Sluglett Shares His Opinion on Between the Lines

5 September 2014


MEI’s Director Professor Peter Sluglett joins the second half of the discussion on ‘Between the Lines’ about Israel expropriating land which lies south of Bethlehem and the increase in demand for Israel to face charges of war crime. Although not surprising, this “land-grab” could be one of the largest in recent decades. In view of the events that have taken place, Sluglett believes that if Israel is brought to the International Criminal Court, Palestinians will be able to garner more sympathy.

Click here to watch the full interview.


Understanding Iraq | The MEI Conversations

5 September 2014

By Retna Devi

With new developments taking place every day and the Islamic State’s (IS) seemingly inextinguishable determination to achieve its goal despite being denounced by both Muslim and non-Muslim governments and organizations, the events occurring in Iraq are horrifying, and at best, incomprehensible. This MEI Conversations feature poses a few questions to MEI’s Post-doctoral Research Fellow Dr Nassima Neggaz in hopes of understanding what is in store for Iraq.

Q: What is your opinion of Iraq’s new Prime Minister? While it is still too early to say, is there any chance that he will be able to bridge the gaps between the various factions?

A: While the ousting of Nouri al-Maliki is certainly a positive step, it does not yet solve the political crisis in the country. If Haider al-Abadi’s Western education certainly played in his favor in the eyes of the United States, he remains the spokesman for an explicitly Shiite religious party, the Islamic Da’wa, which ultimately raises the question of how he would possibly appease sectarian tensions in the long run. His designation is not seen by many Sunnis as a solution to their problem; many rather view it as a simple change of faces. Al-Abadi has the immense task of dismantling the legacy of his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, while maintaining the support of the various Shiite factions. Unfortunately, if al-Abadi answers many of the demands of the Sunni forces, he will find himself alienating some Shiite factions who are not willing to compromise in the face of the Sunni demands. One can predict that he will not be able to actually accept most of the demands of the Sunnis in the present context. Many Sunnis are even calling for a trial of Maliki and his entire political system for the crimes committed against Iraqis under his rule. This is very unlikely to take place. Moreover, al-Abadi needs to take into account the Iranian influence over key Shiite factions in Iraq if he wants to remain in power. This puts him in the very delicate position of having to balance contradicting and often uncompromising pressures coming from various directions. Facing the IS, al-Abadi said last June that he was ready to “take any assistance, even from Iran” in the fight against the militants. A few days ago, a Sunni coalition withdrew from negotiations to form a unity government, a first sign of failure in a heated context, since 64 people were killed in a Sunni mosque last week after an attack by militants. A key element to solve the crisis is to entirely restructure the Iraqi political system, starting with the Constitution; changing the prime minister will unlikely have any significant impact on the current state of affairs.


Q: It was recently reported that a group of Malaysians affiliated with IS was arrested. With more countries being affected by IS, do you think a cohesive international action is required and what are your thoughts on the United States’ (US) involvement?

A: The 19 people arrested on suspicion of planning attacks on Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, have no immediate links with IS. They share a similar ideology however, and it is
important to note that we know of other cases of involvement of Malaysian citizens with IS, such as the Malaysian women who have been reported to have travelled to Iraq and Syria to ‘comfort’ the jihadists.

I do think that the situation in Iraq and Syria, and the poorly administered regimes in both states, should concern everyone. An international congress to discuss the seriousness of the situation in both countries is absolutely necessary, mainly because many states are de-facto involved in the tragedies unfolding there. In particular, the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have key roles and responsibilities. The ongoing proxy wars between Russia and the US on the one hand, and Iran and Saudi Arabia on the other hand, have had a large impact on the region.

I believe that a political plan/solution should be discussed first and foremost, because it is the only viable solution in the long run. In Iraq, the entire political system needs to be restructured; as it is today, it is too corrupt, sectarian, and opaque for Iraqis to have any chance of living in a peaceful state where the government delivers the basic needs. The current military strikes operated by the US are problematic in several ways. First, the strategy of airstrikes is only applied in Iraq, and we know by experience that IS developed its strength by going into Syria when under attack in Iraq. President Obama recently admitted to not having a clear strategy about IS, declaring that the strikes would only be launched on Iraq and not Syria. This lack of strategy is dangerous, particularly at this point when IS has made large gains in both territories. Second, the strikes will not help get rid of IS in the long run; it is a very short-sighted strategy; as Phyllis Bennis declared, these strikes might even boost IS by attracting more militants and jihadists to the cause, particularly so if we consider the negative image of the US in the region since 2003. The fact that the US alone is launching the strikes is also problematic; the Pope himself declared that the US should not strike alone and there are good reasons for this. Many Sunni Iraqis think that the US did not care for their suffering under Maliki but are now working hand in hand with Shiite militias against IS. Several Sunni rebels have recently declared that they would get rid of IS if a political solution was offered to them by the US and the Iraqi government. “We don’t want guns from the Americans, we want a real political solution, which the US should impose on those people it installed in the Green Zone (…) The IS problem would end. If they guarantee us this solution, we will guarantee to get rid of IS” said Abu Muhammad al-Zubaai, a tribal leader from Anbar (see the article by Jim Muir, “Iraq crisis: Sunni rebels “ready to turn on Islamic State,” BBC News, 29 August 2014). He added: “The Sunnis feel that everybody is ganging up on them, that they are targeted by everybody (…). The worst thing is to realize that you have nothing to lose anymore (…). This is where the political process has taken us. Our biggest concern now is a political solution. A security solution will achieve nothing. The bombing has to stop.”


Alatas and Pall Dispel Misconceptions about Salafism

5 September 2014

By Danielle Sim


Salafism has been the focus of a great deal of attention in recent times with its increasing influence and the way it has been harnessed by extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). In light of its rising prominence, MEI convened a panel of experts to shed some light on the issues surrounding Salafism— its ideas, appeal and manifestations in the Middle East and South East Asia.

MEI’s Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Dr Zoltan Pall, began by exploring the rapid emergence of Salafism in the Middle East following the Arab Uprisings which has made Salafism an unavoidable factor of political life in the region. Pall points out that Salafism in itself is not a political movement, unlike other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, it has been influenced by the Arab Uprisings to take on a political note for some of its adherents. He explains that Salafism has been around since the early days of Islam and is concerned with adhering to the beliefs and traditions of the first three generations of Muslims. Salafists practise a literalist approach to reading scripture and aim to purify Islam from what they consider harmful innovations which could come from Western influences.

Prior to the Arab Uprisings, many Salafists took a purist stance with little involvement in politics, holding the view of unconditional obedience to the ruler.  Pall reveals that at the beginning of the uprisings, purist Salafists were initially against demonstrations, and fatwas were issued against the demonstrations. However, following the brutal crackdowns, some Salafists had a change in perspective and the group split into two factions. The reformed faction admitted that a more scrutinized interpretation of the ideas about complete obedience to the ruler was required; while the conservative faction reminded that the uprisings brought about negative consequences and the demonstrations were flawed anyway because they called for democracy and not sharia. Pall further explicates how the uprisings reshaped the way that Salafists view politics, with some factions justifying involvement in politics as a fight against the secular movements in the revolution.

Associate Professor Farid Alatas furthers the discussion by delving into the ideology and influence of Salafism in South East Asia. He examines the trend of “salafisation” of mainstream Sunni Islam in the region such that intolerance towards other groups of Muslims is growing.  Alatas probes into what he labels as the “myth of Sunni-Shia conflict,” dismissing this myth which frames the conflict between Sunnis and Shias as inevitable as a result of deep theological differences. Alatas notes that differences do occur in theology and jurisprudence, but there have been few historical examples of violent conflict between the two groups and conflict has largely been confined to polemical wars between scholars. He further expounds on how intolerance towards Shias is a recent phenomenon which deviates from earlier Islamic traditions in the region and contains inherent tensions of its own.

Alatas concludes by cautioning against stereotyping Salafists as violent and in association with extremist groups. The Salafist ideological stance of intolerance towards innovation may have been too easily conflated with the view that its followers are inherently intolerant, but it must be kept in mind that many do not actually endorse violence.


Policy Update 4/2014

4 September 2014

Oman’s Unique Traditional Water Resources

By Charlotte Schriwer

Key points
• Water resource management in the Middle East
• Historical techonology and heritage
• Demographic change

With average water consumption in the Gulf ranging between 300 and 750 liters per person per day in 2009, ranking the region amongst the highest water consuming area per capita in the world despite being globally the most water scarce. Thus it is not surprising that the issue of water security- its availability as a natural resource, its use, distribution and conservation- is a major factor of concern for building economically, socially and politically viable and stable states in the Middle East and North Africa.

This heightening demand for water has forced the introduction of modern engineering systems to create more efficient and effective water supply mechanisms, which have proven to impose a severe strain on the environment and its resources. Oman remains one of the few countries in the Middle East- and perhaps the only Gulf monarchy- that has embraced the benefits of its ancient water supply techniques and integrated this historic technology into its national water supply system register, which works alongside newer and emerging technologies. With such a fragile ecosystem and dwindling groundwater reserves, the government of Oman has realised the vital importance re-evaluating and encouraging the preservation of these traditional methods of water supply- the aflaj systems- which have been present in Oman for more than 2000 years. Rather than abandoning them to the decay of time, it has decided to embrace them not only as a symbol of its national culture, but also to maintain them as a functioning, living integrated infrastructure able to serve both rural and urban communities. As a result of the governnment’s pride and commitment to the preservation of aflaj, a number of them have been incorporated into UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

However, contemporary developments in Oman’s economy and society have had a negative effect on aflaj systems. The discovery of oil in the 1960s replaced agriculture as the main generator of income, causing a decline in aflaj use and in the maintenance of the system. Other social factors have also affected the decline of the aflaj system. A major problem in Oman today, as the population expands at a rapid rate and the demographic becomes younger, is the migration of the young to urban centres as they search for more lucrative forms of employment. This has had a negative effect on the rural agricultural communities not only because there is a dwindling supply of agricultural labour, but also because there is less and less interest in learning and maintaining the ancient tradition of falaj maintenance.

Nevertheless, Oman’s extensive and historical water systems render the country unique not just for the Gulf region, but the wider Middle East. While the majority of Middle Eastern governments have failed to take advantage of existing traditional methods of water supply, or to build on existing infrastructure, the Omani government has taken a pragmatic approach to conserving, maintaining and including its aflaj into the national water systems inventory in order to alleviate some of the resource pressures that have arisen from contemporary demands. While this is not a perfect system, the result has been tremendously positive. Furthermore, the government and local engineers and academics continue to analyse and debate possible ways of protecting and enhancing the use of this system for a long time to come. The issue of global water depletion and availability will only become more pressing over the decades to come. In consequence, more governments in the Middle East may see it advantageous to use Oman as an example of how to restructure the national water supply system to include historical techniques and methods that are already in place, and to repair and maintain them, particularly in the more remote rural communities where piped water is unlikely to be a viable resource-efficient solution.

Update on the post-uprising Arab economies

By Linda Matar

Key points

• The continuation of the old policy structure of the anciens régimes
• Recent socioeconomic trends and developments

Cursory look
Post-uprising Arab economies maintained the old policy structures that were enacted under authoritarian rulers. They continued to promulgate the unregulated market policies and failed to address the economic problems that initially aggravated the social tension. Macroeconomic stabilization strategies remained set on short-term budget balancing and debt service.
A cursory look at the economic and social indicators of the post-uprising period reveals the persistence of the old damning trends. The combined GDP growth rate in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine dropped from 2.2 percent in 2011 to negative 1.7 percent in 2012. The wars in Syria and Iraq have had devastating consequences, but they have also written off a significant portion of Arab productive capacity. Poverty in the Arab Mashriq increased from 1.3 percent in 2010 to 5.7 percent in 2012. Yemen’s poverty rate in particular increased from 40.1 percent in the 1990s to 44 percent in 2012/13. Total unemployment and that of the youth in particular worsened in 2011 as compared to 2010. For instance, Syria’s and Egypt’s unemployment rates jumped into double-digit levels in 2011, while youth unemployment was twice or three times as high as total unemployment. On another front, the consumer price index heated up in the Arab Mashriq as it increased from 7.6 percent in 2011 to 11.4 percent in 2012. However, inflation of a subset of basic commodities reached 20 percent—further dampening the purchasing power of the low income earners. Against this backdrop, it can be concluded that in terms of broad economic indicators, the post-uprising Arab economies are in worse conditions under their new regimes as compared to their ancien régimes.
State intervention is indispensable in this transitory phase, particularly to mitigate the impact of economic disruption and the decline of long-term commitment of private investment. Arab states need to stabilize and regulate total investment by increasing public investment. State-led investment—increasing autonomous investment—becomes central, especially when the issue of volatility of private investment is raised in order to undermine the impact of hit-and-run types of investment. This would require a radical shift in the Arab countries’ macroeconomic growth strategies. Building productive resources should constitute the heart of development and poverty reduction policies, because these strategies can create labour-intensive projects that can resolve the problem of unemployment.


Michael Hudson and Charlotte Schriwer Share Their Insights in an Upcoming Book

26 August 2014

MCH and CS

MEI is pleased to inform you of Professor Michael Hudson’s and MEI Deputy Director Dr Charlotte Schriwer’s contribution to Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring: Rethinking Democratization, edited by Larbi Sadiki. In his chapter, Hudson explores the impact of the Uprisings on Arab politics, while the chapter written by Schriwer deals with the graffiti scene that exploded in the Arab world as a consequence of the ‘Arab Spring’.

A combination of a number of topics from various perspectives, Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring: Rethinking Democratization will inspire further discussion on the events of 2011 and its far-reaching implications.

Please click here to pre-order the book.


The Gaza Crisis: An Ongoing Israeli Siege to Overthrow Hamas

22 August 2014

By Retna Devi


One of the many conflicts taking centre stage in the Middle East is the Gaza crisis or ‘Operation Protective Edge’ as called by Israel. Hoping to shed light on the situation, MEI and the Arab Network @ Singapore (AN@S) co-organized a public talk by Mr John Gee, a freelance writer who has published a range of articles on the Middle East.

Associate Professor Farid Alatas was chairing the talk. He set the tone by reminding us that ascribing blame to both sides is pointless. The larger issue at hand is one of occupation by Israel, which dehumanizes both the Israelis and Palestinians. Gee begins by pointing out that while one should appreciate the vast media coverage the Gaza-Israeli conflict is receiving, it is remiss to simply focus on the current situation in Gaza when the problem is much broader than that. He proceeds to provide a rather comprehensive analysis of the matter. Prior to the introduction of the Gaza Strip (Gee recognizes that only a part of the population in the Gaza Strip are from Gaza city, but for the purpose of ease of understanding he uses the terms ‘Gaza’ and ‘Gaza Strip’ interchangeably) in 1948, that area was outside of mainstream Palestinian political life and had a lot of agricultural land in the south. A few months into the war, there was a drastic change of events. Approximately 250,000 refugees settled on vacant lands, agricultural land was lost to Israel, and the Gazan Palestinians remained stateless under the leadership of Egypt unlike their West Bank counterparts who were issued Jordanian citizenship. Despite these divisions, Palestinians retained a strong national identity.


Although Israel withdrew their troops from Gaza in 2005, the siege was not completely lifted. Gazans are not allowed access to the sea port and if they have to travel outside of Gaza they are subjected to the bureaucracies of the Israeli administration. This prevents many students who are admitted to universities in the West Bank from attending lessons. Even produce, such as flowers and oranges that are exported to Europe, are usually stalled by Israeli authorities, thereby ruining the quality of the products. The situation became direr once Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative election. Just enough food imports were allowed to prevent malnutrition and what was deemed unnecessary for survival was completely cut off. 98 per cent of businesses in Gaza were suspended a year into the blockade. The West Bank was not subjected to such harsh conditions as Mahmoud Abbas retained control of it. The need to survive and sustain themselves economically led to a maze of tunnels being dug, which are actively being sealed off by the current Egyptian government.

Turning his attention to Hamas, Gee remarks that the group has evolved since 2006. The Hamas leadership is willing to accept long term truces, a two-state solution, as well as being part of a national government that is based on documents previously signed by the Palestinian Authority, such as the Declaration of Principles and the Paris Protocol. Although these objectives are aligned with the general international consensus of how the conflict should be resolved, Israel, America and the European Union are not willing to acknowledge this. Israel has no interest in removing the Israeli settlements from the West Bank and Gaza, and to achieve this it requires an acquiescent Palestinian leadership, which neither Hamas nor Palestinian Authority are. In order to weaken the leadership and ensure that Palestinians turn against the fighters, Israel employs collective punishment and targets civilians as well, elucidates Gee. That is also why the Israeli government exploited the murder of the three Israeli youths to push for its own agenda; evident from the Israeli army searching for the youths despite being aware that they were killed almost immediately after they were kidnapped.

