Jordan and Counter-Radicalization

Samir Zaid Al-RIFA'I
Former Prime Minister of Jordan

untitled (15 of 192)

Human Factors in the Defense Against Terrorism: the Case of Jordan

NATO Advanced Research Workshop
organized by ATA and the Italian Atlantic Committee

in partnership with MEMPSI and NAMA

With the support of the NATO Science for Peace and Security Program

Jordan, Dead Sea, 21-23 November 2016


It is a great pleasure to be here today and to have this opportunity to engage with such an esteemed group of international experts on the critical challenge of counter radicalization.

As a student of international affairs and a public servant here in Jordan for over 30 years I care deeply about how policy and programmatic actions can be better designed to tackle this urgent global challenge.

As an international community we are clearly struggling to address radicalization. There are obviously many levels and layers to this challenge.

• Enhanced tactical coordination between agencies and between governments about known risks.
• Deeper insight into the driver of radicalization and profiling of at risks communities and individuals.
• Better design of programs and interventions to counter radicalization.

Let me perhaps provide some thoughts about the macro-context as I see it in this region that shape your ongoing work at a policy and programmatic level.
I want to start by painting a portrait of the Middle East region 10 years ago. Where were we; and how much today’s threat environment is so much more complex.

In 2006 the region was still consumed with the war in Iraq. The Anbar Awakening, the movement of moderate Sunni Muslim tribes intent on pushing Al Qaeda out of Anbar province, was formed in September of that year ahead of the US troop surge which would commence the following year.

2006 also witnessed the emergence of a Hamas-led government in Palestine and the explosion of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah during the 34-day conflict in July.

As monumental as those events were, conflict was largely contained geographically to Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

Libya and Syria were opening themselves up to the global economy and Egypt recorded GDP growth of 6.8%, the fastest growth in 20 years.

The GCC economies were growing at over 4% off the back of steadily rising oil prices, significant spending on infrastructure and the dividends to be made from being under the US security umbrella. Saudi Arabia’s current account was a healthy 27% of GDP.

Importantly, the conflicts that were underway were only territorial and not yet digital. In a world before smartphones, twitter and whatsapp, only 7.8% of Arabs were connected to the Internet in 2006.

Fast forward 10 years and we find ourselves here today in a very different place.

War, terrorism and low oil prices have conspired to drive human capital, financial capital and growth out of the region’s economies, even amongst the most affluent of countries.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are deep in conflict. Lebanon has formed its first government in two years and austerity measures are taking their toll elsewhere in the region. In the GCC, the aggregate general government fiscal deficit went up six times from 2014 to 2015.

Not surprisingly, Arabs across the region and of all generations feel frustrated, afraid and angry about the lack of advancement in their quality of life and the outlook for the quality of life for their children.

Frustration, fear and anger are not community sentiments unique to our region as we have seen this Year. But while many in the west may feel empowered by their democratic decisions and see a path forward to a new and better future, few Arabs yet see a light at the end of their tunnel.

And this is the core of our challenge, particularly for young Arabs who account for around two-thirds of the region’s population.

The structural drivers of youth unemployment evident 10 years ago are deeper and more profound today, accentuated by the impact of war and displacement. The official headline numbers of around 30% don’t reflect the calcification of this problem because they do not fully capture the level of under-employment nor those who have ceased looking for work.

What should be our demographic ‘gift’ has become our greatest and most urgent challenge. In many parts of the region, we have lost an entire generation who are not just unemployed, but largely unemployable without enormous remedial action.

At the same time, the proliferation of smartphones and social media technologies has given new voice and a dangerous, viral currency to the frustration of our youth. Internet penetration rates in the Arab World are now around 57% (up from 7% a decade ago).Large swaths of the Arab world have migrated quickly from what might be described as ‘suffering in silence’ to ‘venting with vengeance’.

So what does this tumultuous last decade reveal about the threat environment for the violent radicalization of our youth?

Let me offer a few high level reflections which I hope provide a backdrop for our discussions at this Workshop.

First, societal acceptance of anonymity as a legitimate basis for civic engagement is a threat to democracy and political stability everywhere.

Only a generation ago, public discourse about politics, economics, religion and social issues was by and large monopolized by established and respected public figures – elected politicians, trusted media institutions, Priests and Imams. By virtue of their public profile they were accountable for their words and that accountability bred civility in public discourse.

How different the world looks now.

