The Middle East is a powder keg of conflicting conflicts, and that in a region that sits on large parts of the world’s most important commodity: oil. Just over 60 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and 30 per cent of the proven gas reserves are found there. The area has been dominated by Western powers, but the global shift in power from west to east and south means that countries can now spread their dependence on more external powers. This gives them a greater opportunity to shape their own region. In the Arab Spring, there was an element of liberation both from its own authoritarian regimes and from foreign domination.
- Where are the overall divisions in the Middle East today?
- Why are the countries in the Middle East now freer to shape their own future?
- What recent developments can give more hope for cooperation between the countries of the Middle East?
- Has the Arab Spring brought the Middle East forward?
2: The international backdrop
According to watchtutorials.org, the United States is reducing its presence in the Middle East. The Americans have withdrawn from Iraq and will leave Afghanistan in 2014. In addition, they played a withdrawn role during the bombing of Libya in 2011 and have also refused to supply weapons to the rebels in Syria. In American strategy, the Pacific area and the challenge from China are the main issue. Nevertheless, the United States still has strong interests in the Middle East. The United States guarantees Israel’s security , the conflict with Iran runs deep and dependence on oil is still significant, albeit declining.
At the same time, China’s economic presence in the region, and to some extent India’s, is growing. The new powers adhere to the principles of non-interference in internal affairs and non-use of force . The first helps them gain access to the region, the second helps keep Western powers out. Under international law, the use of force can only be justified in two ways, either in self-defense or by mandate from the UN Security Council , and in the Security Council Russia and China have a veto. The regional states therefore have more great powers to play on. This makes it easier to promote your own interests.
Of the four major countries in the Middle East – Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran – Iran and Turkey pursue a foreign policy that is broadly independent of the United States, despite Turkish NATO membership. In Egypt, Morsi (now ousted president) also followed an independent line. After the military coup in the summer of 2013 , Egypt’s relations with the United States have been partly unresolved and partly inflamed. Saudi Arabia is still closely linked to Washington. The core of this relationship is oil against support for the regime , but that may change as the United States becomes less dependent on oil from outside ( see HHD No. 16 2013 ).
3: The Arab Spring
The Arab Spring triggered a series of revolutionary changes that proved vulnerable to setbacks. Developments in Egypt are a strong illustration: The revolution in 2011 was followed by a coup in 2013 that reintroduced large parts of the old regime. But thus no line has been drawn. True, the military has promised to hold elections within six months, but how democratic can it be when critical media are closed and the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are not allowed to stand still? Temporary setbacks to the old order have not been uncommon, neither in the Middle East nor in European history.
In the Middle East, Turkey has long experience of such setbacks, most recently from the 1997 military coup against Erbakan and his Welfare Party, which resembled the Freedom and Justice Party to the Egyptian Brotherhood. to Islam and committed to universal norms and respect for all views of life (cf. human rights). It eased Erdogan’s democratic path to power a few years later. Iran’s experience is different in that respect.
Admittedly, the coup (directed by the United States at the strong urging of Britain) against Mossadeq in 1953 was overturned by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Shah, who was reinstated by the United States in 1953, was overthrown in 1979. But moderate leaders from the 1980s eventually had to give way. for more conservative leaders with the support of the Revolutionary Guards.
We also know similar movements back and forth from European history. In Europe, Cromwell’s British Republic was overthrown and the Stuarts were reinstated before liberal democratic practices eventually took root. The French Revolution was first followed by Napoleon, and then by the old dynasty before the second and democratic republic was declared in 1848.
Transition to democratic rule is more difficult in the Middle East than in many other places. The relationship between political Islam, which is strong in the population, and secular forces, which is strong in the state apparatus and in the military forces, is tense and filled with mutual suspicion and hatred. The counter-revolution in Egypt means that the prospects for free elections and civil rights are bleak. It is not the same as saying that the Arab Spring is a closed chapter, but large fluctuations and a lot of turbulence can also occur in the years to come.
4: Moderation vs. resistance, sunni vs. sjia
The Middle East is unique in its complexity . Politics springs from the strong position of Islam and the contradictions between Shia and Sunni (the two main groupings within Islam). It springs from the meaning of oil, traditionalism vs. modernity and pan-Arabism vs. nationalism. For an Arab, there are at least three different sources of identity:
- religion (muslim)
- pan-arabic (the arabic ummah – community)
All this comes on top of the guidelines on politics that we are also familiar with from our part of the world and that spring from political history, culture, ethnicity, social structures, profession and economic interests.
Two dimensions are central:
1. One concerns the contradictions between moderation and resistance . Moderation in the sense of secular attitudes and willingness to cooperate with the West. Mubarak’s Egypt is a good example. When US interests did not coincide with popular interests and opinions in Egypt, Mubarak often sided with the great power. The Egyptian military had close ties with Washington and democracy did not exist. In addition, they benefited from US aid to Egypt. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are in the same category.
Opposition to American and Israeli domination and politics is fronted by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and others fighting for Palestinian rights, now also with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad as a supporter. Paradoxically, the US occupation of Iraq drove Iraq into the hands of Iran.
2 . The second is the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites . Since religion has such a strong grip on people’s minds, politics is often justified in religious terms. But the underlying causes may be different. In international politics, there are countless examples of religion being used to legitimize national and economic interests. Scripture is then interpreted and adapted to national needs, and in the Middle East Islam plays a similar role, only stronger than most other places. Here too, international politics is about power and influence, and sectarian contradictions are an effective basis on which to mobilize .