While the one-state solution is ideal, one has to take into consideration the feat of overcoming decades of cruelty and hostility from both sides. Gee believes that “the only practical resolution is a two-state solution with full withdrawal of Israeli settlements, creating a genuinely democratic Palestinian state and the inclusion of Hamas in the negotiation process.”


Kuwait Will Most Likely Remain One of the Centres, and Most important Sponsors, of Salafism: Zoltan Pall

21 August 2014

Zoltan Website

MEI’s Post-doctoral Research Fellow Dr Zoltan Pall wrote a paper titled, “Kuwaiti Salafism and its Growing Influence in the Levant” for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As the title suggests, Pall examines the networks that Salafi groups in Kuwait have created with their regional neighbours and how it has affected ongoing conflicts. Providing further depth to his analysis, he assesses the impact of the 2011 Arab revolutions on these Salafi groups and the movement’s nuances such as the purist-activist schism. This is important as it enhances the understanding of the power structure in Salafism and the effect of “Kuwaiti Salafism’s internal fissures” on the manner in which the movement is imported to the region.

The full paper can be read here.


Beyond Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds: Fanar Haddad Examines Iraq’s Cultural and Religious Diversity

20 August 2014

Fanar again

In the past few days, the plight of Yezidis in Iraq has not only grabbed the world’s attention but has also raised questions about the various communal groups that exist in Iraq. Hoping to apprise people of these communities, MEI’s Research Fellow Dr Fanar Haddad recently contributed an article to the Gulf News. Although non-exhaustive, Haddad’s overview of ten minority groups in Iraq clearly conveys the richness of the country’s “inter and intra ethnic/religious diversity.”

The article can be read here.


Fanar Haddad Delves into the Intricacies of “Sectarianism”

18 August 2014

Fanar Haddad 2

While the emergence of a politicised sense of Sunni self in Iraq and the broader Arab and Islamic worlds can be deemed a relatively recent phenomenon, sectarian identities and sectarian relationships have evolved dramatically over the last 11 years. In an article written for Hudson Institute, an independent research organization, MEI Research Fellow Fanar Haddad illuminates us on “sectarianism” through an examination of pre-2003 sectarian climate and how Sunni and Shia identities were affected by the events of 2003.

You can read the full article here.


All Hope is Not Lost for the Arab World

11 August 2014

By Retna Devi


MEI recently held its fourth Prominent Speaker Series. Professor Asef Bayat from the University of Illinois was invited to give two public talks.  In his first talk, Bayat assesses post-revolutionary Middle East and he achieves this by examining the revolutions and its impact on society. The revolutions are the result of the union between illiberal autocracies and neoliberal economies which has lasted approximately for the past 20 years. Besides the absence of charismatic leaders, another shortcoming of the uprisings is that it “lacked administrative power and had to rely on incumbent institutions to bring about change.” This enabled the success of counter-revolutions, especially in Egypt, remarks Bayat.

While the post-revolutionary atmosphere is weighed down by cynicism and uncertainty, positive change is not impossible. Tunisia proves to be an apt example of progress after the uprisings with its inclusive government negotiating with the opposition in order to enhance its legitimacy and prevent counter-revolution attacks. A self-declared optimist, Bayat’s belief in the likelihood of advancement stems from the reformist nature of the revolution, which is unique to the Arab ‘Spring’. It has led to new consciousness taking root in the public sphere and this is evident from how women and youth were in the frontlines of the uprisings. There is an increase in public expressions of personal liberties and people’s sense of selfhood in the Arab world. Despite the rise of counter-normal social values, such as public hugging in Saudi Arabia and the rise of FEMEN in Tunisia, there are also a vast number that oppose authoritarian governments but are religious and prefer stability and order. These varying opinions are a clear indicator of the de facto pluralism that has been created by the revolution. It is for this reason that Islamist political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda, are not successful in monopolizing power. According to Bayat, electoral democracy is not a far-off dream as the post-revolution Arab society holds promising signs.


In his second talk, Bayat tackles the rise of religious movements after the Arab Uprisings. Although this has set off alarm bells of an impending Islamic threat, he argues that this panic is due to the common mistake of associating the various types of movements within Islam with Islamism. He goes on to point out the distinctions between Islamism and post-Islamism, such as how the former entails the creation of an Islamist state in order to enforce the concept of “enjoining good and forbidding wrong”, while  the latter intends to set up a secular state with a religious society. It is interesting to note that the religious undertones of the 2011 revolutions were very subtle, which is a departure from the norm of Arab politics, thereby indicating the post-Islamist nature of the uprisings. The emergence of new political language can be traced back to the urbanization of Arab societies in the 1990s as it led to the rise of collective agency.

Due to the prominence of Salafi military factions, it is difficult to not be wary of Islamist parties. However, using Tunisia and Morocco as examples, Bayat remarks that most groups employ different methods to achieve their objectives and there is a possibility of such groups committing to electoral democracy. He also notes that the post-Islamist parties’ challenge of balancing piety with individual rights will likely result in an illiberal electoral democracy, which should not be immediately dismissed as negative. After all, even countries that deem themselves as bastions of electoral democracy are plagued by limited individual rights and liberties.


Middle East Institute Annual Conference 2014 (Part 4)

7 August 2014


PaneVMitigating Social Inequalities

By Retna Devi

The ‘Mitigating Social Inequalities’ panel commenced with School of Oriental & African Studies’ Professor Massoud Karshenas’ analysis of poverty and income distribution in MENA countries. Along with a historical context to poverty in the region, he provides comparative data on issues such as schooling, mortality, urbanization, literacy, etc. While most of the countries in the region are lagging behind in terms of income distribution, Egypt seems to be one of the worst. Interestingly, Karshenas opines that income distribution should not be a policy objective as it is rather abstract and influenced by various determinants such as technological changes. Poverty should be defined as the economic situation of a family and not be burdened by issues of economic growth and income distribution, elaborates Karshenas. The solution he proffers regarding the alleviation of poverty is to examine social security systems of the country. There is a pressing need for the region’s social security system to be reworked as it discriminates women and prevents families from receiving allowance despite being in need of financial assistance.

Professor Ray Bush from the University of Leeds delves into the question of food security in Egypt. The political turmoil enveloping the nation has caused the farmers to be neglected, which is unfortunate as Egypt’s farmers do not lack agricultural acumen but the support. This is reiterated by the great mismatch between rural discontent and policy making. The absence of economic reform, dominance of equity capital in a context of peak oil, water scarcity, climate change, securitization of the region in the dialogue of rural matters needs to be rectified, especially since 80 per cent of rural Egyptians are living under $2 and 60 per cent of its wheat is imported. Bush highlights the difference between ‘food security’ and ‘food sovereignty’; the former concentrating on agricultural productivity while effectively masking rural relations and exploitation, and the latter advocating for farming as a way of life. While food sovereignty is favourable for farmers, it may not benefit the Egyptian government which aims to promote the interests of investors. The answer to the problems plaguing rural Egyptians might lie in smallholder cooperatives, suggests Bush. This may have the effect of diverting the focus away from urban development to farming.

Providing further examination of the Middle East’s agrarian situation is American University of Beirut’s Professor Rami Zreik. The region’s notion of food security is based not on the rate of production, but its ability to import food, thereby explaining the low wheat production rate in contrast to increasingly high levels of wheat consumption. The dependence on imports also sheds light on the prevalence of child undernourishment and adult obesity in the Arab world as people are not receiving the necessary nutrients and are ‘eating American’. The common assumption is that food security can be dealt with by the free market. However, ‘food power is the mainstay of international politics’ and increasing the efficiency of labour production does not assuage the grievances of the hundred million people in the agricultural sector. The Arab uprising have not positively altered the agrarian landscape. Zreik believes that both short-term and long-term policies need to be implemented in order to achieve the desired change. Short term strategies of ‘treating farming as a production sector with some attention to some farmers’ will not solve the agrarian question of access to resources and equitable markets, and respect for ecological cycles and farmers.  There is a high likelihood that organizations such as ‘Arab Network for Food Sovereignty’ and ‘Transnational Agrarian Movements’ dealing with food sovereignty may be the long-term solution required to rectify the situation. Zreik cautions the need for food sovereignty to not become mainstream and co-opted into food security.


PaneVIAlternatives to the Neoliberal Model

By Darren Wan

The final panel discussion of the conference examines alternatives to the neoliberal model in Arab economies of today’s world.

Professor Alfred Saad-Filho from the School of Oriental and African Studies proposes alternative democratic economic policies in a world where the current phase of capitalism and neoliberalism has been outmoded by its poor track record in developing countries. With the recent threat of economic meltdown of financial markets, the vulnerabilities of the neoliberal model are evident: economic deregulation and globalization have dismantled systems of production, resulting in increasing susceptibilities of the global economy to crises. In addition, neoliberalism favors large capital and tends to hollow out political democracies. Saad-Filho advocates for the consideration of alternative macroeconomic frameworks, which may deliver more equitable results than mainstream economic policies. These democratic economic policies can serve as a means of redistribution by targeting sectors that benefit the poor, such as small-scale agriculture, and by investing in technological upgrading programs for workers. Ultimately, economies in today’s world need to provide more support to the working class in order to establish a fairer socioeconomic system.

In contrast, Dr Oussama Kanaan from the International Monetary Fund discusses how Palestine’s recent experience in economic transformation can serve as lessons for Arab countries in transition today. After the Hamas-Fatah split in the Palestinian government in 2007, Palestine experienced a severe contraction of growth. 60% of the West Bank was out of bounds for Palestinian economic activity, leaving little space for the private sector to develop. This resulted in a system of patronage as permits for economic activity were only issued to Palestinians with cronyistic connections. In light of such challenges, a level playing field had to be established. This was achieved by focusing on building reliable state institutions and by using fiscal policy as the main instrument for macroeconomic stabilization. Civil service reform was also needed as the bulk of public spending is catered to civil servant salaries. Though unemployment, especially among the youth, remained high, economic growth in the West Bank was significant. These lessons, posit Kanaan, can be applied to many post-uprising Arab state

MEI Senior Research Fellow Dr Ali Kadri from the Middle East Institute asserts that the Arab world can be characterized by human displacement and dislocation as a result of unending conflict in the region. Neoliberalism cannot be considered separately from the conditions of war, as war is a significant input into global economic growth, notably due to huge global expenditures on military technology. In the financial age, war expands financialization and money supply, while restructuring wealth shares and power balances. The disarticulating effect of war on the Arab world has diminished the collective negotiating power of Arab states, leaving them resigned to accept capital and trade account openness and financial deregulation. Kadri suggests that macroeconomic prices have to be engineered in order to keep resources within the Arab world. In addition, trickle-down effects must be contrived in order to alleviate poverty through a social contract of redistribution. Only through such independent action can Arab economies loosen the debilitating reins of neoliberalism on their economies.

MEI Engages Students with a Variety of Activities


6 August 2014


As part of achieving MEI’s objective of disseminating knowledge and insight about the Middle East, the institute has a rather active outreach programme. On 4th August, our Research Fellow and Editor Dr Nele Lenze gave a lecture at Raffles Institution. She had an enriching discussion with the students of the Raffles Middle East Programme (RMEP) about social media in the Arab world.


Apart from lectures, MEI has recently screened Middle Eastern films at schools in order to inject variety in the way students learn about the region. This was recently held at Meridian Junior College and Raffles Institution, which was followed by an invigorating question and answer session moderated by Visiting Research Fellow Dr Joshua Rickard and Post-doc Research Fellow Dr Nassima Neggaz, respectively.

MEI looks forward to collaborating with more schools.


Fanar Haddad Writes for the (Other) Middle East Institute

6 August 2014

Fanar again


In light of events in the Middle East over the past few years, sectarianism has become a much discussed topic. Hoping to provide perspective on an issue that is often plagued with misconceptions, MEI Research Fellow Dr Fanar Haddad contributes to a Middle East Institute (Washington) series that examines matters related to sectarianism. He discusses why religion should not be equated with sectarianism, how the emergence of nation-state has affected the sectarian discourse, and why employing a policy of exclusion is a pointless endeavour. While the focus of his essay is on Iraq, Haddad alludes to the rest of the Arab world as well.

You can read the full article here.


Peter Sluglett: The Problem is that the Palestinians are under Israeli Occupation

5 August 2014


MEI Director Professor Peter Sluglett addresses the ineffectiveness of the ceasefires in Gaza on Bloomberg Television’s “First Up”. In this short interview, he contends that the only way for peace to be achieved is for Israel to withdraw unilaterally from the territories it captured in 1967. Sluglett also offers his opinion on international perception of Israel.

The full interview can be viewed here.


Middle East Institute Annual Conference 2014 (Part 3)

30 July 2014


Panel III: Development Efforts in PostUprising Governments

By Darren Wan

 In the third panel Associate Professor Galip Yalman from the Middle East Technical University discusses how crises in Turkey’s political economy can be viewed as driving forces of neoliberal transformismo. Yalman examines the historical underpinnings of the malaise of the modern Turkish economy: the predominance of state enterprise constituted a key thrust of the dependence on import substitution industrialization. With the implementation of neoliberal policies in the 1990s, Turkey attempted to shift to an export-oriented strategy, which was relatively successful at attaining ‘jobless growth’. The new political landscape, with the rise of political Islam and identity politics, led to drastic shifts in the public perception of state-society relations, culminating in the Gezi Park protests. Fundamentally, the dilemma of the Turkish economy is the difficulty of striking a balance between external forces and domestic interests.

Frédéric Pelat from the Graduate Institute of Geneva examines rural development in the wake of Yemen’s Arab Spring. Pelat elucidates the consequences of the World Bank’s call for market-oriented agriculture in the 1970s, leading to the expansion of cash cropping, which left subsistence farmers in dire economic straits. As a result of importing subsidized wheat to feed a rapidly expanding population, local production was unprofitable; by 2011, 93% of wheat consumed in Yemen was imported. This, coupled with the slashing of consumption subsidies and public expenses due to structural adjustment plans introduced in 1995, contributed to social unrest. After the uprisings, the Yemeni state formulated the National Agriculture Sector Strategy, which sought to address the myriad challenges of small farmers, notably that of food insecurity in rural Yemen. However, the lack of funds and the inapplicability of proposed technical solutions lead one to question the effectiveness of these strategies. Pelat concludes by discussing the problems of food aid in Yemen: while necessary, younger Yemenis perceive this as an impingement on their country’s sovereignty.

Professor Ibrahim Sharqieh from the Brookings Institute elaborates on the context of development in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. Sharqieh   suggests that the weakness in the political framework of many Middle Eastern states is one of the underlying reasons for state failure in the region. It is contradictory that the reforms employed to promote growth are unpopular and will hence necessitate political capital. Other problems, including security, poverty and the need for institutional reform, must be addressed in the post-uprising Arab world. Among Sharqieh’s proposed solutions are such political frameworks as political agreements and national dialogues following the Tunisian model. Disarming violent groups in Libya and Yemen, such as the Yemeni Houthis, is also crucial. Aid programs and capacity-building efforts by the international community, coupled with national development projects, will lay the socioeconomic foundations for development in the Arab world.


Panel IV: Promoting Womens Participation

By Retna Devi

The first speaker of the ‘Promoting Women’s Participation’ panel, Professor Samia Botmeh from Birzeit University, sheds light on the participation of Palestinian women in the labour force. Paradoxically, women labour force participation is the lowest in the region in spite of not being very conservative and women having the highest educational rates compared to their Arab counterparts. This is further exacerbated by the neo-classical framework utilized in examining women’s participation. Botmeh points out that the flaw of this framework is that the other determinants of participation, with the exception of women’s potential wages as a factor, are supply-oriented, therefore implying that the low labour force participation rate is the fault of women. Another weakness of this analysis model lies in the policies introduced. They do not inform as to why women are not in the labour market despite decreasing fertility rate and high education level. Botmeh offers a heterodox approach, which will examine trends before Oslo Accords and ‘include gender relations, the role of patriarchy and the role of market structures that are politically determined in shaping women’s labour supply, as an alternative’. The policy generated is considered a ‘demand-side intervention’; enhancing the productive capacity of economy by strengthening the agricultural and manufacturing sectors. These microeconomic indicators are connected to macroeconomic policy intervention. To ensure an increase in the rate of women’s participation in the labour force, the local economy needs to reduce  the heavy reliance on imports from Israel, thereby acting in direct conflict of the ‘neo-liberal thesis adopted by the Palestinian government and the Oslo Accords’.

