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Contemporary Security Challenges and the Peace Landscape for the Gulf and the MENA Region

Ambassador Mark Green

Remarks by Ambassador Mark Green given at the 1st International Arabian-Gulf Security Conference hosted by the American University in the Emirates.

Thank you and good afternoon, everyone.

I would note that today is November eleventh. Back in the United States, this is our Veterans Day, so I also want to take a moment to thank General Petraeus for his extraordinary contributions as well as all American veterans and our partners from UAE who have fought so bravely over the years.

I also want to thank once again the president and CEO of the American University of the Emirates, Dr. Abdul Razzaq, and Provost Cornwell for inviting me to join all of you.

As you have heard several times, I’m Mark Green, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. We are unlike other think tanks, we were established five decades ago by Congress with the mission of, in their words, strengthening the fruitful relationship between the world of learning and the world of public affairs.

That means we are nonpartisan. It means we are independent. It means that while others deal in data and information, we have been directed by Congress to go further. Our currency is knowledge, our focus is independent analysis, and our purpose is developing options and recommendations that decision-makers can believe in. Another distinction between the Wilson Center and many other institutions is how we are organized.

Within the overall Woodrow Wilson Center, we have a dozen or so semiautonomous Centers and Programs and Institutes, each is often focused on a particular region in the world. For example, we have a Canada Institute, a Mexico Institute, an Asia Institute. We have a Kissinger Institute that focuses on China, and a Kennan institute that focuses on the regions of the former Soviet Union.

They may focus on different regions and different challenges but they are united in their belief and our belief on the importance of knowledge and yes the importance of American leadership.

And nowhere is that knowledge more important than right here in the Middle East. We are in a time that many have called the era of great power competition and the U.S. and many other countries are realigning many of their foreign policy tools and security tools to focus on Asia and China.

But of course, America is more than merely a place on a map, and America is more than a military power seeking to protect only its own shores.

I’m the first American in my own family. My mother lived in London during World War II, during the blitz. My father was South African. They came to America because they believed it represented opportunity and leadership, a leadership that was based upon certain principles and values, and ideals.

When we fall short of those values and ideals, which we often do, it is only because we have forgotten the values. It is only because we have forgotten those principles around which our country was founded and what we must do is work with ourselves in ourselves to rebuild those values and principles and work with others who share them.

We did not have the luxury of turning away from places where freedom is under threat, or where our closest allies are under attack. And so we are here in the Middle East because it is critical not just for regional stability but we believe for global peace. We are here in the Middle East because our regional allies and partnerships, and yes the threats and dangers by those who would resort to terror and undermine freedom because it matters.

Those who would bring democracy to its knees through biological and nuclear weapons, or would gladly disrupt hydrocarbon flows from the world’s energy reserve. All of these elements have become more tangible, more urgent, in recent months.

We see our regional partners and allies increasingly forced to deal themselves with security problems, with a possible upsurge in terrorism in the wake of Afghanistan withdrawal. With the dangers presented by the failures of an Iranian nuclear deal, and the cost of the global energy crunch. The challenges are many, and the answers we know are not always easy. But of this I am sure, none of these challenges none of these problems get any easier if America recedes or retreats.

The US provides nearly five billion dollars each and every year in security assistance, to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and other states. We supply billions of dollars annually for humanitarian and other assistance programs related to Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. The current American force level in the region is over 40,000 troops strong and is deployed in ten Arab states and Turkey. This military presence is complemented by defense agreements with all of those states and others and significant arms sales and transfers. The reasons for this close security operation are hardly a secret.

Though the Middle East faces many challenges from Covid-19 to the fall out of climate extremes it also remains host to some of the world’s deadliest and most dangerous conflicts, threats to global peace. The so-called Islamic State or ISIS, they have been defeated temporarily in Iraq and Syria but I fear that it lives on, in the remote corners and shadows and recesses of those countries.

It is challenging the Taliban for supremacy in a badly broken Afghanistan. And as we all know painfully gruesomely the twisted ambitions of ISIS do not stop at the borders, they do not stop at any border. But to be clear the biggest security challenge currently facing the region remains Iran.

Iran continues to fight for regional supremacy through its terrorist proxies, missiles, and UAV deployments, in their efforts to subvert Arab states. The free world must simply put ensure that Iran can never get a nuclear weapon which threatens our allies and would further destabilize the region. All options should be on the table to ensure that Iran never does.

In addition, we must all work together to hold Iran accountable for its ballistic missile program, its human rights violations, and its proliferation of weapons. Iran is an existential threat to Israel, so Israel has a right to defend herself through whatever means are necessary.

Over the last few months, Israel has reminded the world that it can strike back if necessary. After Iran used a drone to attack an oil tankard near Oman, Israeli Defense Ministers stated that Israel was prepared to take military action against Iran.

To be crystal clear is the policy of the Biden administration like the Trump administration to stand with Israel in the face of such attacks. In large part because of Iran’s ambitions, the number of Iraqis, Syrians, and Yemenis, and others who have been forcefully displaced from their homes has now reached record levels.

The Syrian conflict alone has displaced more than thirteen million people. More than half of its pre-war population. The continuing conflict in Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere is contributing to what can only be called a region-wide humanitarian catastrophe. And then there is Afghanistan where intolerance and instability arising from the Taliban takeover is already forcing more people to flee to neighboring countries.

There are few foreign policy topics more in need of that world of learning that I referred to than the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is why the Wilson Center recently launched a series of discussions we call Hindsight Up Front. We draw lessons from the withdrawal and bring them forward right away while memories are fresh and the visibility is sharp, and you can see a collection of those events and materials at the Wilson Center website.

