DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Today, I’ll talk about the Paris attacks, but before I do, I want to share two news stories here, in case you missed them: The first calf to come from a cloned camel was born at a research center in Dubai, and a local taxi start-up is taking on Uber in the Arab world.
You may think that these emirates start-ups — cloning camels and cabs — have nothing to do with Paris, but they do. Bear with me.
A newspaper here, the National, quoted Dr. Ali Ridha Al Hashimi, the administrative director of the Reproductive Biotechnology Center in Dubai, announcing “that Injaz, the world’s first cloned camel, gave birth to a healthy female calf weighing about 38 kilos on November 2. Injaz, whose name means ‘achievement’ in Arabic, was cloned in 2009 from the ovarian cells of a dead camel.” Previously, when the pregnancy was disclosed, the center’s scientific director, Dr. Nisar Wani, said, “This will prove cloned camels are fertile and can reproduce the same as naturally produced camels.”
Also last week, a hot local Arab ride-sharing start-up, Careem.com, raised $60 million more in venture financing to take on Uber in the Arab world, using technology that allows for pre-booking of vehicles through its mobile app — ideal for Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive and need chauffeurs to take them and their kids everywhere.
So, about 1,000 miles south of the ISIL start-up in Iraq and Syria — where jihadis are using technology to spawn disruption on a massive scale — another group of Muslims (and non-Muslims) in another Arab country is disrupting the world of camels and cabs.
The message? The context within which Arabs and Muslims live their lives really matters. And in too many places they’ve had only two choices: the iron fist of generals, like Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who is trying to stifle all dissent, or the ISIL madness that says the only way forward is to take the Arab-Muslim world backward.
Fortunately, there is a third way: the autocracies, monarchies and a few frail democracies that have invested in their people and created islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kurdistan, Kuwait, Morocco and the UAE — where more young Arabs and Muslims can realize their full potential and build their dignity by disrupting camels and cabs — not Paris and Beirut.
For me, the big strategic question in Iraq and Syria is: What would it take to uproot ISIL and create a Sunni island of decency in its place? For starters, that requires an honest assessment of how big the challenge is.
Sixty years ago, Asian dictators told their people, in effect: “I am going to take away your freedom — but give you the best education, export-led economics and infrastructure that money can buy — and in a half-century you’ll build a middle class that will gradually take your freedom back.” In the Arab world, 60 years ago dictators told their people, in effect: “I am going to take away your freedom and give you the Arab-Israeli conflict, a shiny object to distract you from my corruption and predation.”
That difference, 60 years later, has produced the Asian economic miracle and fueled the Arab civilizational meltdown/disorder in Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Given that, I believe U.S. foreign policy out here should progress as follows: Where there is disorder, help create order, because without order nothing good can happen. I will take el-Sisi over the Muslim Brotherhood. But where there is order, we need to push for it to become more decent and forward-looking. That is where el-Sisi is failing: His vision is just order for order’s sake, with no positive slope. Where there is decent order, like the UAE, Jordan or Kurdistan, encourage it to gradually become more open and constitutional. And where there is constitutional order, as in Tunisia, protect it like a rare flower.
An Iraqi friend with family still in ISIL-controlled Mosul tells me that President Obama’s stepped-up bombing and special operations with the Kurds are hurting ISIL a lot. It was in part to disguise this that ISIL unleashed its death parade in Paris. But these ISIL guys are smart and still very dangerous. I’d support more bombing and special ops to further weaken and contain them.
But before we go beyond that, we need to face this fact: To sustainably defeat bad ISIL Sunnis, you need good non-ISIL Sunnis to create an island of decency in their place. And right now, alas, finding and strengthening good non-ISIL Sunnis is the second priority of all the neighbors.
Turkey cares more about defeating Kurds; Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies care more about defeating Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Syria; Qatar cares more about promoting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and annoying Saudi Arabia; Iran cares more about protecting Shiites in Iraq and Syria than creating a space for decent Sunnis to thrive, and many of the non-ISIL Sunni activists in Syria and Iraq are still Islamists — and they’re not going away.
How do you weave a decent carpet from these threads?
I don’t know — and until I do I’d be cautious about going far beyond what we’re already doing. Paris may be totally different today. The Middle East is not.