Discussing women’s standing in the post-uprising landscapes of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen is Nur Laiq. Her findings are based on interviews conducted with youth activists over extended stays in Egypt and Tunisia as well as interviews with Yemeni activists including the Nobel peace prize winner Tawakkol Karman. On a broad scale, women are still marginalized and have a rather negative view on politics, choosing to be involved in civil society activism instead. This is more apparent in Egypt where women are not fully integrated into party structures, whereas the women in Yemen have a 30 per cent quota on the National Dialogue and the post-Ben Ali elections in Tunisia were held with a gender parity law for party candidate lists. From the interviews carried out, Laiq learnt that most of the young women prefer to identify themselves as activists of equality and democratic citizenship for all instead of advocates for women rights.  Although women are united on issues of economy and security due to unemployment and increasing sexual harassment as well as arrests and detention and police brutality, there have been a number of schisms amongst these women in the post-transition process due to religion, political ideology and even differing opinions stemming from generation gap. As a result, many young women have readopted the ‘pre-2011 model of activism where they have retreated into their own silos from which they can only fight disjointed campaigns.’ While the corollary is the state focusing on broader political rights instead of specific entitlements, it might lead to women directing their attention to women specific concerns, notes Laiq.

MEI Visiting Research Professor Lilia Labidi tackles the policies geared towards rural women who earn their living from the artisanal production of dolls. To enable further understanding of the dismal situation of these women, Labidi shares a short clip from the movie ‘Clay Dolls’ by Nouri Bouzid. During Labidi’s visits to Tozuer and Sejnane, it was evident that the tourists lacked interest in the dolls. Coupled with the competition of industrially produced dolls, such as Fulla, the livelihood of rural women is increasingly threatened. Contributing to their marginalization is the National Union of Tunisian Women (UNFT), which did not mitigate their suffering but jeopardize their legal and economic rights. There seems to be hope for this group of women after the Arab uprisings as the Ministry of Women Affairs of the transitional government strongly believes that rectifying social injustice requires more than a ‘cosmetic change.’ The lifting of reservations on the Convention for the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the introduction of “Women, the culture of citizenship, and democracy” and “Economy of Solidarity” programmes that led to collaborations between academic institutes and the women as well as providing visibility to these women in order to overcome the negative image inflicted upon themselves are signs of change.


“Oil is Relevant to Human Rights,” Says Ali Kadri in an Illuminating Interview

29 July 2014

Dr Ali Kadri presented his view on "War, neoliberalism, and de-development in the Arab World".

The Laboratory for Advanced Research on the Global Economy (LAB), which studies the consequences of the global economy on human well-being, recently interviewed MEI’s Senior Research Fellow Dr Ali Kadri. Kadri analyses the importance of oil in the Middle East and explains the impact of neo-liberalism and foreign powers on the region.  He also discusses the possibility of ‘Arab socialism’, which he believes depends on the “construction of a social programme, which is itself contingent on the power and civil liberties afforded to the working class and the peasantry…”

MEI would also like to congratulate Kadri on the release of his book, Arab Development Denied: Dynamics of Accumulation by Wars of Encroachment (Anthem Press, 2014). In this book he examines the reasons for the de-development of the Arab world in the last three decades.

Click here to read the complete interview.


Peter Sluglett Talks to Between The Lines

29 July 2014

Peter mei website

On July 22 2014, MEI Director Professor Peter Sluglett appeared on Channel News Asia’s Between The Lines to discuss ongoing events in the Gaza Strip, also known as Operation Protective Edge. Topics ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians to the propaganda war were broached in his discussion with the presenter, Teymoor Nabili.

Click here to watch the video.


The Aftermath of the 2011 Uprisings

By Gleen Chandra, Luvina Lim and Retna Devi

25 July 2014


MEI is pleased to have collaborated with the French Embassy in Singapore in organizing an all-day conference titled, “The Arab Uprising 2011-2014: Between Revolution and Authoritarianism.” Held on 8 July 2014, the conference consisting of three panels commenced with a short welcome address by both MEI Director Professor Peter Sluglett and Ambassador of France to Singapore His Excellency Benjamin Dubertret.

The first panel provides a background on the revolts coursing through the Arab world. Sluglett tackles two issues: the Arab revolutions and the ‘hydra-headed growth of sectarianism.’ Taking the current situation into account, he believes that the discontent and dissatisfaction that fuelled the uprisings have not been and possibly will not be assuaged in the near future. Quoting James Gelvin, Sluglett asserts that the General Sisi’s neo-liberal policies will not be advantageous. Regarding the rise of sectarianism, Sluglett posits that while militant Sunni fundamentalism varies from militant Shi‘ism as the former has religious motives while the latter aims to preserve the integrity of the state and is generally not questioning the religious validity of Sunni Islam, these two manifestations of sectarianism are rather complementary in nature. Narrowing his focus to Iraq, sectarian affiliation came to prominence after Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, which emboldened Shi‘i political organizations and threatened the Iraqi regime. However, it was only during the U.S. invasion of Iraq that officially sanctioned sectarian quotas were imposed. The situation was exacerbated by Nuri al-Maliki’s profoundly sectarian and corrupt government and leadership. In Syria, the current manifestations of Sunni political Islam can be equated with modern Salafism, which rejects Islam that is being propagated by religious institutes such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The sectarian conflict in Syria can be traced to the Syrian Muslim Brethren demonstrating against the Assad regime in the late 1970s and the 1982 Hama massacre, causing people to seek refuge in primordial loyalties and identities. With this in mind, Sluglett is certain that there is no quick or easy solution for either country.

Professor François Burgat expounds on why Yemen differs slightly from its Arab counterparts. Unlike Libya and Syria, the Yemeni society was strong and able to confront the turmoil of 2011. Burgat attributes this to the country having experience in resisting hegemony and people being able to carry weapons that they could use against the government. The most important reason, however, is because pluralism existed in Yemen from 1990 to 1994. When North and South Yemen reunited, both sides ensured that the other would recognise and respect the constitution. The Yemenis became increasingly familiar with pluralism when the regime in the north integrated its local opposition into the government, equipping the opposition with tools and experience. This made them very capable in guiding the revolution when it occurred in 2011. Other factors such as not having been under colonial rule enabled an endogenous influence of modernisation on the constitution. While sectarianism is making a return in Yemen, Burgat points out that the sectarian divide had been depoliticised in the early 60s. Despite these signs of progress, the other aspect of Yemen that utilizes hard power and encounters countless drone attacks hints at an escalation of the sectarian conflict. Taking into consideration that Yemen is one of the first places where disillusioned Sunnis were mobilised and the trend of ‘jihadists without borders’— Sunnis from other parts of the world reacting to a local conflict—, the government is likely to face a great challenge when these frustrated Sunnis interact and influence South Yemenis, who feel that they have been largely ignored.

In his discussion during the second panel, MEI Visiting Research Fellow Dr Matthieu Rey starts by questioning the roots of the crisis in Syria. He criticises the “Nazi mechanism” used by the Syrian government as it allows local police or themukhabarat to do whatever is deemed necessary, including violence, to achieve their goals. He argues that the torture of 15 teenagers by the mukhabarat and the harsh economic conditions in 2011 have violated people’s economic and personal dignity. He also points out that the mosque had taken on an important role in the start of the uprising as it was the only place where people could gather in mass.

He then analyses the movement of the protest which spreads “following the patterns of rural migration.” The oppression of Local Coordination Committees (LCC) by the regime contributed to the outbreak of the civil war. The formation of Free Syrian Army (FSA) and involvement of military and modern weapons further catalysed the outbreak. This situation was exacerbated by the anti-Shia propaganda, massacres, and sectarianism perpetuated by the regime.

Despite the escalation of the conflict, opposition groups are also focusing on the humanitarian questions, such as collecting and spreading medicines, managing public services, and so on. Rey provides an example of how LCC cleaned up home-waste on the street and managed the food and water supply in the rural areas.

Regarding the radicalisation occurring among certain opposition groups, such as the members of Daesh pledging loyalty to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, Rey argues that it has brought about more problems in Syria as the moderate opposition is no longer just fighting against the winning regime, but also against radical groups such as Daesh. Although the victory of Bashar al-Assad in the presidential election undermines any diplomatic solution in Syria, the continuation of protests by civil groups indicates that the revolution in Syria is still not over.

Post-doctoral researcher at the Collège de France Dr Chaymaa Hassabo begins her analysis of the revolution in Egypt by pointing out that there is continual interaction between two dynamics: one that emanates from a political process and another from a revolutionary process. She opines that these dynamics work in opposite—bottom-up and top-down— directions. Hassabo looks closely at the influence of the street protestors, an excellent example of the bottom-up process, in the revolution. These protests, she argues, successfully overthrew Mubarak despite the political concessions he made during his speech, causing events in Egypt to take on a more revolutionary role. As these protests led to many changes, such as the rise of Morsi and his downfall, ‘street politics’ should not be taken lightly.

As for the top-down process, Hassabo analyses the government’s attempt to introduce democracy through the ballot-box. She discusses Morsi’s rise to power through electoral legitimacy and how that same legitimacy was used to defend Morsi from demands for his removal. She then focuses on the relationship between street and ballot-box legitimacy and posits that despite Morsi being elected, he gained power as a result of the mass mobilisations of the revolutionary process, without which the presidential elections would have never been possible.

Hassabo criticises the fact that “there has been no noticeable shift toward democracy [and] system has not been changed profoundly and completely by [the] regime changes”. She adds that the main dynamics of the authoritarian system are maintained by political actors who are more concerned with positioning themselves near decision-making centres and negotiating political benefits.


In the third panel, Dr Claire Beaugrand from the Institut Français du Proche Orient (IFPO) in Jerusalem reviews how the past three years of Arab Spring has been studied and analysed academically, and in the process, find out if we have missed out anything in the analysis. She achieves this by focusing on the epistemology of approaches to the Gulf region and assessing the analytical lens through which the crisis was made sense of. Having had extensive field experience in studying the Gulf region and observing issues on the ground, namely in Kuwait in 2014, Riyad in 2013, Bahrain in 2012 and Doha in 2011, Beaugrand believes that studying the Gulf is an important challenge. Not only are the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) taking divergent paths with their uprisings, their responses to the Arab ‘Spring’ are varied, depending on the homogeneity of domestic opposition in the Gulf. In addition, there is a stark difference in the portrayal of the Gulf as a stable region that is immune to the uprisings and the reality of the situation. To explain the way these states respond to the uprisings, people usually look at rentier distribution or monarchical legitimacy. Yet, the reality is very different from the trajectories currently propagated.

The following speaker, MEI Post-doctoral Research Fellow Dr Nassima Neggaz, discusses how sectarian tension is non-primordial but over-introduced and perpetuated as a driving force for the Arab uprisings. While many academics point toward sectarian tension as a key point of conflict, Neggaz believes that there are other factors that are more salient in explaining the occurrence of tensions, especially in the Gulf region. She raises the example of how during the 2011 protest, the tension was not perpetuated due to sectarian violence, but by forces that were anti-sectarian and which employed symbols of unity. She proceeds to analyse the situation through three different key lenses –the national political elite, the judiciary and the constitution. These are three main stakeholders that have the greatest influence over events due to the power that they wield in the Gulf.

As part of the concluding segment of the joint-conference, MEI Senior Visiting Research Fellow Dr Gwenn Okruhlikrevisits the key points raised by the speakers. Based on her overview, it is apparent that issues such as tribal and sectarian identities gaining prominence as a corollary of an inadequate civil society, ISIS not having staying power despite its gains on the ground, and the type of nomenclature to employ regarding the events in the Arab world dominate the discussion. It is also general consensus that due to the nonlinear nature of revolutions, offering predictions would be a challenging endeavour.


Hashim Puts ISIS under the Microscope

By Gleen Chandra

23 July 2014


MEI had the pleasure of inviting Dr Ahmed Salah Hashim, Associate Professor of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, to shed some light on “The evolution of ISIS: From an Al-Qaeda offshoot to an Islamic Caliphate.”

Hashim starts off by discussing the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and its growth from a small subsidiary of Al-Qaeda to its current ‘caliphate’ state. According to Hashim, the success of ISIS can be attributed to its ability in learning from past failures, which is what sets it apart from other terrorist groups. He also strongly disagrees with the practice of placing militants in the same prison as this builds professionalism inside the jail through the exchange of experience and information. Using ISIS’ defeat in Iraq in 2009, he argues how Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s decision for ISIS to retreat and learn from their mistakes led to its recent victory in conquering parts of Iraq.

He then proceeds to describe the difference between ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The departure of ISIS from Al-Qaeda has created divisions among other insurgent groups. Led by Baghdadi who is ‘a man of action’, ISIS is able to recruit younger and more radical jihadists to quickly achieve its goals in comparison to Al-Qaeda which is more “cautious” in its approach. Hashim further explains how ISIS has turned into a terrorist organisation that has military capabilities and huge financial reserves.

He concludes by stating that despite ISIS’ achievements so far, few factors might lead to its downfall. This includes the failure to embed itself in society, hostility among the Sunni Muslims, possibility of Kurds declaring independence and organisational challenges.


Middle East Institute Annual Conference 2014 (Part 2)   


Panel 1: Socioeconomic Underpinnings of the Uprisings

By Chia Jie Min

First panellist Professor Samir Makdisi, from the American University of Beirut, begins the session with his presentation titled The Unraveling of Arab Autocracy: Socio-economic factors in context. He first discusses the long-term democracy deficit in the Arab region from 1960-2012. In the same time period, however, Arab development showed significant improvement. Using statistical models, he argues (cont.)

Congratulations Dr Nassima Neggaz

Nassima Website

MEI Post-doctoral Research Fellow Nassima Neggaz’s article “Syria’s Arab Spring: Language Enrichment in the Midst of Revolution” was recently awarded the 2014 Graduate Student Award of Research Committee (RC) 25 (cont.)


Middle East Institute Annual Conference 2014 (Part 1)



Interview Discussion with K Shanmugam

 By Darren Wan

 The Middle East Institute is honoured to have invited Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, for this year’s annual conference. Professor Michael Hudson, Director of the Middle East Institute, facilitated an interview discussion with Mr Shanmugam,(cont.) 


Former UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s Personal Insight into the Arab World

July 4 2014

By Retna Devi


June 23, 2014 marked MEI’s inaugural S. R. Nathan Distinguished Lecture Series. We were honoured to have former UN Special Envoy to Syria His Excellency (HE) Lakhdar Brahimi as our guest speaker. (cont.)

His Excellency Lakhdar Brahimi visits MEI


MEI staff had the privilege of having an intimate conversation with former UN Envoy to Syria, His Excellency (HE) Lakhdar Brahimi today. Having had vast experience in the areas of conflict prevention and conflict resolution, HE Brahimi was able to provide his opinion on  the Arab-Israeli conflict,  civil war in Syria and the ongoing Iraq crisis. In response to questions on what might bring the Syrian conflict to a close, HE Brahimi strongly believes that supplying ‘quality weapons’ will only serve to prolong it but pushing for peace will ensure a definite end.

MEI would like to thank HE Brahimi for a thoroughly enriching discourse.


“US Has Done Precious Little in Getting the Iraqi Political Elite to Reach Out to the Sunni Population,” Says Haddad in an Interview

Speaking to Andrew West of the Religion and Ethics Report, ABC Radio (Australia), MEI’s Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Fanar Haddad shares his thoughts on the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Iraq crisis. He cautions that while there is a religious element to it, it would be remiss to ignore the issues of political and economic rights, and identity of the state which dominate the conflict.

In a separate  interview with ABC News Network, Haddad discusses the US-Iran alliance, the possibility of redrawing Iraq’s borders, among other issues.

You can listen to the radio interview here and watch the latter interview here.


Fanar Haddad Pens Two Articles on Contemporary Middle East Topics

MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Fanar Haddad has recently written two articles for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog and the (other) Middle East Institute in Washington, United States. In the former article, he explores the reasons why the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not solve the country’s long standing issues and in the latter, he expounds on why the Sunni-Shi’I “sectarianism” discourse should not be equated to the secular versus sectarian discussion.

Click here to read The Washington Post article and here for the second opinion piece.


Fanar Haddad Chats with BFM Radio

MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Fanar Haddad was interviewed by BFM Radio (Malaysia) yesterday. He spoke about how the shocking events in Iraq have jeopardized Iraq’s territorial integrity and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) ability in gaining support from beyond the region.

Click here to listen to the podcast.


MEI Tackles the Iraq Question

17 June 2014

By Retna Devi


In light of the recent events in Iraq, MEI held a ‘Breaking News Dialogue’ on June 16, 2014. Sharing their views on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overtaking Iraqi cities were MEI Director Michael Hudson, MEI Visiting Research Professors Ali Allawi and Peter Sluglett, and MEI Research Fellow Fanar Haddad.

