The Middle East today is defined by an Arab world steeped in the anarchy of dissolving secular states and proliferating Islamist armed non-state actors. These entities consist of different Muslim sects, the largest of which is composed of Sunnis. Amid the diverging interests, Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State are the main contenders for Sunni Arab leadership. Meanwhile, the three non-Arab powers – Turkey, Iran and Israel – are trying to manage the regional commotion according to their national interests. From a distance, the United States wants to ensure it is not dragged too deep into the regional bedlam and can maintain a balance between the various actors.
We start this analysis with a consideration of the geopolitical circumstances of the region. The term Middle East refers to the regions – from west to east – that stretch from the northwestern shores of Africa all the way to the mountains located on the Iranian-Afghan frontier. The region’s northernmost areas run along the Black Sea and its southern boundary is the southern border of Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, extending onwards beyond the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea. The Middle East includes many sub-regions: Maghreb in North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and its northern rim encapsulated between the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. Some 355 million people inhabit the Middle East – the majority of whom are ethnically Arab and religiously Muslim and thus the core of the Islamic world.
For nearly 13 centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, at least one major caliphate and numerous competing sultanates and emirates ruled in the Middle East and projected power into its surrounding regions. At the onset of the modern age, most of the region was dominated by the Ottoman Empire with the only other major player being the Qajars, who ruled Persia. The modern Middle Eastern nation-states are largely the creation of the British and French, and emerged starting at the end of World War I. The states that today are under a great deal of strain and stress were finalized in the initial decades following World War II.
The Chronic Arab Crisis
Despite being the region’s ethnic majority, the Arabs lost sovereignty over their lands to the Turkic people of Central Asia as far back as the 11th century. They did not regain self-rule until after the collapse of the Ottoman dominion following the First World War. However, their re-emergence after independence from Britain and France was in the form of weak nation-states. These Arab polities were of two types: traditional religious monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, and secular nationalist military-dominated republics, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
As the largest Arab state, Egypt assumed the leadership of the Arab nationalist movement under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime, which sought to forge pan-Arab unity. This plan involved unifying the various republican regimes that had come to power through military coups in the 1950s and 1960s and did away with monarchies. At the same time, Egypt and these other republican regimes sought to eliminate pro-Western monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula and replace them with regimes in their own image. The struggle between these two camps gained momentum because of the logic of the Cold War.
Given their socialist and anti-imperialist orientation, the republics aligned with the Soviet Union. The monarchical states, tightly aligned with Britain since before inception, naturally gravitated to the United States, which took over as the great power patron after the decline of the British. Neither of these two regime types developed any durable political economies and both have been oppressive autocracies. The republics, however, were much weaker than the monarchies, which enjoyed the benefits of massive petroleum resources and were thus able to protect themselves from the destabilization efforts of the republics.
Despite their secular outlook, the republics failed to modernize their societies, which continued to be organized along tribal and sectarian lines. In other words, the secularism of the elites did not trickle down to the masses and thus the conflict resulting from the misalignment between the boundaries of the nation-states and the local groups hardwired into the regional fabric. Moreover, command style economies prevented the republican polities from improving the lot of the common man. For all their populist rhetoric, the republics were essentially nothing more than single-party military regimes.
Long before these weaknesses became apparent, the Nasserist dream to create a singular Arab republic by amalgamating Syria, Iraq and Yemen utterly failed. The nation-states that the Arabs inherited from the European colonial powers proved more durable than the aspiration for Arab supra-national unity. Arab nationalism suffered a major blow in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War . The ideology never recovered after this, especially with Egypt re-aligning itself and joining the Western camp after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
The Syrian and Iraqi regimes, despite being ruled by the once powerful Baath Party and their own energy resources, could not fill the hole left by Nasser in Egypt. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed monarchies benefited immensely from their far greater oil reserves. Petro-dollar economies allowed otherwise weak states, such as Saudi Arabia and the other Arab kingdoms and emirates, to counter the destabilization efforts of the republican regimes. The implosion of the Soviet Union a generation later deprived the remaining republican regimes of their main patron, which would eventually render these radical states inert.
Meanwhile, the conservative monarchies saw regime security in the preservation of traditional societal customs. They pursued policies that further reinforced tribal, sectarian and ethnic differences, which did not cohere to the logic of the nation-state-based international system. Between the failed agenda of the republican regimes and the survivalist strategies of the monarchies, the nation-states were unable to contain cross-border currents.
Islamism vs. Secularism
It was during the Cold War era that a deep ideological chasm in the Middle East began to coagulate. The struggle between those who adopted European secularism and those who crafted an ideology based on religious tradition had its roots in late 19th century Ottoman Empire. Roughly 100 years later, this struggle had polarized the region. To a significant extent, the battle between the monarchies and the republics enabled the rise of Islamism in the Arab world with the conservative regimes providing support for Islamist groups active in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
This struggle has not been confined to the Arab world. The two non-Arab Muslim nation-states, Turkey and Iran, were not immune to it. On the contrary, Iran was the world’s first nation-state to establish an Islamist regime when an uprising dominated by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the secular pro-western monarchy in 1979. More recently, with the electoral rise of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has also seen the decline of European secularism, which was enshrined in the ideals of the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
AKP rule has given expression to religious ideals without upending the secular nature of the modern Turkish republic. Even the Islamic Republic of Iran is a hybrid of a Western parliamentary system and a modern Shia theocratic concept. The resurgence of pragmatic conservatives and reformists under the Rouhani presidency shows that post-Enlightenment European political notions remain a strong political template. The common denominator in both these two non-Arab nations is strong constitutional and democratic foundations, which have fortified the states.
In sharp contrast, the Arab countries have not had any success at democratization, with the nascent exception of Tunisia. For this reason, secularism has seen a decline in Arab nations but has not been replaced by Islamist regimes. In fact, state authority in the Arab world is in decay. The collapse of the Soviet Union weakened the republican regimes – a process bolstered by the post-9/11 American military intervention and then exacerbated by the 2011 Arab uprisings. Though the monarchies have survived the upheaval raging across the region – in large part due to the petroleum-based wealth of the Saudi Arabia-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc – they are not secure due to the lack of a viable political economic program.
Having outlasted the secular republican regimes and now the only state power in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and its allies are more fearful of Islamists, especially the mainstream groups similar to the Muslim Brotherhood. The key reason for this is that Brotherhood-style Islamists offer a model that is both republican in nature and undermines the religious legitimacy of the monarchies. For this reason, the Saudis and their monarchical allies have sought to ensure that these Islamists do not gain power in the wake of the meltdown of secular authoritarianism. Supporting the 2013 military coup in Egypt against the Brotherhood government led by President Mohamed Morsi is a key case in point.
The failure of mainstream Islamists to secure their goals through democratic means has empowered jihadists who not only reject democracy but also the nation-state and instead seek caliphates or emirates. Consequently, state authority in large parts of the Arab world has been eviscerated. The meltdown of autocratic regimes currently underway in the Arab world has led to the growth of ungoverned spaces. The resulting vacuum is being dominated by armed Islamist non-state actors – in particular Salafist-jihadist militias. We see this happening to varying degrees across the region in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
The rise of jihadism in the Arab world coincides with the re-establishment of Western relations with Iran and, prior to that, Shia geopolitical resurgence. In many ways, the two dynamics feed off one another. Jihadism is, therefore, exploiting the threat perception that a creeping Iran and its Arab Shia allies could advance their plans to spread their influence in the Sunni Arab world. What is interesting here is that this geopolitical sectarian conflict has been greatly polarized by the fact that Islamists are leading the charge on both sides.
Iran and the Sunni-Shia Fault Line
Sectarianism is another trend, parallel to Islamism, that was triggered in the 1980s with the rise of a Shia republic in Iran and has exponentially gained momentum since the emergence of the Shia-dominated regime in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion. These sectarian tensions between the Saudi-led Arab/Sunni camp and Iran and its Arab Shia allies were kept in check for a quarter of a century by Iraq’s Baathist regime – in particular, by the eight-year war between Baghdad and Tehran that raged for most of the 1980s.
