First, the world is changing at a breathtaking pace.
While the rate of climate change is alarming, technology is advancing at the speed of light. Second, the crises of the 2020s - the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukrainian war and the economic fallout from both - are not necessarily here to stay. Opportunities for ending them do exist, albeit after considerable suffering. Third, the Middle East, believe it or not, is in the process of transformation, not because of waves of extremism, violence, terrorism and civil warfare, but by dint of trends towards reform, sustainable development and regional cooperation in these frameworks, among Arab states especially.
COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh reflected a crucial awareness of the peril that looms over the planet and, no less importantly, how this awareness has generated a race for technology, not just to address that existential threat, but also to pave the way for a new industrial revolution. As we know a fourth technological industrial revolution is in progress.
The best known aspect of it is an outcrop of the IT revolution, namely artificial intelligence. Perhaps less familiar is the latest phase in the green revolution and the emergent technologies to harvest sunlight and wind, generate rain and clean water, turn the deserts green, and more. The climate challenge threw down the gauntlet and, rather than accept hunger, thirst and disease as its fate, humankind did as it has always done since the dawn of time, which is to take nature by its horns in order to generate more food and water, new forms of energy and means of communication.
In like manner, humankind rose to the challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In two years we had the vaccines and protocols to treat the disease around the world.
We were also able to resume traffic in airports and seaports and have supply chains up and running again. But just as the global economy seemed on course to economic recovery and a new spurt of growth, the Ukrainian war erupted. Fighting centred on four cities: Kyiv, Mariupol, Kherson and Odessa. The linchpin was Kherson. If the Russians took it, they would have a clear path to Odessa. If the Ukrainians held it, Odessa would remain safe and their access to the Black Sea would remain secure. The Russians seized Kherson early on in the war, but recently they withdrew and Ukrainian forces re-entered the city. This change in the military situation could mark the most important turning point in relations between the great powers.
We should bear in mind several crucial factors in this context. Firstly, the withdrawal was announced by the Russian Ministry of Defence and neither Putin nor the operations command were mentioned.
What was particularly striking in the Russian MoD’s statement was not so much its suggestion that Kherson city was Russian but its implication that Russia would be able to return through negotiations. Secondly, President Putin refused to attend the G20 meeting in Bali or to deliver an address to that assembly online. It was Foreign Minister Lavrov who represented Russia. Thirdly, a meeting took place in Turkey between the heads of the Russian and US intelligence agencies. Fourthly, US President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Bali.
According to reports the two leaders established certain red lines for their relationship. It appears they agreed that there is one China but that this did not imply a right to invade Taiwan, and that Washington and Beijing would work to keep the competition between them under control. American commentators likened this development to the era of the Détente between the superpowers in the 1970s, when the superpowers met to explore ways to keep their relationship off a direct collision course and to curb the arms race.
As for the Middle East, its present and recent past are growing lightyears apart, and the climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh reflected this. The Arab states worked together like a tightly knit family as Egypt managed to obtain what it needed to become a regional hub for renewable energy then handed the COP torch to the UAE, which will host next year’s summit in Dubai. Saudi Arabia boasted two large exhibitions, one in the Blue Zone where the official talks took place, and the other in the Green Zone which was packed with visitors. They displayed the Middle East Green Initiative, which we discussed last week. The initiative is not just about fighting climate change; it is about how to change the world with new technologies in desert regions.
In another development, on 17 November, the Saudi Embassy in Cairo posted the following news item: “Jeddah Airports has completed preparations to welcome travellers wishing to attend the 2022 FIFA World Cup matches to be held in Qatar from 20 November to 18 December, by providing scheduled (regular) and daily flight options and increasing operational traffic from King Abdulaziz International Airport in Doha, State of Qatar.”
The article proceeds to discuss dozens of details about the types of flights, the regular airport transport services, special buses, ground staff and other facilities that will be available to World Cup fans in King Abdulaziz International Airport, as well as the events and activities the airport authorities have organised to encourage support for the Saudi national team and other Arab national teams competing for the cup.
The foregoing scenes of change point in encouraging directions. The main point here is not just that the changing world is not necessarily headed for destruction and mankind is not necessarily doomed to the ravages of war without end, but also that human abilities are great. The Russian war in Ukraine has shown that Russia is not winning, but also that NATO expansionism has limits and, perhaps more importantly, that Western economic sanctions against Russia not only punish Russia but the rest of the world as well.
I wonder whether someone in Washington has woken up to the fact that drawing a line in the sand between “democrats” and “authoritarians,” apart from its historical, political and moral fallacy, is an instrument for sowing huge tensions between two countries upon whose concord universal peace depends. In the Arab region of the Middle East, at least, we are emerging from a long, dark tunnel. Since the AlUla Declaration, more and more bridges of cooperation have opened between Arab states and Qatar.
Saudi Arabia is not the only country that has welcomed Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. All other Arab countries in the Gulf are doing likewise. And while there is no denying they are bound by an eagerness to support Arab football teams, this is a sign that the spirit of reform has extended to the Arab order as a whole.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.