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Future Outlook and Issues in Achieving Stability in the Middle East where Chaos Continues
- Deepening turmoil amid civil conflict in Syria, course of conflict between major powers Iran and Saudi Arabia -

Tension continues amid ongoing civil war in Syria. Iran and Saudi Arabia have severed diplomatic relations. And young people are becoming followers of extremist organization Islamic State (IS). Why has the Middle East fallen into such a state of turmoil and why is it unable to extricate itself from this state? Politics, religion and history are intertwined in the problems of the Middle East in a complicated manner, and there are many aspects that Japanese find difficult to comprehend. At the same time, there are also significant visible changes in some areas including growing expectations of Iran as a potential market following the recent lifting of economic sanctions. On this occasion we invited Prof. Keiko Sakai, Middle Eastern political specialist and faculty head of the Faculty of Law, Politics and Economics at Chiba University, to talk to us about the background of the turmoil in the Middle East, measures for stabilization there, and what kind of developments we can expect in the future.

Prof. Keiko Sakai

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Dean, Department of Law, Faculty of Law, Politics and Economics,Chiba University

In 1982 joined the Institute of Developing Economies (Japan External Trade Organization: JETRO) after graduating from the College of Liberal Arts, The University of Tokyo. After serving as special attaché at the Embassy of Japan in Iraq and overseas researcher in Cairo, Egypt, took up her position as professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. She moved to Chiba University in 2005.
Has also served as President of The Japan Association of International Relations, Fellow at the Virtual Center for Advanced Studies Institution (VCASI), a member of the Section I, Science Council in Japan, and book review committee member, Asahi Shimbun.
Publications: Iraq and America (Iwanami Shinsho, 2002), Iraq: War and Occupation (Iwanami Shinsho, 2004), Eating in Iraq (Iwanami shoten, 2008), The World as Viewed from the Middle East (Iwanami Junior Shinsho, 2014), The Shifting Middle East and Changing Japan 2012-2015 (Misuzu Shobo, 2016)
Awards: Ajia Taiheiyou Kenkyu Taishou (Asia Pacific Research Award : Grand prize), 2003, Daido Seimei Chiiki Kenkyu Shoureishou (Daido Life Insurance Area Studies Award : Encouragement Award), 2009

Background to the turmoil in the Middle East

Shirai: Conditions in the Middle East have been marked by turmoil for quite a long time now. The region is troubled by a number of problems including the impact of the fall in crude oil prices on the business side, and there are a number of difficulties in coming to terms with these problems. Prof. Sakai, as you are a specialist in Iraqi political history and modern Middle East politics, I would like to begin our discussion today by focusing on Iraq. In 1980, there was the Iran-Iraq War, which was followed by the Gulf War of 1991, the Iraq War of 2003, and recently the Islamic State, or IS, is expanding its area of control. Can you please tell us about the background to this protracted, ongoing turmoil in the Middle Eastern states, particularly in Iraq?

Sakai: Most of the Middle Eastern countries are crude oil producing partner states and use their huge profits from oil to invest in a range of businesses. Essentially, a structure exists whereby when the oil-producing states prosper, developed countries also profit. Iraq in the 70s was a typical example. As an oil-producing state, it invested enormous funds in domestic development from the end of the 1970s until about the first half of the 1980s. Even today Japanese companies remember Iraq of that time in a positive light as a suitable country for establishing business. It is perhaps because of this positive image of the past that there is such a strong feeling of bewilderment as to why that country has fallen into its current situation of turmoil. During times of stability, authoritarian governments not only in Iraq but in other Middle Eastern countries too, for better or worse, succeeded in managing their countries relatively well even as they made enemies. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime had also been in power for a long time under a dictatorship but collapsed immediately in the Iraq War. This was the start of upheaval in Iraq. The reason why the United States decided to attack Iraq in 2003 is that people in the United States became very wary of dictatorship governments and groups that could very well become terrorists in the Middle East, following the shocking events of September 11, 2001. Attacks on despotic governments using military means in Afghanistan and Iraq upset what stability had existed until then. This situation also gave rise to an attitude that if political conditions were going to prompt foreign intervention to overthrow despotic regimes, the people in the region may as well do it themselves. In fact, in what came to be called the Arab Spring, there was a change in government in a number of countries, and this also gave rise to turmoil in those countries. One could justly describe this as the failure of democratization but the overhasty attempt to change government led to a pervasive anxiety that weakened the government system not only in Iraq but also in other Middle Eastern countries as a whole. I believe this is what lies at the root of instability.

