Inter-Arab politics and international relations in the Middle East

By Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University

*This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014.

For the Explaining the Arab Uprisings volume, my chapter, “Inter-Arab Relations and Regional Politics” examined several key dynamics in regional politics, including the central driver for many political outcomes in the region: regime security and survival. The uprisings of the Arab Spring refocused the attention of many scholars, policymakers, and activists on the politics of regimes – on regime survival, regime collapse, regime change, and the difficulties encountered in creating new regimes. Almost four years after the start of the Arab Spring, understanding the politics of regime survival remains a central part of Middle East political analysis, but the “survival” question now applies not only to regimes, but also potentially to entire countries: Will Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen and other countries remain single states or break up into component parts? for example.

In this memo, I will revisit two themes in the international relations of the region, noting their continued importance, but also some significant changes in the shifting regional balance of power and the domestic and regional importance of identity politics.

Alliance politics and the shifting regional balance of power

During the first three years of the Arab Spring, it was striking how different Arab regional politics was from earlier eras – not just in the collapse of heretofore long-lived autocracies, but also in terms of inter-Arab relations within the regional system itself. In earlier eras, Arab politics had seen struggles for dominance or hegemony (often taking an ideological guise) between three main protagonists: Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. In the early years of the Arab spring, however, the names of these capitals – Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus – no longer implied centers of regional power, but rather of chaos, insurgency, civil war, or revolution. The countries and capitals of the old Arab Cold War were now no longer protagonists in regional leadership struggles, but instead had become arenas for struggle themselves.

By the time of the 2011 uprisings, this Arab power vacuum in inter-Arab relations led to an unusual constellation of rising powers. Saudi Arabia, long used to playing a behind the scenes role in regional struggles, now openly asserted itself in regional politics, with decidedly mixed results. The tiny emirate of Qatar became, temporarily, a major source of power and influence. It too attempted to play an assertive foreign policy role, stretching from Libya to Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Arab Gulf monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervened across the region, with money and arms, affecting domestic politics far beyond the Gulf. Their roles were in some cases supportive of revolution (against Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria) but also counter-revolutionary (in the Gulf itself). The GCC even launched a military intervention to secure the survival of the regime in Bahrain and counter-revolutionary efforts across the Gulf have not ceased since. Yet Saudi Arabia and Qatar also engaged in heated rivalry and proxy conflict themselves: backing Salafi Islamist movements (for example in Saudi Arabia) or, in the case of Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere.

How fortunes have changed. In 2013, Qatar appeared to be playing a regional role far beyond its means: with Islamist movements rising across the region. By 2014, however, the Muslim Brotherhood had been overthrown in Egypt, and was subsequently banned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. With the rapid decline in fortunes for the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar too seemed to have been relegated once again to its role as a lesser power in regional affairs. Yet the Saudis were in no position to declare victory: Iran remained a powerful regional rival, and one that Western powers were negotiating with as an accepted part of the regional status quo; while many of the Salafi movements that had received Saudi backing now took on a stridently anti-Saudi tone. When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and even Jordan took part in airstrikes against the militant self-declared “Islamic State” (also know as ISIS or ISIL), this was a measure of the weakness and severe insecurity of these regimes.

Similarly, in 2011, in part because of the inter-Arab power vacuum, and in part because it seemed to represent a case of successful and somewhat democratic Islamism, Turkey had clearly been the ascendant regional power. The irony of the moment was that the most popular leader across the Arab world was not Arab, but Turkish – Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But here too, fortunes soon changed dramatically. Like Qatar, Turkey was affected by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, marked even by a personal vitriolic animosity between Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkey’s Erdogan. By 2014, both had become presidents of their respective countries, and the animosity, if anything, increased.

In some respects, multiple regional powers had attempted to grab power at a pivotal moment in time, yet all found themselves overstretched in various ways, and all faced unintended and unanticipated consequences of their activist and interventionist foreign policies. But this power vacuum was in many respects caused by the decline in U.S. influence and credibility in the region – dating not to the Arab Spring but to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The deadly ramifications of that war continued to destabilize the entire region, with a corresponding decline in U.S. power, influence, and credibility.

By 2014 what was most striking about the regional balance of power was this: There wasn’t one. Iran remained powerful but largely friendless, tied to its own interventions for the regime in Syria and against the regime in Yemen. Turkey had in a mere three years gone from regional superstar to its earlier image as the former imperial power attempting once again to intrude upon Arab affairs. Israel had engaged in yet another war in Gaza, with a staggering death toll that nonetheless left Hamas intact, but security for Palestinians and Israelis alike remained as elusive as ever. Yet even in the midst of the Gaza conflict, Israel and several Arab states seemed to have formed a de facto alignment for status quo. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE had all become something of a status quo alignment, in large part against Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas) in contrast to earlier pro-Ikhwan efforts by Qatar and Turkey.

