Regime security and shifting alliances in the Middle East

By Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

The 2015 announcement of a major deal between Iran and six major world powers, including the United States, was but the latest in a list of major jolts to the Middle East regional system. In the last several years alone, the region has been rocked by the pro-democracy uprisings of the original Arab Spring, the dark turn toward civil wars, insurgencies, and increasing terrorism in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, as well as authoritarian backlashes from Egypt to Bahrain. These events have shaken the system of regional alliances and alignments—including in inter-Arab relations—as states have tried to adjust to drastic changes in regional politics and security.

For all the jolts, changes, and challenges to the regional system, however, some key aspects of regional politics continue to operate along familiar lines. If 2011 was the year of regime change, the years since have seen the return of essentially reactionary regime security politics, against both internal and external challenges. Regime security dynamics, in other words, are all too familiar and pervasive. This doesn’t mean that regional politics hasn’t changed. Rather, it means that regional regimes are still playing with the old playbook, even as societies have changed dramatically and both democratic and militant movements alike challenge states. Regime security remains the key driver of alliance politics in the Middle East, perhaps especially so in inter-Arab relations.

Regime Security is Still Job One

Even before the Iranian nuclear deal, the region was already beset by crises and rising violence, and inter-Arab solidarity remained as elusive as ever. Yet the 2015 summit of the Arab League promised more than the usual platitudes to emerge from the organization. This time, the Arab regimes insisted, the summit would be meaningful and finally lead to regional cooperation to restore some semblance of regional order. At least rhetorically, the Arab states seemed united: calling for a joint Arab military force for “rapid reaction” against militancy and terrorism. The force was to consist potentially of as many as 40,000 troops, to be drawn heavily from Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ground, air, and naval forces. But despite the flurry of temporarily unified rhetoric, actual activity failed to match the aspirations of yet another Arab League Summit—to the surprise of no one—because, despite the lofty rhetoric, states and regimes in the region have different interests and different security priorities.

No matter what the next regional jolt will be, the focus of regional regimes on their own individual security will still remain job one and will underlie their responses. Even when the Arab regimes agreed to work together against militancy and extremism, they had different security threats in mind. For Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the key threat was Iran and Iranian influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and allegedly even within Saudi Arabia and Bahrain themselves. For the UAE and Egypt, the core threat remained the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar Islamist movements. For Jordan, meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed a loyal opposition compared to rising Salafi movements within the kingdom and the transnational jihadists of the Islamic State who had taken huge swaths of Syria and Iraq, frequently testing Jordan’s borders. While Jordan supported its allies (especially Egypt and the GCC), its main security concern remained the Islamic State.

But aid and economic security are also part of regime security, leading aid dependent states such as Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, not only to give diplomatic or verbal support for Gulf security, but also to send war planes to take part even in war efforts. For these states, regime security concerns were not rooted in fear of Houthi rebels or even of Iranian regional ambitions, but rather in maintaining the good graces (and relatedly, the security and well-being) of rich aid donors such as the Arab Gulf states. In that sense, when the Jordanian foreign minister referred to Gulf state security as a direct interest of Jordan, he was not merely being figurative. In terms of aid, investment, trade, labor remittances, and oil, the security of the Arab Gulf states does indeed correlate directly to regime security in Jordan, Egypt and other resource-poor states.

Regime Security, Security Dilemmas, and Alliances

Regime security, I argue, is the key driver of alliance politics in the Middle East. Traditional international relations theory previously had focused on Neorealist concerns with system-structure, anarchy, and external threats to explain alliance politics, with occasional reference to the Middle East (Walt, 1987). But among scholars of the region itself, these types of macro-level theories rarely matched the empirical realities of regional politics. It was for that reason that in my own research, I found myself turning to another subfield, comparative politics, to better explain the international relations of the region, with particular attention paid to the insecurities of regimes in both their domestic and regional settings. I argued that a regime security approach, rather than a Neorealist framework, better explained Arab foreign policies and alliance choices (Ryan 1995). I later developed those ideas in a more detailed study of Jordanian foreign policy as the kingdom maneuvered within inter-Arab relations (Ryan 2009).

