Overlapping contests and Middle East international relations: The return of the weak Arab state

By Bassel F. Salloukh, Lebanese American University

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

One of the most enduring legacies of what Michael Hudson once labelled “the Montréal School” of Arab politics is its emphasis on the overlap between domestic, transnational and geopolitical factors in the making of Middle East international relations.[1] Long before the Islamic State exploded onto the regional scene in its quest for an imagined borderless caliphate, proponents of this school argued that International Relations (IR) theory could ill afford to ignore the overlap between these different levels of analysis. Through a sustained critique of realism’s obsession with external material threats and its underlying assumption of the state as a unitary rational actor, the Montréal School underscored the stubborn interplay between the domestic and regional levels in the making of Middle East international relations. This overlap, it argued, assumed a number of forms. Whether in the use of the region’s permeability to transnational ideological currents to advance the state’s geopolitical interests, domestic actors aligning with regional powers to balance against their domestic opponents, the “omnibalancing” choices facing regime leaders, or the regime security and ideational threats driving foreign policy choices and regional alliances, the interplay between the domestic and regional levels served the local agendas of domestic actors and the geopolitical and state-building objectives of many states in the Arab world.[2] It also underscored the salience of immaterial, ideational threats in the making of Middle East international relations.[3]

Even the realist foreign policies that prevailed in the 1980s as states consolidated their infrastructural and coercive capabilities and started acting like seemingly rational actors did not end the aforementioned interplay between the domestic and regional levels. As Gregory Gause argued persuasively, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait—like the 1980 invasion of Iran— was rooted in primarily regime security considerations.[4] The 1990-91 invasion and subsequent liberation of Kuwait exposed but also unleashed a set of overlapping domestic and trans-regional challenges that collectively underscored the domestic challenges facing authoritarian regimes, the changing permeability of the regional system, and the explosion of transnational non-state actors.[5] In our 2004 co-edited volume, Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East, Rex Brynen and I summarized these challenges to include “authoritarian states and inefficient economies confronted by the forces of globalization and by the exigencies of domestic reforms; foreign policies driven by both realpolitik and the complex dynamics of domestic politics; a consolidated state system set against a regional permeability now sustained by rapidly evolving information and communications technologies; American unipolarism set against its local (sometimes militant, and often Islamist) opponents, and, finally, a contemporary American neoconservative democratic discourse at odds with Washington’s political legacy in the region.”[6] The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the explosion of al-Qaeda in the Arab world magnified the role of transnational actors in a new regional system in flux. Even its own proponents admitted that realism was ill equipped to accommodate these overlapping challenges.[7]

The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq created a new regional landscape, unleashing dynamics that ultimately restored the primacy of the overlapping domestic and geopolitical battles of the 1950s and 1960s. Henceforth, the region became the theater for a grand Saudi-Iranian geopolitical confrontation fought not through classical realist state-to-state military battles, but rather through proxy domestic and transnational actors and the domestic politics of a number of weak Arab states, including the perennial candidate Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, postwar Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Yemen and Bahrain.[8] As Gause has carefully noted, for both Riyadh and Tehran, the two main protagonists of this geopolitical contest, as well as for Qatar and Turkey, the objective “is not to defeat their regional rivals militarily on the battlefield. It is to promote the fortunes of their own clients in these weak state domestic struggles and thus build up regional influence.”[9] Yet lest we deny them agency, domestic actors also possess their own calculations and interests. They invite and align with regional actors in a bid to balance the political influence of their domestic opponents and advance their own local political interests. Lebanon’s sectarian elite mastered this game of aligning with external actors against domestic opponents in overlapping domestic and regional struggles. Consequently, Lebanon has served as a site for geopolitical contests since its creation. By 2006, state collapse and the pull of centrifugal forces in post-Saddam Iraq made the country look increasingly like Lebanon, however. Overlapping domestic and regional struggles also dominated the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The popular uprisings intensified and complicated the geopolitical contests that commenced after the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, exacerbating them in some places, like in Lebanon, Yemen, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and allowing them to spread to new sites, namely Syria and Libya. As the contributions in this series by Gause, Curtis Ryan and Lawrence Rubin admirably demonstrate, the concomitant collapse of some regimes or states and ascendance of old and new political actors with transnational ideologies, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State respectively, restored to center stage the regional system’s ideational balancing dynamics.[10]

