Authors: Patrik Kurath and Shlomo Roiter Jesner*
The Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum’s (MENAF) inaugural Young Leaders’ Initiative provides an opportunity to its first cohort of 13 postgraduate fellows to not only review the most important strategic issues impacting today’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but also to develop an original piece of policy analysis with the help of renowned experts in the field of MENA research and related to the topics that decisionmakers are currently discussing in the rooms of Parliament and Whitehall, as well as beyond the United Kingdom.
What’s striking about today’s Middle East is not only a multiplicity of concurrent political, economic and security challenges, but also their highly international nature. Most domestic crises in the Middle East are deeply intertwined with regional concerns as well as broader international priorities.
In today’s day and age of the Middle East, if ever, only an international approach can feasibly understand and attempt to alleviate such challenges.
Analysts and policymakers who have taken a macro-level view of the MENA region have followed crisis to crisis over the past decade and a half, complete with international interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ensuing war on terror, the Arab Spring uprisings from Tunisia to Bahrain, civil wars in Libya and Syria, the war in Yemen, and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, and the subsequent international campaign to eliminate it. More recently, alarm bells in the region and beyond have been raised by Iran’s belligerent foreign policy via its proxy network spanning Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories in addition to its ever-developing nuclear programme, the multi-dimensional politico-economic crisis that has impacted Lebanon, and the war that unfolded between Israel and the Gaza Strip-based terrorist group, Hamas, since 7th October.
Although the above list is far from exhaustive, the somewhat gloomy image of the region is counterbalanced by the new international diplomatic and development initiatives and, in general, the tremendous potential that the MENA region’s young population holds.
Only in 2023, various intra-regional and internationally sponsored initiatives emerged to offer solutions to some of the gravest policy challenges on the ground. In March, long-standing foes Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to restore their official diplomatic ties following a last stage of negotiations brokered by China. Since April, Omani mediators have ramped up their efforts to liaise between the United States and Iran about the latter’s nuclear file. In May, Arab states voted to readmit Syria—under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad—to the Arab League. From June onwards, Saudi Arabian and French diplomats have tried to undo the political deadlock in Lebanon’s presidential election process. Russian and Iranian diplomats have tried to bring Turkey and Syria closer together as part of the Astana process. Most recently since October, Egyptian, U.S. and European efforts have been aimed at keeping the war in Gaza at bay. In each of the cases above, facilitators and spoilers included, a number of regional and extra-regional players take a stake, jointly making up a highly internationalised strategic environment in the MENA region.
This environment necessitates the re-evaluation of decades-old analytical and policymaking paradigms, and calls for the introduction of fresh perspectives.
The young population of the MENA region is one of the arenas where such perspectives are anticipated to emerge. When it comes to the demographic makeup of the Middle East and North Africa, a distinct trend emerges in contrast to the ageing demographics seen in Western Europe: over 50% of the population is below the age of 30. The latent power of younger generations has the potential to construct a more peaceful and collaborative future for the region, if tapped into.
With fellows with an academic and professional background touching on Morocco, Libya, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to name a few, and more than half of the cohort coming from MENA region itself, the Young Leaders’ Initiative taps precisely into this potential, combining local and international perspectives, and being guided by the shared mindset of participants for dialogue, understanding and cooperation.
The United Kingdom serves as the most appropriate venue for the programme. With its globally coveted education system, long history of diplomacy and mediation, and international commitment to fostering peace and prosperity, the UK has established itself as a second home for some of the world’s most ambitious young leaders, researchers and policymakers.
The Young Leaders’ Initiative stands as a unique programme in a public affairs environment defined by ever-increasing polarisation, a widening gap between opposing positions of extremity, and a culture of self-reinforcing echo chambers, that even the UK is gravely exposed to. The Initiative endeavours to espouse the spirit of dialogue and debate as core values that must come back to the foreground of democratic policymaking.
Track II diplomacy brings together civil society representatives to develop negotiations and dialogue in an attempt to find a way to transform underlying conditions that sustain the conflict in question at both a societal and regional level. The logic behind this strategy is that by incorporating members of civil society, negotiations can connect at the human level and bridge common interests between the parties involved without the usual bureaucracy that plagues conversations between official diplomatic representatives.
In a similar spirit, the Young Leaders Initiative brings together its cohort of postgraduate students and young professionals to foster person-to-person conversations and analysis about the most important political, economic and security issues impacting the MENA region today. The Initiative’s inaugural programme endeavours to build the foundations of a forum for MENA researchers, analysts and future policymakers in the United Kingdom, bridging the gap between academia and the public and private sectors of the professional world, as well as the gaps existing between the United Kingdom and countries of the Middle East and North Africa in the fields of foreign policy analysis and policymaking.
*Shlomo Roiter Jesner is the president and co-founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum.