Uprisings in the Arab World: The Reality Beyond the Failure of Politics and Policies

Abdel Salam Majali addresses the Opening Ceremony

Keynote Speech at the Opening Ceremony

31st Annual Plenary Meeting

9 May 2013

Manama, Bahrain

by Abdel Salam Majali, Member



Ladies and Gentlemen,

From here in Bahrain, I invite you to share a bird’s eye view of the vast array of problems that impose themselves, or are self imposed, on this part of the world - the Middle East.

Our area is certainly unique. Within a span of a few hundred kilometres, we have four countries that are member or aspire to be members of the world club of nuclear powers: Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Israel. We have one of the world’s richest countries, Qatar - and one of the world’s poorest, Somalia.

Moreover, since December 2010, the region has been witnessing mass protests, that started off on 17 December 2010 in Tunisia, following an incident in the town of Sidi Bouzid between a street vendor called Bouazizi, and a policewoman. Since, all Arab states have witnessed protests in one form or another. But, what are the imbedded reasons for this sudden or not so sudden surge in rebelliousness in the Arab world?

Such reasons are due to Politics and Policies.

A century ago, a declaration was issued by the British Foreign Secretary Balfour, in a letter dated 2 November 1917 that stated that the British Government viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people - it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

Needless to say that the Balfour Declaration fitted perfectly with the Zionist vision of establishing a homeland for world Jewry.

Numerous uprisings in 1920s and 1930s followed in the Arab world including in Syria and in British-mandate Palestine essentially against the declaration. Furthermore, after Israel was founded in 1948, the Arabs took to the streets en masse again to avenge the failures of their leaderships to retain the Arab Islamic identity of the Holy Land.

The creation of Israel in 1948 changed the region forever. For the Palestinians and the surrounding countries of Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, it resulted in a feeling of mistrust between ruler and people that lead to, among other events, the assassination of King Abdullah I of Jordan in Jerusalem in 1951, and the July 1952 revolution in Egypt, not to mention the endless series of coups that Syria was subjected to in the 1950s and 1960s.

Arabs were expressing their anger at their governments, anger that eventually translated itself into extreme political views from the very far right to the very far left. Indeed, the bitterness that had developed between Israel and the Arab countries culminated in another war in June 1967, which I will talk about again later in the context of water.

1973 witnessed the fourth Arab Israeli War that paved the way for a boost in the peace momentum between Israel and Egypt culminating in the Camp David Agreement between the two adversaries.

In 1987, there was the Intifada. This was a massive uprising by the Palestinians directed against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Intifada, together with the Second Gulf War 1990/1991, which resulted in tremendous frustration among the Arab people, provided a new impetus for stakeholders to contemplate entering into negotiations aimed at resolving the Middle East conflict.

The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, facilitated by the United States, was a watershed event because for the first time, Israel entered into direct, face-to-face negotiations with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians. The conference marked a start of an intricate process of negotiations that lead to the Jordan Israel Peace Treaty, and the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The Madrid Conference witnessed the conception of the Palestinian entity for the first time and then the birth of the Palestinian National Authority.

Twenty years after Madrid, what we have is a small piece of ‘peace.’ At the moment, Arabs and Israelis are not dreaming the same dreams. The failure to achieve peace in the Middle East in the major reason for Arab and Islamic frustration today.

This is the failure of Politics.

I have often told my Israeli friends that fortresses can no longer protect people. Israel should know this. In the words of the famous Israeli politician: Avraham Burg, ‘The Holocaust is over,’ and the Jewish people need to move on and eventually live in peace with their Arab neighbours.

Let me take you back to that novel about Israel’s founding; Leon Uris’s Exodus which was subsequently made into a movie. To my mind, it had serious flaws, the most dangerous of which was depicting Arabs as people who only fear the whip (use of force). I dare say that the opposite is true.

The use of force will lead to more bitterness and anger and may never yield results. Trust leading to dialogue surely would.

The flow of people, information and indeed weaponry has rendered fortress mentality obsolete. Military might alone will never guarantee security for any country! Middle Eastern countries are amongst the highest spenders on arms and armaments in the world. Sadly, at the expense of resources that could be allocated to real development, on achieving real human security.

The current peace process must be given a fresh lease of life. Violence by any party is uncalled for, because a further deterioration of the situation in the region will stir up yet more religious extremism and hopelessness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has been with us for decades. The adversaries should give peace another chance by accommodating each other for humanity's sake. The Arab Peace Initiative represents a genuine move on the part of Arabs towards a final, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

It was none other than the late King Hussein, who at the funeral of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 said; ‘Let our voices rise high to speak of our commitment to peace for all times to come, and let us tell those who live in darkness who are the enemies of life, and through faith and religion and the teachings of our one God, this is where we stand.’


I would sum up the ‘Policies’ failure in the Arab world in terms of a number of time bombs that have been on the radar for at least a decade. The first manifested itself in the centralization of power in many Arab countries that led to rural areas losing their ability to manage their own affairs. This was further aggravated by the arrogance of officials who owed their appointments to central authorities in the state and not to citizens. This explains the refusal of the governor of Sidi Bouzid to meet Mohammed Bouazizi when the latter asked for such an interview.