That said, Iran was still able to project power by exploiting the weaknesses in the Arab world. It began with Iran’s creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon during the 1980s, when the highly factionalized country was engulfed in a civil war complicated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A key enabler that allowed the Iranians to exert power was the fact that Syria was ruled by a rival faction of the Baath Party dominated by the Alawite sect, which is an off-shoot of mainstream Shia Islam, led by the Bashar al-Assad clan.
To counter these aggressive Iranian moves deep into the Arab core, Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies backed the Saddam Hussein regime’s war against Iran. The hope was that the then-nascent Islamic Republic of Iran would collapse under the weight of the war with Iraq. Iran was indeed economically battered by the war but politically it gained strength from the conflict. What was worse for the Arab/Sunni side was that less than two years after the end of the war with Iran, Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait, which set in motion a process that would allow Iran to expand its geopolitical footprint.
The 1991 Gulf War followed by 12 years of sanctions severely weakened Iraq to where it lost its status as a buffer state, blocking Iran from further intrusions into the Arab world. For Iran, by the time the U.S. affected regime change in Baghdad in 2003, Iraq transformed from a threat to an ally. Conversely, for Saudi Arabia, the rise of a Shia-dominated post-Baathist republic seriously undermined the regional balance of power and furthered the divergence in American and Saudi interests that had already begun with al-Qaida’s attacks on 9/11.
There were limits to how far Saudi Arabia could back the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, which was resisting the rise without seriously damaging its relationship with the United States. More importantly, backing Sunni insurgents could not reverse the rise of the Shia, but instead aided the growing Iraqi node of the al-Qaida network, which eventually became the Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor to IS. Jihadists benefiting from Saudi Arabia’s need to counter Iran and its Shia allies have become a full-blown strategic dilemma for the kingdom, something Riyadh is unable to resolve.
On the eve of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the situation for Iran could not have been better. U.S. forces were on their way out of Iraq, leaving Tehran to consolidate its gains in the form of Nouri al-Maliki’s second term as Iraq’s prime minister in late December 2010. Syria was already a key Arab ally and Iran managed to facilitate Hezbollah’s move to ouster of the pro-Saudi Lebanese government in January 2011. At the time, it appeared as though Iran’s dream of having a contiguous sphere of influence on its western flank reaching the Mediterranean had been realized.
Furthermore, the Arab uprisings, from Iran’s point of view, only created more space for Tehran to expand its sphere of influence. The Islamic republic had its eyes set on Bahrain, where a Shia-led public uprising in March 2011 threatened to topple the pro-Saudi Sunni monarchical regime. Bahrain’s uprising could have created an opportunity for Iran, but the island nation was too far from the Persian Gulf for the clerical regime to reach. Saudi Arabia, which realized it could not rely on the United States for its national security needs, made the unprecedented move of sending ground forces into Bahrain and forcefully quelled the civil unrest in the country, which is nearby Saudi Arabia’s largest energy fields and largest concentration of its own Shia minority.
The failure of the Shia-led uprising in Bahrain proved to be the least of Iran’s worries, given that the Arab Spring spread to Syria, threatening its ally in Damascus. That civil uprising quickly turned into an armed insurrection in large part due to the government’s brutality in containing the unrest. By late 2011, Iran was extremely worried that Bashar al-Assad could be toppled in the wake of what was then a full-blown civil war supported by a large portion of the country’s majority Sunni community. The loss of Syria would pose a security threat for Iran, disconnecting it from Hezbollah. In addition, Iran’s gains in Shia-dominated Iraq would be threatened by a Sunni minority, which would have the advantage of strategic depth in a Sunni-dominated Syria.
