Shifting sands: understanding the Middle East today

Sunday 18 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Garden Room, Barbican International Battles

In the past few years, the Middle East has undergone serious convulsions, from the collapse of Iraq to the Arab Spring, the Syrian war and the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen. The spread of Islamic State has wiped out one hundred-year-old borders in a matter of months, with large areas of Iraq and Syria now part of those countries only in name. America’s interest and power in the region seems to waning while regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are becoming more assertive.

A bewildering number of alliances and counter-alliances seem to be in play in which religious affiliations, local political grievances and powerful external players meet in a maelstrom. The Gulf states intervene against and for Sunni jihadists depending upon which state one looks at; America supports Iranian-backed militias in Iraq while backing Saudi-led airstrikes against Shia groups in Yemen; in Syria, America and its Arab allies are supporting Islamist groups against Assad, who is still supported by Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The US and Iran appear to have reached a historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy programme, just as US-Israel relations turn increasingly fractious; indeed, Israel is closer to Saudi Arabia when it comes to the nuclear deal, albeit for very different reasons.

The Arab Spring was supposed to mean the end of tyranny and the rise of democracies across the region. Instead, states are imploding. Was this inevitable, or is there still hope for peace and democracy within the existing borders of countries like Syria and Iraq? Would their break-up mean anarchy or a new order based on more meaningful religious and ethnic identities? And while the Western powers were long considered the puppet masters of the Middle East, are the strings now in the hands of regional powers? Does the West even have a sense of its strategic interests in the region, or is it stuck in the past, supporting the wrong allies and condemning the region to years of chaos? What do the confusing alliances and counter-alliances tell us? And what future is there for the people of the Middle East?

Listen to the session

Gilbert Achcar
professor of development studies and international relations; chair of Centre for Palestine Studies, SOAS, University of London

Rosemary Hollis
professor of international politics and director of the Olive Tree Programme, City University London

Dr Tara McCormack
lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches

Karl Sharro
architect; writer; Middle East commentator; co-author, Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture

Joel Cohen
communications manager, BeyondMe

Produced by
Dr Tara McCormack lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches
Recommended readings
How the West fuelled the rise of the ‘Army of Terror’ Tara McCormack, spiked, August 2015

What is 'Islamic State'?

So-called Islamic State burst on to the international scene in 2014 when it seized large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. It has become notorious for its brutality, including mass killings, abductions and beheadings.

BBC News, 29 July 2015

UAE People & Politics: UAE’s unity with Saudi Arabia crucial Theodore Karasik, The National, 2 July 2015

Syrian refugees near four million amid intense fighting

UN says an extra 250,000 refugees may be registered by end of the year, the largest exodus since the Rwandan genocide.

Diana Al Rifai, Aljazeera, 6 June 2015

What's left of Syria?

What was once a land steeped in history and diverse culture is now a war-torn nation reduced to rubble.

Diana Al Rifai & Mohammed Haddad, Aljazeera, 17 April 2015

Syria After Four Years of Mayhem

A four-year conflict has dismembered Syria, inflaming the region with one of the world’s worst religious and sectarian wars. Most of its major cities are in shambles, and more than 200,000 people have been killed. Nearly half of Syria’s residents have been forced to flee their homes

SERGIO PEÇANHA, JEREMY WHITE and K.K. REBECCA LAI, New York Times, 12 March 2015

Don’t shout at the telly: uprising in the Middle East and intervention in Libya

In this gripping on-the-sofa discussion, Middle East commentator and writer, Karl Sharro argues that such interventions far from helping, deny people the very freedom and self determination that people throughout the region are fighting for.


follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.