Shifting Alliances and Shifting Theories in the Middle East

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University

International relations theory has traditionally placed alliance politics at the very center of many analyses of international or regional politics. But international relations theory has also been characterized by struggles between competing paradigms and schools of thought, or what is sometimes referred to as “theoretical sectarianism” (Salloukh 2015: 50). Scholars of Middle East regional politics, in contrast, have rarely associated with a single school or perspective, and have been more likely to employ a kind of theoretical pluralism to understand the details and nuances of regional political life, including alliances.

This kind of scholarly eclecticism is even more important today, in the post-Arab Spring era, as the region has been characterized by rising regional instability even as a traditional hegemonic power – the United States – has declined in relative power and influence over regional affairs. The many regional and global changes, in short, have not led to the apparent triumph of any particular theoretical approach, but rather have underscored the salience of multiple I.R. theory perspectives in understanding the politics of shifting regional alliances. Key concepts regarding alliances – drawn from multiple perspectives – remain important for understanding Middle East alliance politics, but there are also some notable changes in regional international relations in the post-Arab Spring era. This essay examines key findings in the alliance theory literature, with some reflections on what this means for shifting theories, shifting alliances, and regional politics today. I will turn first to the literature on alliances, then to shifts in regional alliance politics, especially since 2011.

Shifting Alliances, Shifting Theories

Variations in Realism

Realist scholars have often focused on alliances and the balance of power as key features of international relations. But in his book The Origins of Alliances, Stephen Walt argued that the balance of power and polarity were not enough to explain the shifting alliance dynamics associated with Middle East regional politics. States were not just responding to power shifts, but also to perceived intentions, and therefore to a balance of threats (Walt 1985, 1987, 1988). States, he argued, then need to choose between bandwagoning with a rising power or balancing against it.

Other scholars similarly made adjustments to the alliance and balance of power theories, extending the range of policy options beyond balancing and bandwagoning to include omni-balancing, buck-passing, and chain-ganging. Steven David examined relations between regional states and global powers. Developing countries, including states in the Middle East, were likely to be as concerned with internal threats to their own ruling regimes as they were with external balances of power or threats. Weaker states in particular were therefore likely to engage in omni-balancing – allying with a global power that would help a local regime counter its own home-grown or internal threats (David 1991a, 1991b). Similarly, Harknett and Vandenberg, noting the importance of internal as well as external security concerns, argued that Middle East alliances were responses not only to exogenous concerns but also to inter-related domestic and international threats (Harknett and Vandenberg 1997).

Weaker states in regional systems might try to avoid all of the above behaviors, however, hoping that more powerful states would counter a rising hegemonic or otherwise threatening power. This buck-passing behavior is a gamble usually made by states desperate to avoid wars they are likely to lose. But if states are convinced that alliances are essential to ensure their own security, then they may pursue the opposite strategy, not only committing to an alliance but potentially even over-committing. When states effectively chain-gang like this, creating firm alliances in the face of threats, they engage in a gamble of a different kind, in which allies may drag a state into a war it would otherwise prefer to avoid (Christensen and Snyder 1990).

Glenn Snyder, one of the most prolific scholars of alliances (Snyder 1984, 1990, 1991, 1997), suggested that security dilemmas – a key concern in realist analyses — exist not only between potential adversaries, but also between allies. The alliance security dilemma occurs because states have imperfect information, rely on their own threat perceptions, and can never be completely certain of their own allies’ behavior. States are then torn between two opposite potential outcomes from the ‘alliance security dilemma’ – abandonment or entrapment — in which one’s own allies either abandon a state at its moment of greatest insecurity or entrap it by drawing it into an unwanted conflict (Snyder 1984, 1997).

Schweller (2004) introduced the concept of under-balancing in which states fail to respond to a rising regional threat; that is, they do not create a countervailing alliance. Haas later expanded on this notion, showing that states may “underbalance” despite the power politics dimensions, when they object to the ideology or regime type of potential allies (Haas 2014). Gregory Gause applies a combination of these perspectives to explain a key dilemma in Middle East regional politics – the lack of a countervailing coalition against rising Iranian power since the early 2000’s. From a purely realist perspective, one might have expected regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to band together to counter Iran, quite some time ago (Gause 2015).

