued uncertainty and unpredictable conflicts. In this state of “anarchy,” no country will be safe and secure. Therefore, the principles of self-help and survival may become the order of international politics if the great powers of today fail to uphold their responsibilities and preserve world peace and security. Our world is keenly aware of the unfairness of the present order and sees it as an outdated structure incapable of tackling the issues of the day. This awareness was correctly captured by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who wrote: “For the first time in history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive. Global activism is generating a surge in the quest for cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination.”


Uncertainty in the Middle East

No region in the world has ever suffered more from the unfairness of the international order than the Middle East. This is true regardless of whether the order was multipolar, bipolar, or unipolar. The region has served as the altar on which the principles of the rules-based system have been sacrificed. Therefore, the Middle East, as a mirror of international strategic realities, is in a state of strategic confusion too. This amounts to a state of sharp polarization, multiplicity of conflict-driven issues, and a multitude of competing actors dealing with the situation on an ad-hoc basis. Adding to this is the absence of global leadership. The lack of a clear-cut direction or strategy to bring conflicts to an end and create the necessary conditions for peace, stability, and security is a common denominator of all policies in the region. This situation creates a breeding ground for all kinds of malevolent political, social, religious, and sectarian forces. To this list, one should add non-state actors, terrorist groupings, as well as regional and international attempts at interference, all of which complicate finding solutions to crises.

The conflict between Palestine and Israel, as well as those in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya are the issues at hand. It is the responsibility of leading regional and global powers to manage and solve such conflicts. Alas, the world’s leading powers are exacerbating the situation with their failed policies, irresponsible abandonment of the region, unwanted involvement, biased positions, and double standards. All of this lies behind the strategic confusion, which is deeply unhelpful in figuring out solutions for Middle Eastern conflicts. Who is to blame for this continued conundrum remains an open question. While the region’s countries and leaders bear some responsibility, the biggest share lies with the United States. After all, for the last eight decades, the region has been part of an American international security architecture, along with the other four members of the UN Security Council. Listing only a few American actions that fed this regional uncertainty should suffice.

First, the United States has consistently failed to seriously (and fairly) tackle the protracted conflict in Palestine. Second, it invaded Iraq, a major Arab country, thereby delivering it to Iran and a gang of sectarian, corrupt, and ideologically driven forces on a golden plate. Third, it submitted to Iran’s nuclear blackmail and ignored its destructive behavior, which has disturbed and continued to destroy the social fabric of the region’s nation states by creating terrorist non-state actors. Fourth, the United States has repeatedly attempted to impose its own definitions of democracy and human rights on the region. Fifth, its intervention in Afghanistan met a disastrous end. Sixth, it helped feed the perception of the U.S. retrenchment and abandonment of the region. From a strategic point of view, these actions lie behind most uncertainties we are going through today. They have most definitely fed the uncertainty regarding American commitment to its allies and regional peace and security. Similarly, American domestic politics and its effect on relations with allies have further contributed to growing uncertainties in the Middle East. Finally, Washington’s behavior caused uncertainty about its policies toward regional conflicts and the willingness to address destructive behavior of some states and their proxies.

When countries of the region watched the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, all these concerns rushed back to the surface. The unfolding drama was seen as the end of an era. The perceived “defeat” of the United States as a great power—and NATO as the greatest military alliance that ever existed—in sustaining a regime of its own creation, have alarmed the region about the ramifications for the strategic configuration of Afghanistan’s neighborhood and regional power politics. Naturally, allies and partners of the United States in the region began to rethink their futures, steadily turning away from the Western-dominated paradigm that has ruled the Middle East over the last 80 years. Had the Ukraine war not happened, the world, and particularly countries in the Middle East, would have continued to struggle to find an answer to this question.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a leader of another great power, was the first one to answer this question by invading Ukraine, disregarding international law despite all his historical claims. Ukraine was the first victim of the perception that a new strategic vacuum has been created on the international stage, signaling the lack of world leadership and weakness of international alliances. President Putin is not the only one trying to take advantage of the situation, impose his will on others, and change the international status-quo. Due to the fear it created across Europe, the war in Ukraine temporarily put to rest the growing doubts about American global leadership and its commitment to allies. The very same trend led to a reinvigoration of NATO. While these new developments briefly mitigated the political and psychological effect of the failure in Afghanistan, other ones, such as the eruption of war in Gaza, the deep polarization of American domestic politics, and the uncertainty around the future of U.S.-China relations threaten any hope of improvement. Therefore, the need to move beyond the Western-centric geopolitical paradigm is crystal clear.