The Return of the Weak State

The swiftness with which the Syrian state collapsed as its own originally peaceful uprising developed into an overlapping domestic, regional and international “struggle for Syria”[11] captured the enduring interplay between domestic, regional and international factors in the making of Middle East international relations.[12] Yet unlike past contests over the Syrian state fought primarily through military coups, political clients and transnational ideological permeability, the present one underwent a complete militarization. Hafiz al-Assad’s once Hobbesian state, one that was capable of playing a substantial role in shaping Middle East international relations, is all but gone. To be sure, the regime’s survival hinges on a number of domestic factors, namely the military capabilities of its praetorian forces and its ability to retain narrow but viable political alliances with urban socioeconomic elites and ethnic or religious minorities. Equally, and at times even more, important, however, is the support of international (i.e. Russia) and regional actors, namely Iran. Tehran’s proxies, whether Hezbollah or a posse of Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias, proved instrumental in propping up the regime at a moment of dire crisis when it was losing control of Syrian territory rapidly, and its end was predicted on a daily basis. The transformation of Syria from a Leviathan capable of waging sometimes domestically unpopular geopolitical battles to a weak state penetrated by regional actors and their proxies, as well as transnational and domestic Salafi-Jihadi actors, brought the regional system’s interplay between the domestic and regional levels to new heights. The intrusive role played by the non-Arab regional states in the struggle for Syria transformed the region’s overlapping domestic and geopolitical battles from what Malcom Kerr once labeled an “Arab Cold War” waged primarily through the fig leaf of Arab nationalism to what Gause more recently branded a “New Middle East Cold War” waged this time through the destructive force of sectarianism and Salafi-Jihadism.[13]

Yemen is another site where the militarization of the region’s overlapping domestic and geopolitical battles assumed new and destructive levels. The institutional and coercive weakness of the Yemeni state and its grim economic conditions always invited external intervention in its domestic affairs.[14] Yemen’s inspiring popular uprising was hijacked when Riyadh intervened to ensure a transition away from Ali Abdullah Saleh to another authoritarian leader, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who proceeded to monopolize power and subsequently alienate the country’s tribal groups. Capitalizing on the Houthis’ “deep sense of victimization by the state,”[15] Tehran’s involvement in the Yemeni conflict is driven by its grand confrontation with Riyadh over geopolitical influence. After all, meddling in Saudi Arabia’s security backyard is in keeping with the rules of geopolitical engagement described by Gause above. Riyadh’s military response to the Houthi nimble takeover of large swathes of Yemen represented a break with Saudi Arabia’s longstanding geopolitical tools, namely, proxy actors and financial largess. Riyadh’s “Decisive Storm” campaign against Yemen may be driven by both geopolitical and domestic calculations. It raised the geopolitical stakes between the two states, taking their confrontation beyond proxy wars, yet it has nevertheless avoided a direct military confrontation with Tehran.


The popular uprisings intensified the interplay between the domestic and regional levels in the making of Middle East international relations. Security and ideational threats are intertwined as regimes scramble to defend both their geopolitical interests and their domestic political order from a mix of domestic, regional and transregional actors and ideologies. Whether this long enduring interplay has found itself into IR theory is another matter, however. Indeed, a 2012 stocktaking of “Domestic Explanations of International Relations” included only one reference to a work pertaining to Middle East international relations![16] Despite this, it would be wrong to assume that Middle East international relations has had no impact whatsoever on mainstream realist theorizing, For example, the more nuanced and sophisticated realist approach of Stephen Walt’s Taming American Power is one fine example of the impact of Middle East international relations on IR theorizing.[17] The richer analysis undertaken in this book, expanding the arc of strategies available to threatened states to include balancing, balking, binding, blackmail and delegitimation, is informed substantially by the overlapping regional and domestic consequences of the 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

