A third wave of geopolitics has been making its way into the Middle East’s political geography since the end of the Cold War. The first wave began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The second wave followed World War II, when the European colonial order crumbled. The third wave will reach its apex with the demise of the American order in the region and the spread of political disarray. The contemporary Middle East is the product of these three geopolitical waves. The key features of the emergent third wave of Middle East geopolitics are failed states, humiliated peoples, crippled economies, extreme inequality and poverty, devastated environments, plundered resources, conflicted geographies, foreign intrusions and violent radicalism.
The Middle East is where ancient civilizations and three major religions developed, making it a crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia for many centuries. The region has been the locale of numerous progressive developments such as scientific discoveries, giving rise to the Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires. During Islam’s Golden Age, scholars from around the world would gather in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, to exchange knowledge and translate the known sciences into Arabic.
The resource-rich Middle East proved an attractive prize for foreign powers, particularly since the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf in the twentieth century. Colonial Europe, imperial Russia and capitalist America have, at various times and with varying degrees of success, dominated the region. Their rivalries, an iteration of the Great Game, left a lasting, devastating impact on the Middle East. The authoritarian rulers here share responsibility for the plight of the peoples of the region.
The First Wave
The first wave of Middle East geopolitics was triggered with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The Empire was a multiethnic state based on loyalty to the ruling dynasty. Even before the Ottoman collapse, Arabs had started identifying themselves as a distinct national group. When the nationalistic ideas of the Turks arose in the final years of the Empire, Arabs developed their thinking about national identity and independence. They, thus, revolted against the Ottomans in the midst of WWI because the “infidel” Europeans had claimed to support Arab independence.
But, instead of fulfilling their promises, the Europeans redrew the Middle East map based on the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. After this, the Arabs became the subjects of domineering European powers as the region was chopped up into small states with unnatural borders and heterogeneous geographies and cultures. This division isolated families, divided ethnic groups and religious sects and redrew the map of natural resources as well. The only logic behind these invented border configurations, largely straight lines, was political: plant the seeds of future conflicts and thereby divide and rule. The inter-state, inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian fights today are direct products of the European policy of divide and rule.
The World War II led to the collapse of the European colonial order in the Middle East. Europeans transformed their ‘colonies’ into conflicting nation-states to be ruled by local dictators they had nurtured. This transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism and dictatorship would serve both local rulers and foreign powers. In short, the European approach ensured that the Middle East and North Africa remain a conflict-ridden territory.
However, following the WWII, the region became increasingly unmanageable for the weakened colonial powers. Liberation movements sprung up in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. Pan-Arabism became a major political force, culminating in the union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961. This anti-colonialist Arabism, along with the revolutionary populism of Nasserism and Baathism, contributed to the Suez Crisis, which would come to symbolize the end of Britain’s role as a world power.
The Second Wave
As Europeans gradually withdrew from the region, the US and the USSR filled the vacuum. With this emerged the second wave of geopolitics — in the context of the Cold War. The struggle between the superpowers of the capitalist and the socialist blocs took form in Iran immediately after the end of WWII. In 1945, the British troops withdrew from the country but the Soviets did so only after an American ultimatum and lengthy negotiations with the Iranian government. In a dramatic manifestation of Cold War manoeuvring, the US and Britain, in 1953, organized a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in response to his nationalization of the Iranian oil sector.
The Arab Cold War (1958-70) divided the Arab World between pro-Western Arab monarchies including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, pre-1958 Iraq, and non-Arab Iran, and the pan-Arab and Islamic socialist states such as Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya, North Yemen and post‑1958 Iraq. As the Cold War split the Middle East along an East-West line, oil was emerging as the most significant global energy resource, and the local economies gradually became dependent on oil rent. After the formation of the State of Israel and the resulting Arab-Israeli war, the US assumed the custody of oil, Israel and the moderate Arab states, as the Soviets buttressed the nationalist forces in the region.
This was the beginning of ideology‑centred geopolitics in the Middle East.
Oil rent became a curse as it led to extreme class divides between a minority super-rich and a majority super-poor, with a small but growing middle class besieged in between. It also led to large military and luxury purchases, uneven urbanization and environmental wastes, and growing dictatorship and corruption of the dependent and largely weak states. The Arab‑Israeli conflict exacerbated external interventions and local distresses.
Under these conditions, Arab and Muslim reassertion took the form of several nationalist and populist coups, and a struggle against Israel. However, these movements failed to evict the imperial powers, defeat Israel or deliver the promise of justice, freedom and independence sought by the growing middle and working classes. The military defeats and loss of lands to the Jewish state became a source of frustration, anger and ultimately humiliation. In the face of defeat and despair, a culture of victimization emerged in the Arab World.
Contributing to the humiliation, Orientalism was promoted in Western policymakers, academia and media. For many years, the Western thinking was dominated by the idea that Arabs are not ready for democracy. The racism and stereotyping went so far as to claim that there was an “Arab mind” bent on rejectionism, fundamentalism and terrorism. Cultural demonization complemented the Western economic domination and murderous political humiliation; while Britain was seizing control of Arab oil resources, for example, France was killing a million Algerians.
