The Syrian civil war shows few signs of ending and concerted efforts to counter the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have produced modest results. Civil and proxy wars have destabilized Libya and Yemen, and Egypt is experiencing a domestic insurgency. Instability in the Middle East remains widespread, but China continues to deepen its ties in the region. In January 2016, Xi Jinping embarked on his first state visit to the Middle East as president of China, just days after Beijing released its first-ever policy paper on the region.

At an event hosted by the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center, panelists assessed the prospects for restoring stability and prosperity to the Middle East after years of conflict, and the possible implications of China’s growing role in the region. They discussed how regional states and outside actors including China are positioned to effect positive change and what policy options are most likely to lead to more favorable outcomes. This panel was the final event in the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2016 and was co-sponsored by Peking University’s School of International Studies. 

Discussion Highlights

  • Locally Triggered Conflicts: Participants acknowledged that while many conflict zones in the Middle East share certain features, the chief concerns driving these conflicts are local. In particular, speakers noted that national demographic shifts and economic grievances across the Middle East have sparked radicalization and triggered instability. Focusing only on wide-angle issues like religious extremism may result in oversimplified analysis and ineffective policy recommendations, panelists cautioned.
  • Economic Opportunity and Responsive Governance: Panelists identified several factors that are driving radicalization, such as limited economic opportunities, unresponsive governance, corruption, and political and social structures that are not inclusive. One speaker cited a Mercy Corps study, which posited that regional instability stems not so much from the actual shortage of economic and educational opportunities as it does from citizens’ keen awareness of how unevenly these public goods are distributed. Participants stated that resolving these issues will require policymakers to pay careful attention to the structure of the political and social institutions that are established after conflicts subside, or else instability may reoccur.
  • The Islamic State as a Brand: Speakers noted that accurately understanding local conditions in the Middle East is essential to understanding the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other regional terrorist activities. Rather than viewing the Islamic State as a monolithic threat, panelists likened it to a franchise brand that diffuse local groups can affiliate themselves with to strengthen credibility and join a wider network. Speakers cited the Islamic State’s fundamentalist religious appeal as a key strength for this branding effort, but cautioned that it is not the sole one. They concluded that this network model more accurately depicts the decentralized, local nature of what has been misleadingly labelled as a single global terrorist movement.
  • Risks of Outside Intervention: Panelists agreed that ill-timed or poorly-executed international intervention in the Middle East can potentially accelerate regional conflicts devolving into state failure. They pointed out that outside actors are struggling to find suitable regional allies against extremism. Speakers noted that the divergent objectives of regional actors can be counterproductive not only for resolving conflicts in a timely fashion but also for regional stability at large. If and when foreign intervention does occur, relevant actors must address the local root causes of conflict and consider carefully how post-intervention governance will be structured, panelists said.
  • China’s Role in the Middle East: Given the risks of intervention, panelists asserted that China’s approach to the Middle East will continue to adhere to its stated policy of noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states. However, speakers saw Xi Jinping’s recent high-profile visit to the Middle East as an indication of China’s desire to help resolve the region’s problems. They predicted that China’s role for the foreseeable future will remain primarily economic and they cautioned that China should learn from other countries’ struggles to create projects that widely benefit as many local Middle Eastern communities as possible.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Michele Dunne

Michele Dunne is the director and a senior associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

Li Shaoxian

Li Shaoxian is the director of Ningxia University’s China-Arab Research Institute. He previously served as the deputy director of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Wang Suolao

Wang Suolao is an associate professor and the director of the Center for Middle East Studies in the School of International Studies at Peking University.

Frederic Wehrey

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Wu Bingbing

Wu Bingbing is an associate professor and deputy director of the Department of Arabic Language and Culture and director of the Institute of Arab-Islamic Culture at Peking University.