Event ReportsPublished on Mar 19, 2014
At a conference on "Transformations in West Asia: The Next Steps" in Delhi, speakers said each country must develop its unique path to achieve democracy, based on the historical and current social, political and economic context.
West Asian countries will have to develop their path to democracy: Experts

Many speakers at a conference on West Asia, organised by Observer Research Foundation in association with the Ministry of External Affairs, felt that there is need for improvisations in the Constitutions of countries in the conflict ridden region.

At the three-day conference titled "Transformations in West Asia: The Next Steps" from March 19, speakers said each country must develop its unique path to achieve democracy, based on the historical and current social, political and economic context.

The conference was supported by the West Asia North Africa (WANA) and External Publicity and Public Diplomacy Divisions (XPPD) of the Ministry of External Affairs.

With respect to the Arab Spring, it was concluded that "creativity in stability with freedom is what is required". The sectarian divide between the shias and the sunnis for India means a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It was said that the emergence of Islamist extremism may be seen as a significant power but cannot be seen as a substantial one.

Further, it was noted that in terms trade and investment, India is a major destination. Regarding defence agreements, it was clearly stated that India’s defence agreement with Saudi Arabia is very different from that between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, i.e. this agreement does not make India a supporter of the Saudi regime.

The shia-sunni sectarian divide has been brought right onto India’s shores, and thus it was claimed at the conference that India must involve Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the security, investment, and energy areas. Emphasis was laid on increasing the security of sea lanes that bring energy to India.

India should strengthen relations with all GCC countries, while staying out of the Shia Sunni divide. It could help the region to combat terrorism, piracy and smuggling. More effective engagement such as facilitating cooperation between the various stakeholders in the region is required. In terms of energy, research and development capabilities must be improved.

The region must incorporate structural economic reform, and institutions must be made stronger. The grievances of citizens must be tackled more comprehensively, instead of wage subsidies and welfare handouts. Unemployment and corruption remain causes of concern, and must be tackled. Democracy and pluralism in the region must be strengthened and the human rights violations must be addressed.

It was pointed out that sectarian identity played a crucial role in the politics of West Asia. The transitional period was not designed to answer the questions raised by the revolution, as it continued to be led by the old state and the Islamists. Power was an important element in the democracies of the region, expressed through legitimacy, political structure, judiciary and interest articulation and aggregation.

Some speakers felt that the region was likely to see intensification of civil war, while others were more optimistic in the hope for stability in the region. There ought to be a balance between aid and sanctions from the international community. The Constitutions in the conflict ridden regions must be improvised, and each country must develop its unique path to achieve democracy, based on the historical and current social, political and economic context.

"Security Dilemmas and Nuclear Proliferation in West Asia"

The first session was based on "Security Dilemmas and Nuclear Proliferation in West Asia". It was highlighted at the very outset that West Asia is the most important external region for India. India gets 70 percent of its oil from West Asia and has seven million people working in the West Asian region. Energy dynamics between West Asia and the world are constantly changing. The most prominent example of this is Iran’s nuclear deal. The reasons discussed for Iran not getting nuclear power included the nature of extreme Islamism in the country and the lack of a status quo regime. However, it was noted that Iran cannot turn into a conventional military state in West Asia, since the United States presence in the Gulf makes Iran’s air force weak, and it will take a long time for Iran to revive its economy alongside making massive political changes.

In a broader context, the three main characteristics of security dilemmas and nuclear proliferation in West Asia that were discussed were weakening of the State system and rise of non-State actors, decline of the Arab states and the relative rise of non-Arab states in the Middle East (such as Turkey, Iran, and Israel), and the increase in conflicts between the Arab Shias and the Arab Sunnis.

India should try new options

The keynote address was delivered by Joint Secretary (West Asia North Africa) Sandeep Kumar at the end of the first session. Certain transformations in West Asia were discussed broadly. Three years after the Arab Spring, the optimism has turned to concern, rendering decision making difficult. Religious extremism in the region, and terror were causes for concern. The region saw the emergence of new strategic alliances.

In terms of international actors, Russia was seen attempting to reengage with the region, while US was uncertain in its actions. China provided a huge economic thrust, as well as naval support.

West Asia was referred to as an extended part of India’s neighbourhood, with the instability there impacting India. It was suggested that India must be willing to try out new options through facilitating regional solutions and capacity building.