Shirai: The Arab Spring attracted the attention of the world, due to expectations of progress in the democratization of Arab countries. If we look back now, the assumption of people in the West that despotic regimes would end one after another and be replaced by democratic governments was an extremely simple assumption about the future based on Western standards. Even now I recall seeing an article in an American newspaper after the Iraq War that cited the model of the postwar democratization of Japan as the model for democratization in Iraq after the fall of the Hussein government. Upon reading this, I intuitively felt that the cases of Iraq and Japan were clearly different. If we look at the current situation in the Middle East, we can see that, with the exception of Tunisia, countries fell into civil war rather than becoming democratic countries and are now following a path completely different from expectations of the West. I feel there are various factors where these countries differ from countries in the West. There is also a view that the Arab Spring is still continuing. Can you please give your view of the situation?

Sakai: This is actually quite a complex problem. In regard to the overthrow of the despotic government during the Iraq War, a moment ago I mentioned that I believed such moves warranted more caution. One reason that changing governments through external intervention is problematic is that there is no clear “winning side.” It was the United States that overthrew Saddam’s administration, but within the country there was no clear “winning side” that toppled the regime. It was the United States that promoted democratization, held free elections, and established a new government. However, winning that election was essentially winning an election brought about by an American war. Consequently, the people of Iraq have continued to harbor a feeling of doubt regarding this government. From the viewpoint of the “losing side” that was purged after the war, the winning side essentially drew upon somebody else’s strength to obtain authority and its overt display of confidence is annoying, to say the least. This dissatisfaction and antagonism became factors that have given rise to today’s turmoil. If I can go back to the subject of the Arab Spring in regard to Egypt – unlike a change of government brought about through intervention based on the force of a foreign power, events in Egypt were based on the willful action of the people who were determined to oust a despotic government. And from Japan’s perspective, it appeared to be a movement that showed significant promise. The atmosphere was charged with the energy of the voiceless young people who took a stand with the conviction to change their country. However, even governments that were voted into power through free elections did not fare well. People who were not accustomed to multi-party electoral systems inevitably voted for benevolent organizations they are familiar with; these are religious parties. Those who stirred others into action to change the country in the Arab Spring were for the most part young people from liberal factions but they were not organized and had no experience as a political party.

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On the other hand, the Islamist party, which was close to the people, addressed their everyday problems and implemented caring social welfare policies, succeeded in achieving a clear victory in the election. Similar to the situation in Iraq after the war, the party that won the election ended up gloating over its newly-won status. This political party, which had suffered for many years under a despotic regime that classified its activities as illegal, won an overwhelming victory due to the introduction of a free voting system. As the winners, they must have believed that the country was now theirs to rule. As seen in many countries, the Morsi government, which advanced significantly as a result of the Arab Spring, put its own interests first rather than the original policies it had campaigned for, and moved to strengthen the influence of its own faction. In the end, although he was elected by popular vote, President Morsi was abandoned by many of his supporters within a year. His status was also challenged in a coup d’état. Egypt is a country with a very strong army and people ended up welcoming military intervention rather than going back to the polls to try to change the government. Looking back at that time, I feel it was unfortunate that the people in Egypt were too hasty in demanding results. If only they had taken more time to engage in election activities, or had formed new parties, or amended the constitution, they might have achieved a softer landing. A look at developments in countries other than Egypt after the so-called Arab Spring shows considerable variation from one country to the next. In Syria, although the people rose up in action, there was no resolution to who should hold power and chaos has continued as a consequence. In the case of Libya in North Africa, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and various European countries stepped in to topple the regime and support the newly established government but, as in Iraq, there was no “winning side,” and the country collapsed into civil conflict.

Indications from the civil war in Syria and IS

Shirai:: In Syria, President Assad maintained a dictatorship for a long time but the situation at present is one where the government forces, opposition forces and IS are facing off against each other. Initially there was a view that the Assad government would immediately fall and the opposition would establish a new government. However, Assad continues to cling to power and there is a feeling that the influence of the opposition has diminished. The United States has begun attacks on IS, which is growing in influence in the country. Russia and France have intervened, and neighboring Turkey has also become involved due to the Kurd problem, making the situation in the country look like a complicated puzzle. Since the Arab Spring, there are also other countries which, rather than making progress in democracy, have fallen into civil conflict. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what has caused the civil war in Syria in particular to escalate in the way it has.

