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Machiavellian Middle East: The great losers of geopolitics in the Middle East

RezaMajd4 April 2018

Written by: Andreas Beckwith

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Subtitle explainer: Examining the Machiavellian influence in the Middle East in a time of covert action, proxy wars and switching alliances

Photo Source

            As with any protracted conflict, there are the region’s greatest losers, caught in the crossfire of the proxy war, which is principally Syria with its long-standing civil war. Caught not only in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the US, Syria has been torn apart and the Syrian people have been the tragic losers in the machinations of geopolitical rivalries. Syria is one battlefield that has gone out of control, with so many outside powers having interests and troops in the mix, from state actors like the US, Russia, Iran, to non-state actors like Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Nusra to states with no official ground presence but with a firm interest in the outcome like Israel and Turkey, and international groups like the EU and the UN. While Syria as whole has lost out in these power games, another group that could well lose out are the Kurds, who aided the US by fighting back ISIS, are viewed by Turkey as a national threat. In the aftermath of the war, they could become one of the bitterest losers of the conflict as Turkey moves in to stifle them.

Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in 2017 and continues on into 2018 thanks to the Saudi bombing campaign and blockade against Houthi rebels against the Saudi-installed government of Hadi. Though not conclusive, it is alleged that the Houthis are backed by Iran. And of course, while not directly affected, the long-suffering Palestinians are neglected by the Arab world as countries in the region focus on their national interests in the proxy war.

Cunning and deceit will every time serve a man better than force to rise from a base condition to great fortune” – Machiavelli, Discourses on Ivy. It would seem that the Saudis and the Iranians, as well as other states, are following his playbook. While the Syrian war appears to be winding down at the time of writing, the proxy wars between the two dominant Middle Eastern powers continue, Lebanon sometimes appears like it could be the next battleground. Alliances may change as states calculate their own interest, and nothing should be taken for granted. The alliance of Saudi Arabia and Israel is one to watch, with potentially explosive consequences wherever one looks, the stability of Syria is still questionable, and the role of non-state actors, while right now in decline, could soon return. Each turn and twist the Middle East takes is studied by the Realist states, both in the region and outside, as they try to understand how they can manipulate the outcomes to their own benefits. Alliances are fickle, religion is secondary, self-interest above all guides the way.


Region: MENA



Can Meghan Markle Modernize the Royal Family?

RezaMajd2 April 2018

Written by: Bea Amaral

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.


On the 27th of November 2017, roughly 4 million of us watched Prince Harry and Meghan Markle publicly announce their engagement in a CBC News interview. I took a liking to Meghan almost straight away; she’s well spoken, intelligent and gives off an unshakeable air of confidence. She’s also relatable; coming from a humble background, she’s had to work hard for everything that she’s achieved in life. What I’ve found to be truly fascinating however is the reaction that has been sparked in British society due to this announcement. Meghan is seen as a ‘controversial’ addition to the British royal family because she’s a well-known actor that is American, mixed-race, a divorcee, and brought up Catholic – all of which make her an atypical profile for your typical British Princess.

Yet, the fact that Meghan is mixed-race is what is receiving the most attention. In early November, Prince Harry published a statement that (politely) stressed his distaste for the ‘racial undertones’ of the British press when speaking about his fiancée. A month later, Princess Michael of Kent, was pictured arriving at Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Christmas Lunch (in which Meghan was present) wearing a brooch on her left shoulder, which appeared to be ‘blackamoor’ jewellery, a slavery inspired brooch[1]. A spokesman for the princess said she was “very sorry and distressed” that it had caused offence.

Afua Hirsch, the author of ‘Brit(ish)’, a coming book about racial identity in Britain, claimed that as a mixed-race child, she had found it hard to reconcile her British-ness with the racially homogeneous relatives of Prince Harry[2]. She felt that being mixed-race was somehow incompatible with being truly British.

Similarly, Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer on post-colonial literature at the University of Cambridge stresses how problematic it is that Britain’s major universities and media houses are overwhelmingly white, and goes further to claim that Brexit Britain is a deeply and increasingly xenophobic and racist society[3].

While I believe that Meghan’s acceptance into the Royal Family represents a step forward towards modernizing the monarchy, and changing the discourse that sees being black as somehow conflicting with being British, I am sceptical as well. I agree with a handful of black commentators who have pointed out that, since Meghan is fair-skinned and conforms to Eurocentric ideas of beauty, even the symbolic impact of her presence is rather limited[4]. Nonetheless, her presence certainly has illustrated how primordial ideas about class and race are still circulating in Britain, and further highlights the necessity of discussing these issues.

