In the Middle East, the US Should Look to the Long Term
By Paul Salem and Steven Kenney
One year in, the Biden administration finds itself stretched thin. At home, it is dealing with the continued effects of the pandemic on the U.S. economy and schools, and politics are so divided and rancorous that articles about civil war have become a cottage industry. Overseas, Russia’s threats to Ukraine and China’s intimidating moves on Taiwan just as Beijing is about to host the Winter Olympics are in the spotlight, and long-standing global challenges like climate change, migration, and cybersecurity demand major attention.
In the Middle East, the administration is reeling from the effects of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, is struggling to reclaim an agreement to control Iran’s nuclear program, and is facing the threat of a reviving ISIS, to name only a few challenges. And while these challenges demand immediate attention, the U.S. needs also to take a long-term view of its policy in the Middle East. This is especially important as the region has a pivotal role in addressing two of America’s, and the world’s, long-term systemic challenges: namely, energy transition and combatting climate change.
The Middle East Institute, through its Strategic Foresight Program, organized a virtual conference in October of last year, in cooperation with FP as a media partner, that brought together leaders and strategic foresight experts from different sectors, to explore the various opportunities and risks that lie ahead in a rapidly changing Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The conference was also preceded by a publication that laid out a variety of projections of what the future of the region could look like. From this work emerged some key themes that should inform and drive future U.S. policy toward, and engagement with, the region.
- Engage with the region in achieving an effective energy transition. The Middle East, and the Gulf sub-region in particular, has been the central global player in the hydrocarbon economy of the past century. And while hydrocarbons will remain part of the global energy mix for a few decades to come, governments and companies in this region are eager to become a key part of the energy transition and major players in the post-carbon future. This includes shifting the mix within hydrocarbons toward cleaner fuels such as natural gas; moving forward on various carbon capture approaches; building capacity for blue and green hydrogen production; as well as using revenues to invest in renewable energies such as solar and wind. The prospect for the region to become a global player in renewable and clean energy production and distribution, as it was during the hydrocarbon era, is very real. It has land and other resources unique in the world to support multiple types of renewable energy generation at huge scale. The U.S. has a great interest in assisting and scaling this ambitious aim. It also has an interest in not ceding the role of MENA’s primary partner in energy transition to its global competitor China, which has a head start on the U.S. in a number of key renewable technologies.
- Engage the region as a key partner in turning the corner on global climate policy and coordination. Public and private sector leaders have become well aware that the Middle East will be—indeed, already is—the region first affected and hardest hit by the ravages of climate change. The Middle East was already the hottest, driest, and most water- and food-stressed region in the world. Climate change already does, and will continue to, make those threats dangerously worse. After the relative disappointment of COP26 in Glasgow, much is riding on COP27 and COP28. As it happens, the former will be held in Cairo later this year and the latter will be held in Abu Dhabi in late 2023. The Biden administration, for which climate change is a signal priority, should work closely with governments, the private sector, and civil society in the region, as well as its other international partners, to prepare for and help make sure that COP27 and COP28 mark a major step forward in mounting an effective global response to the menace of climate change. That global response will also need to include actions to create jobs and economic growth that invest in and benefit from climate change adaptation; a number of governments and companies in the MENA region are moving in this direction. The Biden administration is already emphasizing the economic upside in its climate agenda, and it should work with public and private sector leaders in the region to advance its own and their plans in this area.
- Deal with the realities of today, but build bridges with the generations of tomorrow. Much of the future of the Middle East depends on how ordinary people and their governments renegotiate a fraying social contract, if and how basic human security needs are met, and what voice and role rising generations are given in shaping their own future. The Middle East has a very young population, whose youth have been demanding urgent change since at least 2011. Some governments are moving ahead quickly in preparing for the challenges of tomorrow; but in many countries where governments have been slow to move, innovation is flourishing at the grassroots level, and is making strides toward addressing social and economic equity and sustainable development challenges. Much of this is driven by youthful entrepreneurs. In confronting immediate challenges, the U.S. must continue to deal with the governments and leaders in place. But for the long term, the U.S. government, but also importantly the private sector and civil society actors, can help build bridges with and seek to empower the rising generations of the region in shaping their own future. Empowering the rising voice of the people doesn’t just mean supporting fragile democracies where they exist, and encouraging human rights and public inclusion in the political arena, and it certainly doesn’t mean regime change through military force. Instead, it means looking for new ways that the U.S. can connect with the rising generation in the region, to promote a shared vision of human security, empowerment, and progress.
The Middle East, for understandable reasons, is overwhelmingly seen as a locus of trouble, risk, and bad news. And in the short term, one can see few positive scenarios. But in the long run, this region has a key role to play in critical global challenges such as energy transition and confronting climate change. And the region’s young population are allies in pushing for positive change. The U.S. should calibrate its policies and approach to MENA accordingly, attending to immediate threats, but also working with the region in key issue areas, such as energy transition and confronting climate change, to help shape a better long-term future for both the region and the world at large.
Paul Salem is the President of the Middle East Institute (MEI). Steven Kenney is the Director of the Strategic Foresight Program at MEI.