Challenging Realism

Challenging Realist expectations, scholars have pointed to domestic politics and political economy as key variables determining foreign policy and alliance shifts by Middle East states. Domestic political concerns (Barnett and Levy 1991) or the “low politics” of economic well-being (Barnett 1990) can at times provide stronger explanations for foreign policy and alliance politics, than the traditional “high politics” of military capabilities and the balance of power. Laurie Brand (1994a, 1994b), in an explicitly economic approach to regional alliances, found that Middle East alliances can be rooted in budget security, that is, shoring up an economically dependent state’s economic needs. Jamie Allinson (2016) applies political economy in a historical sociology perspective to examine Jordanian alliance policies during the Arab cold war period in the 1950’s.

Constructivist scholars challenged realism from a decidedly non-material approach, examining the roles of ideas, identities, and socially-constructed norms to understand alliances in the Middle East. Michael Barnett, in his book Dialogues in Arab Politics (1998) took a macro-level approach, examining the entire Arab regional system, but with emphasis on changing norms and ideas in Arab politics, rather than material concerns with either high or low politics. Barnett argued that decades of regional Arab politics turned not on a military balance of power, but rather on conflicts over the meaning of Arabism itself, and hence of state and regional identities. Similarly, Marc Lynch examined domestic politics and debates within the public sphere in Jordan, over identities in particular, and showing how these internal and ideational dynamics caused shifts in Jordan’s national identity and in the kingdom’s perception of its own interests. Lynch’s work showed that although interests drive policy, including alliance choices, they nonetheless cannot be assumed a priori. They are not, in short, externally-generated, objective, and fixed – as Neorealism would suggest – but internally-generated, subjective, and variable (Lynch 1999). It is important to note the differences here too, however, even between Constructivist approaches. While Barnett focused on ideologies, Lynch examined identities. Both are important to understanding regional politics in the Middle East.

In my own work, I have argued that the key interest for any ruling regime nonetheless remains its own survival in the face of multiple potential threats or challenges. Even concepts as basic as ‘states’ and ‘security’ therefore each need to be seen as contested domestically and internationally. Regimes often conflate their own survival with national security; that is, they conflate the regime with the state as a whole. Focusing on regime security allows us to draw insights from multiple perspectives, even providing a bridge of sorts between realist, political economy, and constructivist approaches. Regimes in the Middle East in particular use alliances not just in the traditional sense, as external defense pacts, but also and perhaps even more often for domestic regime security. Alliances are in this respect transnational coalitions of ruling elites, propping each other up not only against traditional threats, but also against threats from within their own societies. This emphasis on regime survival therefore also underscores the economic underpinnings of alliances, especially for weaker powers in a regional system. Alliances provide political, diplomatic, and military support, as one would expect, but they also provide the economic largesse to pay off ruling coalitions of political elites, shoring up the domestic security of a regime and providing a key part of the economic basis for the regime’s continued rule (Ryan 2002, 2009. 2015a, 2016).

Gregory Gause has also examined regional politics and alliances from a regime security perspective, but has more thoroughly explored the specific issue of threat perception. “Middle East leaders,” he writes, “view external challenges to their domestic legitimacy and security, based on transnational ideological platforms of Islam and pan-Arabism, as being more serious than threats based simply upon a preponderance of military capabilities” (Gause 2003/4: 303). In a later comprehensive study of the international politics of the Persian Gulf, Gause noted that “recognition of the importance of ideas does not negate Realist insights about anarchy, power and conflict in the Persian Gulf; it contextualizes those Realist insights by giving us a fuller understanding of how state leaders define their interests and understand the power resources at their disposal” (Gause 2010: 243). Lawrence Rubin (2014) picked up on the theme of ideological and ideational threats and extended it to regime survival strategies including, but not limited to, alliance politics – specifically through an ideational security dilemma. States engage in ‘ideational balancing’ when a regime “aims to mitigate the domestic political threat from a projected transnational ideology” (Rubin 2014: 37). States are likely to see these ideational challenges as threats not just internationally but also domestically.