[1] Austin, H. (2018). Princess Michael of Kent speaks out after wearing racist brooch. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/princess-michael-of-kent-rascist-brooch-apologises-prince-harry-meghan-markle-queen-elizabeth-a8127051.html [Accessed 29 Jan. 2018].


[2] Hirsch, A. (2018). When Meghan weds Harry, Britain’s relationship with race will change for ever | Afua Hirsch. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/27/prince-harry-meghan-markle-britishness-monarchy-relevant [Accessed 29 Jan. 2018].


[3] Kingsley, P. (2018). Royal Engagement Seen as Symbol of Change, With Asterisks. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/world/europe/uk-royal-wedding-harry-meghan-markle.html [Accessed 29 Jan. 2018].


[4] Kingsley, P. (2018). Royal Engagement Seen as Symbol of Change, With Asterisks. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/world/europe/uk-royal-wedding-harry-meghan-markle.html [Accessed 29 Jan. 2018].


‘Whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to Open their Umbrellas’

RezaMajd7 March 2018

Written by: Simon Daunat

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Syrian Refugees in Arsal (Lebanon), March 2014.


The saying goes, ‘whenever it rains in Syria, the Lebanese have to open their umbrella’. Indeed, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Lebanon has been host to massive numbers of Syrian refugees. With a population of 4.5 million inhabitants, the ‘Cedar Country’ welcomed at least 1.5 million Syrians, accounting for approximately 25 percent of its population. Added to the 450,000 Palestinians already present, this massive influx of refugees makes Lebanon the country with the highest concentration per capita of refugees. Whereas Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently re-affirmed he would not force Syrians to return, Lebanon does not have the capacity to bear such a responsibility, affecting both Lebanese and refugees.

In 2017, the World Bank stated that educational and health infrastructures were struggling to manage such a population increase. For instance, in 2016, demand for hospital care increased by 40%, putting the health sector on the precipice. This sharp increase in the population also pressured the labour market and augmented prices of commodities and rents. As a result, since 2011 170,000 Lebanese were pushed into poverty (Oxfam). Moreover, the crisis exacerbated socio-political tensions in the country; with a political power-system distributed along sectarian lines, the massive arrival of (mainly) Sunni Muslims in the country has increased fear within the broader population. Indeed, the large arrival of Sunnis triggered the memories of the Palestinian exodus, which contributed to a certain extent to the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90). Hence, a national opinion poll conducted in 2013 highlighted that 74% of Lebanese respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Syrian refugees were posing a threat to the national security and stability’. Whereas tensions have not yet reached the point of violent escalations, they have considerable repercussion on refugee integration.

Thus in 2015, Lebanon took a tougher stance towards refugees marked by the introduction of visa restrictions, and more difficulty to access to residency permits (and their renewal). Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Refugee convention. Consequently, 80% of Syrian refugees lack legal status (Human Rights Watch), subsequently leaving them exposed to arrest, abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, the lack of status and residency permits affects refugees’ access to jobs and basic services: according to UNCHR, in 2016 58% of refugees in Lebanon lived in extreme poverty (a growing number compared to previous years); and 500,000 Syrian aged 3-18 had no access to education, endangering their future economic and social integration in the country. Without any prospect of access to legal status, jobs and education, the integration of Syrians is unlikely to occur.

Nevertheless, the main constraint to refugees’ integration derives from the Lebanese confessional system. This system is supposed to represent the demographic share of each religious community. Therefore, political power is distributed proportionally among Lebanon’s 17 religious groups. However, such a system prevents any possible integration/ naturalisation of refugees by fear of triggering sectarian tensions due to sudden demographic imbalances among those communities. The Palestinian integration in Lebanon is a striking example. Many Palestinians arrived as early as in 1948 and today still face severe economic social and political difficulties. In 2016, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) indicated that more than half of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still live in camps, where poverty, unemployment, and poor housing conditions remain prevalent. Palestinians face consistent discrimination in hiring and employment opportunities, and rare are those who are granted Lebanese citizenship. The cause of their non-integration was not dictated by economic growth, job market or the infrastructural capacities of the host country (which since their arrival have known prosperous days). Instead, it is mainly due to the incapacity of the current system to integrate refugees in their societies, obliging them to live as ‘second-class citizens’. Today the situation is occurring once more, but this time with millions of more refugees. As Saad Hariri recently declared “Lebanon is on the verge of a breaking point”.