The Grand Failure in Palestine

Instead of following the same principles behind the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the international community deprived the Palestinians of their homeland and denied them basic rights of self-determination and statehood. For almost eight decades, the Middle East has been moving from one war to another, one catastrophe to another, and one UN resolution to another. Justice, however, remains elusive. Hypocrisy on the part of great powers that get to shape the contours of the world order and its basic principles is abundantly clear when it comes to Middle Eastern issues. The Palestinian issue is, and will remain, the main source of threat to regional peace and security. International failure is reflected in the cycle of wars that erupt every few years. The latest in this cycle of violence is the ongoing Gaza war and its long-lasting destructive effects. The inaction of the UN Security Council, perpetuated by the irresponsible use of the veto power, is flagrantly obvious—especially when it comes to stopping the killing and mass massacres in Gaza, and before that, in Syria. Abusing veto power has long been a pattern on issues of peace and security in the Middle East.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the mother of all conflicts in the Middle East. It remains a real challenge to the region, for it has been the principal cause of why many peaceful regional projects fell through during the last eight decades. Without a just solution that takes into consideration the legitimate demand of the Palestinians for self-determination, this area will never experience stability and will remain exposed to all the negative side effects.


Too Much Ado

There have been many regional and international initiatives aimed at solving the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They were all doomed due to the faltering of the peace process. Arab countries welcomed the march toward peace, which commenced in Madrid in 1991, with the hope of solving the conflict within the parameters envisioned by international norms and UN resolutions. All initiatives stopped at Israeli doors, making Israel the principal culprit for their failure.

The perpetuation of this conflict will continue to be a cause of threats to the security and stability of the region, even if Israel and its allies claim that the cause of the region’s instability are present events that bear no direct correlation with the roots of the Palestinian question. Normalizing relations between Arab states and Israel cannot bring peace to the region without a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the illusion that Arab states could pressure Palestinians to accept a solution without achieving their national aspirations is doomed to fail. The October 7th attacks on Israel by Hamas were a metaphor of the grand failure of the international community to settle the conflict, because of what happened to Palestinians a century before their inalienable rights to self-determination were disregarded.


Wakeup Call: The War on Gaza

For the last seven months, the Gaza Strip has been under indiscriminate attack by the Israeli army. The IDF has persistently targeted lives, infrastructure, and all vital elements for human survival. This demonstrates a blatant disregard of humanitarian values, norms, and laws meant to protect non-combatants, including civilians, children, women, and the elderly. Hospitals, schools, and other institutions essential for public life are not spared from devastation. Israel’s relentless and destructive response to the events of October 7th, 2023, for which Hamas is held accountable, epitomizes a disregard of international law and global public opinion. Israel views the events of October 7th as a security and intelligence failure, which it is, indeed.

Yet, the attacks fundamentally represent a political failure, borne out of arrogance and unfounded convictions, which lie at the roots of what led Israel to ignore the suffering endured by the besieged people of Gaza. Israel saw an opportunity in the relative calm of the West Bank and the weakened state of the Palestinian Authority to further its agenda of Judaizing Palestine and its sacred sites. Such delusions also led Israel to misconstrue Arab overtures for peace as a sign of waning interest in the primary regional concern, which is the Palestinian cause. It failed to acknowledge that peace, stability, and security in the region hinge upon resolving the just cause of Palestinian statehood, even if Israel normalized relations with all Arab states. By dismissing both Arab and non-Arab peace initiatives and flouting international resolutions, Israel assumed its policies had succeeded in shifting the blame onto the victim, leveraging the support of its allies that dominate the international media and decisionmaking, particularly in the West. Irrespective of the outcome of this brutal war, Israel cannot evade the repercussions of its prolonged occupation, arrogance, and reckless policies it has practiced against the Palestinian people and their sacred sites.

The Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and other Palestinian organizations bear a significant burden for their failure. They have been unable to reconcile their differences and bridge persistent divides, giving grounds for Israel and others to sideline, isolate, and weaken them. The rift between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas within Gaza and the West Bank proved detrimental to the integrity of their cause.

Gaza is paying a grave price in destruction and bloodshed—a responsibility they share for their inability to rise to the challenge of their cause. Today, they must heed lessons from their suffering and make use of the global sympathy they have garnered to present a unified voice to the world. This failure of the Palestinians also translates into Arab failures, as the Arab world failed to galvanize unity among Palestinian forces and left Gaza besieged. By failing to back our quest for peace, we have encouraged regional and international powers to do the same.

The war on Gaza has laid bare the glaring hypocrisy and double standards of Western elites, particularly in the United States. These elites have long propagated an image of advancing civilization and a commitment to moral, humanitarian, and legal principles, as well as global peace. This revelation is not new to our region, and now it is becoming increasingly apparent even to the American people, who once believed in these proclaimed values.

The U.S. failure is evident in its positions within the Security Council and the UN General Assembly, overtly supporting the war. Their proposals for resolving the conflict are an embodiment of this significant failure. If the American policy toward the Palestinian people continues to be led by Israel—driven by evil extremists’ intent to perpetuate massacres and destruction—failure will persist. The recent failure of the United States is the culmination of 40 years of mismanagement in trying to find a resolution to the conflict. Washington’s position has merely echoed Israel’s, delaying peace efforts and stalling. This, in turn, has established an irreversible status quo that hinders a fair solution for a Palestinian state and self-determination rights.

Despite nominally supporting a two-state solution, the United States and the EU have not exerted sufficient pressure to compel Israel to make it a reality. This war highlights Israel’s reliance on the United States as its advocate and guardian, seemingly dictating the latter’s policies in the service of Israeli agenda. Thus, the complete responsibility to bring peace to the region and resolve this prolonged conflict lies with the United States. Finally, the close bond between the United States and Israel has eroded the former’s credibility as a mediator in this process.

All proposed political solutions aimed at resolving the current impasse in Gaza, particularly those advocated by Western nations and Israel, seem to prioritize equations favoring the occupier’s demands while disregarding the plight and needs of the victims. Such “solutions” aim to return the Gaza Strip to its pre-October 7th status, which triggered the horrific events in the first place. The besieged people of Gaza felt they had nothing to lose and attempted to break free from their confinement in an open-air prison, albeit at a high cost.

Regardless of how this war ends, there is no alternative to working toward establishing and recognizing a Palestinian state. This should be done by adhering to existing international resolutions, specifically UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1948, and UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. World leaders will not bring a definitive resolution to the Palestinian issue by continuing to talk the talk without walking the walk.

It is time to uphold the ideals of the rules-based international order and international law. Failing again by being unfair to the people of Palestine—the last remaining colonized indigenous people in the region—is real proof of the erosion of all international ideals. Israel is not an exceptional state that should be allowed to escape the dictates of conscience and the rules of international law.

Saudi Arabia calls for and supports all efforts to reform the UN system, including the Security Council, which should render it more representative and truer to the basic principles of the UN charter. It also supports the idea of granting international legislative power to the General Assembly, which would help circumvent the crippling effects of the veto power—especially if the veto is to be preserved after the restructuring of the Security Council.

On the issue of Palestine, Saudi Arabia is both publicly and privately committed to finding a just and peaceful solution to this conflict. This commitment is not new. Saudi Arabia has supported all international initiatives and UN Security Council Resolutions designed to resolve this issue peacefully. It was also the originator of two major regional initiatives, the King Fahad eight-point peace proposal in 1981, and the King Abdullah Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The two initiatives were adopted by all Arab States and presented to the world. Both were rejected by Israel.

Saudi Arabia still believes in the viability of the Arab Peace Initiative and the two-state solution as the fairest plan presented thus far by any party. However, it will continue to support any initiative that brings about a just solution accepted by the Palestinians.

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