The future of the Gulf region - a discussion in Vienna

10/11/2015 12:00

The future of the Gulf region - a discussion in Vienna

Organized by the Bruno Kreisky Forum and the International Institut for Peace, a roundtable on issues concerning the wider Gulf Region took place in Vienna . Experts from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US and several European countries and institutions including of course from Austria discussed current security issues and possible future peace scenarios. The refugee crisis and the new Vienna talks with the objective to find a "solution" for the Syrian war or better wars gave this discussion a new importance and actuality.

The discussions showed: we cannot expect quick solutions, but we must work on strategies to stop the killings, ethnic cleansing and the enforced emigration from that region. In this respect we can learn from the European experience without being too naive in comparing Europe and the Middle East. But the EU must be active in finding some path towards peace, otherwise we will have conflicts in our own countries. It is our humanitarian duty but also our self interest which leads to an active foreign and security policy of the EU in and for that region.

Europe's interest and  contribution

Also Europe has a history of many wars which killed millions of  people and destroyed cities and land. But finally, after the horrendous World War II,  we saw that all these wars about power, influence, domination of religions and ideologies could never bring long term benefits for any country. In the end everybody lost. So a new Europe was built up based on a process of conciliation between Germany and France.

Of course we cannot compare the situation in Europe after the World War II with the situation in todays Gulf Region. But in some ways we would need a new relationship of co-existence and then cooperation between the bigger  regional powers Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. The message, that this would help all three countries and the rest of the region did not yet reach the respective governments. But we have to stop the different wars and proxy wars, which prevent the progress and development of the whole region. And we have to insist on a new course nit equal but similar to that after World War II in Europe.


Only with such a new regional structure the many political, economic and ecological problems of the region can be solved. The conflicts between countries are mirrored  in conflicts inside many countries itself. The dominant reliance on oil is very fragile as we can see now because of low oil prices. Many of these countries have to diversify its economies. And the ecological problems like the lack of water or at least the lowering of the underground water level could result in new conflicts and further emigration. So we should convince the countries of the region to deal with all the different levels and dimensions of that crisis region.

Europe has many reasons  to invest in a different development in that region. To refrain from the many futile and disastrous military interventions is one thing, to help to gain peace is another  thing. In longing for peace it must be clear, there is no just peace, there are only wrong answers to the present conflict in Syria. We can only choose between different bad solutions in order to stop the killing. But we must act.

Peace in Syria! 

A regionalization of Syria with different autonomous regions inside a Syrian federation could be the solution, because it reflects the reality on the ground.  But who will be governing or dominating the different regions? What about ISIS? Could the majority of their fighters and commanders be integrated into a new Syria ? Or should there be an association of the Syrian regions who would try to defeat ISIS in close cooperation. Many would recognize that there are issues to discuss with them, because ISIS representatives are interesting in expansion and not in having some limited territory. Other see it differently. If there is no willingness to fight ISIS military with strong forces, maybe a coexistence with a part of ISIS at least for some time is a possibility.

And the same question can be asked about the role of Assad and/or his people. Often it is mentioned, that so far his forces killed more people than ISIS or other groups. (But that should in no way soften our criticism of ISIS). To be realistic I spite of the horrible actions of the Assad regime, at least for a transitional period the Assad regime will have to play a role especially in one of the central regions of the future Syrian federation.

Anyway, the Syria of the future will be definitely different than the Syria of the past. And it will take a long way to reach a sustainable situation in Syria and the whole region. What we have to do immediately after some truce or peace agreement, is to help Syrians in their economic development. And here refugees who have got education and training in Europe could help to reconstruct their country.

The Kurdish issue

One issue which is very important for the EU and where it should be actively engaged is the Kurdish issue. The Kurds could play a big stabilizing role in the region. But we have to convince all the countries, especially Turkey that they must contribute to giving the Kurdish political forces some role to play. Of course there are different Kurds and different political forces representing them. And they have different ideas about independence, regional autonomy etc. But we have to think about how the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria can live integrated into their home country on one side, but can have close trans-border relations on the other side. They could be nucleuses of growth and developments for their countries, if their national governments allow it. But we have to be realists,  also they are affected by the tendency of ethnic nationalism, active discrimination, corruption etc. Helping the Kurds we must at the same time be critical about some of their political strategies.

Is a regional security structure possible ?

Any short term solution and longterm regional security structure need talks and agreements on the global level. And the fact that the US and Russia are talking again and try to find a common solution is a positive development. In that sense the Russian intervention can (!) bring some positive result. But Putin should not only try to save Assad, but must also enhance the fight against the ISIS. With a strong ISIS no solution can be found and especially Assad cannot be saved. Irrespective of the possibility to have discussions and negotiations with ISIS,  it will be necessary at least to weaken ISIS decisively.

Anyway the new dialogue between the US and Russia with EU participation creates the conditions for a new regional security order. But here the regional powers must take up the global initiatives and accept the way to deal with conflicts in form of dialogues and finding practical solutions. But the respective countries must also do their home jobs. Political, economic and ecological reforms are necessary to include all citizens irrespective of their (majority or minority) position and them being Sunnis or Shiites. The countries need inclusive governments and only then these governments could contribute towards a sustainable regional security system.

Whatever "solutions" can be found for the regional conflicts, especially for Syria, we have to think about creating conditions for a sustainable peace. It cannot be done only by some governments without involving the people who could support it. And as some participant of our discussion pointed out, the education in many Arab countries is very much influenced by the Saudi/Wahhabi education and ideology. The spread of that ideology is producing more and more - ideological and military - djihadists.

So it is not enough to fight the results of these educational systems and practices. We should insist on the necessity  to eradicate  the roots of such developments and that is the Wahhabi ideology and its educational implementation. The countries in the region need a strategy  of deradicalisation, which of course will take time. But it is necessary to have a course which creates the opposite development than the Wahhabi ideology. Maybe that is also the only possibility of giving support to the stability of Saudi-Arabia. Less regional conflicts, less "education" and training of terrorist attitudes and more inclusive policies in the Gulf countries could help even the Saudi family.

Europe again

In promoting a more inclusive and tolerant ideology,  Europe ( the West ) could also play a very important role. Inviting students and teachers from our neighbors in the Gulf and Northern African countries to study and learn in Europe could be as helpful as opening markets and enhancing economic integration by investments etc. This is surely a long term strategy but maybe more successful than neglect on the one side or military interventions on the other side. Europe has to contribute to solve a lot of imminent problems and help all those who are looking for ending the wars. But we cannot refrain from developing long term strategies to give the Gulf region and its people a perspective of sustainable peace.