What future can we imagine for refugees in Lebanon? This is what two Lebanese Professors, Karm Medjad and Dr Abdel-Maoula Chaar tried to answer in a report published in 2016 describing three possible outcomes to this crisis. One of them, ‘Phoenexia’, is a scenario where Lebanese society reinvents itself along secular lines, neutralising political tensions, and increasing the integration of refugees. Enabled by strong political and financial assistance from the international community, this would be the only positive and long-term solution to the current crisis. The two other scenarios (keeping confessionalism as the main political system) only predict further instability, deeper sectarian divisions, and in a worst case a balkanisation of Lebanon.

We cannot accurately predict which path Lebanon will take but our only certainty is that Lebanon needs more support from the international community. In a recent UNHCR report it was stated that $2.8 billion is needed to cover the Lebanese Crisis Response Plan 2017-20 to provide “direct humanitarian assistance and protection to vulnerable individual”. However, to this day donors have only committed to $350 million (2018-2020).

Whereas Lebanon shares a large part of the refugee crisis burden, this magnanimity came with a cost. Therefore, it is up to the international community, and particularly Europe (that failed to fulfil its humanist duty) to assist Lebanon in the management of this crisis, in order to provide a brighter future for both Lebanese and refugees.



UNCHR for Syrian Emergency: UNHCR provides humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees and helps the most vulnerable refugees to meet their most urgent needs – including water, food, medicine, blankets and warm clothes and jerry cans:


UNWRA to protect the rights and dignity of Palestine Refugees:





  • Christophersen, M. Liu, J. Thorleifsson, C. and Tiltnes, A. (2013) ‘Lebanese attitudes towards Syrian refugees and the Syrian Crisis’ (Lebanon: ANALP).
  • Human Rights Watch, (2018) ‘Lebanon: Speech Restrictions, Stalled Reforms’ 18 January, Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/18/lebanon-speech-restrictions-stalled-reforms, Accessed 4 February.
  • Kukrety, N. (2016) ‘Poverty, Inequality and Social Protection In Lebanon’, Oxfam, 20 January.
  • McDowall, A. and Maclean, W. (2018) ‘Lebanon says will not force Syrian refugees to return’ Reuters, 02 February.
  • Medjad, K. and Chaar, A-M (2016) ‘Lebanon with a View: A 2030 Vision of the Refugee Crisis’ The Scenario Factory.
  • UNHCR, (2018) ‘Survey finds Syrian refugees in Lebanon became poorer, more vulnerable in 2017’ 09 January, Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2018/1/5a548d174/survey-finds-syrian-refugees-lebanon-poorer-vulnerable-2017.html, Accessed 4 February.
  • UNHCR (2018) ‘Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal’ Available at: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=122, Accessed 6 February.
  • UNSCOL, (2017) ‘Funding for Lebanon Response in 2017 Demonstrates Sustained Solidarity by International Partners but Level of Disbursements needs to increase’ 8 June.
  • UNWRA (2017) ‘Protection Brief Palestine refugees living in Lebanon’, October.
  • The World Bank (2017) ‘The World Bank in Lebanon’ April 01, Available at: http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lebanon/overview, Accessed 05 February.

Review: Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow

RezaMajd7 March 2018

Written by: Nick Ash

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Film Poster for Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow (2017)


Ai Weiwei lends his fame to the global migrant and refugee crisis, creating a cinematic portrayal of the depravity displaced people suffer worldwide. In his first full-length feature, he takes on the ambitious task of summarising the crisis, spanning 23 countries, with 200 crew members, and cutting down 900 hours of footage into 2 hours and twenty minutes.

The documentary opens to an image of a boat sailing in an enigmatically blue Aegean Sea. This soothing image is sharply shattered by the shouts of aid workers helping migrants disembark on the shore of Lesvos, Greece. Against the backdrop of a climatic soundtrack, Ai’s drone shots are juxtaposed with imitate footage of migrants in peril. These distant images show the scale of those on the move in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, North America and a host of European nations. The interspersed locations mean it is never quite clear where the film-maker is. This is no doubt deliberate, acknowledging the similarities between the fractious lives of refugees the world over. The film generally leaves out some of the heavier images of the crisis. In Iraq, however, the camera lingers on a macerated body, barely recognisable as a human-being.