Just as it has with the creation of the citizen journalist, the proliferation of social media and technology tools has created the citizen preacher.

The democratization of ‘voice’ is of course a good thing; but not without public accountability. Unfortunately, the anonymity afforded by social media and so cherished by its users has played a key role in allowing too many people to hide from social accountability for the things they now say and do.

This is not confined to the few bad apples in each society who have violent intentions. As we have seen in the recent US election and the proliferation of fake news, the anonymity of social media has been embraced by large cross-sections of society.

The resulting demise in the quality of public debate and respectful dialogue cuts to the core of our humanity and threatens the very ideals upon which democratic governance rests.

Second, we have witnessed the end of acquiescence and deference of citizens to their rules.

In 2016 we have seen British and American voters rebel against blind trust in the status quo.

In 2011 Arab citizens made it loud and clear they were no longer willing to be acquiescent.

In some parts of our region the spirit of the Arab Spring has been tamed, at least for now. But in Syria, Libya and Yemen it has spiraled into terrible violence.

Jordan has been resilient because the Kingdom’s leaders have always been far more attuned to the voice and needs of the citizen than in many other parts of our region. Our security services astutely managed thousands of protests through the Arab Spring period with no loss of life or serious conflict between security services and citizens.

Why was that the exception rather than the rule?

The prevailing Arab governance model is paternalistic and authoritarian. It has been completely incapable of responding to the plea among Arab youth expressed during the Arab Spring: a plea for leaders they can believe in, are inspired by and are willing to follow.

Our real challenge is that successive generations of autocratic leaders have failed to nurture ‘next generation talent’ – indeed deliberately blocked it. Where will the region’s progressive, reform-minded leaders come from? And how can they break through the legacy mindset of what it means to be in power and how to use that authority?

The task of finding, nurturing and protecting new progressive leadership talent for the region is an immense one. But it is critical to making young Arabs feel connected to, and invested in, their society and its future success.

Third, the successive wave of political, economic and security crises that have hit the Arab world leave us devoid even of foundations upon which to rebuild.

The paternalistic state provided by the Arab rules of the past was underpinned by an elaborate and expensive social contract with the citizen that can no longer be maintained.

In the poorest of Arab states this was upheld for a long time by transfers from wealthier Arab and international allies. But those financial lifelines are no longer available and the social contract even in the wealthiest Arab economies is now undergoing dramatic reform.

The challenge is even more overwhelming for those afflicted by war. By some estimates it will cost over US$750 billion to reconstruct the war torn societies in this region. Syria’s GDP and population have fallen by more than 50%. War damage to Syria amounts to around 230% of its pre-war GDP, and school dropout rates have reached 52%
• Where will those funds come from in a low oil price environment?
• Where will the teachers and medical professionals come from to rebuild the education and healthcare systems for the millions of Syrians who will return?
• How long will it be before the basic infrastructure, regulatory and judicial systems can be rebuilt in order to attract the entrepreneurs and foreign investors back into the economy?

After the Berlin Wall came down, Western Europe and the United States managed to transition the 140 million people of Eastern Europe into the modern economy through the 1990s and 2000s.

By providing scaffolding for institutional development and safety nets for government programs and private sector investment local capacity was slowly but surely transformed.
Where will this scaffolding and these safety nets come from now for the Arab World?

We may well look back on the period between the global financial crisis of 2008 and all the events unfolding today as an inflection point.

Until this year we have taken it for granted that the international order was defined by the gradual opening up of trade and investment, including the free flow of human capital (migrants) and their knowledge and expertise.

All of a sudden, it appears that the wind direction has changed and the international order may now tack in the opposite direction. We may be seeing a resurgence of nationalism in parts of the West with all its protective and insular instincts.

This is terrible timing for the Arab World. Just when the Arab world most needs the positive energy of international trade, investment and skills transfer to lift it up from the ruins of conflict, the region may well find itself left to its own devices.

A measured, Eastern-European style transition is now no longer an option. We have already lost a generation of young people: those now in their 20s. We cannot afford to lose another. And yet the scale of devastation in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza, the West Bank and Libya presents us with exactly that dilemma.

What we need most is a ‘theory of impact’ around economic growth, job creation and prosperity; and a new management mindset in government, the private sector and in the donor community.

An Arab Marshal Plan is only part of the solution. I believe what is required is a much more deeply rooted process of transformation – an Arab version of glasnost with perestroika – starting with a new concept of state-citizen relations.