Sakai: Prior to the Iraq War, there was a view that among the countries in the region, anti-government forces in Iraq and Syria lacked the power to overthrow the despotic governments in their country on their own. This was a reality that even the factions opposing the governments acknowledged. In other words, the despotic governments there could not be toppled without intervention from outside. The regime in Iraq fell as a result of the war with the United States in the Iraq War. In the case of Syria too, had there been no intervention from surrounding countries, it is unlikely that it would ever have ended up in its current state. From the outset, I did not believe that the situation would reach the stage where Assad would be ousted from power, but I did think that his government would at least try to reach some form of resolution by taking into consideration the demands for democracy and the views of the antigovernment forces. This did not happen, however, and I think that there are two factors contributing to this. The first is the antigovernment forces overestimated their position. They had expectations of receiving support from the West, including military support. However, only moral support was given until IS emerged. The second factor is the existence of Saudi Arabia, which is extremely sensitive to the progression of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia is not happy with the fact that signs of changes in government have become apparent in various countries of the Middle East. The government feels that it must act in some way to prevent the sudden collapse of the alliance relationships that it has built over the years. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia and Syria have many fundamental differences besides sectarian factors, such as military government versus a monarchy, and a republic versus a royalist form of government. Saudi Arabia probably believed that it could use this as an opportunity to topple Bashar Assad’s government.

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As in the cases of Libya and Iraq, it held expectations of U.S. intervention but, contrary to expectations, the United States did not make any proactive moves against Assad. As a result, Saudi Arabia probably felt that it had no choice but to intervene on its own, and formed a framework by gathering like-minded allies in surrounding countries including Turkey and the small gulf countries. On the other hand, the Assad government sought thesupport of Iran, a country with which it shared a favorable relationship since around the time of the Iran-Iraq War. And with the participation of Hezbollah-armed insurgents from Lebanon, who have close ties with Iran, the Syrian civil war at an early stage became a “proxy war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In other words, instead of immediate settlement of matters through internal power relations, resolution turned into a long, drawn-out process due to the successive intervention of external powers vying with each other over hegemony and national interests. Russia became involved in Syria after deciding that there would be no resolution if matters were left to the surrounding countries, in other words, after judging that the United States would not intervene, and, using its influence as a superpower, it made a bid to bring about resolution.

Shirai:: I believe that another factor further complicating the matters in the Middle East is the rise of IS. In the first place, what actually is IS? One major difference of Islam extremists today with their earlier counterparts is their use of the Internet to advocate global jihad and widely communicate with other believers of Islam. The propagation of their principles using such methods and international networks and expansion of their control to areas beyond national borders clearly demonstrate the divergence in activities from those of in the past. Leaving judgment as to whether this is good or bad aside, it is a fact that IS followers are appearing in every region of the world. If they were an extremist faction thatexisted in an area of a certain country, there would perhaps be a way to contain them but I feel completely thwarting the borderless spread of the influence of IS as a group that is connected simply by principles is difficult.