The message that refugees do not choose to leave their homes lightly is apparent throughout: no sane individual would endure this depravity unless it was an absolute necessity. The 13,000 refugees stuck at the Macedonian border depict the dire living conditions and lack of options for those who have been displaced. One woman reminds us of the ‘raining bombs’ which have displaced her family from their home in Syria. The sharing of selfies and cat pictures illustrate the previous lives of refugees, including jobs, families, and pets. The film provides uncomfortable viewing, acknowledging the common humanity we share with those often depicted as statistics.

Ai plays a discrete role in his film, which offers narration only by way of on-screen news-style bulletin statistics and headlines. His shabby presence and shots of his informal and relaxed filming style jar with the familiar clips of neat news reporters capturing soundbites for the evening news. Weiwei’s ability to blend into his surroundings is apparent as the princess of Jordan appears to be the only person to acknowledge his fame. Although the film offers no solutions, the promotion of human dignity seems high on its agenda. For example, in Turkey living conditions are desperate as the state only houses 10% of displaced people, most of whom are not granted refugee status. Furthermore, attention is paid to the relatively neglected effect of climate change on displacing people. Sub-Saharan Africa as the host for 26% of the world’s refugees is explored. Likewise, special attention is given to the Rohingyas, Kurds and Palestinians.

For policy-makers, there is a clear concern about the lack of European cooperation, and although the film hints at an international aid effort, its presence seems lacking. We are told that 60 additional physical borders have been erected since the fall of the Berlin wall, but this isolationism does not seem to provide a suitable solution. The film mentions the EU’s deal with Turkey to house refugees, providing an example of Europe distancing itself from the crisis. The Carnegie Centre identifies the link between the loss of dignity of young people and their falling prey to radicalisation. If the appeal for respect and dignity for fellow human-beings does not hold, maybe the long-term effects of this on-going crisis will prompt Western governments to do more.

In this overview of the global refugee crisis Ai acknowledges suffering at an individual level, juxtaposed to his cinematic drone shoots encapsulating the scale of problem. Ai has raised awareness of the migrant crisis in the hope that Europe and the international community will provide solutions.



No more “Polish death camps,” but was the new law the right way to do it?

RezaMajd21 February 2018

Written by: Dagmara Franczak

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Auschwitz, it is Jewish custom to place stones on a grave.

Why now? Having seen the pattern of the Polish right-wing government passing controversial laws, we shouldn’t be surprised at the creation of yet another one. Knowing also the growing Euroscepticism of the ruling party and their belief that EU power lies in Berlin, their claim that Germany still owes Poland World War 2 reparations was already a move that could strain these two countries’ relationship; is this law another one? This time the EU is remaining silent, while Israel and USA are voicing strong oppositions towards a newly passed law. Once the law is brought into effect, anyone who refers to Auschwitz-Birkenau as “Polish death camps“ or publicly attributes responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes to the Polish nation will be liable for fines or prison sentences of up to three years. Legislation might not necessarily be the most effective way to talk about history, but how can we talk about history without causing any uproar in the international arena?

While I believe that something had to be done in order to remind the world that Poles were not the ones that set up these concentration camps, passing a law was not the way to do it. It backfired immediately and instead, the Polish government was accused of denying the Holocaust whatsoever. Polish diplomats, but also ordinary citizens, have for years been educating how the concentration camps were set up by the Nazis in Poland, not by the Poles, and now this newly passed law has squandered all of their work.

Poles, however, tend to only talk about the proud moments of their history from the Second World War – how the Poles protected the Jews and how they helped them escape. It took the Polish government more than 60 years, so that President Kwasniewski in 2001 could apologize for the crime that the Poles committed in Jedwabne (340 Polish Jews were locked in a barn and later set on fire by their fellow Polish neighbors). That’s why the second part of the new law is causing the biggest controversy as to Poles trying to rewrite history. There is a sentiment among the nation that there hasn’t been enough said about Poland’s difficult situation of being between two aggressors during the war, yet managing to continue resisting. Through dialogue we were able to stress years of Polish resistance against the Nazis. Now we might not be taken seriously anymore as we will be seen through the eyes of our legislation. However, the international community needs to remember that Poles died in these concentration camps too, and instead of only attacking the Polish government, it should acknowledge that there needs to be more dialogue taking place regarding their difficult history.