In the discussions with the audience, issues such as India’s influence in the warring parties, strengthening India’s naval presence and steps taken by India to counter terror were deliberated upon.

"Socio-economic Trends and Political Transitions"

The second session of the conference was based on Socio-economic Trends and Political Transitions. The main points of deliberation were education, unemployment, and governance. Discussions commenced with a brief history and contemporary setting of Libya. It was stated that the success of the ongoing Libyan revolution will be beneficial for India with regards to trade, economic and labour opportunities.

The Arab Spring was highlighted next, as "the main process that affects and controls economic transitions in the region". It was talked about in terms of the euphoric Syrian revolution, which also led to large groups of people overthrowing established rules (such as those in Libya and Egypt), and the debate it has sparked between the US model of political intervention and the Chinese model of trade and economic relations.

It was pointed out that West Asia is the most urbanized part of the developing world. The combination of a young population, weak political structures, and urbanization is disastrous. Further, the lack of water and presence of droughts, together with fluctuating food prices continue to create greater problems. Oil and gas circulations have left West Asia with no cash reserves, and no surplus revenues. The session concluded with all agreeing that if political instability continues, no economic reforms can be introduced in the region.

"Perceptions of Democracy and Emerging Governance Structures"

The opening remarks to the session on "Perceptions of Democracy and Emerging Governance Structures" laid the foundation of the discussion highlighting the challenges to building democracies in the region.

The discussions referred to the rebuilding of the Middle East taking into account the need for a new state, political economy of development, religion and popular participation. One of the speakers emphasized the term ’electrocracy’- a facade with representative political democracy, without the ability to change the military, bureaucracy, problems faced by the public due to the constitutional, legal and administrative handicaps which continued from the old system. The state suffered from a crisis of legitimacy as it excluded a majority of the population.

The changing perception of democracy and governance were discussed next. The region consists of a variety of regimes, ranging from liberal, theocratic, Islamic, guided, and military led and ruling family led democracies. This creates chaos in the region.

One of the conclusions was that with the reinforcement of the military and the proliferation of weapons, the region was likely to see less democracy, more uprisings, foreign intervention, instability and poverty; while another was that the Arab Revolution invited new forms of participative democracy, with new formulas for state society relations.

"Shifting Geopolitics - The Implications for West Asia and India"

The fourth session of the conference was targeted at Shifting Geopolitics: The Implications for West Asia and India. Discussions commenced by stating certain facts- a paradigm shift in energy politics, evolving internal politics in West Asia, and the realist perspective that views every country as an opportunist wanting to achieve its own goals. Some broad trends in the region were highlighted next. This included the sectarian divide between the shias and the sunnis, the emergence of Islamist extremism, the divided opinions on Iran of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the increasing US credibility deficiency.

Further, it was said that there has been a beneficial shift for India towards the Arab world with regard to the work force and defence agreements.

"West Asia as a Commercial and Energy Hub"

The final session on "Transformations in West Asia: The Next Steps" was titled "West Asia as a Commercial & Energy Hub".

The session began with citing the significance of 2008 due to the high oil prices and the shale, oil and gas boom. The dynamics of America adding to the existing reserves in the Arab world were discussed. The importance of energy security was discussed, with cost efficiency being the key. The dwindling supply and concentrated capacities in the hands of the few were challenges for policy makers in the world today. There is a need to seek alternative energy. As United States’ reliance on the Middle East energy decreases, other countries’ needs are increasing, as energy has become part of the Asian security structure.

In the next few years, the relations between India and the Gulf are going to move to the investment level. Future energy bases will be controlled by those who control the technology, research and development capacities.

Security measures

As an outcome of the talks, it was emphasised that the West ought to take certain security measures as far as Iran’s nuclear deal is concerned, such as it must ensure that Iran has no breakout capacity, and that Iran does not exit the agreement. The West must carry out intrusive checks on Iran as well. It was said that the success of talks between Iran and the West can impact on the region in terms of the country gaining weapons capability, which will be the worst possible outcome for Iran’s neighbours. Iran’s motivations for nuclear power range from it seeing the same as a shelter, to acquiring regional hegemony. Although "nuclearisation promotes stabilisation", and "small arsenals can be kept safer", the Cold War logic of deterrence cannot be applied in this case. However, it was argued that neither does the US have the stomach for a military intervention in Iran, nor does it want to attack the country. The Obama administration follows an intellectual discourse.

(This report is prepared by Archana Rath and Tarini Mahajan, Research Interns, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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