The speakers bring various facets of this crisis to light. Professor Sluglett starts with contextualising current events. Professor Allawi outlines a selection of factors that contributed to the disaster. Professor Hudson summarizes foreign perspectives on the conflict and Doctor Haddad offers an outlook on challenges in the future. All concur on the corrupt and autocratic, semi-dictatorial Maliki government being one of the factors that led to the ISIS’s actions. Allawi points out that corruption and incompetence due to affirmative action is rampant. He adds that the regime had not only isolated themselves ideologically but physically as well. Further, he believes that a presence of a small United States troop would have made a significant dent in the ISIS’s plans.

Regarding the sectarian dimension of the crisis, Sluglett opines that sectarianism became more prominent during the Iranian Revolution but it was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that created ‘officially sanctioned and recognized sectarianism.’ Haddad postulates that the break-up of Arab-Iraq, along with other regional implications, is highly plausible due to the constantly widening sectarian divide. Another worrying aspect of this crisis is that a considerable portion of the army and police in Mosul handed themselves and their weapons over to ISIS, adds Sluglett.

Although uncertain about ISIS’s success in controlling Baghdad, the speakers are pessimistic about Iraq’s future as the issues plaguing the country will not disappear, and neither will ISIS.

A video recording of the session as well as a transcript of the event will be available online soon.


Fanar Haddad Provides his Insight in Channel News Asia Interview

16 June 2014Fanar again

MEI Research Fellow Dr. FanarHaddad appeared on Channel News Asia last Thursday to offer some illumination on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) actions in Iraq.

Haddad believes that the incompetence of the Iraqi state and the world’s complacency at the terror group’s unchecked growth over the last few years made it possible for ISIS to capture Mosul and Tikrit in such a swift manner. The current crisis seems increasingly likely to lead to a prolonged civil war in Iraq itself as the state is unlikely to be able to recapture all the territories lost to ISIS and other insurgent groups. With regards to the regional situation, the implications are profound: for one thing it seems all but certain that the Kurds have finally taken control of territories that have long been contested with Baghdad. Most significantly, oil-rich Kirkuk is firmly under Kurdish control and the chance of it being reversed is rather slim. Iran has already been drawn into the crisis and the conflict has already acquired a sharp sectarian dimension. After eleven years of violence, Iraq may be entering its most critical crisis yet, opines Haddad.


MEI’s Gwenn Okruhlik Participates in the ASEAN-GCC Workshop

12 June 2014

 Gwenn Okruhlik, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, spoke to the ASEAN-GCC Workshop that was held on June 11 at the Marina Mandarin Hotel.  Organized by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the joint meeting was designed to facilitate interaction between members of the two associations.  One session focused on enhancing economic relations through trade, finance and business investment and the other focused on ways to enhance people-to-people linkages through social and cultural cooperation.  During her talk, Gwenn suggests that the so-called “New Silk Road” be widened to include three new lanes that incorporate educational exchange, programs to mentor young adults and expanded opportunities for tourism.


MEI Receives another Distinguished Guest

12 June 2014

Today, MEI had the pleasure of hosting Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa. Only the second foreign minister in Bahrain’s history, Sheikh Kalid was previously the ambassador to the United Kingdom. Attended by various government officials, MEI staff and board members, the closed door session broached various topics which ranged from regional peace to Bahrain’s domestic politics. This was followed by a robust question and answer session, allowing the participants to glean a better understanding of Bahrain’s stance in the Arab world.


Milan A. Karner Shares His Thoughts on the Environmental Problems Plaguing MENA| The MEI Conversations

6 June 2014

By Retna Devi

Fraught with strife since the beginning of the Arab Uprisings in 2011, it is not surprising that environmental problems such as water scarcity have been relegated to the backburner in the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region. Unfortunately, as pointed out by former MEI researcher, Milan A. Karner, “these issues are not going to go away or lose their urgency, but require active resolution and are only set to worsen further in the absence of decisive action”.

“It is also a case in point for the failure of the political elites to recognise and redress environmental mismanagement,” adds Karner, who is currently pursuing his PhD at King’s College London. Despite the growing concern about global warming and various other environmental threats around the globe, Karner opines that the question concerning a change in the national governments’ lacklustre attempts is a tricky one. This can be attributed to the unevenly distributed capacity of the region to adapt to these issues. “The Gulf states are much better positioned to mitigate water scarcity by virtue of their relative political stability and abundant financial resources, as opposed to war-torn Iraq or Syria, where people are primarily preoccupied with matters of survival and cannot afford the luxury of water conservation and environmental protection,” elaborates Karner.

He also reminds us of the difficulty in finding a solution. “There are no one-size fits all solutions to the water crisis. Countries such as Iraq and Egypt are well endowed with water but have to deal with contentious political matters when negotiating transboundary water treaties and institutions with their co-riparians. The situation is quite different in the Arabian Peninsula, which is characterized by the absence of major river systems and an extremely arid climate.” He adds that the economic development of the countries needs to be taken into consideration as well. Nations like Yemen do not have the option of seawater desalination or the continued import of water-intensive agricultural products extended to them as they lack the financial and institutional capacities of their oil-rich neighbours.

Karner holds a rather bleak view of the future of the water crisis in MENA as he believes political will to be the greatest impediment to change and reform. Coupled with the ongoing unrest across the Middle East and the inability of the political and economic elites to move beyond their narrow self-interests, it is very likely that it will be “too late to restore the (socio-) ecological balance of the region”.


ACS (Independent)’s Annual Middle East Summit is Back for a 2nd Session

6 June 2014

The Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)’s Middle East Summit (MES) has returned for its second session which will take place on 9-11 June 2014. Organized by the Young Diplomats Society of ACS (Independent) and supported by MEI, MES is a simulation of a summit featuring only Middle Eastern diplomats with similar protocols to a Model UN conference.

An initiative of ACS (Independent) which began last year, MES aims to provide students aged 17 and 18 years old with a deeper understanding of Middle Eastern issues from three broad perspectives – political, economic and social.

MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson and Visiting Research Professors Peter Sluglett and Ali Allawi will be speaking on ‘Developing a Framework for Foreign Intervention in the Middle East’, ‘The Iranian Nuclear Crisis’ and ‘The Baghdad Pact’, respectively. We are also pleased to sponsor the prize for this year’s MES.

As a research institute that specializes in the MENA region, MEI is thrilled to see the Middle East becoming a subject of interest amongst Singapore’s secondary schools, and is delighted to render its support in cultivating, nurturing and sustaining this interest through intellectual events such as MES. We look forward to MES 2014!

For more information on MES, please visit


Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong Pays a Visit to MEI

4 June 2014

ESM visit

Yesterday MEI was honoured to receive a visit from Singapore’s Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at our premises. A member of the People’s Action Party (PAP), he became Singapore’s second Prime Minister on 28 November 1990, succeeding Lee Kuan Yew, and served in that capacity until 12 August 2004, when he stepped down and was succeeded by Lee Hsien Loong. He subsequently served as Senior Minister until May 2011, and as Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). He continues to serve as a Member of Parliament, representing the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency and holds the honorary title of ‘Emeritus Senior Minister’ (ESM).

Upon his arrival, ESM Goh was received by Mr Lee Tzu Yang, Chairman of the MEI Board and Professor Michael Hudson, Director of MEI. ESM Goh had played a role in the establishment of MEI in Singapore and has made several trips to the Middle East in official capacity. The purpose of the visit was to meet with our researchers and to have a conversation with them about the Middle East. It resulted in an interesting and engaging discussion on topics that spanned from gender issues, political Islam and economic underpinnings of the Arab uprisings. MEI would like to thank ESM Goh Chok Tong for visiting us and for an enjoyable and enlightening conversation with our researchers.

ESM visit 2


Michael Hudson Writes on the Egyptian Presidential Election for The Straits Times

28 May 2014

MEI Director, Professor Michael Hudson, published an article with Singapore’s The Straits Times yesterday. Titled ‘Can Egypt Turn the Corner with Presidential Polls?’, the article asks whether the presidential election in Egypt signify the return of authoritarianism or is the beginning of the road towards another grim uprising in the foreseeable future? It is unclear if the new president has an understanding, let alone a programme, for Egypt’s huge social and economic problems. If instability continues, triggering yet another upheaval, the repercussions will be felt regionally and globally.
The full article can be read below, courtesy of The Straits Times:



MEI Announces the 3rd Annual Emirates NBD Middle East Essay Prize

22 May 2014

Photo courtesy of MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Dr Joshua Rickard.

Photo courtesy of MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Dr Joshua Rickard.

MEI is pleased to announce the 3rd annual Emirates NBD Middle East Essay Prize. The topic of the paper must relate to the greater Middle East and North Africa, and the Islamic world. It may be informed by any theoretical approach or discipline. Generally, the topic of the paper should comport to one of MEI’s three research clusters: (1) Politics & Regional Security, (2) Political Economy & Business, or (3) Society & Culture.

Papers will be assessed by a select group of faculty using a blind review process (the author’s name will not be made known to the reviewers). Reviewers will judge the paper based on quality and originality. Assessment of quality is based on a well-formatted paper that makes a clear argument using primary and secondary sources to support the argument. Originality is exhibited by the adoption of a critical approach that treats a topic in a new way.

The prize includes $1,000 as well as one week’s stay in Dubai. The Dubai trip includes return airfare (Singapore-Dubai), accommodation at a four-star hotel, and a per diem. The winner will also enjoy visits to Dubai banks and universities. The trip will take place at a mutually convenient time during the vacation period between Semester 1 and 2, or over the Semester 1 recess week in February.

Rules for submission:

1. The paper must be an original creation of the author, and not have been previously submitted for publication.

2. The paper must be between 3,000 and 5,000 words (excluding bibliography).

3. The paper’s author must be a student actively pursuing his or her undergraduate degree at NUS, NTU,  SUTD or SMU.

4. The paper must be submitted by 30 September 2014 to the Middle East Institute in electronic format (PDF format is preferred) to

MEI wishes to thank Emirates NBD for its generous sponsorship of this prize.

Situation of International Aid into Syria Looks Dismal, Says Michael Hudson

21 May 2014

MEI Director, Professor Michael Hudson, is recently interviewed on The Voice of Russia about the effectiveness of the United Nations aid into Syria. As the situation looks dismal in lieu of negative reports coming from non-governmental organizations on the lack of transparency and coordination around UN deliveries, Hudson argues that Russia and Iran, having the most influence over the Syrian regime and rebel groups respectively, have a role to play in getting both sides to allow international aid organizations to operate effectively on the ground.

The full interview can be accessed here, courtesy of The Voice of Russia.


Michael Hudson: Al-Sisi’s “Honeymoon” Period May Not Last More than a Year

15 May 2014

michaelhudsonProfessor Michael Hudson, Director of MEI, recently spoke to The Voice of Russia on the former Egyptian army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s statement that he will ‘finish off’ the Muslim Brotherhood if he was elected. Hudson argues that al-Sisi should be worried for himself because his popularity may not last for more than a year if he does not solve some of Egypt’s major problems and continues leading severe crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood as well as other opponents. There will be a new groundswell of opposition against him if such actions persist.

The full interview can be accessed here, courtesy of The Voice of Russia.

Ali Allawi and Nassima Neggaz on Iraq’s Recent Parliamentary Election

6 May 2014

MEI researchers Ali Allawi and Nassima Neggaz published an article on the recent election in Iraq. Click here to read “A Sunni-Shia Bridge too far” on the website of Project Syndicate.

Ali Allawi Speaks on Libya

6 May 2014

Yesterday, Visiting Senior Research Professor Ali Allawi held an hour long Skype talk for the EU’s Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue office in Tripoli Libya. The presentation will be used in the forthcoming national roundtable in Libya when the effects of the policy of quarantining the old political and administrative class (al-‘Azl al-Siyassi) are discussed.

The centre is working on mediation and conflict resolution in Libya between the revolutionaries (al-Thuwar), the new political class and officials of the old regime.  The Libyans had recently passed a “de-Qaddafisation” law which resembles to some extent Iraq’s de-Baathification law.  The presentation focussed on the pitfalls and problems in squaring the needs of justice and retribution on the one hand; and on the other hand, the resistance and victimisation that this frequently engenders amongst the losers, often feeding general unrest and insurgencies.

Lilia Labidi Will Speak at the Women in Photography Symposium at NTU this Friday

MEI Visiting Research Professor Dr Lilia Labidi will be speaking on An Interpretation of Tunisian Family Photographs: A Contribution of Visual Anthropology to the Human and Social Sciences on Friday, 28 March 2014 at the Women in Photography Symposium. The two-day symposium, which is jointly organized by Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) School of Art, Design, and Media (ADM) and MEI, is entitled Ways of Knowing: Asian and Middle Eastern Women in Photographs and will be held on 28-29 March 2014 in Singapore at NTU’s ADM (28 March) and The Private Museum (29 March).

As mentioned on the symposium’s website, studies devoted to photography and its uses are numerous, but rare are those that deal with women in the Middle East and in Asia. This symposium is organized to enable researchers from different disciplines (anthropology, sociology, history, literature, cultural studies, etc.) who use photographs (videos) of women as a research method to meet and discuss their approaches as well as the results of their research. It aims to bring together various perspectives in the social and human sciences and in the humanities.

The event’s website can be accessed here.

BBC Radio 4 Interviews Ali Allawi on Lawrence of Arabia and Faisal I of Iraq

MEI Visiting Research Professor Ali Allawi, biographer of Faisal I of Iraq, was interviewed by Anne McElvoy of BBC Radio 4 on Lawrence of Arabia’s relationship with Faisal I of Iraq. He places these men at the centre of the making of the modern Middle East, saying that their relationship was “waxed and waned” although they turned out to be quite indispensable to each other later on.

Ali Allawi was featured at the Oxford Literary Festival for his new book, Faisal I of Iraq (Yale University Press) on Wednesday, 26 March 2014 and Intelligence Squared on Thursday, 27 March 2014. He is scheduled to give an interview to Prospect Magazine soon.

The full interview can be accessed here, courtesy of the BBC.

Hassan Ghaziri Delves into History for an Understanding of the Arab Uprisings Today

17 March 2014

By Faeza Abdurazak

The Arab Uprising: the Roots, the Dynamics and the Perspectives is the title of the lecture that was recently delivered at MEI by Dr Hassan Ghaziri, Director of the Beirut Research and Innovation Center (BRIC). Speaking as a citizen who feels strongly against wars and injustice and for the betterment of the human condition, Ghaziri says that the Arab uprisings of 2011 were so unpredictable that even the dictators were caught by surprise.

According to Ghaziri, the dynamics of the Arab Spring are not uniform across the different countries of the Arab world. Given the specific circumstances, every country is following a different path. A good grasp of the history of the region will help in understanding the evolving situation it is in today, capturing the complexities of the events and unravelling their characteristics. As such, Ghaziri illustrates the three major events in history which have shaken the Muslim world in the Middle East, and is still impacting the region’s current events.

The first event was in the eighteenth century, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. This is a critical historical occurrence that had deeply shaken the Muslim world for a long period of time. It revealed the weaknesses of the Muslim world vis-à-vis the strength of Europe at all levels— military, politically, administratively and culturally. Muslim rulers began to question their failure in resisting the European invasion. Muhammad Ali, the Sultan of Egypt (1769 – 1849), tried to find a solution to this by developing the army which was a replica of the French model. His efforts led to the emergence of a new class of bureaucrats and a strong army with a lot of ambition. It is interesting to note that at that time his army was sent to the Arabic Peninsula to fight a new sect, the Wahhabis. He defeated them and restored the authority of the Ottomans in Mecca and Medina, while the European powers were enforcing their grip on the region.

The second important defeat in the Muslim world was the World War I and the subsequent collapse of the Caliphate. For the first time since Prophet Muhammad, the Muslim world was without a political leader and therefore lost its political unity. As a consequence, the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916 allowed new borders to be drawn in the Arab world; Lebanon, Syria and Iraq emerged in their current form and borders at that time. It is important to stress on the fact that in addition to the Sykes–Picot Agreement, there was a competing project that was crushed, namely the Arab Kingdom of Syria that was promoted by Faisal I of Iraq, when his army was defeated by the French during the Franco-Syrian War in 1920.

His defeat had resulted in France entering Damascus on 24 July 1920 and the subsequent declaration of a new pro-French government in Syria on the very next day, while the British, concerned about their new mandate in Iraq, declared Faisal to be King Faisal I of Iraq. Syria was then effectively divided into several client states under the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. King Faisal I of Iraq proclaimed a constitution in which Muslim, Christian and Jews were considered as equal citizens, sharing the same rights and obligations. This period was important for the formation of Syria and Lebanon, and explains the many difficulties Lebanon face in establishing a strong state today.

The third seismic event in the region and the Muslim world as a whole was the establishment of the state of Israel after World War II. The reaction to it had been Arab nationalism, which had led to the decolonization of the region and the emergence of military regimes, although it stopped short of a complete liberation of the Arab world. Arab nationalism was defeated in 1967 mainly by Israel, and the response was political Islam, then radical Islam. A new era of instability started with civil wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Sudan, bringing us to the Arab Spring and the challenges we are currently facing.