After concerns being raised that the new law censors freedom of speech and academic research, President Duda announced he would inquire with the country’s Constitutional Tribunal regarding whether the bill complies with Poland’s fundamental rights. Since the current government controls the Polish judiciary now, there is little hope that any changes will be made to the bill. There is also little hope that Poland will open its doors to diversity and multinational dialogue. The law also confirms that the rise of nationalism and support for the right-wing is still alive and well. Having openly refused to accept any refugees, because they are not white Catholics, now it appears that the government almost wants to seem anti-Semitic. As a Pole having lived abroad for the past few years, I have found myself having to defend my country and my country’s history many times, and this law will not affect my efforts of continuing to have difficult conversations.

P.S. If you have any questions regarding the newly passed law, or want to chat about it, feel free to get in touch! You can email me at dagmara.franczak.17@ucl.ac.uk.



 Rettman, Andrew . “Polish Holocaust law threatens US and EU ties.” EUobserver, 77 Feb. 2018, euobserver.com/foreign/140888.

Santora, Marc. “Poland’s ‘Death Camp’ Law Tears at Shared Bonds of Suffering With Jews.” The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/world/europe/poland-death-camp-law.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fworld.


The Role of Experts in an Age of Populism

RezaMajd5 February 2018

Written by: Dagmara Franczak

Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the author and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

A Talk Presented at Chatham House on January 23, 2018
Picture source: https://twitter.com/ChathamHouse/status/959136471767769088


“Can experts and populism co-exist?” – the panel starts off with a question posed by Professor Nichols, the author of a book, “The Death of Expertise”. Nichols argues that we are currently seeing the rise in narcissism, because “we spend a lot of time alone. We want to express all of our opinions on social media. But it would be a mistake to blame technology.” Nichols expected the problem of narcissism to be solely an American one but seeing that his book is now being translated into an 11th language might point otherwise. While he claims that in part the Internet is indeed to blame, there are other things going on.

The next panelist, Dr Davies, a reader in Politics and International Relations Department at Goldsmiths, explores these other issues as he points at the public’s low trust in media. He further argues that it correlates with the sympathy for populists. When asked if the panelists would go back to their smaller hometowns to connect with the public, to see where they gather their information from, how they connect with the world, Vogt, the editor of Foreign Affairs, says that “for rural Americans, there are no small-town newspapers anymore. There’s radio and there’s Fox.”

Continuing with the topics of modernization and the dynamic between experts and the public, Vogt claims that the rhetoric of expertise hasn’t adapted and that there are two main issues while communicating to the public: vagueness among policy makers and jargon among academics. Further, Professor Nichols says that “experts talk about the public as if they’re completely incapable of reasoning,” and reminds that experts needs to let people make poor decisions. Just because experts have facts to support their claims does not necessarily mean they can tell other people what to do or what not to do. The words do not reflect the acts as even being a part of the audience feels like we are being told what to do and how to access our media sources and how we should listen to experts.

What is the role of digital technologies? Is the rise in technocracy going to lead to the disconnect with the public? Dr Vinjamuri continues the discussion on the role of technology and its connect or rather disconnect with expertise nowadays and asks: “Have we all become ‘armchair experts’ on Trump and Brexit?” She claims that the Internet should be treated as a tool and we should be careful not to disregard it, in response to Professor Nichols argument that “the Internet creates a shortcut to the illusion of knowledge…if it’s not immediately findable by clicking, it’s not worth knowing.”

Overall, I left the panel feeling puzzled about whether the elitist approach to the age of populism is leading to a further disconnect between the public and the experts and thus leads to a rise in populism. My big criticism is also the panel’s huge focus on the US and the UK. Except for a brief mention of the rise of narcissism internationally, there was no mention of other parts of the world where populism has become more attractive to the public, like Hungary. As keeping Dr Davies’ question in mind of what is the role of universities now, while its original role was to discover the truth, I thought of the Hungarian populist government’s attempts at shutting down Central European University, a Budapest-based institution founded by George Soros, an America-based billionaire. I am further asking all of us university students not only what are the role of experts, or universities as institutions, but what is our role in the age of populism?