The impact of the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban takeover will have significant implications on the Middle East and significant implications elsewhere for quite some time to come. For example, the Biden administration sees this region as a testing ground for what it calls Over the Horizon, counter-terrorism activities against elements in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Middle East sadly is home to a variety of Islamic terrorist groups that may be emboldened and energized by the Taliban takeover. Many fear that the withdrawal will leave questions in the minds of allies and friends about the U.S. military and diplomatic staying power in the region.

Others are worried about the implications for human rights and democracy and of course we are already seeing evidence of threats to the status of girls and women in Afghanistan, especially and tragically, those trailblazers who risked their very lives to educate girls and empower women in that country.

Finally, the withdrawal will likely contribute to what I believe is one of the most important yet neglected challenges of this generation, human displacement. There are 83 million displaced people in the world touching every corner of the globe. People are not where they were and perhaps not where they are going to be.

To go beyond merely raising the alarm, the Wilson Center has tried to bring our experts and partners to bear on this challenge. We have dedicated the latest issue of our award-winning Wilson Quarterly to human displacement. We call the issue “Humanity in Motion: Scenes from the Global Displacement Crisis”. In addition to essays from leaders like President Duque of Colombia, UNICEF’s Henrietta Fore, and the World Food Program’s David Beasley, it features a special contribution from Jordan’s King Abdullah.

King Abdullah has welcomed historic numbers of refugees and migrants to his country and he has worked so hard, tirelessly, to treat these families with dignity, respect, and humanity. Whether it’s Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, Jordan has opened its doors and hosts the second-highest number of refugees per capita anywhere in the world. In the forward written for the Wilson Quarterly he states and I quote him, “Displacement is a global moral tragedy one that demands a continued international response. The international community cannot afford to turn its back on refugees or their host countries like Jordan.” I could not agree more.

Left unaddressed the impact of human displacement on both migrants and the communities that host them could destabilize this region. America is the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance in the world and we’ve kept displaced people and families fed and sheltered all across the region.

Once again, the U.S. cannot and must not simply walk away from the role that we play. Only the darkest elements in the world would suggest that we do. With the fires that are burning in so many places, we often overlook the clear signs of hope and optimism because they are there too including throughout the Middle East.

The interest and values of neighbors are aligned in regards to Iran’s threat to regional stability. Recognizing this alignment in 2020, the UAE became the first Arab state in decades to normalize relations with Israel through the historic Abraham Accords. Joined soon after by Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. A few weeks ago, I moderated a discussion with the Ambassadors of the UAE and Israel.

Ambassador Otaiba spoke of the increase in economic and personal ties that he saw coming between the UAE and Israel almost immediately, in just the first year. He told a story of an Israeli woman who chose to give birth in the UAE for the first time. This simple and personal choice represents the future of the Middle East in which Israel and its neighbors are aligned to greater economic and cultural integration, greater tolerance, greater stability, and greater peace.

At the same time, they are jointly resolving serious security and diplomatic challenges including the Palestinian issue, with the UAE’s recent engagement with Israel is once again a model for all to follow. The Ambassador also promoted a free trade agreement with Israel and he went a step further suggesting that the U.S. should in fact join this historic agreement as well.

During my time as the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, we did our part to further this regional integration. We signed a global Memorandum of Understanding for the first time ever with Israel. We also signed an MoU on development with the UAE the first of its kind with a Gulf nation which empowers the U.S. and the UAE to work together alongside each other to help other developing nations with humanitarian assistance and development assistance, energy initiatives, promoting religious tolerance, economic growth, food security, water, and private sector engagement.

Throughout many of the challenges that I raised today, the UAE is an important ally that is leading the way not only for the region but I would argue the world. It is important to recognize the UAE is the only Arab nation to fight alongside the US in six military coalitions. First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Kosovo, and the fight against ISIS.

The UAE is making more investments in the humanitarian and development sectors as well.

I’ve had the honor of meeting with your Minister of State for International Cooperation and we discussed ways in which the U.S. and the UAE can work together closely, to partner, to take on development challenges across the world.

I’m going to close with a few hopeful thoughts on peace and cooperation because I think they do represent a brighter future for the region that is too easily overlooked. Past the wars, the threat of Iran, climate challenges, lies a region that is more economically and culturally integrated than it has been for a very, very long time.

Home to some of the world’s most ancient and vibrant cultures, and yes some of the world’s most valuable resources. Even if the states of the Middle East face challenges today, the people of this region remain resilient, courageous, and hopeful. They are inspiring. And your young people, they are truly inspiring.

In the brief time that I have had with all of you, I have had a chance to see some of the handywork of your young people. I’ve seen them with some of the design work that they’re doing, I’ve seen them with some of the art they are working on, and it really is quite impressive. It is a reminder that whatever challenges we face, whatever challenges that we see, whatever mistakes that we have made, there is emerging a young generation that will lead the way and point to a brighter more hopeful future.

And so I think for all of us, that’s what we turn to, that is something for all of us to build upon, that is something we can tap into. If we can simply unleash that talent, if we can bring that talent to bear on some of the conflicts that are there and some of the challenges that we all see, if we can simply turn them loose to lift up human dignity and human liberty, then there is no reason that the world can’t be in a brighter period, a brighter time, not just here but everywhere and I think institutions like this one can help lead the way.

Thank you.

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark Green

President, Director, & CEO, Wilson Center
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The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more