In short, there has been two centuries’ worth of attempts to change the Arab and Muslim societies under the guise of colonialism, and then imperialism, and now global neoliberalism, which have all failed for endogenous and exogenous reasons. Ghaziri questions whether the Arab world is hopelessly trapped between two options: a secular dictatorship or Islamic totalitarianism. To him, the answer to this question should be an outright no. For some scholars, he notes, something irreversible did happen in the Arab world. Whatever political ups and downs lay ahead, we are witnessing the beginning of a process by which democratization is becoming rooted in Arab societies. Democratization is very much a process in this case rather than a programme of government implemented by non-democrats.

Despite the myriad of circumstances found in every country in the Arab world and however intricate the predictable fragmentation is between both democrats and Islamists who are further streamed into various trends and parties, the main issue now will be to redefine the role of Islam in politics, and even this would not be enough, contends Ghaziri. The real answer is to prepare the conditions for an authentic revolution. A revolution is an open-ended process, and what is currently occurring in the region is just the beginning, although one should be mindful that any revolution can be brutally ended and crushed at any point. A revolution, according to Ghaziri, is an authentic social, political and cognitive change, and by cognitive he means a change in the way a society perceives and deals with the reality.

Ghaziri notes that what has been an interesting development from the Arab Spring is that it has opened doors to new political opportunities. Before the Arab Spring, it had been impossible to talk about politics. The ethical attitude now is to protect the weak and prepare the conditions for the people to decide upon their own destiny. In order to have a chance at democracy, Muslims have to create the right conditions for them to be able to live, think and communicate freely, as the condition of freedom is fundamental in reforming Islam and Muslim and Arab societies.

Michael Hudson and Mimi Kirk Has a New Volume on Post-Arab Spring Gulf States

12 March 2014

MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson and Research Director for the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, Ms Mimi Kirk, have a new edited volume out entitled Gulf Politics and Economics in a Changing World (Michael Hudson and Mimi Kirk, eds.; World Scientific; May 2014). Published by World Scientific, the volume features contributions from some of the best scholars in the field of Gulf studies in the United States, the Middle East, Europe and Asia. It addresses the many facets of political and economic life in the GCC, Iran and Iraq since the Arab Spring of 2011 in order to assess the present situation. It also offers analysis and predictions as to what the future of this important area of the greater Middle East may hold.

An outline of Gulf Politics and Economics in a Changing World can be accessed here courtesy of World Scientific.

Alterman Questions America’s Role in the Middle East                   

12 March 2014

By Retna Devi

In MEI’s latest talk, Dr John B. Alterman, Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, provides an interesting analysis of America’s relationship with the Middle East. Quoting President Obama’s inaugural address in 2009, “Every day brings further evidence that the ways we use our energy strengthens our adversaries…” Alterman points out that this statement is one of the causes of Middle East’s insecurity concerning the United States. Coupled with disillusionment within the Obama administration regarding the region, the inevitable corollary is the questioning of United States’ commitment to safeguarding the future of the Middle East, especially the Gulf.

Alterman highlights the various signs of America’s disengagement and disinterest—the removal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, energy independence in North America, the GCC states’ fear of US switching sides to Iran and the diplomatic fatigue within the current US administration. Despite these indicators, he states that the US cannot completely extract itself from the Middle East. This is because no country is willing to take up its role. Despite Asia’s growing commercial ties with the Middle East, there is very little development in terms of diplomacy as they are unwilling to choose sides and jeopardize their relationship with the US. Also, Asia’s relationship with the US will compel the latter to maintain its ties with the Middle East as Asia’s security is dependent on the security of the Middle East.

It is also important to note that the Gulf states have maintained a hold on the United States through their investments in Motiva, the largest refinery in North America, and its purchase of US weapons system. Therefore, the questions that America need to grapple with are: ‘What are the implications of seeing the Middle East from an energy security perspective rather than an interventionist approach?’; ‘What does normal US military presence mean?’; ‘Should the US step away from its multilateral approach?; and ‘What is its role when seen through an Asian perspective?’ This is important because the US is used to viewing problems through a regional lens, not a global one.

It would be fallacious to assume that this complicated relationship with the Middle East is unique to the Obama administration and will be resolved with the right president, says Alterman. He argues that ”US is facing a retrenchment of understanding in its role, its definition of threats and what kind of force is needed to deal with such threats”. The way US treats the Middle East’s dealings with Asia will be a good reflection of its global role.

Ismail Poonawala Discusses Humanism in Ismā‘īli Thought

11 March 2014

By Darren Wan

On the 7th of March 2014, MEI invited Dr. Ismail Poonawala, Professor of Arabic at the University of California, Los Angeles, to deliver a lecture on humanism in Ismā‘īli thought, through an examination of the seminal text entitled Rasā’il Iḵhwān al-Ṣafā wa-Ḵhullān al-Wafā, or The Epistles of the Sincere Brethren and Faithful Friends, which was an encyclopaedic volume consisting of 52 treatises on topics ranging from mathematics, music, ethics, politics and religion that were written during the 10th century by an enigmatic group of Persian scholars in Basra, Iraq who called themselves Iḵhwān al-Ṣafā, or the Brethren of Purity

Poonawala ascribes the authorship of the text to Ismā‘īlis in the pre-Fatimid era. What makes this encyclopedic work so impressive is that it predates such great thinkers as Al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, and discusses many fundamental issues that continue to pervade Islamic philosophy today. This provides robust evidence for the presence of a humanist tradition distinct to Islamic civilization, not necessarily a direct product of Greco-Roman philosophical thought.

Rationalism is a key theme of the Epistles, as it exhorts readers to reflect on the origins of mankind and Man’s place in the universe and claims that this process of contemplation will elevate the human soul. Similar to the precepts of Mu‘tazilism, the Iḵhwān (the authors of the Epistles)encourage Man to seek a ‘universal intellect’, beyond which lies divine knowledge that human reason cannot grasp.

The religious tolerance of the Iḵhwān is evident throughout the text: not only are there citations from the Old and New Testaments, but we also find references to Buddhist and Hindu parables. The goal of the Iḵhwān, opines Poonawala, is to expound the shared values that transcend religious boundaries, arguing that Man’s origin is one in spite of belief or creed. That such intolerant schools of thought as Wahhabism continue to exist today, says Poonawala, is incongruent with Islamic texts advocating religious inclusiveness written a millennium ago.

Poonawala ends his riveting discussion with a parable on the Island of Animals, which discusses issues ranging from the promise of eternal life to Man’s exploitation of the natural environment. The diversity of the topics presented in the Epistles provides strong evidence for humanism and rationalism in Ismā‘īli thought, and in Islamic philosophy at large.

Peter Sluglett Will Succeed Michael Hudson as Director of MEI

1 March 2014

MEI is pleased to announce that Professor Peter Sluglett has been appointed as the next Director of the Institute. He will take over after Professor Michael Hudson’s departure at the end of June. Sluglett, who is a historian of the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries, came to MEI as a Visiting Research Professor in September 2011, having spent much of his previous academic career at the University of Durham (1974-1993) and the University of Utah, Salt Lake City (1994-2011).

On his impending departure and Sluglett’s new appointment, Hudson remarks, “I am very grateful to Singapore for having given me the opportunity to help develop the Middle East Institute at NUS.  It has been an exciting challenge, and I think we have made substantial progress in making MEI a hub for Middle East scholarship and expertise in Asia.  Thanks to Singapore’s generous financial and logistical support, we now have some fifteen researchers working in the areas of politics, economics, and culture.

We have built an active educational outreach program, with lectures, seminars, film programs and conferences.  We have made a special effort to reach out to some of Singapore’s schools as well as the university community.  And one of my main priorities has been to develop connectivity with universities and think tanks working on the Middle East: we now have ongoing connections with institutions in Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Australia, the UK and the US.

I have been especially fortunate to have an amazingly talented staff, including (but not limited to) Dr Charlotte Schriwer, our deputy director, Ms Norizan Selamat our associate director for management, and my dedicated personal assistant, Ms Helen Yeo.  The chairman of the MEI Management Board, Mr Lee Tzu Yang has been a constant and valued supporter of our efforts.  I am delighted that my good friend and renowned scholar Professor Sluglett will be taking the reins starting in July.  I think the Institute will be in good hands.  As I return to Washington as professor emeritus at Georgetown University I will keep a close eye on MEI’s future progress!”

Sluglett, who will take over the directorship of MEI on July 1st, 2014, says, “I am delighted to have been asked to take over MEI after Professor Hudson’s departure on 1 July. Professor Hudson has set the Institute on firm foundations and I look forward both to continuing in his footsteps and also to taking some new initiatives which will secure MEI’s future and bind it closer to the University’s teaching and research missions.”

A Psychological and Anthropological Study of the Iranian Youth | MEI Research Seminar Series

25 February 2014

By Faeza Abdurazak

MEI Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Dr Koo Gi Yeon, gave a presentation of her current research project entitled Making Their Own Public: The Emotion and Self among Iranian Youth. Generally called Nasle-sevom (the Third Generation), the Iranian youth born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution have received domestic and international media attention for their defiance of the Islamic rule. Although they were raised as Muslims under a strong regimen of Islamic socialization, Nasle-sevom is considered “the most dangerous generation” and even the “inner enemy” by the Iranian state.

Based on an ethnographic study of youth in an affluent neighbourhood in Tehran, Koo explores the Iranian youth’s notion of self and emotion in relation to the religious and ideological dictates of the Iranian state. Particular attention is paid to the cultural practices of “do ru” (two faces), referring to the gap between the public and the private self. Do ru is intensified when individuals are prohibited from revealing what they feel is their ‘real’ self and consequently wear a mask to meet the ideological requirements of the state.

Among the priviledged secular youth in Northern Tehran, do ru practices are a routine part of their everyday life through which they crisscross public and private spaces. They attempt to make their own public space by collectively enjoying illegal popular culture and communicating with the outside world through new media in private spaces. It is through this way that they construct a public space that is morally and legally sanctioned by the Iranian state.

Koo concludes that the emotions and the ideal self of secular urban young Iranians are still based on the Iranian traditional ethos and cultural model. The emotional crisis of the Iranian youth is intimately connected with not only current political and economic issues, but also with personal honour, family, the state and the cultural psychological model. Hers is a psychological and anthropological study on the Iranian society, and she emphasizes the need for this cultural-psychological model in order to glean a deeper understanding of the current conflicts and political issues in Iran.

Roundtable Discussion with His Majesty King Abdullah II

25 February 2014

The Middle East Institute (MEI) of NUS was honoured to host a closed-door roundtable discussion with His Majesty King Abdullah II Ibn Al-Husein, King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, during his visit to Singapore. The session was attended by His Majesty’s closest advisors which include HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, His Majesty’s Personal Envoy; Dr Hatem Halawani, Minister of Industry and Trade for Jordan; and Nasser Judeh, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Jordan.

Also in attendance were local VIPs and dignitaries including Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Ministerfor Communications and Information; K Kesavapany, the Ambassador of the Republic of Singapore to Jordan; senior NUS faculty members, namely Professor Barry Halliwell, Deputy President of Research and Technology and Professor Terry Nardin, Head of Department of Political Science; and esteemed office bearers of the MEI management board, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

The session was chaired by MEI Director-Designate, Professor Peter Sluglett, who began the session with a welcoming remark. This was followed by a brief speech by His Majesty King Abdullah II about current Jordanian perspectives on recent events in the Middle East. He then proceeded to answer questions put forward by the invited participants. The discussion ranged from women’s education in Jordan to the conflicts in Syria, Egypt and Palestine and Israel. His Majesty is positive about the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations and maintained that “we can solve this problem”.

His Majesty emphasized the importance of current challenges in Jordan, such as dealing with the more than 1.2 million refugees from Syria and the need to increase the number of available schools and jobs. When broached about women’s education in Jordan, he proudly announced that 62% of Jordan’s university graduates are female and who are successful in various IT sectors, both locally and internationally. As Jordan is politically stable, His Majesty encourages further investments in Jordan’s infrastructure, economy and education system. The event ended with a brief discussion on future problems to solve within the region.

The Falls of Baghdad in 1258 and 2003 Unveil Polarizing Sunnī and Shī‘ī Historical Memories| MEI Research Seminar Series

14 February 2014

By Faeza Abdurazak

MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Dr Nassima Neggaz, recently presented her current research project entitled The Falls of Baghdad in 1258 and 2003: A Study in Sunni-Shi’I Clashing Memories. This work analyzes the narratives on the fall of Baghdad of 1258, focusing on the question of responsibility for the event: why did Baghdad fall to the Mongols and to whom was responsibility attributed?

The work argues that the earliest narratives of the fall of the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate demonstrate a plethora of views, which can be explained by the socio-political role of the historians writing for powerful patrons, but also by the critical importance of literary topoi. While some of the earliest works laid the blame on the Shī‘ī wazīr Ibn al-‘Alqamī, this view is expanded among the Sunnī Mamlūk sources, which show a certain consensus around the responsibility of the Shī‘ī community at large for the event.

A category of Mamlūk clerics even go beyond accusing Ibn al-‘Alqamī and focus their narratives on the person of Nas̟īr al-Dīn al-T̟ūsī, a Shī‘ī philosopher and astronomer. These views should be seen as a direct consequence of the rise of Shī‘īsm under the early Īlkhānid Empire and the Sunnī ‘ulamā’s battle to protect what they saw as “orthodox” Islam in a threatening environment. These polemical views, mostly shaped a century or two after the fall of Baghdad, have a significant impact on today’s communal memories of the events.

Polarized discourses have been growing since the fall of Baghdad in 2003: the event has been described by many Sunnī intellectuals, clerics, politicians, but also Iraqis more generally, as a repetition of the Shī‘ī betrayal of 1258, in which the Shī‘a are believed to have brought in the invader. If Nūrī al-Mālikī, the Prime Minister of Iraq, has been called “the new Ibn al-‘Alqamī,” a new polemical term has been forged to describe the Shī‘ī community at large: the ‘alāqima, used throughout social media and in the press, establishing a link between past and present, and reinforcing the polarization of Sunnī and Shī‘ī historical memories.

Matthieu Rey Writes about the Decade-Long Absence of Kurdish Rebellion in Northern Iraq from 1946 to 1958

12 February 2014

MEI Visiting Research Fellow Dr Matthieu Rey has contributed a chapter entitled Une decennie de silence: les Kurdes a l’heure de l’absence de rebellion (1946-1958) (A Decade of Silence: the Kurds during the Absence of Rebellious Movements (1946-1958)), in Enjeux identitaires en mutation: Europe et bassin méditerranéen (Identity Issue in Transition: Europe and the Mediterranean Region)[1]. In his essay, Rey investigates the factors behind the decade-long absence of Kurdish rebellion in Northern Iraq from 1946 to 1958, which has been an exception over the century.

He argues that although the fights between Iraqi troops and Kurdish rebellious forces during the mid-forties had ended with the victory of the former, the peaceful years could not be explained by coercion alone as there was another policy that had been simultaneously implemented during the time. While the Iraqi government had fought against any kind of autonomous struggles in the area which had forced Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish nationalist leader, to flee the country, it had also coopted local Kurdish elites who agreed to recognize Baghdad as the capital and Iraqi identity as their primary loyalty. Therefore, a part of the Kurdish elite was integrated into Iraqi national institutions.

However, peace was not simply established by political means. Important social and economic changes had impacted the traditional networks of mobilization. Rural exodus and industrialization, and the consequent urbanization, had shaped new social classes within the Iraqi Kurdish community. These processes had diverted the local Kurds from their fight for identity. In addition, their intelligentsia was attracted by other ideologies that were prevalent during that time, such as communism.

Finally, in the urban centres, a new process of cultural ‘renaissance’ had led to the reorganization of Kurdish expression. This cultural trend might explain the renewal of their struggle at the beginning of the sixties. Rey contends that the Iraqi parliamentary system had been the primary contributor to the peace of the country back then.

An outline of the book can be accessed here, courtesy of Peter Lang International Academic Publishers.

[1] Tolan, John; El Annabi, Hassen; Lebdai, Benaouda; Laurent, Franck; and Krause, Günter (eds.), Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, January 2014.

Ali Allawi Releases a Compelling and Well-Reviewed Biography of Faisal I of Iraq

11 February 2014

MEI Visiting Professor Ali Allawi has a new book published last week by Yale University Press. Entitled Faisal I of Iraq, this revisionist history of Iraq’s first modern king is the first to afford his contributions to Middle East history the attention they deserve. As the first contemporary biography of the figure who had played a seminal role in the founding of the state of Iraq and the making of the modern Middle East, Allawi hopes that his book will shed “a better understanding of the fall of the Ottoman empire, World War I and the establishment of the modern Arab states of the Middle East”.

