The Middle East is not condemned to a debilitating cycle of conflict. There is nothing inevitable or unfixable about what ails the states of the region today. Still, the current reality is alarmingly clear: a global crisis emanating from the Middle East convulsing much of the region in instability and violence, while projecting the threat and reality of terrorism and disruption far beyond.

That threat and that reality are palpable, but so is the prospect for a better future. There are opportunities in the Middle East, not just challenges.

To be able to harness these opportunities, it is necessary to change the political trajectory of the region from state failure and civil war toward a stable and peaceful order of sovereign states. It goes without saying that the states and peoples of the Middle East have the greatest stake in what happens there. Yet the United States also has vital interests that impact both the lives and livelihoods of Americans and their families: keeping citizens safe from terrorism; protecting the US economy; empowering friends and allies; enabling American global military operations; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and averting destabilizing humanitarian disasters.

Advancing American interests will require far more than a unilateral “American strategy.” Outsiders cannot fix what ails the Middle East. Neither can they avoid its global consequences through some combination of defense, disengagement, and containment. The current crisis in the Middle East is not containable. Isolationism is a dangerous illusion.


A New
Strategic Approach
Led by the

What we propose here is a New Strategic Approach emphasizing partnership.

Under this New Approach, the leaders and peoples of the region must take full responsibility for charting a new, positive vision for their societies. At the same time, outsiders such as the United States would work to help resolve the violent conflicts that currently stand in the way of achieving any region-led vision.

This New Strategic Approach is a bet on the people of the region.

The partnership that it envisions reaches out to the full range of regional actors, not just governments. Youth, women, private business, local civic groups, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, educators, and engaged citizens all have a role to play. What is required is a Whole-of-Region approach.

The New Strategic Approach envisions a two-pronged action agenda, implemented simultaneously.

External powers will take the lead along with regional actors in winding down civil wars, mitigating human suffering, and relieving the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Daesh2) of its territory. At the same time, regional actors, with support from external powers, will work to unlock the region’s rich, but largely untapped, human capital—especially the underutilized talents of youth and women.

This complementary division of efforts between external and internal actors represents a Compact for the Middle East

It abrogates outdated assumptions that countries and peoples must choose between security and more open societies. The more steps countries in the region take to improve their governance and the lives of their people, the more legitimacy they will have, and the more support they can expect from the United States and its transatlantic partners.

Prong One:
Achieving Peace
and Security

  • Prong One, with its emphasis on top-down security issues, requires heavy lifting by external powers in full cooperation with those regional actors willing to participate in this Compact. The required tasks are daunting but doable. They start with the four states of the region engulfed in civil conflict.
  • In Syria, the humanitarian abuses of the Assad regime provide a recruiting bonanza for Daesh: they must be curtailed—militarily if necessary—and military action probably will prove necessary. Opposition forces must be strengthened to defend civilians from a murderous regime and to go after Daesh and al-Qaeda with enhanced outside support. The defeat of Daesh in Syria must be accelerated, and the reconciliation and reconstruction process for a devastated country must begin. The enhanced military effort must be used as leverage to push the regime and its outside backers toward a political solution. A vital element of this solution will be supporting ground-up efforts that engage local civic groups and Syrians who have been obliged to govern themselves at local levels due to state collapse. If the country is to survive as a single entity, a reconstituted Syrian government must provide increased autonomy and resources that enable provinces and local governments to assume greater responsibility for their citizens and to give their citizens a greater voice in their nation’s future. This is a New Model of National Governance with relevance not just to states emerging from civil war, but also to states of the region seeking enhanced legitimacy and greater support from their people.
  • In Iraq, the national army—with the full support of external actors— must take the lead in defeating Daesh. To leave this task to Shia militias would be to accelerate Iraq’s downward spiral. The Iraqi government— again, with robust external support and encouragement—must focus on reconciliation and stabilization. That will entail addressing humanitarian needs, overcoming sectarian tensions, restoring effective local governance, and spurring the economic revival of liberated areas. Iraq’s survival as a single state depends in large measure on the government being seen as a more credible guarantor of Sunni Arab interests than Daesh. It also will require, as in the case of Syria, a new model of governance offering increased autonomy and resources for provinces and local governments. External actors should press the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government to resolve their differences. Pervasive corruption must also be addressed. Empowered local governance can again provide a major part of the solution, along with strong support for leaders who put themselves at personal risk to tackle graft and vested interests.
  • In Libya, history dictates a leading role for our European partners. Still, American leadership will be required to galvanize a currently divided Europe and rally external players—including several from the Middle East—to provide unified support to the Government of National Accord, rather than to regional factions.
  • In Yemen, outside actors must persuade Saudi Arabia to prioritize a political resolution to the conflict. At the same time, Houthi military operations near and across the Saudi border must stop. Like Syria, Yemen has become a humanitarian catastrophe requiring the mitigation efforts of outsiders and regional players alike. And counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda’s branch there must continue.

Working to wind down these civil wars will require strong resolve. Yet Prong One of the strategy must address other tasks as well.

  • Pending the implementation of a stable, sustainable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the task of building the institutions of a future Palestinian state should continue and be accelerated, coupled with encouragement to Israel to enhance its economic and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. Political changes in Turkey combined with shared interests with the United States require a more robust strategic dialogue between Ankara and Washington. This is critical not only to addressing matters of mutual concern such as refugee flows, Daesh, and the Assad regime, but also to resolving current issues in the US-Turkey bilateral relationship— including relations with the Syrian Kurds.
  • Iranian interference in the Arab world must be deterred, even while engaging Tehran on matters of mutual interest (such as the 2015 nuclear accord). America’s friends and partners must be reassured that the US opposes Iranian hegemony and will work with them to prevent it.
  • Support for refugees must move beyond the provision of basic needs toward supporting their economic integration in host countries and empowering their ability to return home. The region needs a different approach toward assisting and supporting refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Adults unable to accumulate savings and children denied education are less likely to return to their home countries and rebuild. Those states bearing the brunt of refugee displacement— Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey—merit strong and sustained assistance. Their compassion and support for Syrian refugees is a global public good. Yet the burdens are heavy, and creative assistance is needed. For example, cash payments to refugees—rather than in-kind aid disbursements—can stimulate local economies and mitigate local resentments. And contrary to popularly held beliefs, giving refugees legal access to work in local economies can pay huge dividends to the local tax base and produce overall economic growth.

Prong Two:
Unleashing the
Region’s Human
and Economic

  • Prong Two of the New Strategic Approach emphasizes political and economic transformation, and requires profound reforms of states in the region. These are difficult undertakings requiring strong encouragement from supportive external powers. Yet unless regional states move resolutely toward an Updated Social Contract that empowers citizens and enshrines accountability, the investment being made in the region’s human capital will not bear fruit. Several inter-related steps are necessary for such an updated social contract to take root.
  • The most crucial step is to develop the region’s human capital— including youth and women—to ensure that change is sustainable. Education is key. Strategic investments must be made in quality education relevant to the twenty-first century. Existing educational institutions require, in many cases, total overhaul, with students and parents fully engaged in educational reform efforts. Indeed, localities should be given greater roles in determining educational priorities at the expense of large, centralized bureaucracies. Targeted interventions, well prepared teachers, thoughtful use of technology, exchange programs, and greater engagement with the American-style liberal arts universities located throughout the region are all essential. Strong vocational training programs should also be developed, recognizing the realistic needs of the labor market.
  • An associated task is to support and facilitate “Big Bang” Regulatory Reforms to foster greater trade, investment, and economic integration, with a special focus on empowering entrepreneurs. This will ensure that educated citizens find opportunity once their schooling is complete. Governments should not be obstacles to economic creativity. Legal and regulatory environments that enable entrepreneurship to flourish and create an “ecosystem of innovation” are essential, as are protections and incentives for foreign direct investment. Transforming broad subsidies into targeted assistance for the poor, and creating empowered, independent central banks are likewise vitally important. Trade barriers must be lowered and ultimately eliminated. Tunisia—a leader in post-Arab Spring political reforms and in many ways a weathervane for the region—must not be permitted to fail economically.
  • Governments must both enable and catalyze citizen participation in civic problem-solving. This means giving space for civic activities, encouraging and empowering local civic groups, social entrepreneurs, and especially women and young people to be productive and innovative. It means supporting skills training, civic initiatives, and public dialogues that help create more resilient and vibrant societies. It means encouraging and enabling women to play greater roles in economic and public life. And it means building communications channels between local civic groups and governments.
  • Good governance—especially empowered and well-resourced local governments—must be a priority. Providing security in the face of terrorism without compromising the rights of citizens is no easy task, but it is a baseline requirement for defeating the terrorist threat. Corruption must be rooted out, delivery of basic services streamlined, and security services professionalized. Local governments should be empowered to solve local problems, and countries should develop their own benchmarks for reform. In all of this, encouragement and support from abroad is important. But initiative from within the region is mandatory.
  • The Middle East could benefit enormously from a Regional Framework for dialogue and cooperation. This framework would encompass economic, political, and security issues. It would transcend the limited mandates and memberships of existing organizations such as the Arab League, which excludes important regional players like Turkey, Iran, and Israel. Such a framework could help tamp down conflicts, encourage cooperation, establish agreed standards of state behavior, and incentivize and support positive steps by states in the region. A charter could articulate core principles, and a mechanism could be developed to encourage compliance with agreed norms. Such a framework could help wind down the civil wars and might ultimately ratchet-down the Saudi- Iranian confrontation. It would help to establish and maintain a more stable regional order among states. It could even become an engine for advancing the cause of Arab-Israeli peace.
  • The Middle East would also profit enormously from the creation of a Regional Development Fund for Reconstruction and Reform. The absence of such an institution—which would include participation from within and outside the region—is notable. Regional states should propose, design, and finance such a fund, and challenge the international community to make matching contributions. The Fund would, in its lending practices, encourage and drive private sector development, and could draw on the example of other regional development institutions, such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). It could support actions and cooperative projects that emerge from the Regional Framework. Governments taking the steps described in Prong Two of the strategy would receive financing and technical support. Indeed, the Fund and companion institutions would support the full range of societal actors—including local governments, private companies, civic groups, business and social entrepreneurs, and empowered citizens.


