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Middle East expert says signs of hope in the region, but long road ahead

February 9, 2016

“Rights are only half of democracy; the other half is a sense of common good,” said award-winning journalist, writer and commentator Robin Wright about the current situation in the Middle East to over 500 students, faculty and the public gathered on Feb. 8 in Kane Hall for her talk “Rock the Casbah: Thundering Change Across the Middle East.”

The Jackson School of International Studies, as part of its U.S. in the World Speaker Series, together with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, invited Wright to speak at the University of Washington to bring to the academic community and public a greater understanding of one of the most complex and important global issues in international affairs facing the world today.

Top trends to watch in the Middle East 

Wright, who has reported from 146 countries since 1973 and won numerous awards, including for her coverage of wars and international affairs, framed the conversation around 10 trends and eight countries in the Middle East, calling the region the “pivot of the 21st century.”

Some key takeaways

  • The region is experiencing the “greatest turbulence since its modern borders were shaped 100 years ago this year” with the hangover of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and that these borders are already being challenged in places like Iraq and Syria with the rise of ISIS
  • Since the “Arab Spring” revolution five years ago, there has been a sense of the unleashing of rights in the Middle East, but not enough time, resources or focus have been spent on creating alternative and “middle-ground” political solutions, leaving a power vacuum in many countries
  • Extremist Islam is on the rise, from Syria and Iraq to Libya and Yemen, leading to a militarism with repercussions around the globe, such as with the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, California
  • Youth are the majority in every Middle Eastern country, but increasingly disillusioned due to lack of economic opportunities, maybe even more so than before the 2011 Arab Spring
  • U.S. allies in the region are dwindling because many no longer believe what the U.S. is saying or doing, such as the continued bombing of Iraq and Syria
  • Syria is the most complicated war in the world today and the “final pivot in the Arab-Israeli peace process” — a country that “barely exists” due to its current state of self-destruction and yet one of the most strategic in the region

Some signs of hope 

A regular contributor to The New Yorker about what is happening in the Middle East, some of Wright’s recent blog posts and articles have focused on the historic U.S.-Iran nuclear non-proliferation deal. She noted the agreement as one of the most important in decades, allowing Iran to “be part of the world” and at the same time develop a legal framework that can be acted upon if there is a breach.

A few other optimistic trends she noted:

  • The predominance of youth populations in the region who understand and are willing to stand up for their rights, take brave actions, and are increasingly connected across borders
  • The rise in education and literacy, especially among females
  • The increase in diversity, whether among the majority ethnic or ruling group or youth, from the number of independent satellite television stations to talk shows and openness to modern topics of discussion

Concluding her remarks, Wright reminded the audience “change takes time” and that the “U.S. should not impose, but nurture.”

Robin Wright is the author of numerous books and articles on the Middle East including Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East and Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.