The ‘new Middle East Cold War’ is also a textbook case of the effects of overlapping domestic and geopolitical conflicts on the malleability and renegotiation of otherwise complex ethnic identities and, in turn, how these identities affect foreign policy and alliance choices. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, overlapping conflicts incurred state collapse, which in turn led to a shift from national and more inclusive identities toward narrower sectarian, tribal or ethnic identities. Saudi Arabia’s deployment of sectarianism to achieve what are otherwise geopolitical objectives, before as well as after the popular uprisings, and Iran’s use of sectarianism to mobilize its regional proxies in defense of its geopolitical allies, magnified the sectarian dimension of these conflicts in which other divisions have always been equally if not more important and class or regional divisions often overlapped with sectarian cleavages.[18] Lebanon is the Arab world’s enduring example of the institutionalization of historically constructed sectarian identities into a corporate consociational power-sharing agreement that, with time, looks immutable. Post-Saddam Iraq is duplicating Lebanon’s pitfalls: sectarian and ethnic identities will soon assume a reified status with the country exposed to overlapping domestic and external contests. Yemen is also instructive here. Riyadh’s use of sectarianism as an instrument of geopolitics and the Houthi’s revengeful acts as they move south are shattering the country’s once shared traditions. In a country where “sectarian differences meant almost nothing until recent years,”[19] the overlapping domestic and geopolitical struggle over Yemen is cast increasingly in sectarian terms, at the expense of far more important tribal and regional markers of political identity. Similarly, the overlapping domestic and geopolitical contest in post-Qaddafi Libya has created new fault lines along hitherto dormant ethnic and religious identities. These include battles between “Libya’s Islamists, the merchants of Misrata, the Arab Bedouin tribes concentrated in the Green Mountains of the east, the indigenous Imazighen (i.e., Berbers) in the west, and the two ethnic groups of Libya’s slice of the Sahara—the Tuareg and Tubu.” Contests over post-Qaddafi Libya increasingly look like “a battle between Bedouin Arab tribes and Libyans of other ethnic groups Arabized over centuries.”[20] They are constructing new modes of political identity and mobilization, tearing Libya apart.

The return of the weak state to the Arab world and the renegotiation of new identities as a result of the interplay between domestic and geopolitical battles underscore the continued benefits of theoretical eclecticism in explaining Middle East international relations. Whether we are studying the foreign policy and alliance choices of regional actors, or the regional system’s ‘persistent permeability’ and the use of transregional ideologies as a power resource, it is far more rewarding to travel between theoretical paradigms than to engage in theoretical sectarianism. Scholars of Middle East international relations have long mastered this kind of theoretical eclecticism, deploying any mix of neo-realist, regime security, historical sociology and constructivist explanations in a happy theoretical marriage.[21] It is high time IR theory does the same and, in the process, pays better attention to those more generalizable theoretical insights generated from the study of Middle East IR.

Bassel F. Salloukh is an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. He is a coauthor of the book “The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon” (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


[1] See Michael C. Hudson, “American Hegemony and the Changing Terrain of Middle East International Relations,” in Bassel F. Salloukh and Rex Brynen, eds., Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East (London: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004), p. 163.