We have tried to take a clear-eyed look at the regional landscape. We recognize that conditions vary greatly across the region. We understand that many of the states of the region find themselves in very different situations. There is no single model for the region, and certainly not one designed by outsiders.

Yet what we have heard from the region suggests a common set of principles and strategies that can help all countries and peoples of the Middle East manage differences across tribal, sectarian, and religious divides, build social harmony and social cohesion, create a twenty-first-century social contract between government and the people, enhance governmental legitimacy, and prevent conflicts from escalating into violence. We have tried to capture these principles and strategies in this report and show how they might be implemented and applied in concrete situations effectively and over time.

This report’s bet on the people of the Middle East—struggling to rise from unemployment, underemployment, underutilization, and undervaluation—is far from a sure winner. But the days of external powers trying to orchestrate and even dictate political reality in the region are finished. So is a regional political order of governments demanding obedience in return for public sector employment and related state subsidies. What is being asked of Middle East leaders is daunting, and therefore external actors must be unsparing in their encouragement and support. But the choice is clear: create a foundation for a new order of political legitimacy, or succumb to unending crisis, instability, and terrorism. Either empower citizens or watch power devolve into the hands of criminals and terrorists.

This report maps out a clear—though challenging—pathway for the people of the Middle East to build a new future that transforms their region from a hotbed of violent instability to a stable and prosperous community of states. There is nothing in or about the Middle East that condemns it to failure, or that other regions have not overcome. The thesis of intractable ancient conflicts rooted in religion and ethnicity is as faulty in the Middle East as it was in Europe. On the contrary, there is much about the region—starting with its people—that inspires hope. But hope is no more a strategy than cynicism. The New Strategic Approach we propose can, if implemented, provide a way out of the current strife.


The Middle East is witnessing the unraveling of a century-old political order, an unprecedented struggle for power within and between states, and the rise of extremist elements that are exacting a devastating toll. Yet at the very same time, parts of the region are rapidly modernizing, seeking to provide better opportunities for their young people, and experimenting with more active roles in the Middle East and the world.

These developments, both negative and positive, have profound repercussions not just for the Middle East, but also for the United States, Europe, and rest of the world. That is why we, under the auspices of the Atlantic Council, convened the Middle East Strategy Task Force in February 2015.

A Message
From The

This report takes a step back from the current political debate. It seeks to move beyond the fire drill approach to the region’s problems. It seeks to understand the complex forces shaping today’s Middle East and to suggest how local, regional, and international partners can work together to set the whole region—not only those countries engulfed in civil war—on a more positive trajectory over the long term.

At its core, this report is not about devising a US strategy for the region, as if the United States had the responsibility and capacity to fix the region’s ills. It is, rather, an attempt to articulate a strategy for the region, largely drawn from the region. The region’s governments and its people will have to take the lead in carrying out this strategy if it is to succeed. But the United States and other external stakeholders can help, and we offer suggestions on how they can best support, enable, and facilitate their efforts. We believe it is very much in America’s national security interest to do so.

Our approach to this project differs from other efforts of this kind. We quickly realized that an exclusive focus on security issues would not suffice. The region’s security challenges are inextricably linked to humanitarian, social, economic, religious, and political issues. Therefore, we organized five thematic working groups, consisting of accomplished experts from the region and beyond, to examine the broad issues that we see as essential to a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East:

  • Security and Public Order
  • Religion, Identity, and Countering Violent Extremism
  • Rebuilding Societies: Refugees, Recovery, and Reconciliation
  • Governance and State-Society Relations
  • Economic Recovery and Revitalization

Each of these working groups, throughout 2016, published a paper outlining the conclusions and recommendations as seen by the convener of the working group. This report is greatly, though not exclusively, influenced by those working group papers.

Because of our strong belief in the importance of listening to voices from the region, we ensured that we received regular input from a wide range of people in the Middle East. Beyond our working groups, we had a panel of Senior Advisers drawn from the region, Europe, and the United States. We consulted periodically with the ambassadors of the region based in Washington, as well as with those of our key European allies and friends.

We also embarked on a fact-finding trip to the region in February 2016, which included visits by both of us to Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as stops in the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and the West Bank by Steve Hadley alone. Steve then returned to the Middle East again at the end of September. We met not only with heads of state, cabinet ministers, and other officials, but also with representatives from business and local civic groups, students, and young people, to ensure that we heard a wide range of views.

While the content and conclusions of this report have been greatly informed by this collaborative process, we did not seek to make it a consensus document. It does not necessarily represent the views of our Senior Advisers, our working group conveners or members, or any of the officials, organizations, or individuals we consulted along the way.

Instead, this report represents our best judgments as Co-Chairs. We believe it outlines a constructive, considered, and above all, solutions-oriented approach to a region that we see as vital to American interests, global security, and human prosperity. We understand that much of what we say will be controversial to many American audiences. But we believe our outreach to the region allows us to bring new information and new perspective to a public debate on the Middle East that has become both narrow and entrenched. We hope that the collaborative approach we have emphasized throughout this project can serve as a model for future problem solving on similarly complex issues.

Above all, we present our conclusions with great humility. The issues facing the region are some of the most challenging and difficult that we have ever seen in our respective careers. This task force took longer than we envisioned because of dramatic changes in the region during the course of our work. The strategy we outline will be hard, and will require courageous actions by leaders and citizens in the Middle East. It will also require sustained commitment by the United States and other international partners across time, administrations, and party lines. We know that this will be a tough sell in the United States. Americans are tired of seemingly unending wars in the Middle East. But we believe that the approach we outline ultimately will make the Middle East more stable, and, as a result, will make the United States— and the world—more secure.

The American people have decided on a new president. The Trump administration will have to grapple early on with the crisis in Syria. It would be wise to do so in the context of a larger strategy for the region as a whole. We think the recommendations contained in this report offer one way of doing so. As the new administration settles in to the task of governing, we believe it will find that its responsibility to keep Americans safe, combined with the course of events in the region, will impel it in this general direction.

The situation in the Middle East is difficult but progress is necessary and possible. We hope that this Task Force might serve as the first step toward better international cooperation with the people of the region to realize their incredible potential.


Madeleine K. Albright
Co-Chair Middle East Strategy Task Force


Stephen J. Hadley
Co-Chair Middle East Strategy Task Force

Chapter 1:


TWO VISIONS – The world is not just facing a crisis in the Middle East, but a global crisis emanating from the Middle East. Four civil wars rage across the region—in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen—causing massive human suffering and displacement. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Daesh) has emerged from this chaos to seize territory in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, while al-Qaeda has renewed its global efforts in a perverse bid to outdo its brutal rival.

The violent methods and extremist ideology of both groups have attracted thousands of recruits through social media, and both have directed or inspired terrorist attacks in the West, including in the United States. Sectarian tensions are escalating as Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves locked in a competitive cycle of mistrust, and the United States steps back from its traditional balancing role.



Yet as dire as today’s headlines from the region seem, things could still get far worse. It is not hard to imagine the region’s civil wars grinding on for years or even a decade longer. This would dramatically deepen a humanitarian crisis that is already as bad as any since World War II. Millions more refugees would leave their homelands. This mass migration would strain not just the political systems of neighboring countries, but Western governments and international institutions as well, whose deepest values and political stability are already being challenged by the crisis. The strains produced by migrants from the Middle East in particular were a key factor in the victory of the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” campaigners, and could presage further cracks in the European Union’s solidarity. Daesh and al-Qaeda would continue to benefit from ungoverned spaces, planning attacks and gaining new recruits. The pace of terrorism would escalate. Attacks would target not just the United States and the West but other states in the region. Instability and civil strife could destabilize Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. The lack of security in the region would discourage even forward-thinking governments from undertaking needed political reforms, fearful of creating any opening that bad actors might exploit. The deteriorating situation would create a world that is generally more fearful and closed; economies worldwide would suffer; global economic growth would falter; and much needed jobs would be lost.

At the same time, there is still a realistic—if challenging—path that could result in significant improvements and surpass almost every expectation of what is possible for the region. The fact is that the Middle East is rich in assets, not the least of which is its tremendous human capital. It has a techsavvy, youthful population hungering for a better life. Thanks to oil, the region possesses enormous wealth, even if it is unequally distributed. It occupies a prime location at the strategic crossroads of the world, and is home to some of the world’s most important religious and historical sites.

Under the right conditions, it is possible to imagine a different kind of Middle East emerging over the course of the next generation. At the local level, communities would be driven more and more by the talents and energies of their citizens, who would have more autonomy over their local affairs. At the level of nation-states, governments would improve the delivery of basic services such as education, health care, and infrastructure. They would also more fairly administer justice, uphold the rule of law, and protect the rights of the most vulnerable. As the quality of education in the region improves, the private sector would play a larger role in generating economic growth, thereby easing the burden on public finances. At the regional level, businesses and entrepreneurs would be more competitive in the global economy. The Middle East would become a new engine for global growth, as more of its people join the middle class. At the international level, a more prosperous Middle East with better and more just governance would erode the appeal and relevance of terrorist groups such as Daesh and al-Qaeda, by addressing the grievances that underpin them.

This alternative, more positive vision may seem far-fetched to many. But a close look at what is already happening in the region, even amidst the current chaos, is instructive on what is possible. There are opposition protesters in Idlib, Syria, who, five years into that country’s vicious civil war, used the temporary safety of a ceasefire to resume their peaceful demonstrations for peace and freedom. There are Syrian refugees in Jordan who are using 3D technology to supply artificial limb components to their peers in need. Syrian refugees in Germany are filling an essential requirement for more doctors in that country. Women in Egypt are using crowdsourcing technology to track and report street harassment. Saudi Arabia is embarking on a bold— if challenging—program of reform that aims to empower young people and bring more women into public life. While each of these cases on its own appears isolated, together they represent an unmistakable trend that offers great hope for the future.

A Compelling
Interest in

This hopeful trend notwithstanding, many in the United States and the West simply want to change the channel on the Middle East. Having seen the region in turmoil for decades, they unsurprisingly want nothing more to do with it, think there is nothing that can be done about it, and may well feel that it is in the best interests of their own countries just to stay away. While such a reaction is understandable, it is at the same time unrealistic and fraught with risk. Recent events have shown that no country can isolate itself from the region’s current chaos. The rest of the world simply cannot prosper while the Middle East is in disarray.

