The region and the world

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 28 May 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said attended a remarkable conference in Riyadh


The Saudi capital, Riyadh, has become a place to seek wisdom on the times in which we live. After my initial astonishment upon heading into town from the city’s airport, mentally comparing the view from the car window with what I saw less than a year ago, I found the huge transformation enlightening. Almost overnight, a city striving to change had become another city, sporting the garb of the new urban centres of the world and the region. Against the backdrop of this sea change which demonstrates the possibility of ushering in a new world in a country where this was inconceivable a decade ago, one wondered whether the same is possible regarding the world of ideas. Certainly, for those gathered at the Al-Faisaliah Hotel, it was not possible to imagine a world other than the one from which they came, one that embodies the ideals of humanitarianism, international law, and sound governance.

Al-Faisaliah was the venue for an important conference, hosted by the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS), under the patronage of Prince Turki Al-Faisal, and in cooperation with two prestigious international institutions. Its purpose was to discuss a changing world and Middle East, the state of the global economy, and international technological developments. Most of the attendees hailed from that world which was born in the post-Cold War era from the fruit of an imagined supremacy of liberal democratic laws, norms, and conventions, which Francis Fukuyama said would mark the “end of history”. Many came from countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that arose since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Many of them had emerged from the tight grip of the Russian bear from which they inherited a legacy sufficient to divide Czechoslovakia into two countries (Czechia and Slovakia) and breed countless tragedies for transnational minorities in the course of demarcating boundaries between emergent countries.

From that new environment came former heads of state and foreign ministers who had lived through those national birth pangs in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, with all their dreams and aspirations. Today, in the third decade of this century, they are part of a world that has changed beyond all imagination. But it is one that has recently brought the elections of Trump and his likes in Washington and Europe, the US exit from Afghanistan and the Middle East and then its heavy return to the latter, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine after annexing portions of it, as occurred in a similar way in Georgia. Also, and more significantly, the ideas that had gained currency several decades ago have evaporated. Even Fukuyama has backed off his thesis, acknowledging that Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” was closer to the mark. Recall that the latter established the theoretical framework of the global conflict between Western European civilisation as it emerged in the post-World War II era versus other world civilisations that adhered to traditional national and religious identities. The war against terrorism in this context was a global war.

The conference in Riyadh took place under the dark shadow of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict which, as murky as the situation is, appears poised for another round, as well as under the equally heavy shadow of the fifth Gaza war. Participants from the Baltic, Balkans, Central Asia, and Middle East could only shed the troubles of the present by turning back to the early moments of the post-Cold War era and cling to the ideals of a bygone age.  

As though to encourage this, as the conference proceedings were in progress, the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court gave cause to believe that they have a constructive role to play in the Middle East conflict. The term “double standards” had never resounded as loudly and frequently as it has in recent months. To many in the conference, it seemed like the world was at a point of the moral formation of states, as though modern states today stood at the foot of the mountain, like human beings millennia ago, as the Prophet Moses came down to unveil the Ten Commandments, cautioning of the Divine punishment that awaited those who refused to obey. Of course, realities on the ground are different. Summoning the provisions of the Genocide Convention and the Geneva Conventions to protect the Palestinians from genocide and forced displacement may seem unrealistic and unfeasible, especially to the Palestinians, as well as the Ukrainians, who have already been killed or driven into exile. Still, the attendees clutched at the rules and standards of moral conduct, demanding more effective international organisations to enforce them. Moreover, the majority appeared convinced that a juster world was within reach, that it was possible to rid it of great power struggles, ambitions for domination and hegemony, and a long history of accumulated hatreds and endless feuds.

On the other hand, there were some bright candles in the darkness. Among these were the many Saudi women who took part in the conference, embodying the great wisdom and foresight that enabled the female half of Saudi society to participate in a genuine national renaissance.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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