Even as regional alliances, alignments, and coalitions change, these overall regime security dynamics continue to underpin regional international relations. Arab regimes, I argue, remain frequently trapped in internal and external security dilemmas of their own making, obsessed with ensuring the security of their ruling regimes against both internal and external challenges. Politics in the Arab world, and indeed elsewhere as well, continues to include internal as well as external security dilemmas. In the latter, states unwittingly undermine their own security even as they bolster their military preparedness and defenses, by triggering alarm in their neighbors. In the former, however, regimes also face an internal or domestic security dilemma, in which their own security measures serve to create fortress regimes, ever more distant from their own societies, resistant to change, yet vulnerable to discontent from an alienated public. Both versions refer to the dangers of a deepening cycle of insecurity.

Alliances then serve as not just country-to-country defense pacts but also looser transnational support coalitions of ruling elites, as regimes help prop each other up against perceived security threats. These can be both material and ideational. Laurie Brand has written on the former, in the form of a political economy of alliance making and budget security; while Gregory Gause and Lawrence Rubin have made clear that that latter—ideational threats—can be every bit as dire in the eyes of regimes as those of a material nature. (Brand 1994, Gause 2003/4, Rubin 2014). The importance of ideational as well as material political struggles in the international relations of the region can be seen especially in what some have called a “New Middle East Cold War’ (Gause 2014) or a “New Arab Cold War” (Valbjorn 2007, Bank and Valbjorn 2012, Ryan 2012).

A key fault line in Arab politics is the regime’s perception of its own security and stability. When this faces a significant challenge, regimes respond by re-arranging domestic support coalitions, increasing the active role of the internal security apparatus, and—in foreign policy—shifting alliances and alignments to better ensure regime security. Regimes are continually tempted to provide quick fixes to regime security concerns via foreign policy and alliance choices, however, because adjusting external relations seems less risky to them than genuine internal restructuring and reform. The foreign policy focus of regime security politics, in other words, also has domestic consequences, often bolstering existing authoritarian systems and thwarting hope for greater domestic change.

Focusing on regimes and their security concerns (internal and external, economic and military, material and ideational) allows us also to use a regime security approach to link otherwise competing paradigms. Constructivist scholars, for example, have also challenged traditional I.R. theories, with emphasis on identities, ideas, and changes in domestic and regional public spheres (Barnett 1998, Lynch 1999). A regime security approach is not just compatible with, for example, realist and constructivist approaches, but also provides a bridge between them. And if anything, events since the start of the regional Arab spring have only underscored the relevance of a regime security approach to understanding regional international relations and alliance politics.

Insecurity and Shifting Regional Alliances, 2011-2015

Just a few years ago, in 2011, the Arab League met in the wake of the first wave of the Arab Spring, with new semi-democratic regimes sitting uncomfortably alongside increasingly nervous dictatorships. For some of the latter, the greatest threat appeared to be not Israel, not Iran, and not militant jihadist movements, but rather domestic democratic grassroots activism and demands for regime change. But for some, an even greater threat came from “reformist” and potentially revolutionary Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The rise of Islamist regimes (an-Nahda in Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) led alliances such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to close ranks and even to invite non-Gulf states such as Morocco and Jordan to join the GCC. They may not have been fellow Gulf states, but they were fellow Arab and Sunni monarchies with extensive ties to Western powers. As the tide of the Arab Spring rose and toppled regimes (all authoritarian republics) the monarchies coalesced together in pursuit of a kind of collective regime security. Yet the Syrian war continued to divide the core of the alignment itself, as Saudi Arabia and Qatar were more often than not at odds with one another in their (failed) attempts to determine regime change elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, for example, tended to oppose Islamist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while the regime in Qatar actively supported Brotherhood movements.

Non-Arab states such as Turkey played ever-larger roles in regional politics, as Turkey’s AKP-led regime, in alliance with Qatar, backed Islamist movements across the region. When former President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime rose to power in Egypt, many Arab regimes (aside from Qatar) were deeply alarmed. Islamists had, after all, taken power following a popular revolution and a democratic election. Egypt’s regime change led to a closer alliance of Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey, but in the same vein, another regime change would then rearrange regional alliances once again. The 2013 coup d’état of General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in Egypt ousted the Islamist regime, restoring secular and essentially authoritarian rule, while preserving the power and privileges of the vast Egyptian armed forces. The shake-up in regional alliances and inter-Arab relations was immediate. Within 24 hours of the regime change, Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited Cairo to support the new regime. Qatar pulled its financial support but was soon outshone by the vast support showered on Egypt by Saudi Arabia and the UAE (Ryan 2014).