It goes without saying that the states and peoples of the Middle East have the greatest stake in what happens there. They would be the greatest beneficiaries of a region on a trajectory toward a more secure and prosperous future. And Europe would also benefit—freed from the economic, political, and security burden of terror attacks and refugee flows. For the United States, there is an analogous set of vital interests at stake that impacts both the lives and livelihoods of Americans and their families.

The calculus of other countries will no doubt differ from that of the United States. Nonetheless, no country that depends upon hydrocarbons to fuel its economy, relies upon the export of goods abroad, is perceived as a destination for refugees or as a potential target for terrorists, and cares about the safety and prosperity of its people, can be indifferent to the fate of the Middle East.


The United States and parts of the international community have helped other regions of the world address similar challenges.

International efforts in the Balkans in the 1990s halted the sectarian fighting there and stopped the region’s slide into chaos. The United States, Europe, and Russia brokered the Dayton Accords and an end to the conflict in Bosnia. Several years later, NATO intervened with air power to halt ethnic cleansing against Kosovar Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, an international peacekeeping force prevented the resumption of hostilities. The United Nations worked to establish functioning successor states to the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, the European Union, through its accession process, offered a set of positive incentives encouraging these states to protect minority rights, bring to justice those who had committed atrocities, and develop functioning political systems and marketbased economies. Twenty-five years after Dayton, the former Yugoslavia still confronts many challenges. But it has moved out of conflict toward peace and stability. Two of its former constituent states—Slovenia and Croatia—are thriving EU members, while the others continue to make steady progress.

Colombia is another example, even in the wake of October’s failed referendum on its peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While that setback complicates the prospects for a final settlement, it does not nullify the tremendous drop in violence that Colombia has experienced in recent years, or the effectiveness of the process that persuaded former combatants to lay down their arms—a development that would have once seemed unimaginable. The fact remains that sustained but judicious support from outside powers helped change the military trajectory of a fifty-year conflict, leading the parties to sit down at the negotiating table. While the peace deal will now likely be revised in further negotiations, the process has been notable for the inclusion of key regional powers, like Venezuela and Cuba, that had previously used the conflict as a proxy battleground for their own political agendas. On the US side, Plan Colombia entailed a decades-long commitment by both Republican and Democratic administrations, as well as leaders from both parties in Congress, to assist the country in countering the drug trade, combatting terrorism, enhancing its security, and bolstering development.

These cases also suggest that changing the trajectory of a conflict-ravaged nation or region must be a long-term endeavor, involving not only the application of military force, but also investments in the governance and societal infrastructure needed to make communities resilient. The choice facing us in the Middle East is whether we can commit ourselves to a persistent, long-term course of action that invests in meaningful stability, or whether we force ourselves to engage in a seemingly endless cycle of shortterm military interventions. As the rest of this report will show, we believe the choice is clear.

Chapter 2:

How We Got Here

Many look at the current challenges confronting the Middle East and throw up their hands. The region has always been fighting and will always be fighting, they may argue, and anyone who steps in to try to alter this reality is doomed not only to fail but to emerge weakened from that failure. While the simplicity of this narrative is enticing, it is also inapt.

The region took time to descend into its current chaos, which resulted not from destiny but from a series of identifiable failings.


Why Is
All This

The problems of the region seem so entrenched, in part, because there has not been a comprehensive diagnosis or consensus as to how things got to their present state. The key players in the conflicts have their own competing theories about the source of the current crisis. Gulf Arabs cite Iran’s revolutionary ideology and pursuit of regional hegemony, whereas Iranians blame Saudi proselytizing and the spread of its Wahhabi brand of Islam. In the West, many place the blame on Daesh and other radical Islamist terrorist groups, while those in the region accuse the United States of unleashing these same extremists by destabilizing Iraq in 2003. Others fault inequitable political systems that foster sectarian rivalry, or the rise of political Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. Still others see massive failures of governance, widespread corruption, the declining Arab nation-state, and failures in education as the key problems, dashing the expectations of an exploding youth population. Still other voices might assert that today’s problems were predestined by the colonial legacy of arbitrary borders. The list goes on and on.

While each of these narratives has elements of truth, none by itself fully explains the region’s current crises. By the same token, solving any one of these issues on its own will not be enough to lift the region out of its current predicament. Additionally, these narratives miss other, more positive trends in the region that are equally a part of the landscape. The rise of the Internet and other new media, increasing levels of educational attainment, gains in human development, and populations with rising abilities and expectations are indispensable features of the contemporary Middle East.

In reality, the crises playing out in the region are impacted by all of these trends, both good and bad—and they predate by decades the events of the Arab Spring or the rise of Daesh. These factors have compounded over decades and interacted to create a complex brew of challenges that cannot be isolated from each other, and must be understood and addressed as a set.

A Dizzying

The Issue of Borders

In a region known as the cradle of civilization, the weight of history is heavy. The Middle East’s rich resources and strategic location made it the subject of intense colonial competition in the last century. This difficult colonial legacy endures most obviously through the region’s arbitrary borders, which bind together diverse religious and ethnic groups. Many see this as the root cause of conflict in the region, and a logical place to start in any plan for a more stable order. As a consequence, some argue that the solution is to break up states or revise their boundaries.

The Kurdish Case Many bring up the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI) when seeking to make a case for revising borders in the region. The Kurds, numbering between twenty-five and thirty-five million people, are the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state.

Nevertheless, present realities mean that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, under current circumstances, would likely raise more problems than it solves. Resolving them justly would require years of internationally mediated negotiations and a careful process of referenda. Thus, while the world may one day, under the right circumstances, welcome an independent Kurdistan, it should be understood in a broader context, as a long-term question of how best to ensure stability and effective governance in the region, rather than a short-term fix to Iraq’s myriad problems. Read More

While tempting, this line of reasoning is misguided. Redrawing borders or partitioning states is unlikely to lead to better outcomes, much less boundaries considered more legitimate. The region’s diversity means there is no formula for “correct” borders. Rejiggering the map would not produce homogenous populations; it would instead create deeper problems, throwing into question the legitimacy of existing state borders and signaling the opening of a land grab. Most importantly, adjusting state borders would not have any impact on the governance inside those borders. Redrawing lines on a map cannot create justice or competence where there are neither.

For example, when Iraqis are asked about the cause of the conflict in their country, a majority of Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds all cite “a government in Baghdad that does not represent all Iraqis.” Similarly, when asked about solutions for their country, most—including a majority of Kurds—identify a “more inclusive, representative government” as the best way forward—even when the option of partition is put on the table. Syrians echoed this sentiment, two-thirds of whom believe that a “political system based on citizenship and equality before the law” is the most appropriate form of governance for their country.

Figure 1. Iraqis respond: “In causing conflict in Iraq, how significant is the role played by a government in Baghdad that does not represent all Iraqis?”


Source: Zogby Research Services, Middle East 2015: Current and Future Challenges.

Figure 2. Iraqis respond: “What is the best way to ultimately resolve the conflict that
is taking place in Iraq?”*


Source: Zogby Research Services, Middle East 2015: Current and Future Challenges.
* Percentages in the pie chart do not add up to 100 percent because of rounding.

Figure 3. Syrians respond: “What is the most appropriate form of governance to overcome the problem of sectarianism?”


Source: Sectarianism in Syria: Survey Study, The Day After.

Eroding Legitimacy

Having identified governance, rather than borders, as the more significant problem in the region, it is important to understand why states that seemed so stable for so long collapsed with such speed in 2011. While the events of the Arab Spring may have seemed sudden, in reality, the region’s governance problems built up over decades, and were the result of a social contract that did not evolve along with the demands of a changing world.

Between 1990 and 2010, the overall literacy rate in the region surged from 58 percent to 80 percent. In the Arab world, access to clean water rose from 83 percent to 92 percent from 2000 to 2015. Child mortality fell from a staggering 249 deaths per 1,000 children under five in 1960 to less than 37 in 2015.

Figure 4. Adult literacy rate in the Middle East and North Africa, 1990-2010


Source: World Bank.

Figure 5. Access to clean water in the Arab World, 2000-15


Source: World Bank.

Figure 6. Child mortality rate in the Arab World, 1990-2010 (deaths per 1,000 children under age 5)


Source: World Bank.

Unemployment remained stubbornly high, never falling below 10 percent between 1991 and 2014—consistently placing it around twice the global average.

Figure 7. Unemployment, 1991-2014

unemployment-1991-2014 in Middle East and World

Source: World Bank

This stagnation was particularly damaging because it coincided with the rise of new media. The advent of satellite television, the Internet, and social media ended the state’s monopoly on information, affording citizens more opportunities to compare their lot with those in other societies.

Figure 8. Population “thriving” in Egypt v. Internet usage


Source: World Bank and Gallup.

Regional Rivalries and the Political-Sectarian Nexus

The Arab uprisings of 2011 thus reflected a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the performance of many regional governments. Some states, such as Tunisia, appear to be—at least tentatively—on the path to healthier, more responsive governing models. A more common result has been the descent of weak and failing states into civil war—most notably Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. These wars have become engines of instability. They have spread chaos across their borders, transforming what began as political problems into violent clashes over religion and identity that reinforce and exacerbate the conflicts. These battles over identity aggravate the violence by hardening its fault lines. Unlike conflicts rooted in politics, which can be solved through negotiation, identitybased conflicts are zero-sum by nature.

Figure 9. Syrians respond: “When did the sectarian problem in Syria start?”


Source: Sectarianism in Syria: Survey Study, The Day After.

The Rise of Daesh

Extremist groups have also played a role in fomenting sectarian conflict. In the 2000s, al-Qaeda in Iraq, seizing upon the post-invasion security vacuum, provoked sectarian warfare as a means of rendering the country ungovernable and driving out American forces. Although they were beaten back by the 2007-08 surge of Coalition forces, and by a concerted diplomatic effort to bring Iraq’s Sunni tribal community back into the fold, they reconstituted as soon as another vacuum presented itself. This happened first in Syria in 2011, aided by Bashar al-Assad’s cynical policy of releasing al-Qaeda leaders from prison in a flimsy “amnesty.” Incubated in Syria’s ungoverned spaces and aided by the Assad regime’s (and now Russia’s) benign neglect in favor of targeting the rebels, they then spilled across the border into Iraq, and fed off Sunni discontent with the increasingly sectarian Maliki government in Baghdad. When an administrative dispute emerged between global al-Qaeda leadership and the group’s members on the ground in Syria, a split ensued, and Daesh was born.