Taking into consideration the many motivations noted above, alliance politics often turn into a complicated juggling act for precarious regimes, underscoring the need to understand Middle East regional politics, including alliances, from multiple interacting levels of analysis. A growing number of scholars have argued that students of international relations and Middle East politics do not necessarily need to choose one particular path, school, or paradigm. The most influential texts on the international relations of the Middle East, for example, draw on multiple perspectives, theories, and levels of analysis in explaining regional political dynamics (Hinnebusch 2003, Halliday 2005). Our emphasis should therefore be on utilizing key concepts introduced from varying perspectives, rather than on competing theories or paradigms.

Bassel Salloukh, for example, has argued that international relations in the Middle East can best be understood as a series of overlapping contests, requiring multiple levels of analysis, and insights from multiple perspectives, in order to fully understand the region, including alliances and the balance of power:

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. It also underscored the salience of immaterial, ideational threats in the making of Middle East international relations (Salloukh 2015: 47).

Shifting Alliances and the Regional Balance after 2011

In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, many of the features of alliance dynamics remain key parts of regional politics, but there are also some notable changes. Regional politics is still characterized by fluid and shifting patterns of informal alignments, more so than more formal alliances in the sense of traditional defense pacts. But non-state actors (NSAs – from ISIS, to Hizbullah, to local militias) have played ever larger roles in regional politics, challenging traditional notions of states, security, and even of alliances. Regional politics has also been affected by major structural changes in the global and regional balance, with the decline of U.S. power and influence, especially since the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the rise in influence of Russia and China. Despite its relative decline, the U.S., like the other P5 powers – Britain, France, Russia, and China – puts great emphasis on securing regional allies for its own interests.

Within regional politics, as the region descended into ever more instability, especially after 2011, many regimes were unsure which threats were most urgent to mobilize against. The main feature of the regional balance of power was that there really wasn’t one. The traditional Arab power centers of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad were now not agents of regional change but instead had themselves imploded into centers for domestic and regional struggles. In many respects, Arab regional politics was increasingly dominated by three non-Arab states – Iran, Israel, and Turkey. The Syrian war, meanwhile, became the focal point of struggle in a new regional Cold War, and even of global struggles over the outcome (Phillips 2016). The war not only pitted the Asad regime against rebel forces, but also saw Jihadist organizations enter the fray. Arab Gulf monarchies and the U.S. sent arms and financial support to select rebel factions. These were complicated (and sometimes temporary) alliances of global powers, regional states, and non-state actors. Similarly, the pro-Asad alliance in the Syrian war was rooted mainly in a coalition of Asad’s forces plus Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah.

Despite the fact that it remained completely unresolved, the Arab-Israeli conflict had receded on the list of priorities of most regional states, as the region became embroiled in multiple civil and regional wars. Arab states were not even going through the pretense of being concerned mainly with Palestinian rights; instead, Israel and Arab Gulf monarchies in particular focused mainly on Iran and its proxies. Interestingly, all of these states, Iran included, viewed militant Jihadist movements such as the ‘Islamic State’ (also known as ISIS or Da’esh) as key threats. Yet their many other points of rivalry and differing hierarchies of security threats seemed to prevent these same states from working together within a truly effective region-wide coalition against ISIS (Ryan 2015b).

Regional power Turkey played a strongly assertive role during the early years of the Arab Spring, supporting revolutions against secular regimes and the rise of new Islamist ones, especially the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt (2012-2013). But when domestic pressure and a military coup ousted the Brotherhood, it also ousted key regional allies Qatar and Turkey, and replaced them with fiercely anti-Brotherhood countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The external alliances, in short, followed changes in domestic politics, even as competing regional states attempted to affect domestic political outcomes. Differing levels of interventionism also turned on each states own self-conception in terms of roles and identity (as May Darwich shows in this collection).