Allawi rejects the conventional portrayal of King Faisal I of Iraq, and sees him as a statesman and a nation-builder. He argues that Faisal was the real maker of modern Iraq and portrays him as a convincing multi-dimensional figure, although he later became more autocratic as he remained in power.

Only a week into its release, Faisal I of Iraq has already garnered glowing reviews by The Economist, the Financial Times, Kirkus Reviews and Charles Tripp, Professor of Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Economist described it as “impressive” and calls it “the fullest portrait yet of a fascinating figure who played a significant role in the making of the modern Middle East”. The Financial Times writes that Faisal I of Iraq is “a sympathetic but by no means uncritical portrait” and that “it is unlikely to be dislodged as the standard treatment for some time to come”. Kirkus Reviews gives Faisal I of Iraq a starred review and mentions that the ‘misunderstood’ subject has found “a worthy, erudite biographer in Allawi”. Tripp, who wrote A HIstory of Iraq (Cambridge University Press; September 2007), praises Allawi for the “powerful and substantial account” of the subject who emerges as “a fully rounded political figure for the first time”.

The full outline of Faisal I of Iraq as well as the review by Professor Charles Tripp can be accessed here, courtesy of Yale University Press.

The full reviews of Faisal I of Iraq by The Economist, the Financial Times and Kirkus Reviews can be accessed here, here and here, courtesy of these publications, respectively.

Iran’s Relations with Asian Countries Are Defined by Sheer Pragmatism and Realism, Says Didier Chaudet

7 February 2014

By Faeza Abdurazak

Didier Chaudet, a security analyst who focuses on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, spoke at MEI yesterday on the topicEscaping the West? Iran’s Foreign Policy towards Asia. Chaudet is Head of the Programme on Iranian and South Asian Studies at the European Institute for Prospective and Security (IPSE), a French think tank based in Paris and Visiting Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). Chaudet argues that while the rise of Asia is possible within this century, it will take time, as the disproportionate influence of the West in diplomatic affairs will remain for now, which Iran will have to deal with diplomatically.

Chaudet explains that the West will remain important to Iran, regardless of Iran’s achievement in any issue in the international scene. Iran cannot “escape” the West; the impact of its relationship with Iran is very visible. Nevertheless, Iran has been able to get rather positive results in its diplomatic pursuits in Asia, despite of its tenuous situation and its opposition of the West. Pragmatism and realism have been the primary characteristics of Iran’s relations with various Asian countries; Iran understands their needs in terms of security and energy issues and knows how to use them to its advantage.

The lecture was divided into three main geographical areas: South, Central and East Asia. Under South Asia, Chaudet speaks of Iran’s relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan. It enjoys good ties with the former and an erratic one with the latter, although it has been better of late, thanks to their mutual need for stability. He also mentions India, with whom Iran will continue to have diplomatic relations because of political security and energy, even though India has recently become closer to the US and Israel.

The same characteristics explain Iran’s relations with Central Asia; Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in particular. Iran has helped to stabilize Tajikistan until its peaceful situation in 2007 out of practical reasons. Tehran is aware of its own limitations and realizes it needed to gain goodwill from a gamut of neighbours, Russia included, which would be its counterbalance against Western hostility towards it. Although Uzbekistan has a pro-US foreign policy, Iran has been able to gain the goodwill of the local Uzbek regime over time with its non-critical stance of the latter’s policies, even its repression of its own people. With Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, what prevailed was business and trade opportunities, coupled with Iran’s desire to not provide the West with fodder that would further its international isolation. Ultimately, Iran’s pragmatic Central Asian policy is motivated by the fact that it “needs” Russia in its opposition of the US.

As for East Asia, Chaudet nails it down to China and North Korea. With the former, its unstable relationship with the US makes it a worthy ally for Iran, and it needs Iranian oil and gas just as India does. However, China is firm in maintaining important trade links with the West which it has made clear to Iran will not be compromised upon. Iran’s relationship with North Korea could be the only “real” one amongst all of its bilateral relations; it is the only one that the US cannot challenge or mitigate. However, like Iran, North Korea is a pariah in international affairs and their relationship bothers the US, as there is a risk of cooperation between the two on nuclear issues and ballistic missiles technology.

Robert Bianchi to Tehran Times: Shift in Balance of Power in Favour of Iran Angers Saudis

6 February 2014

MEI Visiting Research Professor Robert Bianchi gave an interview this week on Tehran Times, Iran’s English language daily, on the shift in the regional balance of power in the Middle East. He contends that influence is moving away from Saudi Arabia and towards Iran, which has angered the former and is the main source of tension between the two countries. “The main causes of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia are the decisive shifts in the international balance of power that are occurring in favour of Iran in the Middle East and in favour of China globally,” Bianchi told Tehran Times.

The full interview can be accessed here, courtesy of Tehran Times.

Matthieu Rey Tackles the Geneva II Talks and the Syrian Political Crisis | The MEI Conversations

3 February 2014

By Retna Devi

“Ultimately, [Syria’s] regime consists of men who are rather astute about international relations; they are repeating what they did in the late ‘80s, when they went to Europe to hold a discussion with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is to use negotiations as a tool to divide the opposition,” opines Dr Matthieu Rey, MEI Visiting Research Fellow, on the recently launched Geneva II talks. It is for this reason he believes that only low-scale agreements will be achieved, evident by the decision to ease the siege of Homs, to which humanitarian groups have not yet gained full access.

He also feels that there is a high possibility of more talks taking place in the future as “the important issues of the revolution process are not being discussed: the type of authority that will govern Syria during the transition; reforming the security apparatus to ensure the protection of the country from terrorist elements; and providing suitable daily life for the Syrians through a rule of law system, which was previously non-existent.”

Concerning Iran declining the invitation to be part of the talks, Rey reckons that placing conditions on Iran is not an effective way of ensuring its participation. He adds that their involvement is important because “Iran is part of the problem, and if a solution is reached, Iran can easily refuse compliance by asserting that they weren’t part of the peace talks.” As of now, the Geneva II peace talks have ended in a non-conclusive manner and are scheduled to resume on 10 February 2014.

Rey’s keen understanding of Syria’s political system, which is his research focus, can be attributed to living in Syria from 2009 till 2013. This gave him the perfect opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the uprisings that were taking place, which proved useful when he was approached by Francois Burgat and Bruno Paoli to contribute to Pas de printemps pour la Syrie. “The purpose of this book was to consolidate the opinions of people who had access to the field during the time of the uprisings,” he says.

“The main chapter [that I wrote] is about reconsidering the uprising on a geographical level, rather than a confessional one,” he elaborates. This is important because “a closer examination of events will reveal that geographical proximities greatly influenced the way the forces were organized. It will also provide a better understanding of the dynamics of both the opposition and the regime forces, and even humanitarian efforts.” The two sub-chapters he wrote for the book chart the development of Syria’s local civil committees (LCC) and the militarization of its opposition, respectively.

“This book is based on current research, therefore the conclusions may not be 100% accurate. But it definitely covers the most important dynamics of the conflict, whether internal or external,” affirms Rey.

Egyptian Prize-Winning Artist Mohamed Abouelnaga Showcases His Art at MEI

30 January 2014

By Retna Devi

MEI recently exhibited the works of Egyptian prize-winning artist, Dr Mohamed Abouelnaga. A multidisciplinary visual artist, art curator and assistant professor at the faculty of Specific Education in Cairo University, Abouelnaga was born during the tumultuous period when Egypt was engaged in a war with Israel. He recalls how his education was affected by the lack of teachers. It was during this period that he nurtured his passion for art. While he may not have had the opportunity to learn English, he proudly declares that art is the language he uses to communicate as his art “talks about peace, communication and being open to all cultures”. He proceeds to give a short presentation on the various exhibitions he has done, so as to provide the audience with a better understanding of his work.

For his work at the Venice Biennale, he used materials solely from Egypt to manually make paper. This is to effectively capture the essence of Egypt and represent the various layers of its history and the current conflict. However, Abouelnaga is not averse to utilising resources from other countries or merging various types of paper. In fact, he believes it is important to use paper from all over the world in order to convey the idea of cultural integration, especially since “paper is not just a material but knowledge, spirit and religion”, thereby making it a symbolically powerful tool to express the concept of intercultural coexistence. In order to make his art pieces layered, he also weaves mixed media and photos into his use of paper. This method was employed in Cairo 11, a short film he created, in which scenes from the movie Cairo 30 overlap with present-day images to prove that nothing has changed in Egypt.

Robert Bianchi Weighs In on Iraq’s Security Situation on China Radio International

29 January 2014

MEI Visiting Research Professor Robert Bianchi was interviewed on 24 January 2014 on People in the Know, a China Radio International’s flagship English news programme. Together with Professor Li Guofu, an expert on Middle East issues at the China Institute of International Studies, they spoke about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq.

Despite the current turmoil, Bianchi states that Iraq is not going to fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda or any other extremist group. Ruling a highly pluralistic society like Iraq would be a tough call on anyone; to do so successfully would require an equally pluralist government. Al-Qaeda is but a group amongst many that are currently causing violence in Iraq for the purpose of attaining power.

The full interview can be accessed here, courtesy of China Radio International.

Michel Chossudovsky Delves into the Inefficacy of IMF Reforms

27 January 2014

By Retna Devi

Professor Michel Chossudovsky, Founder and Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal, begins his talk, The Global Economic Crisis, the IMF and the Middle East on a rather grave note by alerting the audience to the jarring reality of the 2008 Global Economic Crisis. “The economic and social dislocations of this financial crisis surpass the Great Depression of 1930s,” he emphasizes. It is crucial to comprehend the ”logic of the crisis” as the sovereignty of nations are likely to be affected by the measures that follow after, usually under the auspices of the International Monetary Board (IMF).

The ‘2008 Global Economic Crisis’ actually started in the 1980s, which was characterized by a shift from Keynesian macroeconomic reforms to neo-liberalism during the Regan-Thatcher era. Concurrently, developing countries were experiencing an unsustainable Balance of Payment situation that was sparked by a major collapse of commodity prices, paving the way for policy-based lending, also known as conditionalities, which were imposed on these countries. The term conditionalities is apt as the creditors or the IMF ‘rescue’ these countries by establishing conditions such as budget cuts, austerity measures, or trade deregulation.

Moreover, the debt-ridden states are expected to use the loans provided by the IMF to repay their creditors, thereby making the IMF money fictitious as the countries are still mired in debt. This not only endangers their sovereignty but enables the policymaking process of the country to be taken over by international financial institutes, which will impose the Washington Consensus: a set of ten specific economic policies that the US Treasury and the Washington-based international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank prescribe for crisis-ridden developing countries.

Chossudovsky highlights how most of the reforms implemented by the IMF on developing and developed countries are not in accordance with the IMF mandate as defined by the Bretton Wood Agreement of 1944, which is to maintain the stability of exchange rates. Yet, the policies introduced by the IMF inevitably lead to the collapse of the currency. In relation to Egypt, he opines that while the protests are directed at the government, it can be attributed to the 1991 reform package that led to the drastic decline of production in agriculture due to a hike in interest rates and farm inputs, causing local producers to declare bankruptcy.

Similarly in Tunisia, the agreement with the IMF during the early stages of Ben Ali’s presidency and the privatization programme launched under the IMF-World Bank supervision can be said to be the catalyst of the protests that rocked the nation in 2011. However, this is not unique to the Middle East; parallels can be drawn with Ukraine, Rwanda and Somalia.

Despite the consequences, IMF’s macroeconomic reforms are now considered solutions and are being applied universally. According to Chossudovsky, this is a cause for concern as the solution is in fact the cause of the crisis; massive austerity measures only trigger a chain of bankruptcies. He also notes that the defence expenditure of Western countries, especially those involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, has sky-rocketed and that the backlash against it will impact health, educational and public services, inexorably exacerbating the economic crisis.

Peter Sluglett Analyzes the Situation in Fallujah on CNA

17 January 2014

MEI Visiting Research Professor Peter Sluglett appeared on Channel NewsAsia’s Insight, a current affairs analysis programme, last night to speak on the resurgence of Islamic extremism in Iraq, which he says is part and parcel of a wave of Salafi/Wahhabi activity throughout the region—mainly Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. This flurry of activity is generally funded, whether officially or unofficially, by Saudi Arabia and other GCC states and is directed against the ‘Shi’i regimes’ of Iran, Iraq and Syria.

According to him, it is probably fairly easy for a relatively small number of militants to seize control of Fallujah, a medium-sized town where the population is at least potentially sympathetic to their cause. Given that the Iraqi armed forces are far stronger than anything the militants can muster, Sluglett does not foresee this situation to last very long. In addition, given the current intensity of the sectarian division in these countries, a peaceful future for any of them is presently hard to envisage.

Mohamed Selim of Kuwait University Speaks About the Arab Spring at RIMA

14 January 2014

Professor Mohamed Elsayed Selim,Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, delivered a seminaron The Arab Spring and the Arab Regional System with Special Reference to Egypt at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The seminar was a collaboration between MEI and RIMA. Selim highlighted key turning points in the Arab consciousness and charted the development and challenges faced by the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring, paying particular attention to the pivotal role of Egypt in the future of the region.

Fanar Haddad Contributes to a Book on Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf

6 January 2014

MEI Research Fellow Dr Fanar Haddad has contributed a chapter to the recently published edited volume, Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf (Lawrence G Potter, ed.; C Hurst & Co., 2013). Entitled Sectarian Relations and Sunni Identity in Post-Civil War Iraq, Haddad charts the evolving politics and symbolism of Sunni identity in Iraq after 2003. More broadly, his essay examines identity politics in today’s Iraq and the role of sectarian symbolism in state and society.

For more on the book, please proceed here.

Navid Fozi-Abivard and Peter Sluglett Write for The Straits Times on Iran’s Breakthrough Nuclear Deal

19 December 2013

MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Navid Fozi-Abivard and MEI Visiting Research Professor Peter Sluglett wrote an article for The Straits Times today on the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, Britain, the United States and Germany). Entitled The Nuclear Deal’s Impact on Iran-US Ties, Fozi-Abivard and Sluglett argue that the landmark deal, although still a small step in the larger scheme of things, may well be a precursor to more ambitious diplomatic relations in the future. Eventually, a more far-reaching agreement between Iran and the US might compel Israel and the conservative Arab states to follow, rather than fashion, US foreign policy in the Middle East.

The full article appears in The Straits Times today at the Opinion section, page A27, and can be accessed here.

Iran Seeks a Politial Solution for Syria, Says Mohsen Milani

12 December 2013

By Retna Devi

MEI had the priviledge of having Professor Mohsen Milani, Executive Director of the Center for the Strategic and Diplomatic Studies and Professor of Politics at the University of South Florida, speak on Iranian Policy toward the Syrian Civil War. He points out that the Syrian conflict is no longer contained to a domestic sphere. Besides becoming a battleground for proxy wars among the states in the region, there is also an international aspect to the conflict due to the involvement of Russia, the United States and other Western countries. The various facets of the conflict and the participation of multiple political actors with their respective interests serve to further complicate the situation.

Milani offers a historical narrative on Syria-Iran relations, which can be traced back to 1979–the year of the Iranian revolution and the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which had excluded Syria. Feeling betrayed by Egypt, Hafez al-Assad looked to Iran in a bid to neutralize the peace treaty and Saddam’s rule. Iran reciprocated Syria’s interest as Ayatollah Khomeini had wanted to gain foothold in Southern Lebanon, which is the holiest place for Shi’ites. The two countries have supported each other since; Syria had prevented the Arab League from creating a united front against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war and had allowed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to enter Lebanon in 1982, which had led to the birth of Hezbollah.

Syria-Iran relations have transitioned from “an alliance of convenience” to one of a strategic nature upon Bashar al-Assad’s accession to power. Milani attributes this shift to the American invasion of Iraq, the withdrawal of 1800 Syrian troops and intelligence officers from Lebanon and the 2006 Israel–Hezbollah War. These events led to the Triple Alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.

Milani then delves into Iran’s foreign policy toward the current Syrian civil war. Iran’s support for the Syrian regime is motivated by their desire to ensure that either Assad remains in power or that the tate’s structure is preserved so as to prevent a total regime change, otherwise known as “Assadism without Assad”. To this end, Iran is providing Syria with direct military assistance, creating an international front by closely collaborating with Russia due to their mutual interest in Syria and searching for a political solution, as a military solution is no longer viable.

Nevertheless, as Milani mentions emphatically, it is the economic strategies that need to be observed closely. This is because Iran, Iraq and Syria signed an agreement in July 2013 to build a gas pipe, which would give Iran access to European markets as the pipe would extend all the way to the Mediterranean and Lebanon from Iran.