The Fragmentation of Religious Authority, and Its Consequences

While political legitimacy in the Middle East was slowly disintegrating, similar forces were undermining religious legitimacy and opening the door to alternative sources of religious authority. Publics came to view traditional religious leaders as compromised by their close association with corrupt, authoritarian political regimes. New communications technologies such as satellite television and social media were wresting canonical authority away from official religious institutions. The advent of Twitter, along with satellite television call-in shows, fragmented religious authority and elevated controversial voices that would otherwise have been marginalized by traditional religious power structures. And unlike the old authorities, such as the religious scholars of Al Azhar in Egypt or the Grand Mufti in Saudi Arabia, these new voices are not beholden to the sensibilities of the state or to traditional methods of religious interpretation.

Furthermore, the current civil wars have created ungoverned spaces that have afforded terrorist groups like Daesh—which might otherwise have been confined to back-alley prayer rooms or rugged hideouts—the space and means to organize into a powerful force. In such spaces, the terrorists, with their self-serving religious interpretations, prey on individuals with little religious knowledge, feeding them a twisted reading of the faith to desensitize them to their heinous actions. Indeed, recovered Daesh and al-Qaeda recruiting manuals specifically caution jihadist recruiters to avoid religious Muslims, and instead to seek out non-religious young people who may feel isolated from their societies.

“Non-religious Muslims are the preferred sector [for recruitment]. This is because you will be the one to guide him.”
-Al Qaeda recruiting manual

Why People Join Islamic Terrorist Groups

Revenge-Seeking: Looking for an outlet for frustration at perceived personal slights or social victimhood;
Status-Seeking: Looking for recognition and respect;
Identity-Seeking: Looking for a group to belong to, sometimes to replace ruptured family ties or as a result of exclusion from more positive social spaces;
Thrill-Seeking: Looking for excitement and adventure.
Read More

A Global Crisis

Adding to the complexity of the civil wars is the fact that they are not fueled by the internal problems of the region alone. Because of the Middle East’s strategic importance, and the transnational nature of threats like Islamic terrorism, external stakeholders have been drawn into the mix. And they have been drawn in at the very moment when the order of states both within the region and on a global level is changing dramatically. Since the Cold War, the region has gone from an arena of bipolar US-Soviet competition, to a period of American preeminence, to a new post-Arab Spring landscape of regional powers increasingly vying among themselves for influence. All this has occurred while Russia plays an increased geopolitical role, China an increased economic role, and the United States deliberately limits its involvement.

A Lack of Institutions

Notably absent in the Middle East is some type of institutional framework that can effectively adjudicate and defuse the types of conflicts and rivalries this chapter catalogues. It is the only major region of the world without an inclusive regional organization to set agreed standards of state behavior, facilitate intra-regional trade, and provide a forum for the peaceful resolution of disputes. From the African Union to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the Pacific Islands Forum, other world regions have established bodies that endeavor to set “rules of the road” tailored to regional sensibilities. This has helped reduce regional conflict and facilitated greater cooperation.

While the Middle East is not entirely without institutions of its own, none is sufficiently inclusive to set rules and norms to which all regional states can agree.

The Other
Side of the

The foregoing crisis narrative is the one that gets the most attention in the international media. It is the one that most shapes Americans’ views of the Middle East. It is not untrue. But it is also not the full story. It is not by itself sufficient to understand current regional dynamics. There is another reality that exists in parallel to all of the chaos and conflict—a reality that is just as intrinsic to the region.

Youthful Energy

The Middle East is experiencing a demographic youth surge. Depending upon how governments respond, these young people can either be a boon, bringing millions of productive youths into the workforce and consumers into the domestic marketplace—or a bust, leaving millions without jobs or a future. Many in the region appear to realize the power of this demographic potential and the steps necessary to channel and engage it constructively.

Figure 10. Youth Population in the Middle East


Source: Farzaneh Roudi, Youth Population and Employment in the Middle East and North
Africa: Opportunity or Challenge?

Already this generation of highly motivated and connected youth is upending expectations. More educated than their parents and highly empowered, they are part of a “Participation Revolution” occurring across the region, where citizens are demanding roles in all aspects of their country’s political, economic, and social life. Less deferential than previous generations, they are unwilling to wait for government to solve their problems. They are actively engaged in trying to build the kind of future that they want.

They have an entrepreneurial bent. In a recent survey of Arab youth, 36 percent expressed the desire to start their own businesses.

Figure 11. Entrepreneurial Aspirations and Arab Youth


Source: “Inside the Hearts and Minds of Arab Youth,” ASDA’A/Burson-Marsteller Arab
Youth Survey 2016.

Green Shoots of Progress

Some governments in the region are responding positively to the energy bubbling up from their populations. Aware of both the potential and the risks posed by youthful populations, these governments are investing heavily in education, fostering entrepreneurship, and encouraging volunteerism.

One of the more surprising examples is Saudi Arabia. As noted earlier, the propagation throughout the region of intolerant teachings pushed by some in the Saudi clerical establishment contributed to the spread of extremist views. Yet in the wake of falling oil prices and the recognition that it cannot buy its way out of its youth bulge, the new Saudi leadership seems now, through the launch of its Vision 2030, to have set a commendable vision for modernity, with an emphasis on quality education.

Figure 12. Brent crude oil, price per barrel, 2011-16


Source: World Bank.

At a Glance: MiSK
Founded and chaired by Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, MiSK works to develop in Saudi youth the skills and personal traits necessary to build a knowledge-based economy. It also seeks to create more links between Saudi and the worldwide community of entrepreneurs. The first annual MiSK Global Forum, held in Riyadh November 15-16, 2016, introduced global business leaders and venture capitalists to MiSK’s community of young Saudi entrepreneurs to offer them practical insights and leadership lessons.

Read More

In a 2016 poll, only 0.7 percent of Moroccans and 0.4 percent of Jordanians agreed with the group.24 Even in Tunisia, whose citizens make up the largest group of Daesh’s foreign fighters, support for the group is only 1.7 percent—within the margin of error.25 While wealthy Gulf individuals are known to have helped finance al-Qaeda’s and Daesh’s operations, the countries’ political leadership seem increasingly to understand the grave threat both groups pose to them, and have taken measures against them and their funding channels.

Figure 13. Local Populations Reject Daesh


Source: Washington Post.

Refugees and displaced persons are popularly viewed as burdens on their host societies. Yet the evidence shows that when allowed to integrate into their host societies, refugees can provide a significant economic boost. Indeed, research has demonstrated that every euro invested in welcoming refugees can yield nearly double that in economic benefits within five years, and that refugees are in fact “net contributors to public finance.”

Figure 14. Impact of Refugees on Host Country Economies



And despite popular fears that refugees and immigrants increase crime rates or are otherwise a security threat, the data actually demonstrate the opposite. In fact, immigrants to the United States are about four times less likely “to engage in violent or nonviolent antisocial behaviors” than native-born Americans. Even in Germany, where so much media attention has focused on crimes committed by refugees, the data indicate that refugees are no more likely to commit crimes than native-born Germans.

Figure 15. The Myth of Migrants and Crime: In the United States, native-born males are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as immigrant males.


Source: 2010 US Census data.

A further reason for hope is the fact that the governments and people of today’s Middle East are more willing than ever, with the help of partners, to take responsibility for their own future. While this willingness has so far manifested itself with mixed results in interventions such as those of the Saudis in Yemen or the Turks in Syria, it could be channeled more positively with the right level of partnership.

Leaders and publics across the region appear to understand better the responsibilities and sacrifices required for creating a more stable and prosperous society and region. They also seem more willing than ever to shoulder a larger portion of the responsibility for their own security—if they have help.

When asked if their country should contribute troops to a joint Arab force to be deployed in conflict zones across the region—including Syria—majorities of those polled in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq responded affirmatively.

Table X Development of a Joint Arab Force



For example, according to a Gallup poll in 2013, a majority of Egyptians and Tunisians are “willing to support removing diesel subsidies” provided that the savings from such cuts be reinvested into other, potentially more efficient and targeted social programs.

Table X : Percentages of population willing to support removing diesel subsidies


Source: Gallup.

A Need for New Partnership

Leaders and citizens in the region increasingly recognize that they are in a very difficult situation. They seem to understand that they can no longer rely on the United States or others to fight their battles for them and that their governments cannot spend their way out of every social problem. The countries of the region and their friends in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere are long overdue for a reevaluation of their partnership. They need to find a new formula of cooperation that enables them together to put the region on a trajectory toward a better, more self-reliant future.

Chapter 3:


The previous chapter set out a narrative that explains how the Middle East came to its current impasse, identifying critical factors that contributed to the state of the region today. From that narrative emerge constructive principles to guide a strategy, ground it in the reality of the region, and improve its chances for success.

Guiding Principles



The old order is gone and is not coming back

The events of the last decade have shattered the status quo and the traditional basis for order in the Middle East. Stability will not be achieved until a new regional order takes shape. The challenge is to define what that order will look like—and develop a strategy for achieving it.


The region will need to take principal responsibility for defining a new regional order.

The time has passed when external powers could impose their concept of order on the region. Those efforts had mixed success at best in the past, and developments since 2011 suggest such efforts would be even less successful in the future.


Disengagement is not a practical solution for the West.

While some have argued for drawing back from the region and focusing instead on containing any spillover effects, disengagement so far has only allowed the Middle East’s problems to spread and deepen unchecked.


External powers can be helpful, and it is in their interest to do so.

The time has not yet arrived when the region can solve its problems wholly on its own. Many in the region know this and want to work in partnership with the right kind of outside help. External powers often suffer from the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” paradox—criticized for intervening too much, and wrongly, or for not intervening enough, if at all. It is nevertheless still in the interest of external powers to do what they can to help avoid the devastating global consequences of continued chaos in the region.


