Washington, D.C.: October 27, 2017 - Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) held its Second Annual Conference, titled "Trump and the Arab World: First Year Assessment and Policy Recommendations," on October 26, 2017. The conference was opened with welcoming remarks by ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan and consisted of two keynote addresses, a presentation on ACW's recent poll on Arab public opinions of the Trump Administration, and three additional panels on different political and economic conditions in the Arab world and US-Arab relations during the administration's first year in office.
Dr. Tarek Mitri, previous holder of various ministerial portfolios in Lebanon and currently the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, delivered the morning keynote address. His bird's-eye view spanned Arab affairs and problems over the last seven years and the American response to them. Mitri criticized both the Obama Administration's emphasis on counterterrorism and the current administration's obsession with identity politics, which have resulted in the further shrinking of American influence in the Arab world and the sidelining of human rights and democracy as necessary requirements there. He ended his overall assessment of conditions in the region by asserting that Russia has made serious inroads with some countries in the Middle East and has indeed won the war in Syria.
What Arabs Want
In the first panel, titled "What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy," Dr. Tamara Kharroub, assistant executive director of ACW, presented the results of a poll conducted recently in eight Arab countries (Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco) on Arab perspectives on the Trump Administration. Kharroub related that while a majority of those polled had positive views of the United States and the American people, a minority expressed satisfaction with American foreign policy in the Arab world. Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Dr. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland provided background analysis and discussion of the poll and compared it to others they were involved in organizing.
In Panel II, titled "Political and Economic Challenges in the Arab World Today" and chaired by Dr. Dina Khoury from George Washington University, economic advisor Dr. Hani Findakly discussed how Arab economic conditions require immediate attention and how the GCC crisis will exacerbate them. Phillis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies considered the Trump Administration's foreign policy as isolationist and militarized. Dr. Najib Ghadbian of the University of Arkansas asserted that the only effective accomplishment by the Obama and Trump Administrations in Syria has been containing the Syrian civil war inside its borders. Perry Cammack from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace presented his views that the United States cannot be as hegemonic and controlling as it once was and this has been reflected in what it has been able to do in the Arab world lately.
Keynote Address by Joan Polaschick
The lunch keynote address was delivered by Joan Polaschick, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the US Department of State and formerly US ambassador to Algeria. She provided the administration's perspective and policies on current affairs in the Arab world. She asserted that the administration's priority remains the defeat of the Islamic State, a successful counterterrorism campaign, and vigilance against Iran and its activities. Ambassador Polaschik also stressed the administration's desire to help wherever there was an opportunity to address socioeconomic and development issues in the Arab world, laying out efforts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. She reaffirmed the administration's position that it does not see a future for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Finally, she stressed the administration's disappointment about the continuing GCC crisis, highlighting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's efforts to mediate the dispute.
Panel III covered "US-Gulf Relations and US Policy in the Arabian Gulf" and was chaired by Dr. Khaled al-Jaber, Director of al-Sharq Studies and Research Center in Doha, Qatar. Dr. Abdullah Baabood from Qatar University began the panel presentations by highlighting the complications in the Gulf exacerbated by low oil prices. He cast doubt on the future of the GCC, which is hampered by divisions that preclude it from the role of a force of positive change in the region. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council discussed the damage already inflicted on the nuclear deal with Iran by the Trump Administration, which, she cautioned, adds great uncertainty to intra-Gulf relations. David Des Roches from the National Defense University spoke of the importance of an integrated defense structure for the GCC. Finally, Dr. Sheila Carapico from the University of Richmond criticized events in Yemen and blamed the Saudi-led coalition for the disastrous humanitarian situation in that country.
The fourth panel of the day titled "US Policy Recommendations in the Arab World" and chaired by Dr. Laurie King from Georgetown University, explored current conditions in the Arab world and recommendations to help ameliorate them. Dr. William Lawrence from George Washington University discussed the factionalism at work in the White House since Donald Trump became president. Noting that his research has discovered some nine factions in the Oval Office, he recommended that American foreign policy in the Middle East should start with bridging the gaps among them. Dr. Ibrahim Fraihat from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies highlighted what he called the illusion of defeating the Islamic State and cautioned against dealing with it only militarily. He recommended an inclusive political solution to the Syrian crisis and a cautious approach to Iran that includes safeguarding the nuclear deal, helping to resolve the GCC crisis, building a credible government in Iraq, and exerting serious pressure on Israel.
For her part, Ellen Laipson, Director for the Center of Security Policy Studies at George Mason University spoke of the incoherence of the Trump Administration, which enjoys disruption and causes instability. She recommended that the United States should not focus only on fighting the Islamic State, cautioned against speaking of hegemonic designs, urged an understanding of the fact that the United States has lost some power and authority in the region, and encouraged economic integration there. Dr. Marwan Kabalan from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, recommended that the United States cultivate its friends in the region while addressing the root causes of terrorism. He stressed helping the Iraqi and Syrian states and societies by assisting in nation building, and warned against supporting the Kurds of Syria because that may lead to an ethnic conflict.
Finally, Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow at American University of Beirut and Harvard University, gave a sobering assessment of socioeconomic and political conditions in the Arab world, saying that there are 400 million Arabs who live in 22 Arab countries but don't feel as citizens there. Fragmentation of the Arab world actually began a century ago until it became clear that there is no more "Arab world" but an "Arab region," he said. Khouri recommended addressing the socioeconomic conditions of a vast number of Arabs and building states and sovereignties. In essence, Khouri thinks that there may be a need for recreating the Arab world and its governance, as radical changes are needed to address the structural problems in the region.
The conference proceedings were concluded with a comprehensive summary delivered by Dr. Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at ACW. You can read more about the Arab Center, Washington DC here.