Sakai: Just as you mentioned, IS has different aspects from other previous extreme Islamist organizations such as Al Qaeda. In short, IS can be likened to drifts of discontented elements in society that have settled in some void in society and it is spreading because these drifts here and there are being absorbed as if being sucked into a blackhole. To be specific, IS became the destination of many people who had been ostracized in Iraq and were unable to remain in the country. Moreover, the people who rose up against the government in the civil war in Syria no longer had any place to go. Furthermore, as we saw in the simultaneous terrorist incidents in Paris, France last year, young people who have been victims of discrimination due to their being Muslim and who have been unable to adapt to society turn to IS, determined to achieve some form of revenge as a way of overcoming their grudges and resentment against Europe. In addition to people like these, there are also people who are simply attracted by violence because they find it “cool,” and they become involved in armed activities. To digress for a moment, there is one story I would like to share. One day a young Egyptian youth supposedly suddenly joined IS, surprising those around him. He was a person that both he himself and others would recognize as being a very masculine type, and he was very popular among young women. The question is, why did somebody like him, whom one would assume would train physically and want to be cool in the Western sense, turn to IS? The reason was, he was unable to get married despite his good looks, as he was lacking in economic resources. After living with this dissatisfaction that he could not resolve, he became an IS fighter. In IS, it is possible to marry even without funds for marriage. Moreover, there are actually women who come from Europe with the desire to become wives of IS fighters, whom they find attractive. As a result, various people of different levels of society come together in this way. From this perspective, I think people of various countries who were dissatisfied with life in today’s society have found in IS a place for them to go. The second reason is the state of internal turmoil in Syria, Iraq and Libya has given rise to areas where neither government nor antigovernment forces are in control, that is, “gaps” without order where people have been left to fend for themselves. It is because of the existence of these places that are governed by neither government nor anti-government factions that IS has been able to step in and take over. Like children who discover secret hideaways as they play, IS has established their bases in such gaps. The third reason is the principles I mentioned earlier. Until the end of the First World War, the Muslim societies were ruled under the caliph system, an Islamic method of government led by leaders of a joint Islamic body that oversaw both government and religion. If we draw a comparison with Japan’s shogunate system, which was ousted when American warships forced their way into Japan in the 19th century, in the world of Islam, the caliph system met its demise at the end of the First World War. With the abolition of the caliph system, the Ottoman Empire became today’s modern Republic of Turkey but more than a few people question whether or not this was a change for the better. Moreover, it was after the First World War that the colonial occupation by Western countries began. As a result, many people associate the end of the caliph system with the country coming under colonial rule, and there are still more than a few people who wish that the caliph system had continued. IS now capitalizes on this lingering desire and lets it be known that it has realized this wish of the people. Whatever the case, there are some Muslims who simply praise what IS has achieved. The above three factors have given impetus to IS.

The course of Iran and Saudi Arabia as two major powers

Shirai:: If we consider conditions in the Middle East in the future, it would seem that events in Iran and Saudi Arabia would be areas of concern. First of all, the previous economic sanctions over suspicions regarding Iran’s development of nuclear power have been lifted and in the business world there are strong expectations regarding Iran as a market in areas such as domestic infrastructure development and improvements, among others. At the same time there are lingering concerns regarding the stability of Iran’s government and economy. In that regard, do you think Iran can fulfill its role as a responsible member of the international community?

Sakai: My area of specialization is countries in the Arab countries that speak Arabic. As a Persian-speaking country, Iran is out of my area of specialization but I will speak within the scope of my knowledge. The general view regarding Iran is that it is a major power and, no matter how we regard it, no purpose is served by isolating it from international society indefinitely. Conversely, it could be said that barring Iran from international society until now has been problematic. The reason for isolating Iran was not nuclear development; it was the Islamic revolution of 1979. During the chaos of the revolution, the American Embassy was occupied, and in a period of one year and three months, more than 50 people were taken hostage. This was a humiliating situation for the Carter administration. The trauma of this time has had a lasting effect on the U.S. world of politics. However, there has been a view for some time that the ongoing isolation of Iran as a response to those events has been excessive. During the years of the Clinton administration, there were also some efforts to improve relations.As you indicated, the question as to whether Iran can become a proper, full-fledged member of the international community is a subject worthy of attention. Even though there are no evident problems at the moment, there is some question as to whether this will continue indefinitely in the future. At present, President Hasan Rouhani is mixing well with the international community. In the recent election, supporters of the president won the majority of seats in parliament, so it is thought that the current system will continue as it is. Nevertheless, an ongoing concern of the international community including the U.S. is the influence of Supreme Leader Khamenei. Because he has the authority to overturn the words of the parliament or the president, he may become a risk factor after all. Furthermore, since he is at an advanced age, we do not know what action his successor may take. There is nothing we can do but to observe the situation based on the results of the election. However, in view of the present flow of events, I expect the country will remain stable for several years. Iran is also important for the international community to keep IS under control. Only Iran can take a firm stand and fight IS in battles on the ground. Developed countries will have no choice but to use this point to advantage and, conversely, they will have no choice but to cooperate with Iran to some extent in dealing with IS. In this sense, it is an environment where the channels between Iran and Western countries will become wider, and despite some lingering elements of anxiety, I am confident that Iran will return to international society.