The Arab Spring had given new urgency to the politics of regime security. The toppling of four regimes, each in a completely different way, still got the attention of all surviving regimes in the region. But now the post-Morsi regional system saw the strengthening of regimes committed to thwarting regime security threats and committed to propping up themselves and their allies. Specifically, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan emerged as key allies, similarly suspicious of—or even outright hostile to—the Muslim Brotherhood. Three of the states outlawed the Brotherhood entirely, while Jordan allowed the movement (as old as the Jordanian state itself) to continue to operate legally within the kingdom. Still, it was the perception of an internal, and to some extent transnational, threat to their own legitimacy, security, and stability that lead each of these regimes to work closely together—far more closely than they had in responding even to severe regional crises like the Syrian civil war or the rise of extremist threats like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

By 2015, the early hopes of the Arab Spring seemed dashed by counter-revolution, military coups, civil wars, and rising regional terrorism. The 2015 Sharm el-Shelkh summit looked like it would be dominated by discussions of the Islamic State (or Da’esh), but instead took place at the start of Arab military intervention in Yemen to prop up the (Arab League-backed) regime of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In 2011, the idea of Arab states routinely crossing borders to intervene militarily directly in the affairs of neighbors would have seemed highly unlikely. But by 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states was bombarding another Arab country.

The Hadi regime was backed by Saudi Arabia and many Arab states, while Houthi challengers were backed in part by Iran. In any case, the Yemen conflict amounted to multiple dueling regimes, backed by still other regimes, with Yemeni society paying a terrible price for regime and prospective-regime miscalculations and failures. Not even the Syrian civil war, al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State had triggered similar attempts at regional realignment or pan-Arab security cooperation. Rather, it took seemingly less intense threats—democratic street activism, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Iranian backing of local Shi’a movements—to trigger existential regime security fears, with corresponding shifts in alliances and even in direct Arab military action.

The nuclear agreement between Iran and major world powers then shocked the regional system yet again. And certainly Saudi Arabia tried to lead an essentially Sunni and Arab alliance against Iranian inroads in Arab politics. But despite misunderstandings to the contrary, the agreement did not amount to a U.S. realignment away from Egypt, Jordan, or the GCC states toward Iran. Regional Arab allies feared abandonment by their main great power patron, to be sure. And indeed, abandonment, and its counterpart entrapment (that is, having an ally drag one into an unwanted conflict) are the two traditional concerns in yet another security dilemma—one between allies themselves (Snyder 1984, 1990). But the United States increased its support, especially militarily, to each of these regimes and even more so to its ally Israel. In real material terms, the U.S. alliances were closer, even as inter-personally the regime-to-regime distrust between allies had increased, making the alliances seem distant and uncertain.

However, the U.S.-Iran dimension had more in common with U.S. arms control deals with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They were deals between adversaries, with ambitions to work together on some issues, but against one another on others. They were not, in short, the beginnings of new alliances or a massive regional realignment on the part of the United States. It was likely, however, to lead to further changes within the region: including deepening the already-existing alliance of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and other GCC states—and perhaps leading to rapprochement with Qatar.

Still, perception matters more than reality in political life, so the perceived realignment still seems to dominant narratives within Arab regional politics, as the system adjusts to what is indeed a dramatic change in regional politics. But it remains only the latest of a series of regional shocks: the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, the Iranian nuclear deal, each of these has shaken the regional system. And in each case, regimes responded by putting regime security concerns first, rearranging regional alliances accordingly, and ultimately allowing their many security dilemmas to dampen (or worse) the democratic hopes and aspirations of those who had led the original 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations and uprisings. As much as regional politics has indeed changed in such dramatic ways over these last four years, regime security dynamics and security dilemmas continue to drive regional alliances, with profound implications for both internal and external politics.

Curtis Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.



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