Within inter-Arab politics, the GCC remained the only standing alliance, but one marked by intense rivalries and divisions, and which seemed to be a coalition of Sunni Arab monarchies and autocracies reprising their roles from the earlier Arab cold war. This time, too, they were a defensive front against material and ideological threats. But this time the new regional cold war was not really Arab, but mainly a Saudi-Iranian struggle that manifested in competitive interventions with a pronounced sectarian tone. While the local sectarian violence was very real, the broader Sunni-Shiite aspect of the new regional cold war was more symptom than cause. In short, primordial hatreds were not driving the international relations of the region; rather, material and ideational power struggles were actively manipulating sectarian and ethnic tensions in a cynical struggle for power with devastating results.

Sub-national and transnational identity politics

In the book chapter, I had suggested that Pan-Arabism remains a force, but not the Pan-Arabism of the heyday of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Then the movement was led by relatively new, ideologically-charged military regimes, who soon found themselves in conflict not only with conservative monarchies, but also with each other. Today, it remains a staple of analysis to declare Pan-Arabism dead. But beyond this now outdated statist version, there remain powerful lines of identity and pan-Arab identification at the societal level. The new media revolution has facilitated this still further, but people in the region do in fact care about, and follow, the news in other Arab countries from North Africa to West Asia. But these identities compete with national and increasingly sub-national identities as well, especially as the weakness of the regional state system has been made amply clear.

Lines of identity – ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian, national – are usually seen as part of comparative politics; while the regional balance of power is part of international relations. But to really understand either set of phenomena, one must ignore the borders of subfields, and cross them. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt benefited from Qatari and Turkish support, but the military regime that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood was itself supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It would be impossible, in short, to accurately explain these dramatic regime shifts within Egypt without turning to regional international relations. Similarly, many foreign policy choices in the region have internal as well as external motivations, requiring serious analysis to draw on comparative politics to explain international relations outcomes.

At the start of the Arab Spring, hopes were high that societal Pan-Arabism would lead youth movements and pro-democracy movements and perhaps even new democratic Arab regimes to form transnational coalitions of support. The efforts were there, certainly, but so too were the efforts of authoritarian states to exploit identity politics, fuel divisions, and divide and rule populations. While there were and are some cross-border efforts among pro-democracy groups, by 2013 these were eclipsed by transnational support efforts of ruling regimes. The other most notable transnational form of identity politics came in the form of transnational Jihadi networks (including ISIS) that challenged the state system. In short, it is transnational authoritarianism (and even transnational militant Jihadism) – not transnational democracy – that seemed to have gained the upper hand in regional politics.

And it is in this context that it is worth revisiting what regional alliances actually are. As I suggested in the book chapter, these may technically be alliances between countries, but in more realistic terms they are transnational support coalitions between ruling regimes, against both external and internal threats (real and perceived) to their security and survival.

Regional conflict

The period since 2011 has been particularly tumultuous in regional politics, with the initial optimism of the early Arab Spring democracy movements giving way to resurgent authoritarianism, militancy, and violence by state and sub-state actors. The rise of the “Islamic State” even prompted the emergence of a renewed international coalition and Western military intervention in the name of fighting terrorism. In that sense, 2014 has echoes from the early days of the “War on Terror” from 10 years earlier. Then and now, there remains the danger in media analysis, punditry, and policymaking, of seeing countries (especially in international relations) as holistic units. But given the internal rifts and struggles within many states, it has become absurd to speak without qualifiers of what Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen are doing on the regional or global stage.

But another over-simplification may be even more problematic: seeing current lines of conflict as constants rather than variables. This has long been noticeable in public perceptions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is now dangerously applied to explain regional sectarianism as a constant, allegedly from 632 to 2014. There is a real danger to seeing even deep fissures of current conflict as supposedly primordial cleavages in regional politics – to believe, in short, the myths that “they have always been fighting,” whether this applies to Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Kurds, or Sunnis and Shiites. While there is no shortage of ethnic and sectarian hatred, seeing these as endemic in regional politics also leads people to dismiss the region entirely in terms of rational explanations. If people have “always been fighting,” then both explanations and solutions seem pointless.

In this context, a key role of political science research is to provide more realistic explanations for regional conflict or cooperation, based on facts rather than popular mythology, but also ones that dispel pervasive or even brand new myths about the underpinnings of regional politics.

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


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