Euronews, in collaboration with the Arab Strategy Forum, presents Agenda Middle East. Our new flagship interview series will bring you face to face with some of the most influential decision-makers, leaders and experts on the Middle East and ask them about the geopolitical and economic future of the region.
Join us here, once a month, for riveting conversations, informed opinion and in-depth analysis of one of the most strategically important parts of the world.
Our guest on this episode is Fareed Zakaria. He is the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS for CNN Worldwide, a columnist for The Washington Post, a contributing editor for The Atlantic and a bestselling author. His latest book is entitled ‘Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World’. In this interview, we’ll touch on some of the takeaways from his latest work. We’ll also get his insight on the future of the Middle East region and US influence there.
It has been a rough start to the year, do you expect a happier 2021?
Yes, it has been a very rough start, but in a way a start that augurs well for the future. So let’s keep in mind two big things are happening. The first is that American democracy has reasserted itself and has triumphed. I know it looks very messy, but look, there’s a lot of anger out there. There’s a lot of tension. There are a lot of people who feel who disagree fiercely with one another. The challenge was, the question was, will this eventually be resolved in a democratic framework? And the answer is yes. Joe Biden will be inaugurated. He will be president, and therefore we will move forward.
Was the invasion of the Capitol building a warning to others who face populist movements in their own countries?
Yeah look, I think that the challenge here is very real, which is that we have developed a degree of dysfunction in the democratic world, that when you have popular passions that get aroused, there is now a kind of tribal loyalty to your side that trumps your loyalty to democracy, trumps your loyalty to the rule of law.
Let me make one other point. We are also moving into the end of Covid. We are moving into a Post-Pandemic World. The first half of it, the first phase of it has gone pretty badly. Let’s be honest. With the exception of a few East Asian countries, pretty much everywhere things have been handled very badly. I should single out the United Arab Emirates as another star. The UAE handled COVID superbly, like Taiwan, South Korea, but mostly was handled badly. The second phase, though, we move from the public sector fundamentally to the private sector: vaccines, therapies. And there I think what you’re going to see is we are going to outperform.
In regards to the Middle East region, other players like Turkey, Russia, China and Iran are jockeying for power after the US sort of pulled back its involvement in a number of countries there. How much has that complicated the situation of trying to reach some kind of stability in the region?
Well, you put it perfectly because most people don’t realise the underlying condition, the underlying geopolitical fact here has been the withdrawal of the United States. I predicted this in my last book, ‘The Post-American World’, and I said the Post-American World is not going to be pretty. And what you are seeing in the Middle-East is, and it really began with, the second term of Bush after the Iraq war, right? Then Obama and now Trump all moving out of the Middle East, partly because the Iraq war created a mess and there is a popular backlash, partly because the United States is now energy independent. But the result is, as you say, not some kind of harmonious peace and tranquillity for all those critics of American imperialism. What you notice is the alternative is local rivalry, regional rivalry and chaos.
The Americans are not going to get terribly involved. What about the Europeans? They’re the biggest donors in the region, they have good contacts there. But up to now, have they really punched at the weight that they should?
Europe will not be the player. Look, the fundamental issue is Europe as a strategic entity is an idea. It is not a superpower. They would like it to be able to act in purposive ways, but it won’t. Europe has some areas and I say this as a big fan of Europe. Europe acts purposefully and strategically on trade, on things like antitrust. On core national security issues, Europe is an idea. It is not it is not a strategic reality and it won’t be.
What about the Abraham Accords? Is there economics behind this? Might it be in the interest of all the parties concerned to calm things down and to do more trade? Could trade be the glue that holds the region together?
I think the Abraham Accords were terrific. I think they were essentially Donald Trump’s most significant, perhaps only foreign policy achievement. And it’s real. I think it probably you’d have to say the root of it was national security. It is the shared enmity and the shared hostility toward Iran and the shared fear of Iran. But that doesn’t mean that the trade part is insignificant. It would be wonderful if we could see some genuine internal dependence and harmony.