The second time bomb is unemployment. Arabs are young. Young populations can create dynamic societies, particularly if they are well-trained and well-educated. Both Tunisia and Egypt have succeeded in increasing enrollment in universities however without creating the appropriate value chain of jobs required to meet the increasing number of graduates.

The third time bomb manifested itself in the inability of economies to achieve sustainable economic growth. How could economies bloom when so much is being spent on weapons? Weapons willingly supplied by the West and the East to be used by primarily for internal security.

Financial malpractice too played a pivotal role in frustrating the masses. Estimates talk of billions of dollars were illegally transferred in and out of Arab countries as the "Global Financial Integrity Report," indicated.

This is the failure of Policies.

Beyond Politics and Policies, I think it is also imperative to talk about soft security in the region, and that nexus between water and energy, which are essential elements in human security.

Arabs believe that water is life. The Qur’an declares: ‘We made from water every living thing.’ But, around the world, women, men and children today lack access to adequate and safe water to meet their most basic needs. Water resources, and the related ecosystems, that provide and sustain them, are under threat from pollution, unsustainable use, land-use changes and climate change.

Competing claims to water between users within countries and between countries have to be managed in a cooperative rather than a confrontational fashion. Integration rather than segregation should be the approach. The needs of future generations must be safeguarded and issues of quantity and quality of water must be addressed.

The Middle East is one of the most water insecure regions in the world. From the outset, disputes related to water resources have formed part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1949, peace negotiations after the first Arab–Israeli war broke down, in response to Israeli demands to keep control over Lake Tiberias and the Jordan River. The water issue resurfaced again in the early 1960s after Israel announced plans to divert water from Lake Tiberias to the Negev. The Arab response was a counter-plan to divert water from a point upstream of the Israeli border down to the Jordan River system.

The above conflicting water-diversion projects by Israel were a significant contributor to the 1967 Six Day War.

Three decades on, water disputes contributed also to the failure of peace talks between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

On the other hand, a successful example exists of two adversaries in the region sharing the precious little they have in terms of water resources for the sake of peace. Israel and Jordan signed their famous peace treaty in 1994. The Treaty was signed by Abdel Salam Majali on behalf of Jordan and Yitzhak Rabin on behalf of Israel.

The Treaty had a major water-sharing component that addressed one of the lingering difficulties between Jordan and Israel. As a consequence of the Treaty, Jordan acquired back its rightful share of water.

The Treaty outlined an elaborate arrangement whereby Jordan and Israel will share the Yarmouk and Jordan River waters.

Nevertheless, water is still one of the central problems facing Jordan. Military conflicts in the region have further aggravated the problem as they have resulted in the movement into Jordan of people from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Such a human flood places increased strain on the already meagre water resources that Jordan has.

A few weeks ago, it was announced that Jordan was hosting over one million uprooted human beings from neighbouring countries within its borders. This is equivalent to the UK hosting 7 million refugees or the US hosting 30 million. You can imagine the nightmare that agencies responsible for the provision of safe drinking water have to deal with, and indeed those extra finances that have to be found by the government for the purpose.


Ladies and Gentlemen

Today, in Jordan and the region, we face the challenge of saving the Dead Sea which is vanishing with severe negative consequences on the area. For years, Israel and the Arab governments have diverted more than 90% of the southward flow of the Jordan River which replenishes the Dead Sea.

A creative solution has been talked about for decades yet no firm action has been taken by the stakeholder governments.

It is a project to create a pipe-canal system connecting the Red Sea to the Dead Sea through building a 180 km pipeline across Wadi Araba (where the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty was signed).

This three-party project (Jordan – Israel – the Palestine) could restore most of the Dead Sea water level over time. Moreover hydroelectricity generated from the water coursing down the gradient would power large desalination plants, contributing to the water and energy security of the stakeholder countries.

The project represents an innovative – yet calculated- leap forward in the region’s attempt to address its water and energy needs as well as create an ecosystem in which the involved countries have a stake in its longevity.

The project is thus as important for food and energy security as it is for human security; the security of the Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. Unlike other national proposals, the Red-Dead Canal will not only save the Dead Sea from extinction but also provide desalinated water to Israel, Palestine as well as Jordan. Further, such an undertaking has been stipulated in Article VI of the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty which declared that Jordan and Israel shall co-operate in developing plans for purposes of increasing water supplies and improving water use efficiency, within the context of bilateral, regional or international cooperation.

As a decision-maker, I think that this project is innovative, forward looking and a potential peace asset which can contribute to regional interdependence and security.

Middle Easterners should think of such innovative proposals to address their water problems. For the majority of them, water is a matter of survival. Countries of the North, which happen to be industrialized and developed, are richly endowed with this precious resource. Thus, it is seen as a secondary problem despite the sincere efforts of caring environmentalists and politicians to address the issue.

