EU Needs More Assertive Foreign Policy in the Middle East

European Views: 30/06/2020

Interview by Ivan Dikov

An interview with Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, the founding president of the Middle East Research Institute (MERI), an academic policy research institute and think tank based in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

For the past three years, MERI has been ranked as Iraq’s leading policy research institute and No. 34 in the Middle East and North Africa by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program of the University of Pennsylvania.

Before founding MERI in 2014, Prof. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen served as the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2009 – 2012, and was a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

He has been campaigning internationally for the human rights of the Kurdish people and in favor of banning biological and chemical weapons since the 1980s.


As an expert in the politics, security and human rights topics in the Middle East but also as a professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases, how would you say Iraq and the Kurdistan Region been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Iraq was lucky until the end of May. The viral spread remained limited, which gave a false sense of security both to the government and general public.

The KRI, on the other hand, was very pro-active and successful in preventing the entry and subsequent dissemination of the virus.

However, things are changing. The curve appears to be rising rapidly and exponentially in both the KRI and the rest of Iraq.

The two governments are alarmed as they stand somewhat helpless due to their depleted finances and poor healthcare system.

How would you characterize the coronavirus pandemic in the region of the Middle East? What have been the main trends? Which Middle Eastern countries have done best, and which have failed in tackling it?

Experiences vary in different countries, but they all were severely hit by Covid 19 and have realized their limitations or fragilities.

Iran was worst hit from the outset with large numbers of deaths. Their published data are not sufficiently reliable; therefore, we do not know if and when they have passed the peak.

However, as soon as they relaxed the lockdown, they witnessed a second wave of new cases and deaths. The Iranian government was criticized for acting late and relaxing the lockdown prematurely.

Turkey was badly hit, too. They witnessed one of the fastest growing outbreaks, but their health system and overall economy remained in a better shape compared to Iran. They never implemented a total lockdown, yet they believe that the peak is behind them.

Iraq, Syria and Yemen are all dysfunctional states, each facing simultaneous and intertwined security, political and economic crises. They have problems with planning and implementing policies.

Luckily, the WHO and other international agencies are offering support but in the absence of reliable data, it is difficult to characterize their trend.

The Gulf countries varied in their responses. On the whole, they applied stringent lockdowns from the outset; nonetheless their migrant communities were disproportionally badly hit.

All around the world, there have been concerns that governments, authorities, ruling regimes, are taking advantage of the pandemic to crack down to human rights, freedoms, and democracy. Do you think that has been the case in the Middle East? Has the pandemic helped regimes roll back progress towards greater freedom?

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic made authorities in several countries feel more insecure and used the lockdown measures to suppress the opposition.

Iraq is the case in point. From October 1, 2019, the country faced protracted and bloody mass protests across the capital and the southern cities, which eventually brought the former government down.

Despite violent suppression, there were no signs of the protests disappearing anytime soon, until COVID-19 arrived. The subsequent lockdown measures offered the authorities the perfect opportunity to clear the streets. Lebanon is another good example in that regard.

The outburst of protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran since 2019 has been dubbed a “Second Arab Spring” by many commentators. What has been behind these protests? What are their prospects?

I would not call this a second Spring. These protests have been sporadic. They do not constitute threats to the regimes and are unlikely to precipitate significant changes in the near future.

The regimes in all these countries are increasingly confident that status quo will remain, and there is no need to panic.

Yet, the protests are tangible expressions of people’s unhappiness about the regimes across the Middle East. They are outcomes of decades-long poor governance, weak rule-of-law, rampant corruption and the leaders’ collective failure to build their nations or their states.

The Middle East countries are rich with natural and human resources. However, their economies are poorly managed.

What public areas or fields harbor the best potential for civil society work in societies such as the KRI, Iraq, Lebanon, other countries in the region. That is, what should foreign donors invest into if they want to help civil society, social justice, social change in these societies?

It varies in different countries, however, in general, they all need extensive training and capacity building in the fields of journalism, justice-oriented NGOs, women right organization, youth empowerment and promoting entrepreneurship.

As the Higher Education Minister of the KRG, what were your main goals and philosophy in reforming the education system and did you achieve those?

I was mainly focused on quality. Our goal was to introduce (a) a system of quality assurance and accreditation that did not exist, (b) building human and infrastructure capacity which were among the weakest in the region, (c) restructuring the management which remains a communist style and (d) making education relevant by connecting it to the labor market, which were totally detached.

We achieved historic milestones on (a) and (b), and the changes remain in place to date. We awarded over 4500 scholarships to talented young men and women to study in centers of excellence abroad. We used various ways to link local universities with international counterparts.

On (c) and (d), we made good progress but were only partially successful, due largely to the brevity of the tenure of our Cabinet, which was just over 2 years, and a lack of follow up and consolidation thereafter.