This is much more a transformation of mindset among all of us as citizens than it is of government activity. Just when our citizens will most want to revert back to the security of the paternalistic state, our public leaders – from government, religious establishments, the private sector and civil society – must lead an inclusive process.

In the past, collaboration across the public, private and civil society sectors has not come easily in Arab societies. It will be absolutely essential as we move forward. We must replace suspicion and wariness of each other’s intent with a sense of shared purpose and conviction; as well as mutual respect for the capabilities that each sector can bring to the table.

His Majesty King Abdullah II has described this requirement as ‘active citizenship’ – a foundation of social capital from citizens built on a genuine belief in civic rights and of civic responsibilities.

At the core of this dialogue amongst ourselves as citizens must be a discussion about how individuals and families will prosper through their lifetime.

• The notion that it must be built through self reliance rather than be gifted by a paternalistic state.
• The primacy of the rule of law so that if people work hard to build assets for their family – whether land, property or small businesses – that those ownership rights will be respected.
• The importance of investing in education to build one’s own employability rather than assume the government will guarantee a job.
• The need to pay taxes for public infrastructure and services and then vote at elections to hold governments to account for the quality of those services.
• The value of all types of professional vocations – plumbers and carpenters - not just doctors and engineers.

In short, genuine and active citizenship must be one of the new building blocks not just for rebuilding societies and economies across the Arab world; but reimagining them.
Young Arabs, if given the chance and feeling invested in their own future, would design different cities and different business models than previous generations. We must authorize them to innovate and lead this process of reimagining a new political economy.

Finally, The Arab world needs a new architecture for regional security dialogue and conflict management.
The Syria crisis, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict which remains unaddressed, are painful reminders of the lack of an inclusive and effective regional security framework.

For too long we have relied on a patchwork of intermediaries to compensate for the absence of an effective and inclusive platform for dialogue and conflict resolution.
o The Arab League
o UN Special Envoys
o P5+1…
o Quartets
o Unilateral initiatives from one or other superpower – the US, the Russians, the French, ….

This patchwork approach has also meant that regional and international leaders have lurched from one crisis and its diplomatic initiatives to another like firefighters.

As a result, an integrated and holistic exchange of views about the inter-dependencies across the region has been lost. There is currently no framework to help pull that integrated view with all its inter-dependencies back into focus.

After World War II, the international community had the capacity to respond. Comprehensive peace agreements were negotiated, signed, enforced and empowered. That included establishing a new international conflict resolution and peace building architecture in the form of the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, NATO, the Marshall Plan and other institutions.

In this region we have failed to respond to the Arab Spring moment. In part that is because the regional security and conflict resolution architecture was not there to channel the winds of change into productive and orderly reform of government policies and institutions and the build-up of civil society and private sector capabilities. So what could have been a spring turned out to be a long winter.

With this in mind, I would suggest that it is time to revisit the idea of an OSCE for the Arab World.

The Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provides a helpful analog for a broad and inclusive platform bringing together the region and key international players with a focus on conflict resolution and confidence building.

We need an inclusive platform bringing together Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Israelis (once they conclude peace treaties with all of their Arab neighbours), Americans, Russians, Europeans and even Japanese and Chinese given their growing economic importance to the region.

Now is the time to start designing and building support for such an architecture.

Once ISIS is defeated militarily we need to be willing and, most importantly, able to take the Syria and Iraq conflicts off the battlefield into a better-structured and inclusive diplomatic process.

Institutions of course take time to be formed and to develop habits and practices of dialogue and decision-making. But let’s remember that the OSCE began to take shape over the course of 3 conferences known as the Helsinki Process between 1973 and 1975.

Something similar could be designed and commenced at relatively short notice in this part of the world, perhaps in this very venue, to give birth to a similar regional security and conflict resolution architecture for the MENA region.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that these challenges are immense and the initiatives I have offered here would no doubt be difficult to implement. But we live today with the terrible consequences of the alternative. The international community cannot afford to have another generation of Arabs lost from another decade of chaos and turmoil.

Taking conflict off the battlefield; restoring confidence in public leaders; and encouraging active citizenship in the redesign of a sustainable social contract and an inclusive model of development must be key components to the broader effort to counter radicalization.

I look forward to learning more from the discussions ahead and thank you all for coming to Jordan.