Especially after 2011, a new Cold War emerged pitting essentially the conservative, Western-allied, monarchies on the one side, but no countervailing coalition of military-backed regimes on the other, unlike the original ‘Arab Cold War’ of the 1950’s and 1960’s (Kerr 1970). Instead, Saudi Arabia attempted to rally Arab monarchies together against Iran and its regional ambitions. Arab conflicts from Syria to Yemen were often portrayed by regimes in both power politics and sectarian terms: as proxy struggles between Saudi and Iranian-led blocs in the regional balance of power as well as struggles between Sunni and Shi’a alliances within regional politics (Bank and Valbjorn 2012, Gause 2014, Lynch 2016, Ryan 2016, Valbjorn and Bank 2007).

As the Saudi-Iranian cold war deepened in the post-Arab Spring era, the sectarianism that both states fanned continued to fester across the region. This also led to competitive interventions in varying degrees in Syria and Yemen in particular, with disastrous consequences for Syrians and Yemenis caught in the crossfire of their own warring factions and especially between outside powers (Lynch 2016). Even as wars continued in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, yet another rift emerged within one of the few alliances left standing in the Middle East: the Gulf Cooperation Council. This rift pitted Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar, with the former accusing the latter (albeit technically a GCC ally) of meddling in their domestic politics, supporting terrorism, and otherwise harming regime security in their fellow Gulf states. While the GCC officially continued as an alliance, it was now an even hollower shell than it had been before. Bahrain seemed to cede its foreign policy to Saudi Arabia, while Kuwait attempted to act as mediator between its allies, and Oman remained almost neutral (while maintaining fairly close ties to Iran).

Even aside from intra-GCC rifts, the region’s alliance politics in the era of the Arab uprisings was dominated by the Saudi-Iranian cold war. But the intensity of their rivalry yielded no bipolarity of hostile but stable alliance systems. Instead, the region continued to be characterized by multi-polarity in every sense – military, economic, ideological – and a distinct lack of a balance of power. In this type of setting, alliances would continue to shift and adjust to various domestic and regional challenges to the security of the regimes across the region.


In the post-2011 era, regional alliances have drawn on the entire range of expected behaviors – balancing, bandwagoning, omnibalancing, underbalancing, budget security, and more. But all these machinations seemed to underscore the premium put on regime security by each of these states, including their reads of ideational, economic, and domestic political dissent as primary security threats, even stronger than external or more direct military ones. If anything, the relative decline of U.S. power seems to have led states to be even more obsessive about their own regime security and the role of regional alliances in ensuring regime survival.

In terms of international relations theory, a full understanding of these regional alliance dynamics suggests the importance of the theoretical pluralism mentioned at the outset of this essay, especially given the weakness of states and regimes, and even of the structure of the regional system, as well as resurgent debates regarding identity politics across the region (Lynch, Ryan, and Valbjorn 2017). As Salloukh suggests, “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. It is far more rewarding to travel between theoretical paradigms than to engage in theoretical sectarianism” (Salloukh 2015). Many scholars of Middle East international relations seem to have “mastered this kind of theoretical eclecticism” and it is indeed essential in order to fully grasp the dynamics of regional relations and the shifting alliances of the modern Middle East.



Allinson, Jamie (2016) The Struggle for the State in Jordan: The Social Origins of Alliances in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bank, Andre and Morten Valbjorn (2012) “The New Arab Cold War: Rediscovering the Arab Dimension of Middle East Regional Politics,” Review of International Studies 38, no. 1.

Barnett, Michael N. (1998) Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order. New York: Columbia University Press.

Barnett, Michael (1990) “High Politics Is Low Politics: The Domestic and Systemic Sources of Israeli Security Policy, 1967-1977.” World Politics 42 (2): 529-562.

Barnett, Michael N. and Jack S. Levy (1991) “Domestic Sources of Alliances and Alignments: The Case of Egypt, 1962-73.” International Organization 45 (3): 369-392.

Brand, Laurie A. (1994a) Jordan’s Inter-Arab Relations: The Political Economy of Alliance Making. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brand, Laurie A (1994b) “Economics and Shifting Alliances: Jordan’s Relations with Syria and Iraq, 1975-1981.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26 (3): 393-413.

Christensen, Thomas J. and Jack Snyder (1990). “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity,” International Organization, 44, no. 2: 137-168.

