A Jordanian Ambassador's Guide to Understanding Politics in the Middle East
Last Wednesday I sat down with His Excellency Dr. Omar Rifai, a former Jordanian ambassador, for an informal interview discussing the current events affecting the Middle East and the Arab world. Trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, Dr. Rifai painted a well-informed picture of a region in constant change. Ultimately, he provided a great long-term analysis that helps us understand what is going on.
Dr. Omar Rifai joined the Jordanian Diplomatic Service in 1975 and served in Jordan's missions to Cairo, Berne, New York, London, and Washington from 1976 to 1994. Between 1994-1996, he held the position of coordinator for the Middle East peace process and director of the Special Bureau at the Foreign Ministry in Amman, as well as being a member of the Jordanian delegation to the Jordan-Israel peace talks. In 1996, Dr. Rifai was sworn in as ambassador, serving in Israel, Italy, and Egypt.
We started by discussing the recent events in Syria. The ambassador immediately pointed out that ultimately, “Syria is very important because it is the true heart of Arab nationalism — It’s the center of Arabism.” As such, he considers the current conflict as a natural “continuation of the Arab Spring, whatever that means.”
“What happened in the past month is important,” observed the ambassador. “It put Bashar Al-Assad back on top as the party that people and states refer to. He’s once again the person who speaks for Syria and two months ago this was not the case.”
The discussion then moved to the effects of the Syrian crisis on U.S.-Russian relations and the region as a whole. Who won, who lost?
“I think, contrary to what most people say, that everyone came out a winner,” affirmed the ambassador. “Obama did not want to go to war. He drew a red line that was crossed 14 times, but he really was not keen on going to war, even before the vote of the British Parliament,” he explained. “The Russian leadership gave him a way out of the situation, which allows him to still make the claim of leaving a non-interventionist legacy, at least at this stage.”
When asked whether Obama actually has a wider foreign policy plan, the ambassador answered positively. “I think he does. The bigger plan is Iran. He is seeking a solution with Iran, especially after Rohani’s election,” he argued. “Had he gone into Syria he would have compromised his chances with Iran. Syria plays into that chess game and was used as a peaceful message to the Iranians.”
“Even inaction is action in diplomacy,” he said. “I can see Iran interrupting their nuclear program. They want to end their isolation.”
“Russia came out as a winner. They are back in the game as a regional power,” he added. “Secondly, Assad also came out a winner as he regained authority domestically and internationally. Everyone won, except for the Syrian opposition.”
As we concluded the discussion on the topic, Ambassador Rifai made what was probably the most valuable consideration in the whole conversation. When asked about what overarching forces are at play in the current conflicts, he made a case for a macro-regional transition. “The modern Arab world is 100 years old,” he pointed out. “The pieces haven’t settled yet and I think this is what is happening now. Redrawing the maps or changing the leadership lies at the end game of the process. The Arab Spring is a part of the Arab maturing process.”
We then moved to the usual, inconclusive, and painful topic: Israel. How does this play into prospects for peace?
“The Israelis are very happy. The Arab world is in disarray. The three strongest Arab countries, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, are not a threat anymore. The topic of negotiations is completely off the table,” explained the ambassador. “There’s no pressure on Israel to make concessions. Obviously there needs concessions on their front with regards to the land occupied in 1967, and there is no political will or need to do so at the moment. They are building more settlements as we speak.”
When considering the role of international powers and institutions, Ambassador Rifai seemed anything but optimistic. “The other forces are preoccupied with their internal issues,” he argued. “Kerry went for this because he needs a process more than peace. It will not lead to anything in the near term.”
However, this led me to ask an additional question. Considering the chaos characterizing the major Arab powers and the lack of unity among them, why would this not be a convenient time for Israel to strike a deal, considering that they would have the upper hand in any negotiation?
“I think this is true. Israel is being short-sighted,” agreed the ambassador, to my surprise. “People like Netanyahu are more concerned with staying in power rather than consider how Israel will look in 20 years.”
“This would be the perfect time for the Israelis to have a solution,” he continued. “It all comes down to whether Israel wants to remain as ‘Israel and the region’ or ‘Israel in the region.’”
The ambassador also added that “the Palestinians are desperate for a solution. Abbas’ own future depends on it.” We are facing a situation in which the side that could gain the most from negotiations is less predisposed to talk for domestic, bureaucratic, and political interest.
“They don’t feel the pressure to reach a peace agreement. But if they don’t, who will?”