Middle East crisis ‘worst since WWII’ – Ex-UK ambassador

Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor
The ongoing conflict in the Middle East provoked by the rise of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) is the worst since the Second World War, a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia has said.

Sir John Jenkins, who also served as British ambassador to Iraq, Syria and Israel, and is widely regarded as an expert in Middle Eastern affairs, said clashes in the Gulf were likely to carry on for another 10 to 15 years.

Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Jenkins said people in the Middle East faced confusion over the levels of support they were receiving from the West, and spoke out candidly about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

“Speaking quite frankly, people do wonder about the level of commitment that the Western alliance and particular countries are prepared to make to the security of the Gulf in this age of anxiety,” he said.

He said he would not defend Saudi Arabia, as much of the West had, over its women’s rights issues and the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, adding that ignorance surrounding the running of the country was widespread.

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“This is probably the most challenging set of circumstances [for] countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf, since the 1960s and maybe since the end of WWII,” he said.

“There's a whole set of physical and material challenges to the national security of these states, but [it's] also ideological.”

“I wouldn't be surprised if we were looking at 10 to 15 years of instability and insecurity in Iraq and Syria and in parts of North Africa,” he added.

Jenkins went on to say that many of the problems in the area lie with the uncertainty of the West over the best way to aid fighters.

“There was a time when you could simply say the answer to everything was to increase the strength of a naval flotilla, for example, in the Gulf or naval task forces off the Horn of Africa.”

“I think it is far more complex than that now and I think we are all trying to work out how we deal with that,” he added.

Jenkins argued the best way to tackle the Islamic State was to find a way to mobilize the Sunni population.

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“You have to have a way of mobilizing the population as a whole against Daesh [Arabic term for the Islamic State]. Do I think that Daesh represents a majority of Iraqi Sunnis? No, I don't.”

“But I think they represent a fairly significant minority. And I think there is an alliance of convenience between people who are genuinely committed to this absurd extremist narrative [and] former Baathists, army officers and so forth who are fighting with them ... because they feel this is the way of getting back at the Shia.”

The only way to do this, in his view, would be to persuade a large number of Iraqi Sunnis that it’s in their best interest to support a functioning, democratic Iraqi state.

The former ambassador said he felt that much of the confusion stemmed from misunderstandings about the states, saying that there was a lack of knowledge within Western society.

“I don't think we have the depth of knowledge of these societies that we had in simpler times, in the 1950s and 1960s.”