External powers must play a role different from what they have done in the past.

The approach of Europe, the United States, Russia, China, and other international stakeholders should increasingly be to support and facilitate the positive efforts of the countries, leaders, and people of the region. At the same time, they need to recognize that these efforts take time to show results, and they must remain committed in the face of inevitable setbacks.


A strategy for the region cannot focus solely on counterterrorism.

Pernicious as they are, groups like Daesh and al-Qaeda are not the sole cause of the current crises. Even if these groups disappeared tomorrow, the conflicts of the region would continue to burn, and other groups would arise in their place.


The region’s ethnic and sectarian conflict is by no means inevitable.

These rivalries are not as entrenched as many assume; they wax and wane with broader tensions in the region. Currently, they are dangerously enflamed by the civil wars, and by geopolitical competition between states of the region. Unwinding these conflicts would be a first step toward deescalating these tensions.


Stability cannot improve so long as regional states continue to intervene in each other’s internal affairs.

The collapse of regional order has tempted the states of the Middle East to intervene in their neighbors’ internal affairs, both openly and covertly. While many states engage in such practices from time to time, Iran has formalized and institutionalized them as a part of its core security strategy. All parties need to refrain from these activities to allow a more stable order to emerge.


The territorial integrity of states is crucial, but empowered local governance is essential if states are to survive within their existing borders.

Any revision of borders should only happen through recognized international norms as set out in the United Nations (UN) Charter. The current situation in the region is not conducive to such a process. To raise the question of territorial adjustments now, before the region has stabilized, would open a Pandora’s box—making conflict resolution more difficult and intensifying the violence. Rather than focusing on revising borders, a more practical approach would place empowered local governance at the center of reform efforts within existing state boundaries, as a way of strengthening states rather than dividing them.


It is time to bet on the people of the region, and not just the states.

The Middle East cannot build a better future without the active participation of the people of the region– including women, youth, and those displaced by conflict. If enabled and empowered, they can be the engines of job creation, help motivate the broader population, and innovate solutions to the region’s economic and social problems.


Governments must be accountable to all their people, equally.

The roots of the current disorder lie in the fact that groups of citizens—whether minorities, young people, poor people, or civic groups—felt that they did not have the same access to the resources and protections of the state as others. Equal protection under the law is the bedrock of healthy, resilient societies.


The Middle East needs a new economic model.

Throughout the region, governments are no longer the “employers of first resort.” Even resource-rich states such as UAE and Saudi Arabia have recognized the need to move away from sole dependence on fossil fuel production. To support private sector job growth, governments will need to create an enabling environment for investment and entrepreneurship.


The Middle East also needs its own regional security framework if it is going to move forward.

While the rules and parameters of such an organization are matters for the states of the region to decide, such structures have proved essential to the stability and prosperity of other regions of the world.


The approach must be one of humility and patience.

The Middle East crisis is the most difficult global challenge since the end of the Cold War. No one can know how it ends or be confident in the best course of action. The place to start is to seek to turn the current trajectory of the region in a more hopeful direction—and to accept that the world will be wrestling with this set of problems for a long time.

Chapter 4:


The Objective: Any strategy requires a clear statement of the objective to be achieved. Based on our analyses and consultations, we believe that the objective is:
To begin to change the current trajectory of the Middle East as a whole, so that over time the region can move towards a more stable and peaceful order of sovereign states.

Such an order should:

  • offer the people of the region the prospect of a stable and prosperous future secure from both terrorist violence and government oppression;
  • provide inclusive, transparent, effective, non-corrupt, and accountable governance that treats people fairly and invests in their education, health, and economic prosperity;
  • enable and empower the citizens of the region to participate as full partners in building their countries’ futures; and
  • play a constructive role in an adapted and revitalized liberal international order.



Achieving this objective requires a strategy that aligns with the “Guiding Principles” set out in Chapter 3. It must be a strategy by and for the region—which we conceive to encompass not only states and their leadership but also, critically, their people. It must not be just a US policy toward the region, and should include other external stakeholders as well. What we are proposing is a “New Strategic Approach” for how the world relates to the Middle East. Since the era of European colonialism, external powers played an outsized role in shaping events in the region. Such an approach is no longer viable in an age of sovereign states and empowered citizens. A New Strategic Approach is required that flips the old one on its head:

  • The region needs to take responsibility for charting its own future, even though it will still need the assistance of outsiders to overcome the many challenges it faces; and
  • The region needs external powers to play a very different role than before: not one of colonial overlord, invader, or policeman, but of catalyst and facilitator in helping the people of the region build a new regional order.

This approach will also require a “Whole-of-Region” Effort. In recent years, a number of actors have taken on new levels of relevance in the Middle East alongside the state. These include private businesses, local governments, civic groups, philanthropic organizations, business and social entrepreneurs, and, of course, engaged citizens. The strategy enlists all these actors, not just governments, as part of the effort.

The strategy described below is ultimately a bet on the people of the region, encompassing those new actors. It wagers that a connected and empowered citizenry can over the long term build better societies and a better region. It seeks to create the conditions that can unlock this tremendous human potential, which is not limited to the elites of these societies, but flows through all social strata.

The Strategy

The strategy pursues a “Two-Pronged Effort” consisting of both top-down measures for addressing immediate security issues alongside bottom-up steps that engage and develop the region’s human capital. Both prongs of the strategy must be pursued simultaneously, not in sequence. Unlocking the full human potential of the region’s citizens (Prong Two) ultimately will provide the solution to many of the region’s challenges. This is a long-term undertaking that will take years to bear fruit, so it must begin immediately. But because it cannot develop fully without adequate security, the effort to end the current conflicts (Prong One) must also begin immediately. The two prongs must proceed in parallel.

Governments need to create the enabling environment for individuals within a society (including those displaced by war) to deploy fully their talents, whether as innovators, entrepreneurs, or just engaged citizens. This means better legal and regulatory frameworks, but also more inclusive, effective, transparent, and accountable governance more generally.

Creating a
“Virtuous Circle”

The logic behind this two-pronged strategy is to create a “virtuous circle” of positive actions—as opposed to the “vicious cycle” of violence now underway—that can begin to alter the region’s trajectory over time. Many of the ideas presented in this report have been proposed before, but for various reasons—security concerns, lack of political will, vested interests, lack of financing—political leaders have, in the end, often opted not to pursue them. The measures proposed here have been framed in such a way as to try to overcome these constraints, incentivize their adoption, and begin to create a competitive dynamic among countries in the region toward reform.

A “Compact” for the Middle East:

Under this compact, the United States, along with Europe and other external partners, would work with the states of the region to increase their joint efforts (under Prong One) to address the immediate geopolitical challenges to regional peace. In addition to participating in this effort, states of the region (under Prong Two) would, in parallel, take steps that lead to a more stable, inclusive, and better-governed Middle East. To the extent that regional states undertake these steps, the United States, Europe, and other parties to the Compact would provide diplomatic, economic, and technical support, along with assistance for facilitating adequately resourced, empowered local governance. Those states in the region that choose not to make such efforts would not receive such support.

Different Approach to Assisting and Supporting Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons:

Rather than a burden, such people can be engines of change and progress, first in their host countries, and later in their countries of origin. However, this requires providing the displaced with education and skills training, and allowing them legally to participate in the economies of their host countries.

“Big-Bang” Regulatory Reform:

As we note above, governments need to create the necessary enabling environment for the “green shoots” of change to take root and blossom. Business entrepreneurs need a legal framework and regulatory climate conducive to investment and innovation. Social entrepreneurs and local civic groups need to be able to register legally and operate freely. The net effect of these reforms will be transformative for the economy and society as a whole. Economically, they will empower start-ups and small businesses (which are great job creators). They will additionally help large industry and spur not only needed foreign investment, but also increase the confidence of Middle East-based financiers to invest their capital locally rather than abroad.

An “Updated Social Contract” for the Region:

The old social contract, under which governments provided services and security in return for the right to rule, has come under criticism throughout the region and has been obliterated in those countries wracked by civil war. What is needed now is an updated social contract that defines the relationship between governments and their citizens based on inclusive, effective, transparent, and accountable governance. Governments need not only to provide security and services, but also to give their citizens a key role in defining their future. The legitimacy of governments at the national level has been undermined in many countries in the region—particularly in those states with civil wars. To regain their legitimacy, governing institutions throughout the region will need to be rebuilt and reformed around this updated social contract.

A “New Model of National Governance” for States in Conflict:

To better accommodate its rich ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity—as well as new economic realities and the increased desire of people to have a say in their own affairs—the Middle East needs a new model of national governance. This new model will involve more empowered and betterresourced local governments taking responsibility for local populations, as a way of strengthening rather than dividing states. Indeed, if the states emerging from civil war are to hold together within existing borders and re-establish their legitimacy as states, they must move away from the model of highly centralized governance and toward the provision of more political autonomy for provincial and local governments—along with the economic resources that enable them to manage their own affairs. This does not diminish the importance of reforming national institutions. Rather, it will require bold leadership and strong institutions at the national level in order for empowered governance to take root at the local level.

A Regional Framework:

A number of officials and experts from the region told us that a framework for regional dialogue, dispute resolution, enhanced trade, and economic integration could make a major contribution to tamping down regional tensions and building prosperity. In its most fully developed form, this Regional Framework would include the major players from both within and outside the region. But such a framework has to emerge gradually and organically from the region itself in response to developments there.

A Regional Development Fund for Reconstruction and Reform:

As part of the new Regional Framework, the region needs a Development Fund to finance economic and social infrastructure projects. The Middle East is the only region of the world that lacks an effective multilateral institution of this kind, but it desperately needs one. The Gulf states currently finance a range of development projects in the region, but on a bilateral basis. Both they and the countries who receive their support would benefit from a more institutionalized approach, with the monies managed by a professional staff, distributed according to pre-determined criteria, and subject to the highest standards of accountability. The states of the region themselves would design the Fund and provide the initial financing, with a challenge to external stakeholders to join and match their efforts. It would operate according to a “more-formore” principle. States that are creating an enabling environment for change would have access to financing and technical assistance to make economic and social investments. The Fund could create different financing vehicles and facilities to meet the region’s varied needs. The objective would be to have the ability to support all actors in the “Wholeof- Region” effort, providing micro-financing to commercial and social entrepreneurs, support for employment schemes targeted at youth, private sector loans to businesses and social organizations, financing for infrastructure projects, and technical assistance to all levels.

