Middle East Notes and Comment: Help Wanted
June 13, 2018
Help Wanted: The United States needs to lead its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean.
You’ve Got Mail. And More: Arab postal services are finding new ways of connecting people to each other—and to the state—as they reinvent themselves as providers of digital and financial solutions.
New Report: Restoring the Eastern Mediterranean as a U.S. Strategic Anchor: The CSIS Middle East Program released a new report in collaboration with the CSIS Europe Program that offers a framework for a holistic and integrated U.S. strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean.
New Maghreb Analysis: The Middle East Program’s latest Maghreb analysis includes a new report by Haim Malka on “Maghreb Neutrality: Maghreb-Gulf Arab Ties Since the GCC Split” and two podcast episodes on shifting migration patterns in North Africa as part of the “Destination Maghreb” report.
In Case You Missed It: Insights from recent Middle East Program Gulf Roundtables with Professor Gregory Gause and Dr. Calvert Jones.
In the Media: Commentary by CSIS Middle East Program scholars on Gulf states’ bid for influence in the Trump administration.
The United States appears to be going through a unilateral moment. Visible tensions at the G-7 Summit in Charlevoix, Canada, the threat of trade sanctions on close U.S. allies, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran are all signs in the last month that traditional U.S. approaches to international relations are in transition. It is wrong to pin this all on President Donald Trump. In fact, he seems to have seized on a vein of popular discontent with the international order. After all, if Americans genuinely supported the institutions and alliances he is challenging, there would be a wave of Republican opposition to these new strategies that contravene everything the party has represented for more than a half-century, and Democratic politicians would be wooing disgruntled Republicans to bolt the party. Nothing of the sort is happening.
And yet, many of the challenges that the United States faces in the world do not lend themselves to unilateral approaches. The necessity for multilateralism is well illustrated in the Eastern Mediterranean, where such an approach originated more than 70 years ago. While the structure of U.S. engagement in the region requires revision, the necessary U.S. response is not to engage less with allies, but rather to engage more comprehensively.
Despite dramatic changes on the ground and at sea, U.S. policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean region has become increasingly military and unilateral, even before the Trump administration. The diplomatic engagement, economic investment, and security presence of the United States, all hallmarks of U.S. policy since the 1940s, have dramatically receded. Especially in the last decade, other powers—primarily Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran—have increased their strategic footprint, weakening regional governments’ ties with the United States and Europe.
The region has changed dramatically in other ways. Regional conflicts and state fragmentation have caused millions to flee their homes, creating one of the largest migration crises since World War II. While some believe the United States can insulate itself by shutting its borders, the effect on Europe is profound. The migrants’ arrival has polarized domestic politics in Europe and in the Eastern Mediterranean and created security threats, economic challenges, and social strife. U.S. interests will suffer significantly if the downward trend continues.
There are also economic upsides that may not be captured. Significant natural gas deposits discovered off the coasts of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt, many of which are being exploited in part by U.S. companies, could boost regional economic prospects as a potential energy-producing region. Yet historical animosities, a divided Cyprus, as well as a lack of infrastructure connectivity, hinder this regional economic potential.
A Europe in turmoil harms U.S. interests, and an Eastern Mediterranean region that once again looks to the United States for leadership advances those interests. Bolstering security partners is the most obvious benefit, but contributing to resilient states that honor the rule of law, promote fiscal transparency, and engage in open trade provides the best opportunities for U.S. business and investment. To get there, resolving the Syrian conflict is essential for Eastern Mediterranean stabilization, and developing an appropriate policy approach toward an increasingly antagonistic and anti-democratic Turkey is the key to solving the Syria puzzle and re-anchoring the region toward the Euro-Atlantic community.
On the first point, the United States must work to resolve the Syrian conflict on terms acceptable to the United States. U.S. interests call for more than merely denying safe haven to jihadi-salafists and reducing the likelihood of Israeli-Iranian conflict or U.S-Turkish conflict within Syria. The United States also has a keen interest in ensuring that U.S. foes do not establish a strong and permanent foothold in the country.
Doing so requires a series of steps the U.S. administration has been unwilling to take: engaging energetically in negotiations to resolve the Syrian crisis, committing to maintain the U.S. military footprint in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in cooperation with key European allies, and supporting reconstruction and stabilization in areas held by U.S. allies. The outcome in Syria will strongly affect U.S. interests for years to come. Working closely with allies is the key to amplifying U.S. influence without inflating U.S. costs.