Due to the fact that politicians are still far from understanding the problem of water problems the world is facing, some experts believe that the world water crisis is a crisis of governance, not one of scarcity.

Only until we realize – as the human family - that we are all in the same boat; that is politicians and scientists, people from the South and people from the North; and that we all face a transnational water crises will we be able to realize a water-secure future for our children and grandchildren.


Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me now turn to energy. In the Middle East, this is not easy with two of most richly endowed countries in oil in our neighborhood; Saudi Arabia and Iraq, ”¦and when people are talking about huge underwater natural gas reserves off the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Pessimists claim that the energy system prevailing in the world today is coming to an end, even though it accounts for over 90 percent of total supply. It no longer has a viable future for two solid reasons. First, no one can deny that reserves are limited. Second, we can no longer afford to burn all the reserves known today because the Earth's ecosphere simply could not bear it.

According to the latest findings in astrophysics, the solar system will survive for another 7 billion years – a virtually infinite time span by human standards. A journalist once asked the late Dr Hermann Scheer, the famous German scientist/politician, when he mentioned this figure whether he had said 7 billion or 7 million years. When Scheer repeated that it was 7 billion, the journalist said that he was relieved. As if 7 million would have been a cause for worry!

We all know and agree that the greatest energy source is that which comes from the sun, or the sun itself. It is afterall a sustainable source. Making this potential the basis for most human activity would help man to behave as intelligently as Nature.

Maybe it is time that we admitted that our collective intelligence lags behind Nature. Nature afterall relies almost exclusively on solar energy.

The conclusion is logical and unequivocal: the core of the solution to the global ecological crisis is the adoption of renewable energies.

This must be coupled with promoting greater linkage between science, and energy policy-making.

This linkage should embrace holistic approaches to energy and sustainable development as well as take account of the specific socio-economic and cultural context of individual countries. Our countries’ institutions and universities should work productively together in the area of renewable energies. This, so that policies and cooperation projects may be based on relevant evidence and research, and also be shaped by ethical considerations.

Clearly, there is a problem when it comes to the relationship between scientists and politicians. Few politicians appreciate the possibilities of science. They do not understand the limitations of science, or the long time scales it can take to develop an idea into a product or a service. Nor do the majority of scientists understand the restrictions of political office or have a clear idea of the political processes.

Scientists should not view politicians as mere media or PR experts because they can really help. More could be done to “pre-test” science messages being delivered to political receivers, and to teach effective follow-up. Some scientists are good communicators (Bruce Alberts of the US National Academy of Sciences and Ahmad Zewail are good examples) and they could be held up as role models and encouraged to share their expertise with others.

We need to bridge the gap and make politicians understand the importance of science by creating a better communications between the science and non-science worlds, between the scientific and the political communities. We need to marry the ‘vision’ with the ‘mission.’

Now, let me talk to you, not as a politician, nor as a scientist, but as a human being, about nuclear know-how in the region. In the back of my mind of course, there is the stand adopted by the IAC on nuclear disarmament. I dare say that we need to take that further now, and call upon all nuclear powers to embark on a process of disarmament. In the Middle East, the situation is critical. Middle Easterners must all lobby for a nuclear-free Middle East.

Those countries planning to have or already have nuclear armaments must – without exception - get rid of them under the watchful eye of international bodies responsible for such matters. Otherwise, we will have a nightmarish scenario on our hands.


Events that have swept through the region have been described by many as the ‘Arab Spring.’ Well, it is a spring that has not blossomed so far. It may have started off as an Arab Spring but very soon, many international players joined the bandwagon – naturally – to ensure that their interests in this vital region were not endangered, turning the phenomenon into more of an autumn of fury.

The essential lesson that all countries can draw from the events of the last two years is that autocracy as a mode of governance can no longer be acceptable to the public. Arabs seem to favour functioning monarchies rather despotic one-party autocracies. However, a system of an all encompassing multi party (it can start as a multi stakeholder) democracy has to prevail. Political pluralism should be the norm for the future

The Gulf region has been a region of peace for decades. Bahrain has been a vanguard of the reform movement in the region. Quietly yet effectively, it has been transforming itself into a constitutional monarchy over the last ten years. Owing to its geographical location, it has been subjected to the political winds blowing in the region.

All stakeholders know that inciting discontent in neighbouring countries is no longer the means to achieve hegemony.

I am certain that if Paul E. Erdman knew in 1976 when he published his famous novel “The Crash of ‘79” what he knew in 1980, he would have inked in quite a different plot to what he actually wrote. His work of fiction of course projected a fictitious Shah of Iran as a leader determined to get nuclear know-how, who would ultimately gain control of the oil riches of the Gulf.

The world has moved forward in leaps and bounds since. Today, it is nobody’s interest to see the Crash of 79 scenario implemented. We do not need another war in the region, as no victor would emerge from (the death and destruction of) of such a war. Peace for all must be our strategic choice.

Thank you all for your attention.