A version of this article first appeared in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East Regional Overview, January 2012.
Regional relations after the Arab Spring: the multi polar Middle East
By Christopher Phillips
In the 1960s an American political scientist, Malcolm Kerr, coined the phrase ‘the Arab Cold War’ to describe the regional rivalry between two blocks of Arab states each backed by superpower patrons. Mr Kerr accepted that this rivalry ended in the 1970s but in the first decade of the 21st century several commentators claimed that, following increased US intervention after 9/11, once again the Middle East was being divided into two blocks and a new Middle Eastern Cold War was taking shape. This bipolarity saw one camp led by the US and its principle allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – face down a second, self-styled ‘resistance’ camp composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militia/party, Hamas. As in the 1950s and 60s, these two blocks found themselves competing in numerous minor conflicts, political battles and the media, in a bid to dominate the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine forming the key battlegrounds.
The Arab Spring has changed this. While Israel and Saudi Arabia persist with their old narrative about the threat from Iran, in reality the popular uprisings of 2011 has changed the environment around all three states. New actors that had previously stood back from the region, such as Turkey and Qatar, stand to increase their influence and clout as a consequence of the unrest while formerly influential states such as Egypt and Syria look set for prolonged instability and weakness. Alongside this the global context has changed. The emerging BRICS powers have enhanced their influence and importance, at the very moment that the US and EU appear weaker following internal economic turmoil. The result is that instead of two clear blocks competing, the Middle East after the Arab Spring looks set to be multi-polar, with many different regional and global powers vying for influence in the different political and, possibly, military conflicts that the uprisings have created.
Regional winners: Turkey and Qatar
Turkey is one of the big winners from the Arab Spring. Even before 2011, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy had expanded its political, economic and cultural influence in the region considerably. The Arab Spring has boosted this further. Firstly, Turkey has mostly found itself on the right side of events. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the first foreign leader to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to quit and he eventually turned on Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in favour of pro-democracy protestors. Secondly, most of the moderate Islamist parties that are now likely to dominate the Arab world, such as Tunisia’s Ennadha and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the combination of Islam, democracy and economic success modelled by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, is their goal. Although some of its business links with these states may be lessened in the short term as they undergo transition and some economic difficulty, in the longer term Turkey can expect to translate its early support for and ideological affinity with the new regimes into strong relations and enhanced influence.
The other big winner is Qatar, which had also expanded its regional influence prior to 2011. With its security guaranteed by hosting the US military and its oil and gas-based economy booming, Qatar has used its wealth and media influence, primarily via its satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, to punch above its weight. The government reacted quicker than most to the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, which is theoretically independent but rarely contradicts its parent state’s wishes, led reporting on the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and helped it spread across the region. Similarly, Qatar led Arab League efforts against Mr Qaddafi and Mr Assad. Some accuse Qatar of hypocrisy for being vocal on Libya and Syria yet quiet on similar unrest in its ally, Bahrain. Others claim Qatar is using the Arab Spring to spread an Islamist agenda, particularly in Libya and Tunisia where it is rumoured to have financed Islamist political parties. Both accusations may be true but Qatar is primarily opportunistic. The region is changing and Qatar has been among the quickest to realise that it is well placed to fashion a future that will enhance its interests.
Regional losers: Egypt, Syria, Israel
The states that have experienced wide-reaching change are likely to be weaker in the short term as they focus internally. Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, have never been particularly influential in the region, however. Egypt’s weakness on the other hand, as the most populous Arab state and formerly a lead player in the US’ bloc of allies, will be felt. Despite the post-Mubarak military government negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit in October, its involvement in Arab-wide concerns has lessened. Even if elections go smoothly and a democratic order takes shape, it is likely to be several years before Egypt returns to its previous role of a leading power in the Arab world. Syria’s ongoing unrest and the realistic possibility that Mr Assad will also soon be toppled have removed another traditionally powerful voice from regional politics. As the main Arab partner of the Iran-led resistance bloc to American hegemony in the region, the Assad regime has long held influence beyond its borders, notably in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. After the Arab Spring however, as the regime slowly crumbles, Syria is likely to become an arena for competing regional powers itself.
Israel may not have faced domestic instability due to the Arab Spring but it ends 2011 considerably weaker. It still has the region’s best military and a thriving economy, but it is increasingly isolated. Even before 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had fallen out with Turkey and was relying increasingly on US diplomatic cover rather than building regional support. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this isolation. The new government in once-reliable Egypt looks likely to be a more hostile Islamist-led regime. Although Syria is an enemy, it was at least predictable and stable, and a civil war may threaten Israel’s north-eastern border. Even the friendly Hashemite regime in Jordan may have to make concessions to its revived Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to abrogate the Jordan-Israeli peace. On top of this, the threat of popular unrest has finally brought together the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity agreement, to Mr Netanyahu’s chagrin. Furthermore, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the democratic opening in Egypt is likely to boost Hamas in time for Palestinian elections in 2012. Isolated Israel may soon be entirely surrounded by unfriendly Islamist governments, forcing it to either compromise or become ever more insular.