Chapter 5:



In the previous chapter, we outlined a strategy, based on a Compact between stakeholders in and outside the region, to create a more stable, prosperous, and just order in the Middle East. In this chapter and the chapter that follows, we offer recommendations for implementing this strategy.

This chapter deals with the top-down part of the strategy (Prong One), while Chapter 6 covers the bottom-up part (Prong Two).



Begin efforts to achieve a Compact for the Middle East.

Every step outlined in this chapter should occur in the context of a Compact between interested parties in the region and the international community. Not every state in or outside the region should be expected to participate; rather, it should comprise a “coalition-of-the-willing.” Because the Compact will take shape based upon the actions and cooperation of the parties rather than formal written agreement, it is both flexible and self-reinforcing.

The United States, Europe, and other partner states from outside the region would undertake their responsibilities under Prong One of the strategy not as an act of charity or as a favor to the region, but because it is in their own national security interests to do so.


Prioritize civilian protection.

For both humanitarian and strategic reasons, alleviating the human suffering in the Middle East should be the immediate priority.

Where combatants simply will not agree to a ceasefire, or to follow the rules and norms of warfare that require them to protect civilians—such as in Syria—there may be no choice but to create humanitarian safe zones.


Expand and strengthen military measures against Daesh and al-Qaeda.

Confronting Daesh and al-Qaeda more decisively is essential for security in the region and beyond. More is required of the United States, like-minded states from outside the region, and friends and allies in the region. Enhancing the effort against these terrorist groups can create more favorable strategic conditions on the ground that can be used as leverage to help wind down the civil wars in Syria and Iraq.

We are not suggesting an America-led intervention in Syria like the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the kind of massive occupation and reconstruction effort that followed. What we instead propose is a program of enhancing the capability of local forces already fighting Daesh and al-Qaeda on the ground, with support from the United States and its friends and allies from within and outside the region.

While local tribal forces need to do most of the heavy lifting on the ground, there are unique catalysts—such as intelligence capabilities, command and control, close air support, special operations forces, stand-off weapons, and other specialized capabilities— that only the United States can provide.

Deprive Daesh of the territory it controls and disrupt its networks to undermine its narrative of invincibility. Degrade Daesh’s operational capabilities so it is not a threat to the United States, its friends and allies in Europe and the region, or other countries around the world—including Russia and China. Deny it safe havens where it can plan, train, and mount operations. Disrupt its image as a winning force.

Map 1 : Territory under Daesh control in Syria and Iraq, October 2016


Source: IHS Conflict Monitor.

Civilian volunteers making a difference in Syria
Despite the horrors that have come to define the Syrian conflict, Syrian civilians are still working to protect each other and survive, even in the most difficult of circumstances. The White Helmets, who were nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, are a collection of community volunteers throughout the opposition-held areas of Syria who rush to the sites of airstrikes to free those trapped by the rubble and administer first aid. They do this often at great personal risk to themselves, given the Syrian government’s habit of deliberately targeting these first responders through the practice of double strikes. Others are working to protect Syrian civilians as well. Hala Systems, a social enterprise company, has created a smartphone application that allows for the crowdsourcing of early airstrike warnings. Observers on the ground can plug an alert into a central server, which calculates the likely trajectory and target of an air strike, and sends out alerts through both traditional and social media, giving civilians precious extra minutes to find family and take cover.

Read More


Recognize that enhanced military measures are not enough, on their own, to end terrorism and bring lasting peace and stability.

Internal and external stakeholders need to work together not only to defeat Daesh and al-Qaeda on the battlefield, but to confront them everywhere they operate and gain influence—including cyberspace and the realm of public opinion. Efforts need to be made to counter their propaganda and to undermine their appeal. Extremist groups are unlikely to be eliminated completely until the underlying causes behind their rise are addressed.

Despite a high degree of religiosity in the region, and widespread religious education in its public schools, religious literacy is in fact quite low. Terrorist groups exploit this to draw recruits to their cause by employing fallacious religious arguments.

Young people must be taught not merely “tolerance,” but appreciation of the diversity in their own communities as the historic norm, rather than a threat to their own faith.

To help ensure the extremists’ ultimate defeat, the West’s strongest weapon is how it treats its own Muslim citizens, and the Muslim refugees who have sought safety within their borders. The West needs to live up to its own values of freedom and tolerance to defeat the scourge of Daesh and other radical Islamist terrorists, who feed on hate and fear.


Work to wind down the civil wars—particularly in Syria.

Internal and external stakeholders need to work together to wind down the Middle East’s civil wars that have contributed to so much death, destruction, and instability across the region. As long as the combatants believe they can prevail militarily, the civil wars will continue, the defeat of Daesh and al- Qaeda will be impossible, and the refugee flow will not stop. Halting civil wars is no simple task, but contrary to conventional wisdom, it can and has been done. And third-party intervention can be crucial. We discuss here, in the abstract, the requirements for successful third-party interventions, then how they might be applied in practice to each of the region’s ongoing civil wars. If combatants are to put down their weapons and accept a political settlement, they require assurances that the settlement achieved will be enforced over time.

The winding down of these civil wars, combined with American policies to reassure Saudi Arabia of continued US support and to deter and contain Iran’s intervention in neighboring states, should lay the foundation for beginning to reduce the Saudi/Iran confrontation. That in turn will help to cool the hyper-sectarian environment that has fueled so much violence in the Middle East.

Civil War: Syria

Syria has been the bloodiest and most destabilizing of the region’s conflicts. The decision of the Assad government in 2011 to turn the full force of its security apparatus against peaceful protesters was pivotal. It militarized the uprising and all but destroyed the Syrian state, drawing outsiders into the conflict and creating a proxy war. It produced a humanitarian catastrophe for millions of Syrians and created a safe haven for Daesh and other terrorists.

The United States should be prepared to employ airpower, stand-off weapons, covert measures, and enhanced support for opposition forces to break the current siege of Aleppo and frustrate Assad’s attempts to consolidate control over western Syria’s population centers.

Figure 16 : Perpetrating Forces: Civilians Killed in Syria, January-June 2016


Source: Syrian Network for Human Rights.
* Including Syrian Army, Syrian security forces, pro-government militias, and foreign Shiia militias.

The Syrian civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of the twenty-first century. Five years into the conflict, the killing continues to accelerate, with the civilian population bearing the brunt of the assault. Although the atrocities of extremist groups like Daesh claim most international headlines, the Assad regime and its supporters remain the top killers of civilians in Syria, fueling refugee flows.

Defeating Daesh and al- Qaeda on the battlefield in eastern Syria will take more than airstrikes and a Kurdish-dominated militia. The newly enhanced Syrian opposition forces should be supported in retaking territory and then administering that territory as soon as it is liberated from Daesh control.

Successful military operations will be meaningless without concurrent arrangements that protect people, expedite humanitarian assistance, enable restoration of basic infrastructure, facilitate the return of refugees, jump-start economic reconstruction, and pave the way for reconciliation and accountability. The steps articulated above should result in a material change in the military situation in Syria that is sufficient to force a change in the calculation of Assad and his patrons.

Civil War: Iraq

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq are at the moment inextricably linked. As in Syria, the conflict in Iraq is a political one that goes deeper than Daesh itself: it is rooted in the competing interests of the country’s Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations, and exacerbated by the external influence of Iran. Nevertheless, over the course of the next US administration, the conflicts in Iraq and Syria are likely to diverge. Greater progress is likely to occur in Iraq, which will in turn contribute to progress in Syria. Once Mosul is liberated and Daesh stripped of the bulk of its Iraqi territory, the US engagement there should focus increasingly on reconciliation and governance—especially local governance—in Iraq.
An effort that clears Daesh from territory but relies on Shia militias in doing so will not lead to a sustainable end to the conflict. It will instead help perpetuate it.

The Iraqi government must urgently develop a plan for bringing reconciliation, local governance, and economic revival to areas liberated from Daesh.

The federal government and the Kurdish government have quarreled over oil export and revenue sharing at a time when their cooperation is crucial. These disagreements have severely hampered the ability of the Kurdish government to pay essential security forces fighting Daesh, and to support a large population of displaced people.

At its current levels, corruption prevents the Iraqi government from being able to deliver services and carry out its functions. This corruption also contributes to the appeal of outsider groups such as Daesh or other sectarian leaders. Accountability will be essential to Iraq’s stability going forward, and the example of reform must start at the top through changes in the culture of Iraqi leadership.

Civil War: Libya

Since the fall of Qaddafi, Libya has suffered from a lack of security. Militias control large swaths of the country. Tensions run high between the eastern and western parts of the state. Capitalizing upon Libya’s instability, Daesh established a foothold there, as it metastasized from Syria and Iraq. The situation in Libya is of particular concern to people in the region, because it shares borders with both Tunisia, whose political progress remains fragile, and Egypt, whose instability would dramatically deepen the crisis in the region. To try to bridge the country’s differences, the United Nations helped establish the Government of National Accord (GNA) in late 2015. The GNA was accepted by the former Tripoli-based government, but it has yet to be recognized as legitimate by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, which draws its support largely from the country’s east.

Because of Europe’s ongoing internal challenges, it has unfortunately up to now been unable to mount an overarching response to the highly fragmented and complex reality on the ground. As difficult as it will be, the United States must take on this role, and help galvanize Europe and other partners to step up and bear their share of the burden.

While hardly perfect, the GNA represents a reasonable political compromise between contending factions. Often their support has been of differing groups, has worked at cross purposes, and has actually encouraged the conflict. This needs to end.

Support for the government must be national, and it must be stitched together from among Libya’s various tribes and other interests. This process of building local support will be tedious, but it is essential to the government’s success.