Milani questions how Syria will be ruled when Assad is removed. The major security vacuum created after the Iraq invasion provides fertile ground for extremist elements to thrive, and as such, it is in the interest of everyone to prevent a “complete destruction of the state in Syria”. Milani opines that only a political solution will stop the civil war from reaching Lebanon or Jordan, and therefore it is essential that Iran, with its current moderate government, is invited to participate in the Geneva II Middle East peace conference.

Michael Hudson Provides a Comprehensive Analysis of Current Transformations in the Middle East for Third MEI-SISMEC Event

5 December 2013

At the third collaboration between MEI and The University of Arizona’s Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC), MEI Director Professor Michael C. Hudson speaks about current transformations in the Middle East. With questions from Christina Sciabarra, a doctoral candidate in international relations at the same university, Hudson reviews the current status of various competing powers within the region and revisits the questions posed in The Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (Columbia University Press; 1998), which he edited. He discusses the recent negotiations between the US and Iran and discusses possible outcomes for the Syrian civil war.

The full interview can be accessed here, courtesy of SISMEC.

MEI is Moving to Its New Premises at Kent Ridge Campus in January 2014

4 December 2013


We will be moving from our current location at Bukit Timah Campus to the NUS main campus at Kent Ridge at the end of this year. As such, MEI will be closed from the 24 till 31 December 2013. We will resume operations on 2 January 2014. Due to this relocation, our library is now closed and will be open once again on the same date.

Our new address is Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, 29 Heng Mui Keng Terrace, Block B, #06-06, Singapore 119620. Our main telephone number will remain at 65162380 and our fax number will change to 67740458 from 18 December onwards.

MEI is Proud to be Main Sponsor and Supporter of Leyaali el-Khayr 2013

29 November 2013

MEI congratulates the Arab Network @Singapore (AN@S) on the success of its recent charity gala dinner, Leyaali el-Khayr 2013, which showcases Arab culture while raising funds for three charity organisations in Singapore: the Singapore Association for the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) and the Maulid Memorial Scholarship Fund Board (LBKM). Held on 22 November 2013 at the Raffles Town Club, the event was a well-attended, lively and entertaining affair, and the causes of these beneficiaries garnered much attention from the audience. MEI is proud to be the main sponsor and supporter of Leyaali el-Khayr 2013. To the organizer, well done!

A write-up of Leyaali el-Khayr 2013 can be read here, courtesy of Aquila Style.

As Its Nuclear Programme Gets the Limelight, Payam Akhavan Highlights Iran’s Human Rights Issues

19 November 2013

By Retna Devi

In light of the recent nuclear talks between Iran and the United Nations, MEI invited McGill University’s Associate Professor Payam Akhavan to give a talk on Iran’s human rights issues, which has taken a backseat. Though the rate of execution in Iran has increased considerably since last year, it is not being broached upon in Geneva. Akhavan postulates that this can be attributed to placing more significance on security issues, which falls under the category of political realism, as opposed to soft moral issues concerning the imprisonment and execution of people. However, he is quick to point out that politicization of human rights issues by using it as a weapon to gain concessions is akin to disregarding it completely.

Akhavan embarks on a historical narrative to show how Iran became a country that is ruled through intimidation and torture. He states that despite the 1979 revolution having involved mostly secular forces, the Islamists had managed to gain power. This was caused by the penetration of politics into the mosque in its attempt to avoid repression by the Shah. In addition, the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, had encouraged the occurrence of Islamist discourse in order to safeguard Iran from the threat of communism. Despite the popularity of Islamists in the past, the 2009 revolution indicates a marked shift in thinking amongst Iranians, even the Shia Ayatollah— there is a growing desire for the separation of the religion from the state.

According to Akhavan, Iran is prepared for a liberal democratic transition as a majority of young Iranians favour a tolerant, inclusive and pluralistic identity for their society. He also believes that the Islamic Republic’s proclivity for using violence to stay in power is no longer feasible in attaining long-term stability. Nevertheless, the regime’s willingness to make concessions regarding its nuclear programme in order to safeguard its survival and attain America’s good favour has compelled them to carry out a number of executions in order to appease their powerbase, which consists of hardliners.

Having worked with war-torn countries with a history of authoritarian rule, Akhavan provides a brief comparative political outlook in order to predict Iran’s future. Countries such as Argentina, Brazil and South Africa have abandoned their nuclear programmes upon the installation of democratic rule. While each country has its own peculiarity, he suggests that the behaviour of these countries may shed some light on the possible future scenario for Iran.

NTU Undergraduate Wins This Year’s Emirates NBD Essay Prize

26 November 2013

MEI is proud to announce that our winner for this year’s Emirates NBD Middle East Essay Prize is Lim Wei Jun, a final year undergraduate student from Nanyang Technological University who is pursuing a Bachelor of Science (Hons) degree in Mathematics and Economics.

His essay, titled as Islamic Finance in Singapore – A Prospective Evaluation Study, explores future prospects of Islamic finance in Singapore.  As research and literature on Singapore’s Islamic financial industry is limited, this strong submission is Lim’s attempt to fill the gap. We would like to congratulate him for his winning essay and wish him the very best!

We would also like to thank Emirates NBD for their kind sponsorship of the prize.

Fanar Haddad for USIP: Sectarian Identities Carry Significant Socio-Political Relevance in Middle East Today

20 November 2013

Last week, MEI Research Fellow Dr Fanar Haddad contributed a four-page brief to the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), titled Sunni-Shia Relations after the Iraq War. Haddad looks at how sectarian dynamics have developed in the Arab world over the past ten years, whose progress has been largely accelerated by the advent of new media, social networking, user-generated websites, and private satellite channels. The mainstreaming of sectarian polemics has increased the relevance of religious, doctrinal and dogmatic differences in views regarding the sectarian “other,” which is a particularly dangerous development.

Haddad contends that our understanding of today’s Middle East is hardly served by dismissals of post-2003 sectarian dynamics as a façade that obscures the reality of local and regional power politics. Ten years of it can result in a normative societal effect; a generation has now grown up in an Arab world where sectarian identities carry significant socio-political relevance. Haddad asserts though that this is not an argument for reducing Middle Eastern dynamics to their sectarian component. Sectarian identities are not the ‘be all and end all’ of the 21st century Middle East, and sectarian division is far from all-encompassing and remains context-driven.

The full brief can be accessed here, courtesy of the United States Institute of Peace.

MEI Signs Important MOU with Qatar University

18 November 2013

MEI is proud to announce its new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Qatar University, which was signed by NUS Provost Professor Tan Eng Chye and Qatar University President Professor Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad on behalf of MEI and Qatar University, respectively.

The momentous ceremony took place during the Sixth Meeting of the Qatar-Singapore High Level Joint Committee in Singapore on 14 November 2013, and was witnessed by His Excellency Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Prime Minister and Minister of Interior of the State of Qatar, and Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs of Singapore.

The MOU aims to explore collaboration projects between both educational institutes on a number of levels in the areas of joint research, faculty and researcher exchanges, as well as workshops and conferences. In addition, there is a possibility of both offering support for degree programmes that may emerge in the future.

Dr Charlotte Schriwer, MEI’s Acting Director and Senior Research Fellow, said that the MOU is a positive milestone for MEI and NUS in building on the growing relationship between Qatar and Singapore in the higher education sector. “This agreement, between the two leading educational institutions in the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf and Asia Pacific region, will foster academic exchange and collegiality, as well as deepen a commitment to enhance social, economic and political understanding between the two regions. We are extremely pleased with this partnership and look forward to working on a number of stimulating projects with Qatar University.”

The event is also covered on NUS News.

Navid Fozi-Abivard Closes the GSRS Series with a Seminar on Contemporary Zoroastrian Identity

14 November 2013

By Faeza Abdurazak

MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr Navid Fozi-Abivard gave the final talk for the NUS Department of Sociology’s Graduate Students Research Seminar (GSRS) Series on 7 November 2013, which was titled Zoroastrians in Contemporary Tehran: Claiming Authenticity in Shi’i Dominated Iranian Culture.

As Shi‘i hegemonic norms of Iranian culture have become the de facto, exhaustive, and monopolizing representative of ‘Iranianness’, Fozi-Abivard questions how the Zoroastrian notion of Iranian culture challenges this perception. Many popular Iranian cultural practices have Zoroastrian origins, such as the celebration of Nowruz, which is the Persian New Year.

The Zoroastrian discourse on identity in Iran attempts to appeal to both the past and the present; it establishes distinctiveness, continuity and superiority by claiming authenticity and indigenousness in Iranian culture while simultaneously asserts similarity with Shi‘i Islam as a way of setting itself apart from Sunni Arabs.

Fozi-Abivard argues that such a malleable culture concept that encodes and evokes historical resources is employed in order to (1) challenge Shi‘i norms that have become the de facto representative of ‘Iranianness’ and (2) carve out an inhabitable and legitimate niche for itself in present-day Iran. As such, the community members create a space for a transcendent and oppositional Zoroastrian identity—one that is actualized through performatives of origin, superiority, similarity and distinctiveness vis-à-vis the Iranian Shi‘a.

Benjamin Geer Contemplates the Lack of Sociological Research on Early Islam

13 November 2013

In his latest blog post, MEI Non-Resident Scholar Dr Benjamin Geer explores possible reasons for the shortage of sociological approaches to the study of early Islam, and religions in general. Using a 40-minute introductory talk which he gave on the Qur’an and the early history of Islam for MEI early this year as a starting point for his essay, Geer points out that there was “hardly anything sociological in this talk, beyond some attempts to describe, in broad terms, the sort of social environment that Islam emerged in.”

Sociological explorations are largely missing in the study of early Islam, and this may be due to the fact that theoretical concerns may have largely been eclipsed by empirical difficulties that exist in this area of research. Current sociological research on Islam is mostly confined to present-day issues. In addition, the reluctance of sociologists of religion who are Muslims to explore hypotheses that contradict their own faith contributes to this limitation, as does the hesitancy of the non-Muslim specialist to challenge the core doctrines of the faith.

The American right-wing anti-Muslim discourse does not help the situation, as sociologists of religion, both Muslim and non-Muslim, focus their energy on challenging it. While such an effort is totally justifiable, Geer argues that there can be ways to ask inconvenient questions while ensuring that one’s intentions are not misunderstood, and that the autonomy of social science is not served if such questions are avoided.

The full essay can be accessed on Geer’s blog, SocioResources.

Arab Iraq Will Not Disintegrate Just Yet, Says Fanar Haddad on Foreign Policy

8 November 2013

Why Arab Iraq Survives, an article by MEI Research Fellow Dr Fanar Haddad, was published on Foreign Policy yesterday. In this intriguing piece, Haddad looks at why, despite the depth of social and political division, Arab Iraq will not fall apart just yet. He argues that despite a deeply fragmented and intensely violent surface, Arab Iraq is glued to the concept of “Iraq”; as Haddad succinctly puts it, “the mythology of the Iraqi nation-state retains a considerable degree of emotional traction amongst Arab Iraqis and “Iraq” remains the canvass against which political imaginations are formulated in Arab Iraq.”

The full article can be accessed here, courtesy of Foreign Policy.

Fanar Haddad Discussed Sectarianism in Middle East and Africa on ABC Radio

5 November 2013

MEI Research Fellow Dr Fanar Haddad appeared on Australia’s ABC Radio last month for a conversation on Jihadi Politics. Ever since the uprisings of the Arab Spring, there has been a notable increase in sectarian politics in the Middle East and Africa. Conflict over sectarian identities has caused deadly disputes in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Westgate Shopping Mall in Kenya was attacked by Somali Al Shabaab militants who were eager to take on Western interests anywhere in the world. In this talk show, the rhetoric of sectarian and jihadi politics is examined by Haddad, who is an Iraqi analyst on the Shia-Sunni conflict and Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian expert on Al Shabaab.

The full conversation can be accessed via this audio clip, courtesy of ABC Radio.

Peter Sluglett Gave the Presidential Address at MESA’s 2013 Annual Meeting

4 November 2013

MEI Visiting Research Professor Peter Sluglett, who is currently the President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), gave the presidential address at the organization’s 47th annual meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sluglett is serving a three-year term from 2011 through 2014. MESA has more than 3000 members, and past presidents of the organization include such luminaries in the field as Professors Juan Cole, Rashid Khalidi and Barbara Freyer Stowasser, as well as our own MEI Director, Professor Michael C. Hudson.

For the presidential address, Sluglett intentionally broke his principle, as a historian, of leaving predictions to political scientists. The recent coup d’état in Egypt against former president Mohammed Morsi does not bode well for the future of democracy in the country, and with an abiding sense of regret, Sluglett stated that the revolutionary moment in Syria and Egypt has passed and that the dynamism has faded, although he remains hopeful.

Sluglett offered some conclusions from the events of the Arab Spring. Firstly, the uprisings were intent on removing dictatorship and corruption; they knew what they did not want, but they were ill-prepared for the aftermath. Secondly, the political parties that had taken over the toppled regimes had very little experience in state governance—hardly their fault, considering how oppressed they had mostly been at the time of the regimes, but a major drawback nonetheless.

Thirdly, the bad economic policies of many Middle Eastern states of the past twenty years mean that it will take a long time to reverse their negative effects, which include poverty, malnutrition and unemployment on an unprecedented scale. A turnaround would require a complete change from current neo-liberal policies to an economy of subsidies and price controls, which does not seem to be taking place or is likely going to in the near future. Lastly, the vested interests of highly placed military officers and civil servants in maintaining their own economic interests may sabotage any plans for democracy, as we have seen happening in Egypt.

Economic Issues at the Heart of “Arab Firestorm,” Says Nasser Saidi

1 October 2013

By Retna Devi

According to Dr. Nasser Saidi, Founder and President of Nasser Saidi and Associates, the phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is a misnomer. Since 2011, the Middle East has been embroiled in a series of events that seem to increase in intensity and destructiveness; therefore, the ‘Arab Firestorm’ is more apt. This unique take hints at the different perspective Saidi would provide during his talk. He places more emphasis on economic factors than socio-political elements as political instability always coincides with economic problems, and any successful political transition requires economic reforms.

Prior to delving into the policies that need to be implemented, Saidi informs the audience of the challenges that the region has been facing, amongst them the strikingly uneven distribution of wealth and resources between oil importing countries and oil exporters, youth unemployment at 35%, and low female labour force participation rates—MENA being the lowest—in spite of the fact that women in MENA attain higher education than the men.

While the GCC countries are comparatively better off than the rest of the region, Saidi is quick to point out that they are not free from problems either. Their high dependence on oil does not promote fiscal sustainability, which can only be achieved if they diversify their sources of government revenues and partner with the private sector. Also, the GCC is faced with the urgent task of carrying out reform and structural change in order to reduce the likelihood of consumption and product patterns from being further distorted by energy subsidies.

In order to attain stability, Saidi proposes a number of transformations that the region needs to undergo in various sectors, such as education, empowerment of women, an orientation towards Asia and Emerging Market Economies in trade, investment and financial policies, and the establishment of an Arab Bank for Reconstruction and Development that would focus on infrastructure investment. He also recommends Singapore to take on an active role in this process by organizing forums on the politics and economics of transition so that MENA can draw lessons from the experience of Asian countries and emerging financial centres in the GCC can network with its Asian counterparts.

Despite the economic focus of the talk, Saidi was not gainsaying the relevance of other factors in the Arab uprisings. This is apparent from the inclusion of socio-demographic and political concerns in the MENAT (MENA + Turkey) Vulnerability Index that he introduces during the second half of his presentation. This table “captures [most of the] factors in a quantitative index, measuring the magnitude and the differences in vulnerability and risk exposure across the countries in the region”. Turkey is included as it has a shared history with the rest of the Middle East, despite following a different trajectory after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The results from the MENAT Vulnerability Index reveal that Saudi Arabia is next to high-risk states like Syria and Egypt, indicating that being relatively financially stable does not protect a country from being vulnerable to political discontent.

Social Cohesion and Community Stability in Occupied Nablus| MEI Research Seminar Series

4 October 2013

By Retna Devi

In MEI’s most recent research seminar on 26 September, MEI Research Fellow Dr. Joshua Rickard shared with us his research on social cohesion and community stability in the Nablus area of the West Bank by looking at the collective efforts of the people to obtain food. Rickard begins by providing a historical and geographical background of Nablus before explaining his reason for using Nablus as a case study.

Both the city and the surrounding villages were under military siege during the second intifada—curfews were imposed and check-points were erected, which restricted the movement of people and products. This has enhanced the food insecurity level in Nablus and rendered it one of the most socio-economically marginalized areas, especially during 2003 till 2005.

Rickard describes how the people collaborated to survive in such adverse conditions by organising gardening projects at home and at the public garden, which were made possible by the supply of seeds from a small shop. The food was then smuggled via Roman-era tunnels and through pre-existing social networks within the community.