Is it possible to build on those Abraham accords towards some kind of a Camp David?
I think you’re exactly right. I would hope that the Biden administration would try to take the gains here. And my sense is, from what they have said, they intend to do that.
Is the fact that Trump set up a US embassy in Jerusalem a stumbling block to that?
I don’t think so. Real estate is not the problem. The problem is a more fundamental sense that the Palestinians have been given some respect, some dignity and some sovereignty. Look, you can carve out a part of East Jerusalem, call it Jerusalem, or call it Palestinian Jerusalem. You know what I mean? This is what diplomats are paid to do. There are solutions here.
Let’s look at the local players, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a bloc. Now that Saudi Arabia and the others have lifted their embargo on Qatar, what do you see there? What are the prospects of them providing some leadership in the region?
I think that if Saudi Arabia could take a measure of where it has been and ask itself whether it can lead the Gulf Cooperation Council in the way that it has traditionally been led, which is by consensus and with a soft touch, I think a lot could be achieved. I think that Mohammed bin Salman has been an extraordinary reformer at home. He has done things that people have long been advocating in Saudi Arabia. Now, he has also done a lot of repressive things. He’s also jailed a lot of the advocates of the very reforms that he is proposing.
Lifting the embargo on Qatar has sort of lowered the temperature, hasn’t it? Israel has normalised relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Could that have a calming effect and bring more stability to the region?
Absolutely, it’s a good sign. It does point to the central direction I’d like to see Saudi foreign policy go, which is to say the blockade of Qatar was a disaster that, remember, they announced a series of demands that they said Qatar had to fulfill before they would lift the blockade. Qatar did not fulfill a single one of those demands, and yet the blockade was lifted. If they were to take another path of consensus, which was the traditional way the GCC operated, I think you could get a lot. And I would say the Abraham accords are a big step forward in that direction.
The US stepped out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and now Iran has stepped up its nuclear programme. How much does that impede Biden and Europeans from trying to put together a new one?
Look, the problem with what the Trump administration did was while it was able to exert more pressure on Iran, it has left the situation highly unstable, very volatile. So I think the Biden administration is absolutely right to say, let’s try to get Iran back in the nuclear box and then negotiate on all the other issues.
What about the environment? For a while, people were happy because they were driving less and flying less. Now we’ll obviously see Biden rejoin the Paris Accord. But lots of people in the science world are saying this is not going to be enough.
Look, the simplest, most powerful, most effective thing that will work is some kind of price on carbon, a carbon tax, because ultimately, you know, I’m a free-market guy. I believe that the best way for government to regulate is not a whole series of complicated regulations. You tax the thing you want to see less of and you put a huge amount of money into renewables, and you will see over the next 30 or 40 years of transition.
But won’t more Yellow Vests appear? There must be a just transition. How do you do that fairly with a carbon tax?
You raise a very important issue.
So some of these trends make sense for everyone in aggregate, but the distributional effects are awkward. Some people benefit more. Some people get hurt more. Well, maybe we need to have some kind of compensation mechanisms. Maybe we need subsidies for those people. You know, you have to recognise that, you’ve got to bring everyone together.
Where do you think we’ll be 10 years down the line?
I think we are going through a massive transition. And it’s because an old order is changing. We are moving on so many fronts simultaneously. We’re moving away from an American dominated world to a world in which it’s not just China, but other countries are rising. We’re moving to a system where women are genuinely equal. I think we’re going to find that we have you know, we have reinvented this world in a way that is much more inclusive, much more diverse, much more innovative, much more productive. We’ll have our own problems. But I think 15 years from now, I would rather be living in that world than today’s world.
Do we learn everything? No. Do we make new mistakes? Of course. Do we sometimes make the same mistakes again? Yes. But fundamentally, yes, we learn and we will learn.
Fareed Zakaria is optimistic that the world will soon have learnt the ‘Ten Lessons from a Post-Pandemic World’.
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