The complex and interwoven politics of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region “as a playground for foreign players” is under discussion at a two-day conference hosted by the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) conference in Pretoria this week. The conference is attended by various ambassadors, academics, opinion-makers and analysts from South Africa and the MENA region.
In the keynote address, well known Palestinian exile and director of the Centre for Islamic Global Affairs, Sami Arian said that colonialism was a hammer that saw every colonised person as a nail.
Colonialism, camouflaged by mantras of “development” and the “white man’s burden”, used the hard power of the gun and the soft power of eroding indigenous cultural values. He praised the original notions of the Arab Spring, slamming the hypocrisy of major powers in not recognising the democratic aspirations of millions of people.
Arian said the people of the MENA region needed to enjoy legitimacy, authentic identity, the recognition of faith, genuine independence from foreign patrons, freedom from sectarianism, justice and economic development. Challenges of Islamic modernity must be resolved internally without interference, he said.
He added that the question of Israel and demographics had to be addressed as well as the potential roles of Turkey and Iran.
In its concept note for the conference, AMEC said in many instances in the region, the influence and interventions of these foreign states have
often led to the suppression of the popular will, facilitated the violent clampdown on dissent, and generally empowered elites against the citizenry – often with serious implications for the violations of human rights.
“In the past decade, the foreign role in the MENA region has taken new and different forms, from seeking to influence youth activists through funding to largescale military intervention. These interventions have also played a role in reconfiguring political alliances and axes in the region,” said the think-tank.
While current politics in the region are extremely fluid, AMEC believes this reconfiguration could produce developments that upset the manner in which state-to-state relations have been conducted within the region in the past half a century, and could also see radical changes in which external states exercise what influence on which state and non-state actors in the region.
“Will the US role continue along the same trajectory as it had been in the past? Is Russia poised to play a much larger role and develop its own set of MENA proxies and allies? How will fluctuating Turkey-USA relations affect the role of NATO in the region? Will Turkey’s and Iran’s mostly warm relations with Russia result in a new regional-foreign bloc? How will the Saudi-Israeli-American alliance play out in future and how will it affect the future of the Palestinian struggle? These and numerous other such questions are relevant in any discussion on the role of foreign actors in the MENA region.”