On the second point, the United States must seek to re-anchor Turkey to the West while strengthening U.S. bilateral relationships with Eastern Mediterranean littoral states. Turkey has been the linchpin of a stable Eastern Mediterranean region and of U.S. strategy for decades, but rising bilateral tensions mean it is only prudent to enhance relations with nearby countries such as Greece and Cyprus to hedge against a further slide in ties. Allies are the key to both parts of this equation. Traditional allies help move Turkish policies in directions more consonant with U.S. interests, and new allies help guard against the possibility that U.S.-Turkish tensions will continue to rise.
Other regional strategies are also worthy of attention. The United States could work more closely with Israel to further regional maritime security and counterterrorism policies, and work with NATO allies to incorporate Israel’s naval capabilities into operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. It could explore an Eastern Mediterranean dialogue intended to foster economic cooperation and growth in the region. All of these efforts lower the costs for the United States while advancing better outcomes.
As we discuss in our recent report, Washington cannot rest on an old regional policy architecture that ignores profound changes in the region, it cannot go it alone, and it cannot insulate itself from the region’s growing weakness. U.S. interests require broad engagement, and they require building a series of strong and integrated relationships. Any fair reading of U.S. interests requires the United States to restore U.S. influence in the region, and most governments in the region are seeking exactly that. The United States not only has a unique opportunity to loom large in the region’s future, but doing so would also push others to share in the burdens. Failing to do so is not merely a missed opportunity. It would represent an expensive mistake.
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You've Got Mail. And More.By Margo Balboni
Rural Tunisians are on the technological cutting edge because of an unlikely source: the post office. Long a source of basic financial services, Tunisia Post also offers sophisticated mobile banking platforms, an advanced ability to make and receive payments from a phone, and has even piloted a blockchain-powered digital currency.
Across the Arab world, state-run postal systems conjure images of creaky bureaucracy. Mail delivery is often sporadic and unreliable. Yet, Arab postal services are finding new ways of connecting people to each other—and to the state—as they reinvent themselves as providers of digital and financial solutions.
In 15 out of 24 governorates in Tunisia, there are more post offices than banks. Many customers without bank accounts find the post office an accessible first step for basic financial services. And it’s not just Tunisia. Morocco introduced a postal bank in 2010 that had nearly six million customers—making up one in three bank accounts—within four years. Egypt is also modernizing the financial products offered by post offices. But Tunisia seems to be the clear leader, creating strategic partnerships with all three mobile phone operators in the country and moving a range of banking services from branches into users’ pockets.
Many of the region’s postal networks are accelerating the digitization of their financial and administrative services. Postal networks are partnering with private sector and logistics partners to develop digital solutions that include not only individual banking, but also banking and e-commerce support for entrepreneurs.
Future Tunisians may not know what a post office used to do, but they are even more likely to be regular customers.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.
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New Report: Restoring The Eastern Mediterranean As a U.S. Strategic Anchor
The CSIS Middle East Program released a new report in collaboration with the CSIS Europe Program, “Restoring the Eastern Mediterranean as a U.S. Strategic Anchor.” The report calls for a holistic and integrated strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean that will stabilize Europe and shift the regional balance in the Middle East back toward the United States. It offers a framework for such a strategy focusing on two priority areas: resolving the Syrian conflict and recalibrating the relationship with Turkey. It argues that these policies must be integrated into a unified and distinctly regional approach. You can read the full report and an executive brief here.
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New Maghreb Analysis
The CSIS Middle East Program released a new report by Haim Malka on “Maghreb Neutrality: Maghreb-Gulf Arab Ties Since the GCC Split.” This analysis examines how and why governments in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco have maintained their neutrality amid the feud that split the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) one year ago.
Haim Malka spoke to the CSIS podcast as part of the “Destination Maghreb” report on changing migration patterns in North Africa. One episode examined trends that have made the Maghreb a growing destination for migration, and a second episode examined countries’ different approaches to integrating new arrivals.
In Case You Missed It
Dr. Calvert Jones discussed “Social Engineering in the UAE” at a CSIS Middle East Program Gulf Roundtable, 5/17/18.
Prof. F. Gregory Gause III spoke at a CSIS Middle East Program Gulf Roundtable on “MBS’s Saudi Arabia: How New?” 4/25/18.
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In The Media
“The system is designed to be a system that can’t be bent for any individual and what we’re increasingly seeing is it’s being bent for a small number of individuals.” Jon Alterman to ABC News on Gulf government approaches to members of the Trump administration, 5/28/18.
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