New Perspectives on the Middle East

Understanding the complexities of the region is key to successful U.S. policies, says Nadim Shehadi, new director of the Fares Center

The United States needs to better understand the complexities of Middle East politics and societies in order to have an effective policy in the region. That’s why institutions like the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School are important, says Nadim Shehadi, the center’s new director.

“More than ever, those grappling with the questions posed by the Middle East need a place where they can take a step back, look at the larger picture and do more in-depth thinking about the region’s issues,” says Shehadi, director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, from 1986 to 2005, and most recently an associate fellow of Chatham House at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Take the rise and spread of the Islamic State, a current focal point of concern in the Middle East. One of the keys to understanding its success goes beyond simply recognizing the Sunni-Shia tension in Iraq and Syria, says Shehadi.

“What we call the Islamic State is sustained by several complex forces, including Sunni tribes from the western provinces of Iraq who feel excluded from what they perceive as their country’s Iranian-controlled government,” he notes. “They feel let down by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, abandoning them after many had collaborated with the surge in 2007 to 2008.

“There are also the former Ba’ath Party officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army,” he adds, “with over 30 years of military experience and detailed knowledge of the ground, and, of course, the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq—all working together under the cover of the so-called Islamic State.”

The U.S. needs to engage with these “less savory” elements to understand the legitimate grievances driving the success of the Islamic State, Shehadi says, and unless these are addressed, anger and violence will continue.

“By seeming to join forces with Iran and Syria to fight the Islamic State, the U.S. is sending an inflammatory message to these elements, who see the regimes of both countries as their enemies,” he says.

Another major factor to consider when viewing the turmoil today in the Middle East is the inevitable chaos as countries emerge from longstanding dictatorships, he says.

“These societies were under huge pressure from very heavy-handed governments led by people like Saddam Hussein, Assad and Qaddafi. It’s because these societies were under that pressure that they are exploding with such uncontrolled energy,” Shehadi says. “It is like when you release pressure on a metal coil spring—there is no way you can tell which way it will jump.”

That chaos leads countries like the U.S. to be wary of getting involved, but Shehadi thinks that’s not a good reason to avoid the region.

Freedom to Experiment with Ideas

Shehadi grew up in Lebanon, living there until he was 19. He left two years after the start of that country’s brutal civil war. “The war was quite traumatic, and I’m sure it affected me in many ways, including my ongoing interest in the region,” he says. “I still go back to Lebanon often. My family is there, I have friends there, and I have worked on some projects with the government there.”

He has worked as an advisor to the European Union and other international organizations on Middle Eastern and North African issues, including work moderating internal discussions within the Syrian opposition and projects involving the Middle East peace process and Palestinian refugee issues.

At Chatham House, an independent policy institute in London, he continues to direct a program on regional dimensions of the Palestinian refugee issue. “Chatham House is a unique institution. It does not have the rigid structure of most think tanks, so there is great freedom to experiment with ideas and take initiatives. That’s a spirit I want to encourage at the Fares Center,” Shehadi says.

The Fares Center is important, he says, because profound misunderstanding of the complexities of the Middle East is prolonging suffering and violence. The center could help frame discussion about the region, taking advantage of the Fletcher School’s international reputation and its alumni, who are influential in every corner of the globe, he says.

He wants to connect more with other faculty at Tufts as well. “We need to reach across schools and identify issues where cooperation will benefit real world situations,” says Shehadi, who follows Leila Fawaz, Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies, as director of the center.

Just this past spring semester, Shehadi brought five top Middle East thinkers to speak at the center, including Nikolay Mladenov, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. These kinds of thinkers will also be central to the Fares Center agenda, he says.

“Long term, the Fares Center can have a reach that will meaningfully contribute to the global debate on the Middle East,” Shehadi says. “And the need for this has never been greater.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at

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