Civil War: Yemen

Yemen has long been a weak state, with an impoverished population and major divisions between north and south. The Arab Spring protests eventually brought down long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Under an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, his vice president, Abbed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, replaced him. Hadi proved to be a weak leader and failed to address the country’s burgeoning problems. Frustrated at being shut out of the country’s process of national dialogue and sensing a vacuum, the country’s Houthi tribe, allied with the factional forces of former president Saleh and benefitting from some Iranian support, marched into the country’s capital, Sana’a, and seized power in September 2014. The Saudis, viewing the Houthis as Iranian proxy forces, invaded six months later. In coalition with other Arab Gulf states, the Saudis have managed to halt the Houthis’ gains, but at severe human cost to Yemeni civilians. In the meantime, al-Qaeda and Daesh continue their presence in the troubled country.

al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—the group’s Yemeni branch—remains its most dangerous. It is home to some of the group’s best bomb makers, as well as its key propagandists, and it is the most important affiliate of the group in terms of recruiting and training attackers. Any strategy for Yemen must maintain military pressure on the group and should robustly support those forces on the ground, like those of the UAE, that are actively targeting it.

The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, though not a civil war, is the longest-running conflict in the region. Given the immense suffering, displacement, and loss of life that it has caused over the last century, it needs to be resolved for its own sake. Even though it is not the cause of the region’s current problems, it continues to fuel extremists’ narratives, while remaining a top issue of concern among Arab publics throughout the Middle East.

Most stakeholders in and outside the region share an interest in achieving a final settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the two-state solution. Terrorist groups such as Daesh, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas exploit the conflict for their own propaganda purposes. And for many Arabs, Palestinian suffering has long been the “prism of pain” through which they view Israel and, by extension, its close ally the United States.

What should be done? Read More

A long-standing ally of the United States and a NATO member, Turkey has been deeply affected by the Syrian civil war and other regional developments, and currently hosts more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees. Turkey’s proximity to the Syrian conflict has rendered it a target of opportunity for Daesh, which has staged multiple attacks that have cost lives and devastated the country’s tourist industry. In addition to these external challenges, Turkey is also beset by internal political turmoil. A decade ago, many in the Arab world looked to Turkey as a model: a country that had reconciled Islam and modernity; constrained its military’s role in politics to become a functioning, if still fledgling, democracy; revived its economy; and bridged successfully the divide between east and west. Today, Turkey is viewed quite differently in the Middle East. Despite current tensions, the United States has common interests with Turkey and mutual obligations as allies. The only way forward is a more strategic dialogue. What should be done? Read More


Deter and contain Iran, while simultaneously engaging it on issues of mutual interest.

The region is in need of a more stable and predictable balance of power. Iran’s aggressive foreign policies, cultivation of regional clients, and conduct of asymmetrical operations have unsettled many Arab states, creating dangerous mutual suspicions. Over time, the struggle for regional hegemony has also increasingly taken on a sectarian dimension. This regional geopolitical competition is dangerous and could ignite a broader conflagration fought along sectarian lines.


Adopt a different approach toward assisting and supporting refugees and internally displaced persons.

While much has been made of the refugee crisis facing Europe, the burden is much greater—and the available economic resources and governmental capacity to deal with it are much less—for those state in the Middle East hosting the bulk of those displaced. To help prevent the refugee crisis from destabilizing these states—thereby spreading further chaos and creating potentially even more refugees—supporting these host states must be a key focus of the humanitarian effort. International assistance efforts need to expand beyond a Band-Aid approach that focuses only on refugees’ immediate humanitarian needs. Rather than a burden, refugees can be engines of change and progress, first in their host countries and later in their countries of origin.

Syrian Doctors Filling a Dire Need in Germany
The question of whether to accept refugees has become highly controversial in Germany, with Chancellor Merkel supporting the resettlement efforts despite strong opposition from the far right. Yet despite these political battles, a look at what is actually happening on the ground reveals that refugees are making unique contributions to German society. Germany is suffering from a shortage of doctors, as its population ages and German-born doctors retire. By 2030, some estimate that the country will be 111,000 doctors short of its needs. To fill this gap, Germany has been turning to Syrian doctors and medical professionals, demonstrating that when given the chance to work, refugees can contribute greatly to their host countries. Countries should see some immediate economic benefits from their immigration policies, in addition to the longer term ones that economists have shown come to societies that welcome refugees. Otherwise, political support for accepting so many refugees will evaporate over time. Read More

Syrian Refugees and Jordan’s Special Economic Zones
Jordan is home to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees, or about 10 percent of the entire Syrian refugee population. A small country with an already struggling economy, Jordan was pressed to find a solution that engaged the refugees, but also provided visible and concrete benefits for all Jordanians. In cooperation with the World Bank, Jordan in 2016 launched an innovative Special Economic Zone program. Read More

Chapter 6:



This chapter turns to Prong Two of the strategy. It makes recommendations regarding the bottom-up lines of effort required to unlock the region’s vast human potential.



Develop the region’s human capital—especially youth and women.

The region’s people are its most important resource. If nurtured, this human capital can help transform the future of the Middle East. Investments in education should focus on developing a country’s human resources for the challenges of the twenty-first century. Above all, the aim should be to ensure that the next generations are active citizens who are:

– informed critical thinkers resistant to extremist appeals,
– collaborative problem-solvers motivated to address the challenges within
– their own societies,
– entrepreneurial in their outlook,
– equipped to compete successfully in the global economy, and
– committed to values of tolerance, pluralism, and inclusion.

This will require a thorough revamping of most educational systems in the region, including moving from curricula centered around rote learning to ones focused on critical thinking.
For reform to succeed, governments need more than a strategy; they must develop the administrative capacity to implement it over time and across the country.

Thriving Under the Most Difficult Circumstances:
Palestinian Students in UNRWA Schools

The Palestinian situation is the most protracted refugee crisis in the world, affecting more than five million people. Of these, a significant number are children who rely on UN administered schools in refugee camps. The UN Refugees Works Administration (UNRWA), the agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees, operates 677 elementary and preparatory schools providing free education to more than 500,000 children. UNRWA does this under challenging circumstances, in refugee camps that are often destabilized by conflict or wracked by poverty.
The most important stakeholders in education are students and their parents. They can play an important role in ensuring reforms succeed. If given adequate information, they can help keep educators accountable for results.

Read More

Policy makers should look for targeted interventions that can have immediate impact on educational outcomes with limited investments. Such interventions can show tangible benefits early in a reform process that is likely to take a generation, thereby strengthening the constituency for reform.

The Importance of Vocational Training
University degrees are prized assets in the Middle East, where education is a cherished value. At the same time, unemployment remains stubbornly high in many countries in the region, and ironically, it is often highest among university graduates. For example, in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, unemployment amongst university graduates in 2010 averaged more than 35 percent—compared to 11.5 percent for the population of these countries at large. This disparity is due to a number of economic and cultural factors, but is partially explained by the fact that universities are not training students in the skills most in demand for their national economies.

Read More

Following the fall of the Berlin wall, the European Union introduced the Erasmus program. It was an ambitious effort to underwrite the free movement of students, educators, and scholars between Europe’s east and west. The idea was to erase the psychological, cultural, and knowledge barriers that divided the continent. A similarly bold initiative is needed today to address the barriers between the Middle East and the rest of the world.

The Global Business Institute at Indiana University
Even short, non-degree exchanges can be an effective way to help build skills and inspire entrepreneurship. Indiana University’s (IU) Global Business Institute is an example of an initiative that could serve as a model for expansion or replication.

Read More

The independent, liberal arts-based “American universities” throughout the Middle East should become hubs of excellence, supporting educational reform and teacher training in the region as a whole.

American Universities in the Middle East

The American University of Beirut (AUB), founded by American Protestant missionaries in 1866, is the oldest of its kind in the Middle East, and the archetype of the American-style liberal arts colleges that have proliferated over the past century in places like Cairo (AUC), Sharjah, and Sulaimani. With their broad curricula and emphasis on critical thinking, these universities have helped raise the bar for higher education across the region, facilitated cross-cultural exchanges, and educated some of the region’s and the world’s top leaders. Prominent alumni include:

  • ashraf-ghaniAshraf Ghani, President of Afghanistan (AUB)
  • salam-fayyadSalam Fayyad, former Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (AUB)
  • lamees-al-hadidiLamees Al Hadidi, journalist and television personality (AUC)
  • zaha-hadidZaha Hadid, architect (AUB)
  • Shiekha Lubna Al QasimiShiekha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister for Tolerance, first female cabinet minister of the United Arab Emirates (American University of Sharjah)
  • ismail-al-azahriIsmail Al Azhary, first Prime Minister of independent Sudan (AUB)
  • yuriko-koikeYuriko Koike, first female Governor of Tokyo (AUC)
  • zalmay-khalizadZalmay Khalilzad, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (AUB)
  • queen-raniaRania, Queen of Jordan (AUC)

Stanford meets Suli: The Iraq Legal Education Initiative

Launched in 2012, the Iraq Legal Education Initiative (ILEI) is a partnership between Stanford Law School (SLS) and the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). ILEI was created in response to demand from Iraqi legal scholars and practitioners, who recognized quality legal education as a key step in developing a stronger legal system and rule of law. After decades of dictatorship, war, isolation, and political change, Iraq’s law school curricula tended to be outdated and impractical, with many textbooks dating back to the 1970s. Using new textbooks and curricula developed by SLS in collaboration with Iraqi experts, professors began teaching AUIS’s first law courses in the spring of 2014. After the completion of the pilot phase in 2014, SLS continues to produce original legal education materials for use at AUIS and beyond. ILEI works collaboratively with a range of local partners, sharing feedback, ideas, and new developments in Iraqi and Kurdish law.


Support and facilitate “big bang” regulatory reform to foster greater trade, investment, and economic integration, with a focus on empowering entrepreneurs.

Governments in the region need to create an “ecosystem for entrepreneurship and innovation” by adopting liberalizing legal and regulatory reforms. The policy changes required to develop such an ecosystem are extensive enough that the net effect of these reforms will be transformative for the economy as a whole. Putting in place laws and policies that deregulate markets and move from commodity-based models to consumer-based ones will both encourage the region’s private capital to remain in the Middle East and attract foreign direct investment to the region. This will help energize existing industries, while at the same time empowering small businesses and start-ups.