David, Stephen R. (1991a) Choosing Sides: Alignment and Realignment in the Third World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

David, Stephen R. (1991b) “Explaining Third World Alignments,” World Politics, 43, no. 2: 233-256.

Gause, F. Gregory III (2015) “Ideologies, alliances, and underbalancing in the new Middle East Cold War,” in International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East, Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) Studies 16: 16-20.

Gause, F. Gregory III (2014) Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War. Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper.

Gause, F. Gregory III (2010). The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gause, F. Gregory III (2003/4) “Balancing What? Threat Perceptions and Alliance Choice in the Gulf,” Security Studies 13, no. 2, pp. 273-305.

Haas, Mark L. (2014) “Ideological Polarity and Balancing in Great Power Politics,” Security Studies 23, no. 4: 715-753.

Halliday, Fred (2005) The Middle East in International Relations: Power. Politics and Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harknett, Richard and Jeffrey Vandenberg (1997) “Alignment Theory and Interrelated Threats: Jordan and the Persian Gulf Crisis.” Security Studies 6 (3): 112-153.

Hinnebusch, Raymond (2003) The International Politics of the Middle East. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kerr, Malcolm (1970) The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-70.

London: Oxford University Press.

Kienle, Eberhard (1990) Ba’th v Ba’th: The Conflict Between Syria and Iraq 1968-1989. London: I.B. Taurus & Co., Ltd.

Korany, Bahgat, Rex Brynen, and Paul Noble (1993) The Many Faces of National Security in the Arab World (New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lynch, Marc, Curtis R. Ryan, and Morten Valbjorn, eds. (2017). “Symposium: The Arab Uprisings and International Relations Theory,” PS: Political Science & Politics, 50, no. 3: 643-680.

Lynch, Marc (2016) The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East. New York: Public Affairs.

Lynch, Marc (1999) State Interests and Public Spheres: The International Politics of

Jordan’s Identity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mufti, Malik (1996) Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and Political Order in Syria and Iraq. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Phillips, Christopher (2016) The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rubin, Lawrence (2014) Islam in the Balance: Ideational Threats in Arab Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2016) “Shifting alliances in the Middle East,” in Great Decisions, 2016 Edition, New York: Foreign Policy Association: 5-12.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2015a) “Regime Security and Shifting Alliances in the Middle East,” in International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East, Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) Studies 16: 42-46.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2015b) “Regional Responses to the Rise of ISIS,” Middle East Report, 276: 18-23.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2014) “Inter-Arab Relations and the Regional System,” in Marc Lynch, ed., The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 110-123.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2012) “The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria,” Middle East Report 262: 28-31.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2009). Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.

Ryan, Curtis R. (2002) “Jordan: The Politics of Alliance and Foreign Policy,” in Jeanne A. K. Hey, ed., Small States in World Politics: Explaining Foreign Policy Behavior, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Press: 135-155.

Salloukh, Bassel (2015) “Overlapping contests and Middle East international relations,” in International Relations Theory and a Changing Middle East, Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) Studies 16: 47-51.

Schweller, Randall (2004). “Unanswered Threats: A Neoclassical Realist Theory of Underbalancing,” International Security 29, no. 2: 159-201.

Seale, Patrick (1965) The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics, 1945-1958. London: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, Glenn H. (1997) Alliance Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Snyder, Glenn H. (1991) “Alliances, Balance, and Stability.” International Organization 45 (1): 121-142.

Snyder, Glenn H. (1990) “Alliance Theory: A Neorealist First Cut.” Journal of International Affairs 44 (1): 103-123.

Snyder, Glenn H. (1984) “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics.” World Politics 36 (4): 461-495.

Taylor, Alan R. (1982) The Arab Balance of Power. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Walt, Stephen (1988) “Testing Theories of Alliance Formation: The Case of Southwest Asia.” International Organization 42: 275-316.

Walt, Stephen M. (1987) The Origins of Alliances. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Walt, Stephen. “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.” International Security 9 (1985): 3-43.

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1987) Theory of International Politics. New York: Random House.

Valbjorn, Morten and Andre Bank (2007) “Signs of a New Arab Cold War: The 2006 Lebanon War and the Sunni-Shi’i Divide, Middle East Report, no. 242.