Saudi Arabia will become the eye of a storm

Shirai: Another major power, Saudi Arabia, has accumulated its wealth from oil, and has maintained significant influence in the Middle East with the backing of the United States. While Saudi Arabia has been considered a relatively stablecountry in the Middle East, in recent years the price of crude oil has continued to fall and it seems that the United States, which has become a resource export country due to the shale oil revolution, has cooled its stance toward Saudi Arabia. For its part, Saudi Arabia, which opposes shale oil, is unwilling to reduce crude oil production despite its obvious overproduction, and its relationship with the United States is no longer as close as it was in the past. With a budget deficit of about 20% of GDP, Saudi Arabia’s finances are also facing more difficult circumstances. Because the country is breaking into sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), which invest funds accumulated through the oil exports, it is having a significant impact on the world’s share markets. The very factor that brought stability to Saudi Arabia is beginning to crumble. A look at the generational changes in the royal family also gives the impression that internal politics are not as stable as they were in the past. Under these circumstances, one wonders what kind of foreign policies Saudi Arabia, as a major power in the Middle East, will promote in the future.

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Sakai: I believe that Saudi Arabia will become the eye of the storm in the future. It was about 15 years ago when the United States started having doubts about its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The U.S. media reported that the majority of the perpetrators of the 9.11 terrorist attack were originally from Saudi Arabia, and in the U.S. Congress the feudal system of Saudi Arabia was being viewed by some as a problem. First of all, some questioned the strictness of the religious sect (Sunni Wahhabism ) in Saudi Arabia as one that did not allow for religious diversity, and they began to question whether it was right for the United States to continue supporting a country with an undemocratic system such as a kingdom. Since then, the United States has continued to be suspicious of Saudi Arabia as a country that trains terrorists. After the Iraq war, some members of Congress voiced the opinion that if Iraq could become an alliance partner and the United States could use Iraq as a base for its activities in the region, Saudi Arabia would no longer be needed.
It is said that after Tunisia, Saudi Arabia has the second largest number of people who join IS. In terms of ratio to population, Saudi Arabia has the highest number. The United States also doubts that Saudi Arabia is serious about policing terrorism. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has also lost trust in the United States. One reason for this is the Shiite politicians became the victors after the fall of Saddam’s regime in the Iraq War, and the many of the Shiite political parties in Iraq are strongly influenced by Iran. As a result, Saudi Arabia feels extremely wary over the United States’ allowing Iraq to become an area freely controlled by Iran. I also think that this is reason that Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in Syria to oust Bashar Assad’s regime, with the idea of “taking back what’s been taken” with the rationale it will take over Syria to replace Iraq, which was “taken” by Iran. Although Saudi Arabia requested that the United States intervene in the civil war in Syria on the side opposing Assad, President Obama refrained from military strikes, contrary to the expectations Saudi Arabia. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has half given up on the United States and is moving in the direction of initiating military action on its own. One reason Saudi Arabia has not taken steps to cut back oil production is perhaps to avoid the risk of a fall in its own market share at the expense of an increase in Iran’s share. At present Saudi Arabia has cast off its producer-like role in the crude oil market to take steps to ensure its own country’s interests.
In domestic affairs, the son of the current king became the deputy crown prince and has taken command of military operations as minister of defense. Saudi Arabia is sending in its military forces to Yemen and Syria in a form of engagement the country has never seen before, and its military expenses must be increasing significantly. The question as to how long Saudi Arabia will be able to maintain this current arrangement where its foreign policy is significantly inclined toward military affairs without considering the economic rationality will be an important point in forecasting the future of Saudi Arabia.
In regard to the course the king is taking to solidify his power, that is, by using his son, there are supposedly some who have expressed concern that opponents may appear even among the royal family. If it comes to this I feel that caution will be applied. However, this political course is still in progress. Unless self-cleansing takes place within the royal family, no one can say for sure what course foreign policy will take. At the moment, the situation remains a war by proxy, with Iran as the hypothetical enemy. However, since Saudi Arabia has severed all diplomatic relations with Iran, the possibility that the situation could escalate to various forms of armed conflict in the future cannot be ruled out.
On the other hand, in response to the attack on the Saudi Embassy that occurred in Teheran, the capital of Iran, in January 2016, Iran has not taken any specific retaliatory measures. Most likely it has taken into consideration the election, its relationship with the United States, and its return to the international society in the future, and is trying to be restrained in its response to provocation. It will be good if Iran continues to move in a level-headed manner as it is at present. If there is any escalation of tension on both sides, however, the situation will deteriorate into a touch-and-go situation.