Look at Iran. The slogans of the Islamic revolution in 1979 were three: independence, freedom and Islamic republic – the first two of a secular nature. Sometimes, as in Lebanon and Iraq, ideological and geopolitical interests coincide. But they do not do so when Iran cooperates with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both of which are Sunni, or for that matter with Assad and his Alawites, who are several stone’s throw from Iranian Shiites. Iran also supports Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir and China in Xinjiang against the Muslims there. Here the geopolitical interests take precedence over the ideological ones.
5: The civil war in Syria
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been more likely to mobilize on a sectarian basis than Iran, in order to limit Iranian influence in the region. Deposed President Morsi supported the opposition in Syria, which includes the Syrian Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia has supported the Sunni Muslim insurgents with money and weapons.
The fronts and the number of warring groups in this war have increased over time. In addition to Assad vs. the rebels are fighting various branches of al-Qaeda against each other and against the “free Syrian army” . Sometimes there have also been fighting between rebels and Kurds in the north of the country. If the war continues, the country may end up as a so-called “failed state” – as a state that is no longer functional. No one knows who will get hold of which weapons. Especially for Israel, this is an undesirable outcome, because the rebels are radicalized and may turn their weapons against Israel. There is no military solution to the civil war in Syria.
Cooperation between Russia and the United States on the control and removal of chemical weapons offers hope for a political solution, although such a solution still seems remote. Saudi Arabia may be about to turn in that direction, because now they really do not have a good horse to bet on anymore. Not Assad, not the Syrian Brotherhood, nor the terrorist groups and extremists. The free Syrian army is on the wane. It is also important to involve Iran in the work for a political solution.
6: The Kurdish problem
The boundaries that were drawn when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated are largely maintained . Attempts have been made to change them by military force, but apart from the expansion of Israeli territory, they have failed. One major national problem remains unresolved : the Kurds’ struggle for a homeland. There are over 20 million of them, 6-7 million in northern Iraq, others in Turkey, Syria and Iran. In northern Iraq, they have extensive autonomy (internal self-government), and now conditions are perhaps better than ever for a Kurdish homeland there.
Turkey is not necessarily against this anymore. The largest investors in northern Iraq are Turkish, and trade is extensive. Kurdish oil production is growing, and Turkey is in the process of completing an oil pipeline from an area near Kirkuk (the largest city in the north). Kirkuk is the “gain” in this context: It is home to one of the largest oil fields in the world , and Kurdish control over it can give Turkey a lot of energy from the local area.
For Saudi Arabia, the value of an independent, Sunni Muslim Kurdistan is the formation of a new front against arch-enemy Iran. The government in Baghdad is naturally opposed to such a development, Iran probably too. In addition, the Turkmen population sees Kirkuk as a historical center. Therefore, the continuation is by no means given.
7: The conflict over Iran’s nuclear program
This conflict has been going on for an open stage for ten years, with meetings and talks between and between Iran and the great powers. With the exception of the talks on a confidence-building measure in the autumn of 2009, the parties have never been close to agreeing on anything. Now Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani is making a new attempt to resolve the conflict.
Rouhani offers transparency about the program. He refers to the period 2003–2005. He was then chief negotiator, and Iran accepted more extensive inspections than any other country in the world. Furthermore, he is ready to limit the program to remove the suspicions of weapons ambitions. For Iran, it is urgently important to lift the sanctions and improve the country’s economy.
The key concerns the right to enrich, which is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty . Iran is a member (party). Iran stands on it. If the United States meets Rouhani at this point, many other elements may fall into place quickly. Recently, the presidents of the two countries met for the first time since 1979.
The timetable is important: If the negotiations drag on, the opposing forces will show up with full force in Iran, Israel and the United States. In Iran, the Conservatives are on guard against major concessions. The Israelis fear that the new signals are drama and deception. And in the United States, many will increase the pressure on Iran as much as possible in the hope of removing the regime. Iran’s proposal therefore has a grace period – Rouhani suggests 3-6 months.
8: Regional cooperation
Back to basics – conflict or cooperation: Do the countries in the region manage to take advantage of the international framework conditions to shape the Middle East in their own image? In that case , they must cooperate .
For long periods, the region has been marked by conflicts. But from time to time there has been greater interest in international cooperation than in alliance formations and new lines of conflict. 20 years ago, the Oslo Accords were a source of optimism. Shimon Peres (now President of Israel) had a vision of open borders and cooperation with Jordan and Egypt. The vision was based on a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and an Israeli reorientation to be a Western outpost to also become an integral part of the Middle East.
The optimism during the Arab Spring also turned attention to the potential for cooperation. By linking the human resources in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to the capital -rich Gulf states (Qatar, Kuwait and the Emirates), the region could receive a major economic boost. The prerequisite is conviction and determination that this is the way to respond to the hopes of the Arab Spring. In a broader regional perspective, the precondition is also that Iran is recognized as a legitimate state with legitimate national interests, and as a partner and not just an enemy.
Today, it is increasingly the conflicts that dominate, especially the civil war in Syria and the development in Egypt, which means that this large Arab country has enough of itself until further notice. But those are bright spots . Iran wants to participate in the Geneva talks on Syria , and the United States may realize that it is necessary to bring about political solutions there.
Furthermore, Iran says that a better relationship with Saudi Arabia is a top priority . If it succeeds, it will also be easier to bring about a normalization of relations between Iran and Egypt, which want the same thing but need money from Saudi Arabia and are slowed down by it. And in Tunisia, the work for better democratic governance continues. This is where the Arab Spring began, and where the military stays out of politics, because they have no economic self-interest to defend.
The ideals of the Arab Spring cannot be obliterated . People have gained a taste for democratic rights and freedoms that are still there and that will affect development in the long run, despite the setbacks.