Rivalry re-shaped: Saudi Arabia and Iran
Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves simultaneously enhanced and impinged by the Arab Spring. When unrest began, some feared Iran would be the main beneficiary. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the Arab Spring was modelled on the 1979 Iranian revolution, while Iran’s enemies claimed it was all part of an Iranian plot. Iran did little to dispel this when shortly after regime change in Egypt it sent military ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years. Yet whatever gains Iran may have made in Egypt and elsewhere were undermined with the outbreak of violence in Syria, Iran’s main ally. The fall of the Assad regime, or even its survival but in a weaker state, will be a major blow to Iran’s regional influence. Its supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon will be cut while its other ally, Hamas, has shown sides of abandoning the pro-Iran axis for the emerging Sunni Islamist-led governments. Iran will not necessarily be weaker, having already reconfigured its regional approach by strengthening its influence over Iraq as an alternative Arab ally to Syria. However, the days of a fixed pro-Iran block of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas seem over. Iran looks likely to continue its cold and proxy wars with its regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the Arab Spring has created a new, fluid regional scene for it to work in.
Saudi Arabia’s position is equally mixed. In a reversal of Iran’s experience, when Mr Mubarak fell and there was serious unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, the Saudis looked unnerved. To prevent what it perceived as Iranian influence from spreading, it took action to consolidate power in the ‘near abroad’. Troops were sent to Bahrain, US$20bn was promised to boost Bahrain and Oman, an active role was played to broker a solution in Yemen, which was also facing unrest, and Gulf Cooperation Council membership was offered to Jordan (and Morocco). However, as events have shifted Saudi Arabia looks more secure and finds itself in an unfamiliar, more assertive role. Although the ageing rulers seem keener to focus on internal succession issues than the region, there remains an obsession with the Iran threat. The weakness of the Assad regime has offered a chance to flip Syria away from Iran, and Saudi has joined Qatar in pressing the Arab League to hasten its fall. The willingness of its long-standing ally, the US, to abandon Hosni Mubarak in February, looks to have worried the leadership, and its willingness to fill the regional vacuum left by Egypt may come from a fear that if it does not act, its interests will suffer. This is unlikely to translate into any serious intervention outside of the near abroad, despite its historical links to Egypt’s Salafists, except for arenas such as Syria and Iraq where the Iran threat is high. Saudi Arabia is therefore likely to play a somewhat more assertive role than in the past, though mostly to defend itself from Iran in the wake of the collapse of the previously strong US-Israel-Egypt-Saudi axis.
The global powers: The West steps back, the BRICS step up?
Facilitating the shift towards a multi-polar Middle East has been the shift in global context, both before and after the Arab Spring. A combination of military overstretch after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economic slump and a revived isolationism in domestic politics meant that the US was already weakening in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this, costing the US one key ally, Hosni Mubarak, and unnerving another, Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Mr Obama was able to score a few populist victories in the early days of unrest, eventually calling on Mr Mubarak to step down and approving military action in Libya. However, any enhanced goodwill that this might have bought the US was undermined by its approach to Israel, notably Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, which stripped away any pretence that the US can be a neutral arbiter in the region. Of course, the US is not retreating from the Middle East and with its military bases in the Gulf – though not Iraq – and key economic and diplomatic relations will continue to be an important power. However, the diplomatic hegemony the US enjoyed in the 1990s and the military hegemony it attempted in the 2000s looks unlikely to be a feature of the post-Arab spring world.
The diminishing power of the US leaves space for other powers to fill, although the neighbouring European Union (EU) is unlikely to be one. Despite being the Middle East’s largest trade partner, the EU has rarely made that clout count, and is even less likely to do so now as it faces economic crisis. Individual states, notably Britain and France, have attempted to play a leading role, particularly in the actions taken in Libya and Syria, but without the military support of NATO and the US, their role will be limited. The emerging BRICS on the other hand, do seem likely to enhance their position. Russia under Vladimir Putin has already revived some of the USSR’s former prominence in the region, expanding its economic, military and diplomatic presence in Syria in particular. The reluctance to approve UN resolutions on Libya and the steadfast refusal to do so on Syria suggests that Russia seeks to guard its expanding strategic regional position. The other BRICS, China, India, Brazil and South Africa seem to have restricted their regional involvement to the economic sphere for now. Unlike the western states, these powers seem willing to offer trade and cooperation without the human rights and democratic strings attached. As western influence continues to wane and the economic clout of these states grows further, an enhanced role for the BRICS in the future would seem more appealing. However, a return to patron-client relationships is unlikely. The multi-polar nature of regional relations described above should dictate the shape of international involvement, rather than the superpowers’ grand strategy as in the Cold War or the short-lived War on Terror.
The Arab Spring has unsettled the Middle East’s international relations, by catalyzing existing trends and creating new challenges. The rise of Turkey and Qatar, the isolation of Israel and the diminishment of the US has increased, while the sudden weakness of Egypt and Syria has been unexpected. The Saudi-Iran rivalry continues, although the relative power of each state and the arena in which they compete has been transformed. The bi-polar regional order of the past decade – a Middle Eastern Cold War between a US-led block and an Iranian-led alliance – is coming to an end, making way for a multi-polar arena in which regional and, to a lesser extent, global powers will compete.
Historical parallels have their limitations but shed some light on what this new era might be like. If the 2000s were the second incarnation of Malcolm Kerr’s ‘Arab Cold War’, then perhaps the post Arab Spring Middle East of the 2010s may come to reflect the ‘Struggle for Syria’, outlined by Patrick Seale. Seale noted that in the Syria of 1945-58, a weak Syrian political system came to be the battleground for the leading regional powers of the day, with different political groupings each backed by separate governments. This trend has already been repeated at least twice before, in the Lebanon of 1975-90 and in Iraq from 2003-today. With Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen soon likely to join Lebanon and Iraq on the list of weak states in the Middle East, the potential for them to become new arenas of competition for the stronger states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Israel, is increased.