Partial lifting of the siege after 2009 has brought in external aid and NGOs into the area, which has led to the emergence of free market trade policies, causing divisions between urban and rural Nablus communities. The involvement of international actors has made knowledge in traditional farming obsolete, resulting in a dependency on loans and an inevitable rise in poverty.

Responding to MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson’s query about the definition of food security, Rickard defines it as stated in the World Food Summit of 1996: “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” This was followed by a discussion on the introduction of loans, prompting questions the source of the loans given to the Palestinians, and its purpose.

LSE Review of Books Give Robert Bianchi’s Latest Book the Thumbs Up

16 October 2013

MEI Visiting Professor Robert Bianchi’s latest book, Islamic Globalization: Pilgrimage, Capitalism, Democracy and Diplomacy (World Scientific, September 2013), is recently given a positive review by the LSE Review of Books.The blog administrator, Dr. Elaine Housby, dutifully details out the four sections of the book, which discuss, in this order: the hajj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca), the Islamic finance industry, post-Arab Spring events such as voting patterns in Tunisia and Egypt and the position of religious law in contemporary societies, and the position of the lands of Islam in contemporary world politics, with a special reference to China, which Housby rightly notes “appears to be the author’s particular passion”.

She writes that much of the material in this book feels fresh and unfamiliar. It is a collection of articles that have been published before in a variety of journals, and in several cases, encyclopaedias. According to her, they are all well-written, accessible and fairly short, and as such it is a volume that is great for readers with limited reading time, particularly undergraduates and journalists. As for researchers who wish to pursue these topics in more depth, the references and bibliography are an excellent resource.

The full article can be accessed here (courtesy of LSE Review of Books).

The Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Singapore Mentions MEI Annual Conference 2013 in Special Publication

27 September 2013

MEI would like to thank the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Singapore for covering our Annual Conference 2013 in its Special Publication dated 23 September 2013. Saudi Arabia’s His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al-Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, was our distinguished guest who delivered the keynote address. Various consulates and embassies throughout Singapore were among the attendees. We look forward to future participation from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Singapore in our events.

Michael Hudson Speaks to CNBC on the Chemical Weapons Plan for Syria

25 September 2013

MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson gave an interview on Monday, 23 September 2013 to CNBC on the U.S.-Russia chemical weapons plan for Syria. Hudson says that the Russian brokered chemical weapons plan is a win-win situation for both U.S. and Russia. It provides a non-military solution for the Obama administration and gives Russia the diplomatic leverage it seeks for in Syria.

The full interview can be accessed here (courtesy of CNBC).

9/11 Anniversary Calls for a Critical Engagement with Islam, Says Nazry Bahrawi

MEI Research Associate Dr. Nazry Bahrawi made a case for critical Islam as a counter narrative for fundamentalist interpretations of the religion in his commentary on Today, titled Counter Fundamentalism with ‘Critical Islam’. As today marks the twelfth year of the 9/11 attacks, Bahrawi’s call for an engagement with critical scholarship within Islam is timely. The article follows a seminar that MEI held yesterday, Critical Islam: Perspectives on the Middle East and Asia, and precludes a similar one later today at Select Books, Critical Islam as Counter-Fundamentalism: The Case of Muslim Southeast Asia.

The full article can be accessed here (courtesy of Today).

Michael Hudson and Faeza Abdurazak Presented on Middle East at Raffles Institution

4 September 2013

MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson and MEI Research Assistant Faeza Abdurazak had recently presented on Middle East related issues at Raffles Institution, Singapore, which is one of the top pre-tertiary schools in Singapore. The presentations were held on consecutive Monday mornings for the school’s Raffles Middle East Programme (RMEP), an enrichment programme that was created by the school in 2008 to attract their students to the Middle East so that they would consider studying or working there after graduation.

Faeza had spoken on Political Islam in the Middle East: Emergence and Consequences on 26 August 2013 and Hudson on Arab-Israeli Relations and the Regional/Global Context on 2 September 2013. Students were attentive and a lively Q&A session ensued each presentation.

The Plight of the Iranian Diaspora in Malaysia | MEI Research Seminar Series

4 September 2013

By Retna Devi

MEI Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Navid Fozi brings attention to the plight of the Iranian diaspora in Malaysia in a research seminar on 28 August. The issues that this particular diaspora faces set itself apart from Iranian migrants living in other parts of the globe. They are unable to acquire Malaysian citizenship unless ”they have invested large sums of money in the country or have married locals”.

Further heightening their vulnerability is the presence of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence in Malaysia, which is enabled by the friendly relations that both countries share with each other and Malaysia’s hostile attitude towards Shi’ism. These circumstances make the environment rather conducive for distrust to flourish amongst the Iranian community.

Fozi mentions that ”this disjointed state of the diasporic community” is exacerbated by the economic sanctions that have been implemented on Iran since 2010, causing the strength of the Iranian currency to decline and inflation to rise, resulting in a shift in the socioeconomic status of the migrants entering Malaysia. Therefore, with similar social fragmentation, the Iranian community in Malaysia appears to be a microcosm of the Islamic Republic.

However, Fozi’s interactions with the Iranian immigrants in Malaysia indicate an evolving pluralism—”the emergent socio-discursive capacity to recognize and accept taken-for-granted and/or unspoken diversities”. This is possible due to the relative freedom afforded to the Iranians in the country which allows them to organize gatherings that showcase multi-ethnic performances and to have meet-ups at cafes where they are able to express different views. This is aided by the plural nature of Malaysia, which has found a way to accommodate the lifestyles of non-Muslims despite being a Muslim majority country. While many are and will remain distrustful of their fellow Iranians, exposure to such a pluralistic experience permits a ‘normalization’ of diversity within the Iranian community.

In response to his presentation, MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson suggests that Fozi compares the Iranian diaspora in Malaysia with that in Los Angeles or Dubai, in order to effectively analyse the concept of plurality. Adding more depth to the discussion is MEI Visiting Research Fellow Dr. Meron Eresso’s enquiry on whether any new lines of division exist within the diaspora that is not evident in Iran.

MEI’s Nazry Bahrawi Speaks to Channel NewsAsia on Progress in Singapore

30 August 2013

MEI Research Fellow Nazry Bahrawi, who holds a joint appointment as a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), was featured this week on SG+, a weekly current affairs programme on Channel NewsAsia. Appearing on the programme alongside Liu Thai Ker, former head of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, they both shared their thoughts on the idea of progress in Singapore with host Melanie Oliveiro.

Nazry argues that Singapore should embrace the idea of ‘progressiveness’ rather than progress, because the former is a matter of process where change is seen in a measured perspective and in a multi-faceted way. Regarding values that have brought Singapore forward during the nation-building process, Nazry contends that the concept of ‘racial harmony’ needs relooking. Harmony should not only be looked at from a racial angle, as there are identities beyond race that the government should appeal to.

When asked by Oliveiro on whether it is important for the Singapore government to engage communities in order to move the society forward, Nazry quips that ‘community’ is an entrenched dogma that the state subscribes to, which needs relooking as well. When the community is upheld, the individual consequently gets ignored, he points out.

The full interview can be accessed here (courtesy of Channel NewsAsia).

Benjamin Geer Shares His Thoughts on Egyptian Nationalism and Military with NZZ

30 August 2013

The Swiss German-language daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, quoted MEI Research Fellow Dr. Benjamin Geer yesterday on his thoughts on Egyptian nationalism and military, which he says are intrinsically linked. The notion that the Egyptian military is the protector of the nation is deeply embedded within the Egyptian national consciousness, as it is taught early in schools. The military regime started controlling the media and education in Egypt after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power, and that has not changed till today.

Geer observes that as how the charismatic Nasser was able to embody the super human hero and leader of the nation, “Sisi is now obviously playing with the thought of being the new Nasser.” He points out the astonishing fact that the national loyalty of the Egyptian army itself has never been seriously questioned by its supporters despite the fact that the U.S. has been financially contributing to the forces in order to pursue their interests in Egypt, which proves how deeply the image of the army as an advocate of national sovereignty is rooted.

The full article can be accessed here.

Bloomberg Quotes MEI’s Benjamin Geer Regarding the Egyptian Military

28 August 2013

MEI Research Fellow Dr. Benjamin Geer was quoted by Bloomberg on Monday in its article on the popular support that the Egyptian military receives from the people. “The military has considerable prestige and is widely seen as a pillar of independence and pride,” says Geer. He also observes that critics of the military now seem to be highly marginalized and it is likely that self-censorship is currently taking place. “This wouldn’t be possible if the military hadn’t managed to give itself a starring role in notions of Egyptian nationalism,” he points out.

Michael Hudson Speaks to Bloomberg on Possible US Intervention in Syria

28 August 2013

MEI Director Professor Michael Hudson went live on Bloomberg earlier today on recent developments in Syria. Speaking to Rishaad Salamat on his programme “On the Move,” Hudson said that US intervention in Syria will probably take the form of cruise missiles directed at military camps. He also noted that aside from the intervention itself, it is equally important to think about the aftermath, and cited examples of past US interventions into the country which had unexpected negative consequences.

The full interview can be accessed here.

Gerd Nonneman Addressed the Peaceful Transition of Power in Qatar at MEI

21 August 2013

Professor Gerd Nonneman, Dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and Professor of International Relations and Middle East Politics, delivered a lecture at MEI last week. Titled Qatari Politics and Policy at Home and Abroad, Nonneman addressed the recent change of power from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani to his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

Although this move might have been surprising for many, the new Emir of Qatar has been prepared for his new position during the last two years, says Nonneman. The key outline of the development structure of Qatar has been set and Sheikh Hamad felt that it is now necessary to have a leader who would implement it—hence the handing over of power. Nonneman observes that this new leadership brings with it a focus on economic management and pragmatic foreign policies.

BBC World News Interviews Michael Hudson on Egypt Turmoil

19 August 2013

MEI Director Michael Hudson’s comments on recent events in Egypt was broadcast yesterday on BBC World News. The interview dealt with General al-Sisi’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood and the two perspectives taken on these events in Washington. “We are in for a long period of turbulence and violence,” Hudson noted.

He outlined two opposing positions on future American involvement that are currently being discussed in Washington. On the one hand, conservatives argue that it is necessary to uphold all ties with the Egyptian military. On the other hand, liberals object to this proposition and agree that now is the time to cut off military aid as the situation “seems to have taken the course of really brutal violence.”

At World Peace Foundation, Fanar Haddad Addresses Worsening Violence in Iraq

2 August 2013

MEI Research Fellow Dr. Fanar Haddad recently contributed his thoughts on worsening violence in Iraq for the World Peace Foundation’s blog, Reinventing Peace. Titled How Mass Atrocities End: Iraq, his entry is based on his reflections from the original seminar held in May 2013 at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in which he presented.

Iraq is still a long way off ‘post-atrocity,’ let alone a ‘post-conflict’ status, according to Haddad. Rather than seeking to bring an end to violence or to bridge communal and political divides, the post-civil war reconciliation process in Iraq is ridden with ambiguity and has only served the interests of “a corrupt and dysfunctional political elite.”

Click here to read the full blog post.

Fanar Haddad Talks to IranWire on Sectarianism and the Middle East “Cold War”

MEI Research Fellow Dr. Fanar Haddad was recently interviewed on IranWire on sectarianism in the Middle East and the so-called “cold war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The interview is divided into two parts. Part 1 discusses how sectarianism reflects the hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the role of pan-Arab media networks, and whether the Grand Ayatollahs and Al-Azhar are pro-active in trying to stem the tide of violence. Part 2 examines the influence of Iran’s regional involvement in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq on the rise of sectarianism, and the Islamic Republic’s motivations in backing Bashar Assad’s regime.

Haddad argues that the dangerous sectarian landscape is the product of three interrelated and overlapping factors: firstly, the political change in Iraq in 2003 that has empowered Shi’a Iraqi political forces, thus according sectarian identity an unprecedented political relevance. The second factor is the emergence of new forms of communication, organization and expression. This has critically shaped the impact of the political change in Iraq, as well as its repercussions. Thirdly, the ongoing process of political transitions and a search for a new order has an impact on Sunni-Shi’a relations in the Arab world.

To read the interview in full, please visit these links:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Secularism and Islamic Thought: The Case of Al-Andalus | MEI Research Seminar Series

19 July 2013

By Chia Jie Min

MEI Research Associate Dr. Nazry Bahrawi revisited the Islamic Al-Andalus era when he presented on the parallels between the philosophies of three Andalusian Muslim thinkers – Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Arabi – and modern secularism. He argued against the common perception that secularism and Islam are fundamentally incompatible, as propounded by influential Sunni scholars Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. Instead, Nazry advocates a post-secular perspective, in which the human proclivity for faith and the sacred are revived in contemporary society through the breaking down of the secular-religious dichotomy.

Nazry carefully distinguishes ‘secularism’ as a political doctrine from ‘the secular’ as an epistemic category, choosing to focus on the latter. He identified four binaries of the secular disposition: an emphasis on reason over faith, this-worldliness over otherworldliness, the private over the communal and free will over determinism.

The emphasis for reason over faith can be found in Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, a philosophical fable written by Ibn Tufayl (c.1101-1185). The titular character, Hayy, grows up on an uninhabited island, yet attains all types of knowledge—physical, technical, even metaphysical purely through observation of his surroundings. Through this fable, Ibn Tufayl demonstrates the power of empirical knowledge and the limitless ability of the human mind to develop itself from a blank slate (or tabula rasa)—concepts which are arguably the cornerstones of secular thought.

Ibn Tufayl’s successor Ibn Rushd (c.1126-1198) addressed the fourth binary of free will and determinism. He sought to resolve the famous theological debate between Ibn Sina and Al-Ghazali over whether man has free will given God’s omniscience, arguing that all human attempts to understand God’s knowledge are anthropomorphic and ultimately futile. Ibn Rushd concluded that  human action is neither fully determined nor fully free, but abit of both.

Similarly, Ibn Arabi’s (c. 1165-1240) doctrine of huwa la huwa ( ‘he not he’) reflects an ability to move beyond binary thinking and to acknowledge that God is simultaneously immanent and transcendent. This acceptance that seeming dichotomies coexist within the human condition, Nazry believes, is an early conception of today’s ‘post-secular’ thought, proving Ibn Arabi to be a thinker far ahead of his time.

In the ensuing discussion, MEI Visiting Research Professor Ali Allawi commented that while Ibn Arabi was progressive, he was also deeply religious and saw everything either as the sacred or a manifestation of the sacred. Hence, he could not really be associated with secular thought if one considers his whole philosophy. MEI Research Fellow Dr. Fanar Haddad also raised the interesting question of whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could gain legitimacy within Islamic thought and society, given its autonomous, rights-oriented view of the individual. In response, Nazry brought up the concept of theological humanism, in which individual autonomy and communal interdependence are equally affirmed as a possible means for reconciling Muslim and secular views of the individual.

Rouhani Who? Dissecting the Iranian Presidential Elections | The MEI Conversations

19 July 2013

By Chia Jie Min

“Hassan Rouhani wasn’t clearly a reformist from the start,” said Dr. Navid Fozi, an Iranian post-doctoral research fellow at MEI. MEI recently sat down with him to discuss last month’s presidential elections in Iran. “His policies only became bolder towards the end of the campaign period.” His regime insider background, however, could stand him in good stead as “he knows how to maneuver within the system.”

Neither overly optimistic nor cynical, Fozi suggests that Rouhani’s victory was the result of a well-executed plan by the reformist camp. “(Reformist leaders) Mohamed Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani only gave their full support to Rouhani in the final three days, a clever move because their opponents didn’t have time to react.” The other reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, also withdrew at the same time to allow for reformist votes to concentrate on Rouhani, while the conservative vote was split between five candidates.

Furthermore, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s main objective in this election was to get rid of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s radical faction. Accordingly, Ahmadinejad’s protégé Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was disqualified from the presidential race. Amidst the nation’s frustration at an economy that has been greatly weakened by international sanctions, Khamenei recognised the need for free and fair elections to be used as a rallying tool. “He is human too,” says Fozi.. “He knows the people are unhappy, and he wants to exonerate himself from blame.”

Looking forward, what can we expect from Rouhani’s term?  “He is a technocrat and knows he needs to attract foreign money, and for that he needs peace.” Although halting the nuclear program is a non-issue, “Rouhani can make it more transparent, by letting international observers in,” asserts Fozi. With regards to Iran’s involvement in Syria, however, “there won’t be much change, because Syria is a matter of national security. The removal of Assad will disempower Iran’s regional influence.”

Fozi offers advice for Iran’s new president: “He needs to avoid (former reformist president) Khatami’s mistakes, which were to ignore the poor and exclude the conservatives from his administration.”


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