Arabs were humiliated also by their own corrupt, inept or ignorant rulers, many of whom were the protégées of the foreign powers and who had turned the national states into their private property. They destroyed all nationalist, reformist and socialist opposition. In Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi crippled the nationalist and leftist movements. In the Arab World, the Six-Day War of 1967 ended with Israel’s military defeat of the anti-West camp, including Egypt, Jordan and Syria, leading to the humiliation of Arab nationalists and the death of pan-Arabism. The US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 destroyed the last vestiges of Arab nationalism. Islamist movements, however, survived these efforts. For instance, in Syria, although Hafez Al-Assad dismantled the Syrian Cultural and Social Forum, he failed to annihilate the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
When cracks began developing in the dictatorships in the late 1970s, only Islamists could quickly emerge and assume leadership.
The Third Wave
Across the Islamic World, the radicalization of Islamists occurred quite unevenly. Generally speaking, the countries where pre-Islamic civilizations existed — Iran, Turkey and Egypt — extremism was contained. This was not the case for most Arab Muslims who lacked pre-Islamic civilization. To counter humiliation, they took refuge in Islamic teachings and culture. Islamic fundamentalism is perhaps best defined as a desire to return to Islam’s Golden Age, when most other regions of the world, including Europe, were in decline.
During the Golden Age, the Islamic World was ruled by a caliphate, enjoyed political superiority and made important advances in science and philosophy. Jihadist groups such as ISIS seek a unified Islamic state, a restoration of the caliphate. They view the Western powers and Arab dictators as obstacles to this objective, and are prepared to use violence against them. In a suffocating political environment, and feeling culturally demonized by the West, their quest to return to Islam’s past glory led to a politics of reaction and extremism. Jihadist groups have primarily targeted local authorities and Western powers, whom they see as the perpetrators of their humiliation.
While ISIS justifies violence on the basis of narrow religious doctrine, its prime motivation seems essentially political — a drive for territory, resources, trade routes, and human traffic, as well as dignity, identity, independence, and self-preservation.
The conflict with Islamic extremism has no military solution. As long as the root causes remain, movements like ISIS will feed on them. A case in point is that America’s self-congratulatory killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden did nothing to prevent the rise of ISIS, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, from the ashes.
The challenge posed by Islamic extremism is likely to be complicated by any number of other factors as the Middle East grapples with the third wave of geopolitics. ISIS and other groups will benefit from the coming demise of American global power and the diminishing interest of the US in the Middle East. The surge in US domestic oil production through shale extraction and other technological means makes the country less dependent on Persian Gulf oil. America’s bitter and costly experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya make Washington reluctant to remain directly involved in the region. Instead, the Obama doctrine uses drone attacks and airstrikes to fight terrorists, and sells arms to regional states to balance one against the other. American policy also calls for a so-called pivot to Asia, whose growing economies offer opportunities for huge trade deals.
No other major power, whether it be Russia, China, the European Union or even the United Nations, is willing or able to fill the gap that will be left by America’s retreat. Russia is already involved in supporting the Al-Assad regime in Syria, and seeks to become a bigger player in the Middle East. But neither other Arab states nor Washington welcomes an expanded Russian role.
Perhaps equally disturbing is the fact that no foreign power is willing to acknowledge the causes of rising extremism and embark on a workable solution. Domestic and foreign powers continue with authoritarian and militaristic policies, as witnessed in the violent suppression of the Arab Spring and the purely military approach to dealing with the challenge from ISIS.
Another complicating factor is the likely emergence of a tripartite struggle for the region as Iranians, Turks and Arabs seek to revive past glories. Iranians will increasingly turn to chauvinistic Persianism, Turks to jingoistic Ottomanism, and Arabs to intemperate Islamism.
The Way Forward
The new geopolitics of the Middle East will be characterized by failed states, political chaos, popular revolt, religious extremism, inter-state conflict, foreign rivalries and military interventions. In such a dark scenario, a condition of despair will prevail and extremist groups and their rivals, struggling for self-preservation, will scar the Middle Eastern landscape.
The trajectory of these disastrous developments can and must change. The causes of the Middle East catastrophe must be fully understood and addressed. Autocratic rulers and foreign powers must bear responsibility. At the global level, the international community must come together in supporting the end of dictatorship, corruption and monopolistic practices in favour of democratic rule, transparency and a free market system. Foreign powers must reduce their negative interference, including arming dictatorial regimes. They must openly advocate political and economic reforms and provide practical and peaceful support, logistical and financial, for nationalist and democratic forces.
They must also refrain from coercive diplomacy, advancing economic cooperation, protecting regional environments and promoting sustainable democratic development. A strengthened UN role in democratic change and economic development à la the Marshall Plan, focused on the middle class and the working people, may be required. Other international organizations should also become involved in the promotion of democracy in the region.
At the regional level, there must be concrete attempts to reform failed regimes or force them into retirement in favour of new democratic leaderships. All states in the region must be encouraged to become legitimate, sovereign and cooperative.
At the national level, multiple reforms must be instituted from the top and secured by public participation at the bottom. These should include democratizing local politics, developing the economy, levelling income distribution, mitigating poverty, eliminating repressive social restrictions on youth and women and protecting religious and ethnic minorities. Without courageous steps, the future is bleak for the peoples of the Middle East.
Finally, while authorities at the international, regional and national levels have a responsibility to effect significant positive changes in the objective conditions of the Muslim and Arab masses, the scholarly and journalistic communities must also help alter their subjective (identity and culture) conditions that are so badly demonized and damaged by Orientalism and racism. These terrible ideologies must be dispelled if Muslims and Arabs are to regain dignity. Unless dignity is returned to these communities, there will be no way forward to a better Middle East.
Courtesy: The Cairo Review of Global Affairs