What kind of a policy is necessary for stabilization?

Shirai: The chain of events occurring in the Middle East is having a ripple effect throughout the world. The postwar NATO-centered security arrangements over air strikes on IS-controlled areas seem to appear to be wavering. While one of the primary factors is that the United States is taking a passive attitude toward full-fledged military intervention, France is stepping up the air raids in cooperation with Russia while Germany has refrained from participating. Differences in approaches by European countries are becoming evident as NATO members have fallen out of step with each other. What is your opinion on the impact the current Middle East situation will have on military and foreign policy order, which has been maintained in Western countries since after the Second World War?

Sakai:I believe the kind of “axis” of order previously observed in collective action in regional security alliances during the Cold War era is disappearing. This is true in both the case of Russia and the Middle East, where NATO members are failing to reach a consensus. As you pointed out, the most significant factor is the backdown by the United States. The U.S. policy on the Middle East has changed, and the Obama administration will not readily take initiative in the way the Bush administration did in the past. The damages suffered by the United States in the Iraq War were enormous, and not only Obama but also future leaders must be aware that they cannot afford to make the same mistake. To sum up what is happening in the Middle East, while it is said to be a battle against IS, the coalition countries in the background are giving priority to pursuing their own respective interests; thus, it is a battle where each country is trying to defeat its own particular enemy by taking advantage of the situation. On the surface, it may appear that these countries are united in their efforts to defeat IS as enemy No.1, but in reality each country has its own true enemy. Turkey is a typical case in point. Claiming that it will cooperate in defeating IS, it has requested financial support from Europe and appears to be in stride with Europe. However, Kurdish forces are the prime target of the Erdogan regime. Various military actions taken by Turkey are actually targeting the Kurds. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s enemy at present is the Assad regime. Although Saudi Arabia is part of the united front to defeat IS, its real target is the Assad regime. It is clear that this proxy war in Syria, which is creating turmoil, will become more serious in the future. While the United States is pulling back from the region, it is not entirely clear how an axis of security will be built in the Middle East. In the past, Israel was enemy No. 1 for all countries in the region and the Arab nations were able to unite in opposition. At present, however, they are fighting different enemies in the background as they attack IS, and it is most likely that the current chaotic state will last for some time. There is also a fear the structural form of the proxy war will deteriorate and turn into a real war, where these countries will mutually intervene.

Shirai: If I may venture to ask, I would like to know whether you think it is possible for the situation in the Middle East to move in the direction of stability and, if so, under what conditions would this occur?

Sakai:Preventing forces like IS from forming may be a slow and steady undertaking but I believe the key is to nurture the development of young people who will not harbor feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent. For example, as in the case of the Egyptian youth I mentioned earlier, social and economic issues were what first caused young people to turn to IS. There is deep-rooted discrimination against migrant communities in Europe, and the situation has not improved even since the Arab Spring. Tunisia is a noticeable example. While it continues to take steps toward democratization, its economy has not improved, and the number of disaffected youth keeps increasing. International society must establish systems to firmly support countries like Tunisia, which remains relatively stable. Public security deteriorated in Iraq after the war and its recovery has not progressed as planned. I visited Iraq recently, and as the people in Iraq had high expectations for the recovery of their country, they feel very frustrated that international society has not done anything to support them. While there is turmoil partly due to the withdrawal of the United States, the psychological impact is very significant indeed. Iraqi people feel ambivalent, considering that military intervention by the United States would not be welcome, but that the thought of the United States withdrawing economic assistance and becoming indifferent toward Iraq is much worse. Under such a situation, it is important for Japan, not the United States, to provide steadfast support. An important point is to clearly demonstrate at least a stance for assisting in reconstruction. It may not be a silver bullet, but it is something that Japan has done in the past. During the 1970s and 80s, in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Japan deployed large-scale development projects and, in the eyes of the people in those countries, contributed to development during their periods of high growth. The people from these countries highly value the plants, roads, hospitals and housing that Japanese companies constructed, and they still have a favorable impression of Japan. Capitalizing on this positive image of Japan, I hope Japanese companies can contribute to reducing the number of socially and economically disaffected youth.