One of the major barriers for progress proved to be the dated Higher Education Law that was not fit for purpose. Another obvious barrier, of course, was the inherent resistance in the system for change, including the pushback from networks of interest.

The Kurdish nation is widely known as the world’s largest nation without a state. There was the independence referendum of 2017 and its complicated aftermath. Do you favor independence for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq? What would be the best outcome – including taking into account regional and international security?

The Kurds have long been struggling for basic human and political rights, and for gaining international recognition.

In Iraq, we finally achieved a higher degree of self-rule compared to the Kurds in Iran, Turkey or Syria.

The Iraqi Kurds have long emphasized that they would happily remain within a stable, democratic and prosperous Iraq. This goal remains elusive.

Historically, whenever central governments in these countries became more authoritarian, suppressive or dysfunctional, the Kurds’ desire for independence increased.

In 2003, we all braced ourselves for a transition from brutal dictatorship to a constitutional democracy. However, Iraq became more fragile, unstable and chaotic.

Now, the struggle for a greater degree of sovereignty has not been diluted, but the leaders are being more realistic.

The regional and global powers as well as the international community are not ready for an independent Kurdistan, and the Kurdistan Region itself has not been made ready, either.

Instead of rushing for independence, the leaders should focus on the foreseeable future on nation- and state-building within the existing entity.

Kurdistan can be independent without being separated or isolated, and without having a flag in the United Nations.

You have been a long-time activists in the UK on behalf of the Kurdish people – since the 1980s. Just looking back, what is your judgment on the 2003 Iraq Invasion – has that changed Iraq and the region for the better?

I was supportive of the war and never had any regrets. The 2003 regime change triggered the dismantling of a stagnant and rigid Middle East order.

Yes, we are extremely disappointed with the ruling elite as well as the global and regional powers who have contributed to the current outcome, but I believe we are in a transition after several generations of dictatorship and autocratic rules.

It may take another generation or more to reach a new equilibrium, but a new order will emerge and Iraq’s democratic constitution will eventually consolidate. It is too early to judge the impact of the 2003 on the region.

The wider Middle East seems like a “total mess” – for example, the wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya; the Iran – Saudi Arabia rivalry; the eternal Israeli – Arab conflict; the rivalries between Turkey and Russia or Russia and the US; etc. What is the way forward, or the way out? Are there any keys or trumpcards (no pun intended) at least for stabilization?

The way forward is (a) for the global powers to realize that the political and security dynamics in the Middle East have changed.

There are numerous state, sub-state and armed non-state actors inextricably integrated, and must be engaged differently.

And (b) for the regional players to accept that they all have reached their limits and should start de-securitizing politics and economies.

Iran’s policies are shaped by past and present security considerations. Their drive to extend their influence has weakened many states in the region but they too have become weak. Iran is not an economic power, and its resources are finite.

Turkey is not in peace with itself, and its regional policies are shaped by its internal conflicts. Their prosperity and economic growth have been on the decline since they abandoned the ‘zero-problem-with-neighbors’ policies.

The Saudis and other Gulf states have realized that their reliance on oil money and US military protection had given them a false sense of security. Amidst regional chaos, they remain exposed and vulnerable.

As for the fragile and failed states of the Middle East, the status quo is not sustainable. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have all lost their sovereignty and their ability to make their own decisions.

It is now time for the regional and global stakeholders to engage in win-win (or at least no-loss no-loss) outcomes.

How do you see the European Union with respect to the Middle East and its relations with the KRI and Iraq? What should the EU be doing in the region?

The EU and its member states had, and still have, a unique opportunity to fill the void that is left by the United States’ disengagement.

The Middle East needs some global powers to provide leadership as well as to act as effective power-brokers.

The EU is trusted in the Middle East for its motives and intentions. Importantly, it is in the interest of the EU and its member states to engage the regional actors constructively and help create an environment conducive to dialogue and stabilization process.

Remember, the Europeans are the immediate neighbors who had to deal with the consequences of instability in the Middle East, including terrorism, refugees and loss of trade.

It is unfortunate that the EU is institutionally incapable of adopting an assertive foreign policy, but luckily the members states can.

All they need to do is to share a vision and develop a common and concerted approach.

What led you to decide to leave an impressive career in medicine in London, and go back to Kurdistan?

A good question, and the honest answer is: even as a professor in medicine, politics and policy research were in my blood from the outset.

My fascination with science and medicine pushed me into a clinical academic career, but my passion for politics in the Middle East remained very much alive.

While training in London, I was heavily involved in lobbying for human rights and supported nation-building projects in both Kurdistan and Iraq.

I learned a lot from the UK system, and contributed to the UK’s academic and health institutions at technical and leadership positions.

But I had always felt that I owed Kurdistan the last ten years of my career. This is where I wanted to contribute before I retire.

I realized that there is so much to be done and not enough people to do them. So, the transition may look radical but was not really difficult.