[2] See, for example, Malcolm H. Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 third edition, (New York: Oxford UP, 1971); Cyrus Schayegh, “1958 Reconsidered: State Formation and the Cold War in the Early Postcolonial Arab Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45, (2013), pp. 421–443; Rex Brynen, “Palestine and the Arab State System: Permeability, State Consolidation and the Intifada,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 24, 3, (September 1991), pp. 595-621; F. Gregory Gause, III, “Sovereignty, Statecraft and Stability in the Middle East,” Journal of International Affairs 45, 2, (Winter 1992), pp. 441-469; Steven R. David, “Explaining Third World Alignment,” World Politics 43, 2 (January 1991), pp. 233-256; Bahgat Korany, Paul Noble, and Rex Brynen, eds., The Many Faces of National Security in the Arab World (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993); Curtis R. Ryan, Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009); Lauri A. Brand, “Economics and Shifting Alliances: Jordan’s Relations with Syria and Iraq, 1975-81,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, 3, (August 1994), pp. 393-413; Ibrahim A. Karawan, “Sadat and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Revisited,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, 2, (May 1994), pp. 249-266; and Bassel F. Salloukh, “State Strength, Permeability, and Foreign Policy Behavior: Jordan in Theoretical Perspective,” Arab Studies Quarterly 18, 2, (Spring 1996), pp. 39-65. For a dynamic historical sociological study of how the local (whether class, ideology, gender, ethnicity, the state, or religion), regional, and international levels interact in the making of Middle East international relations see Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[3] See F. Gregory Gause, III, “Balancing What? Threat Perception and Alliance Choice in the Gulf,” Security Studies 13, 2, (2003/4), pp. 273-305; and Michael C. Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[4] See F. Gregory Gause, III, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge: CUP, 2009).

[5] See Bassel F. Salloukh and Rex Brynen, “Pondering Permeability: Some Introductory Explorations,” in Salloukh and Brynen, eds., Persistent Permeability? pp. 1-14.

[6] Ibid., pp. 10-11.

[7] See Theory Talks, “Stephen Walt on the Israel Lobby, the ‘Security’ in Security Studies, and the Structural Nature of Interstate Competition,” 25 August 2009, at: http://www.theory-talks.org/2009/08/theory-talk-33.html.

[8] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East,” The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 48, 2 (June 2013), pp. 32-46.

[9] F. Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: ­New Middle East Cold War Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, 11 July 2014, p. 8 at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2014/07/22%20beyond%20sectarianism%20cold%20war%20gause/english%20pdf.pdf.

[10] See Morten Valbjørn and André Bank, “Signs of a New Arab Cold War: The 2006 Lebanon War and the Sunni-Shi‘i Divide,” Middle East Report 242, (Spring 2007), pp. 6-11; Lawrence Rubin, Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2014); F. Gregory Gause III, “Why isn’t there an Anti-Iran Alliance?” Monkey Cage, 3 June 2015, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/06/03/why-isnt-there-an-anti-iran-alliance/?postshare=2741433403901336; and Gause, Ryan, and Rubin’s contributions in this series.

[11] See Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[12] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “The Geopolitics of the Struggle for Syria,” e-International Relations, 23 September 2013, at: http://www.e-ir.info/2013/09/23/the-geopolitics-of-the-struggle-for-syria/; and Curtis Ryan, “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria.” Middle East Report 262, (Spring 2012), at: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer262/new-arab-cold-war-strugglesyria.

[13] See Kerr, The Arab Cold War; and Gause, Beyond Sectarianism.

[14] See F. Gregory Gause, III, Saudi-Yemeni Relations: Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).

[15] Robert F. Worth, “Yemen: The Houthi Enigma,” NYR Blog, 30 March 2015, at: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/mar/30/yemen-houthi-enigma/.

[16] See Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, “Domestic Explanations of International Relations,” Annual Review of Political Science, 15, (2012), pp. 161-181. The reference is to Etel Solingen, Nuclear Logics: Contrasting Paths in East Asia and the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[17] See Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006).

[18] See Bassel F. Salloukh, “The Arab World after the Popular Uprisings: A Spirit Restored?” in Kirsten Fisher and Robert Stewart, eds., Transitional Justice and the Arab Spring (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 17-35.

[19] See Worth, “Yemen.”

[20] See Nicolas Pelham, “Libya against Itself,” New York Review of Books, 19 February 2015, at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/feb/19/libya-against-itself/.

[21] In addition to the ME IR literature cited above, see also Raymond Hinnebusch, The International Politics of the Middle East, 2nd Edition, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015).

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