Reason for choosing the Middle East as an area of study

Shirai: Prof. Sakai, since the time you worked at the Institute of Developing Economies (current Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization, “JETRO”), you have specialized in the Middle East region. It is my frank impression that the politics, religions, and cultures of the Middle East are still hardly familiar to the Japanese people on the whole. What made you choose a region like the Middle East as your field of specialty? Please tell us about the attraction of studying about the Middle East.

Sakai:I majored in international relations at university, and I was interested not only in the Middle East but in international politics as a whole. Right after I began university, the Islamic Revolution in Iran broke out and immediately after that the Iran-Iraq War. Many incidents that made headlines also occurred including the seizure of the Holy Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, and the military invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. At that time, as I was following world affairs, the area of the world that to me erupted in contradictions almost like an active volcano was the Middle East, and that is how I became interested in the region. The same is true about IS at present, and “drifts of troubles” always seem to be arising in the Middle East. Rather than the occurrences of issues unique to the area, it seems as if for some reason the magma from all over the world converges there, and the movement of the earth’s crust creates faults and causes volcanic eruptions and earthquakes there. There is also excitement at being able gain insight into all world affairs simply by observing events in the Middle East.

Shirai: While Europe is currently faced with the grave situation of accepting refugees from the Middle East, in Japan, an island nation in the Far East remote from Europe, people have only a limited understanding of the situation, somewhat like the viewpoint of bystanders. On the other hand, during the oil crises of the past, there were times when Japanese people paid careful attention to events in the Middle East with a sense of unease, somewhat like the feeling one has when one is about to run out of toilet paper. While I guess it is rather difficult for countries in the Middle East and Japan to deepen their mutual understanding, from what kind of contact, including culture and religion, do you think we could expand our exchanges?

Sakai:There are two ways, I think. The first is, as it has been traditionally noted, Japan and the Middle East similarly missed the boat of modernization, and we are similar in the way we tried to catch up with the West and to overtake the West. Japan, however, after the Meiji Restoration, achieved modernization and development equal to that of the West. Even though the country experienced the dropping of atomic bombs on its land during the Second World War, Japan rose as a leader, becoming the second largest economy in the world after the war.

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The people in the Middle East often ask themselves why they have not been able to achieve development in the way Japan has, despite their starting point being similar to that of Japan, in spite that the degree of Europeanization is higher in the Middle East. For example, it seems rather surprising for people in the Middle East to learn that more Japanese people drink Japanese tea rather than Western soft drinks such as Coca Cola or Pepsi. They think it is wonderful that Japan has been able to achieve development while holding on to its own culture. Therefore, I expect there is a way for Japan to enhance its relationship with the Middle East from its own particular standpoint. Another point is Japanese animations are cited as a reason many foreigners want to go to Japan. This popularity, of course, is not limited to the Middle East. Japanese animations are extremely popular all over the world. This reinforced my understanding that we are indeed living in an era of Internet culture. Although a country like Saudi Arabia applies cultural control over items coming into the country from overseas, perhaps, they have not been able to control content on the Internet so thoroughly. On the other hand, youth who fantasize about the world as it is depicted in animations share similarities with young people who rally around IS. That is, they are not facing up to everyday reality, or they fantasize about a nonexistent heaven. Japanese animations also have a significant impact like that on some young people. Since Japan has strong potential in communicating with the Middle East where people have a friendly impression of Japan, I believe we can make various approaches from a cultural perspective. I think that it is easy for Japan to communicate with countries like Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, and I expect that we can build good relations even in emotional aspects. I do often hear people express opinions that outside of doing business, Saudi Arabia is rather difficult to adapt to due to religious custom, etc., and that Egyptians are easy-going but difficult to engage in business talks. On the other hand, there are many Japanese who have had positive experiences working in Iran and Iraq, and have good impressions of the people there including their interaction with local people.

Shirai: I have learned a lot today. Thank you very much for taking time to talk to us despite your very busy schedule.

Sakai:Thank you. It was my pleasure.

Editor's Postscript

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A leading scholar in Middle Eastern studies, Prof. Sakai has written many books while lecturing at university. In this face-to-face discussion, we asked Prof. Sakai about the historical background of the Arab Spring and the turmoil in Iraq. While there is a lack of consensus on initiatives the international society is taking in regard to the Middle East, Prof. Sakai believes that it is important to nurture the sound development of young people in society who will not harbor feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent about economic and social conditions and to provide support for this purpose. The views presented by Prof. Sakai were very thought-provoking in terms of considering the stabilization of Middle East in the future.