The Entrepreneurial Engine

The correlation between a healthy entrepreneurial environment and wider economic success is well documented. Statistics show, for example, that young firms—those less than five years old—are the most important engines of job creation. Additionally, through its “Prosperity Index,” the Legatum Institute has shown a strong correlation between entrepreneurship and overall economic health. By promoting entrepreneurship and creating supportive policies, governments can help shift the burden of job creation from the public to the private sector. Read More

Regional governments should ensure a predictable investment environment that emphasizes consistent rule of law and contract enforcement, allows for a more transparent tax code, provides adequate protections for minority investors, and modernizes commercial and accounting law to bring it into line with international standards.

The Middle East sits at the crossroads of the global economy. But at the moment the region is only marginally engaged with it, largely due to government policies designed to create control rather than prosperity. Although the macroeconomic challenges that many governments across the region face are real, there are still steps they could take to improve the situation.

Consider Tunisia as a test case to demonstrate success.

Because of its relatively small size and population, a concerted focus on improving Tunisia’s economy would take fewer resources than larger economies. This could potentially demonstrate progress faster, and thereby encourage other countries to follow suit. Just as Tunisia was a leader in the Arab Spring, it could be a leader in demonstrating the positive benefits from these types of economic changes. Having a demonstrable success in the region would empower others to invest in change.

Figure 17 : In Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan, those with a university degree are three times more likely to be unemployed than the general population.


Source: World Bank, 2010.


Encourage and reward those governments that enable citizen-based problem solving and business and social entrepreneurship.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many in the region view non-governmental organizations with a certain degree of suspicion. Some even view them as tools used by outsiders to promote regime change. This is especially the case for those groups that are based abroad or receive funding from foreign sources. We view this suspicion as unfounded and unfortunate. The vast majority of these groups are local organizations that are indigenous to their societies and address local needs. All these organizations of course have an obligation to follow the laws of the countries in which they operate. They also have a responsibility to be transparent with the public about their finances and activities, as do governments. But “bottom-up” efforts by local civic groups and social and business entrepreneurs—technologically empowered and connected—represent the best hope for the region.

Five years after the Arab Spring kicked off a “participation revolution,” the region’s people are actively reshaping their societies. And in some places they are getting their government’s support in doing so, creating a positive demonstration effect for the rest of the region. They merit much greater support. Given the violence and sectarian tensions that have plagued many countries in the region, there is a need for greater dialogue and understanding across religious, ethnic, communal, and national lines. Citizens need to better appreciate each other’s perspectives and needs following the years of domestic turmoil.

Iraq Reconciliation Work: Overcoming Daesh’s Atrocities

The Daesh massacre of 1,700 unarmed Iraqi air force cadets and soldiers, overwhelmingly Shia men, in June 2014 at Camp Speicher in Tikrit, was one of the deadliest atrocities of recent years in Iraq. The massacre worsened the already acute tensions between Sunnis and Shias. Angry Shias accused Sunnis who lived near the camp of encouraging or even joining the Sunni Daesh fighters. Young men related to the Camp Speicher victims joined Shia militias (known as the Popular Mobilization Forces) to avenge those deaths. Thousands of Sunni families from near the camp fled their homes in fear of their lives. For months, guided by its Iraqi partner organizations, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) supported dialogue and reconciliation between Sunni and Shia tribal leaders. Read More

Women represent the region’s greatest underused resource. Internal and external stakeholders should use education and technology to empower women economically.

New Technology and Its Impact on Saudi Women’s Mobility and Economic Participation

In Saudi Arabia, new technologies are having a positive impact on women’s participation in public life, even if there remains much progress to be made in terms of juridical reforms regarding their status. Legally forbidden from driving, only rich women could afford dedicated cars and drivers to give them access to the world outside the home. However, with the advent of Uber—in which Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has invested a hefty stake—drivers are more affordable and accessible than ever, giving middle- and lower-class women opportunities to exercise more autonomy. In fact, more than 80 percent of Uber’s users in Saudi Arabia are women. Read More

Creating means for government and civic groups to communicate and cooperate is essential to ensuring that good ideas are scalable across societies and durable over time. Governments should create avenues for soliciting citizen input, whether in the form of public hearings, town hall meetings, or via social media.

How Civic Groups Thwarted War in Tunisia

The struggle for democracy and fundamental rights has come to a standstill or suffered setbacks in many Arab countries. But since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has seen a democratic transition supported by a vibrant civic sector. While still fragile, the case of Tunisia demonstrates how active cooperation among civic groups can help secure peaceful political progress, even in the face of terrorist violence. An essential factor for the success of Tunisia’s 2014 elections was the effort made by the country’s National Dialogue Quartet. The Quartet was formed in the summer of 2013, when the democratization process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest. It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war. Read More


Encourage states in the region to prioritize good governance, which includes empowered and well resourced local governance.

Good governance is a crucial ingredient in addressing the underlying causes of the current chaos in the Middle East and in rebuilding the social contract. Over the long term, governments in the region need to become more inclusive, effective, transparent, and accountable if their citizens are to view them as legitimate.

Ensuring security in the face of terrorism and other threats without compromising the rights of ordinary citizens is vital. Otherwise security will be purchased at the price of legitimacy and public support.

How This Might Work: Egypt

The relationship between the Egyptian and US governments has worsened since Egyptian President Sisi came to power in 2013. For Americans, the Egyptian government’s crackdowns on the media, civic groups, and peaceful political dissent have strained ties. In Egypt, the view is widespread that the United States supported the Muslim Brotherhood when it was in power, while others think that the United States assisted in the removal of former President Mohammed Morsi as part of an anti-Islamist agenda. Mistrust and recrimination run deep on both sides. Nevertheless, Egypt remains a linchpin of regional security because of its peace treaty with Israel and its historic role in the Arab world. The region simply cannot cope with an Egypt that descends into chaos. Egypt faces serious security challenges from Daesh and other extremists. But its stability is also seriously undermined by the government’s domestic repression, which risks fueling greater extremism. The challenge for the United States is how to shape a new policy that is sensitive to the terrorist threat facing Egypt, while also encouraging the political reform and commitment to basic freedoms that are vital to its long-term stability. We need to consistently state our view that there will be no long-term security and prosperity in Egypt unless it ends domestic repression, releases political prisoners, vacates the sentences of convicted foreign and domestic NGO staff, and begins a process of meaningful political reform. Read More

Governments must demonstrate the political courage to root out corruption and ensure the rule of law if they are to be perceived as legitimate by their citizens. Modern states need to be able to provide a predictable legal environment where the rule of law prevails, as opposed to that of arbitrary rulings, brute force, or one that privileges insiders at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Figure 19 : The link between corruption and conflict: The Middle East’s conflict states also score worst on corruption perception measures.


Source: Transparency International. Countries were ranked out of 167.

Citizens want governments that can deliver. Efficient service delivery has become a key test of state legitimacy in the modern era. Regional states need to be able to restore order but must do so in ways that do not alienate ordinary citizens.

Smart Policing

Smart policing efforts integrate new technology into the traditional functions of police work, making officers more effective and accountable. These types of efforts are already underway in many places around the world, including in the Middle East.

Read More

Progress needs to come in a form and timeline that makes sense to local sensibilities; it cannot be dictated by outsiders. At the same time, benchmarks are often essential to demonstrate that meaningful improvements are occurring. The international community can help encourage adoption of clear plans, and help monitor progress on those plans, but regional governments must devise and own them.


Begin moving toward a Regional Framework

As we have noted, almost every other region of the world has institutions that facilitate regional dialogue and cooperation. The Middle East needs such mechanisms to help wind down the civil wars, tamp down regional tensions, foster greater collaboration, and set rules of the road for state behavior. Such a framework cannot be imposed on the region as some product of a major international conference. Rather, it has to emerge gradually and organically over time in response to developments in the region.

This framework could help ratchet down the Saudi-Iranian confrontation. It could provide a means to develop confidence-building and dispute resolution measures. It could also provide the framework for a sustainable regional balance of power among Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt.

GearUP Cairo hosting a startup workshop in Cairo, Egypt, for aspiring and idea-stage entrepreneurs.


Photo credit: Startup Mena/Flickr.


Create a Regional Development Fund for Reconstruction and Reform.

Unlike other regions of the world, the Middle East lacks a regional development institution that includes participation from both inside and outside the region. Such a multilateral organization is important not only to provide development funds, but also to ensure that those funds are apportioned according to rigorous performance criteria and professional standards, rather than narrow geopolitical interests. A Regional Development Fund for Reconstruction and Reform would be financed by stakeholders inside and outside the region. It would support reforms and cooperative projects that emerge from the new Regional Framework and support countries that endeavor to create an enabling environment for bottom-up change.

Chapter 7:


If there is a single take-away from this report, it is that the Middle East is not condemned to the current cycle of conflict. Although the situation is difficult, there is a distinct—if challenging—pathway that people in the region, along with supportive international partners, can take not only to address the current crises, but also to put the region on course for a future better than many might believe possible.

In this endeavor, realism is important. The challenges of the region are enormously difficult and will take time to resolve. However, imagination is even more important. Those who cannot imagine a better region will never be able to achieve it.


Luckily, there is a large and growing number of people in the Middle East who can not only imagine this better future, but are actively working, even in the most difficult circumstances, to bring it about. Full of ingenuity, they have the energy to seek this vision and, increasingly, the education and selfconfidence to achieve it. Shocked awake by new realities, much of the Middle East’s leadership is also starting to realize that the region’s future depends on fulfilling the potential of their populations, regardless of gender, age, or sect. It is in the interest of the United States and the world to support and encourage these new dynamics.

While hope is not a strategy, neither is cynicism. As we have said throughout this paper, changes will take time, and there will be painful setbacks along the way. There are no guarantees of success, but we believe the strategy that we outline here, if pursued vigorously by those in the region and supported by outsiders, over time presents the best chance for success.

Although the challenges may seem insurmountable, it is important to remember that the world has succeeded in dealing with problems like these— some worse than these—before. Whether in Western Europe or Japan, the Balkans or Colombia, there is a history of international efforts helping to achieve what at times seemed impossible, even if in some cases there remains progress to be made.

The Middle East can be the next of these impossible accomplishments.