Although Saudi Arabia was generally worried about the Arab uprisings, it saw the rebellion in Syria as a godsend — a unique opportunity to punch a critical hole in the Iranian sphere of influence. The Saudis and their allies quickly backed Syrian rebels, adding to what was already a sectarian conflict, and Salafists began to dominate the rebel forces. However, it was not long before jihadists of various stripes – including Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and many others – dominated the rebel landscape. This was a key turning point for Iran. It shaped American perceptions to such a point that the Obama administration in August 2013 at the last moment backed away from military action against the Assad regime despite Damascus’ verified use of chemical weapons.
In addition, the administration’s move to forge a nuclear deal with Iran’s Rouhani government allows Iran a great deal of room to try and block the rise of Sunni power in Syria but also to influence the future shape of the Arab world. Iran’s efforts have been augmented by Russia’s decision to jump into the Syrian fray. The growing alignment of interests between the United States and Iran forced Saudi Arabia to increasingly take the lead in managing the regional chaos instead of its historical approach of relying on the U.S. for its national security. These developments also underscore the lack of good options for the Saudis to prevent the further fragmentation of the Arab world and the center of the Middle East.
Islamic State: The Wild Card
Saudi Arabia’s attempt to assume leadership over Sunni Arabs has been challenged by different groups, most significantly the Islamic State. In fact, IS has become such as threat that it now has most of the characteristics of a state, even if many Muslims reject the authority behind its self-declared caliphate. One of these characteristics is an army, which has rendered meaningless a major border in the region and thus may very well be the most capable Arab military force in the region. While the world is currently focusing on the tactical gains made against the group in Iraq and Syria, the fact remains that its opponents either cannot commit the ground forces necessary to destroy it or have other priorities.
One such priority is the efforts to topple the Syrian regime and roll back Iranian influence in the region. The Islamic State will continue to benefit from this geopolitical sectarian struggle between the Saudis and the Iranians. The more Saudi Arabia confronts Iran, the more it empowers the Islamic State. Moreover, strengthening IS also poses a threat to Saudi Arabia because the group could take advantage of the kingdom’s internal weakness and open the door to challenges from within Saudi Arabia’s own Sunni population.
Despite some very obvious differences there is a great deal of similarity between the Saudi kingdom and the Islamic State, which is why the former constitutes the grand prize for the latter. The two are competing for command over the Arab Sunni world and both claim intellectual leadership of the austere Sunni brand of Salafism. Both the Saudi kingdom and IS are Islamic states that have been established via a jihadist approach, involving territorial conquests in the name of jihad at the hands of Salafist militias. In addition, they are both promoting themselves as the champions of the struggle against perceived Shia aggression against Sunnis. Moreover, IS is eyeing Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves and, more importantly, control over the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina.
These commonalities increase the threat to not just Saudi Arabia’s ability to manage the mayhem in the Arab world but also the kingdom’s own stability. This is taking place at a time when the Saudis are fighting on multiple fronts and going through a major inflection point domestically, with the generational transition of power, while also undergoing great economic stress due to a slump in oil prices. The Islamic State is in the process of gaining a foothold within the kingdom. Here again we see IS exploiting sectarian fault lines by attacking Shia religious centers and more recently an Ismaili mosque near the Yemeni border – trying to take advantage of the Saudi-led war against the Shia Zaydi Houthi movement. A key conundrum for the Saudis is that, while IS represents a major threat to the kingdom, it also serves as a force multiplier against Iran in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey: A Reviving Power
While Saudi Arabia is struggling with IS, it also faces a challenge from Turkey, which is not only far better placed than the kingdom to shape a future Syria, but also the largest military and economic power in the region. In addition, Ankara’s Sunni identity gives it legitimacy to try to bring order to the chaos in the Arab world. Relatively stable at home, Turkey is promoting a democratic model and prefers Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists. Not only does this agenda threaten core Saudi interests, Riyadh has no political model to challenge Turkey and offer as a way forward to stabilize the unrest. Their own political system, a hybrid between absolute monarchy and quietist Salafism, is already under attack from both jihadists and democratic forces.
However, Turkey has its own problems to deal with before it can help shape Syria and the wider Arab world. Kurdish separatism represents both a major domestic and foreign policy threat to the Turks. The emerging de facto Kurdistan within Syria, when added to the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, only compounds the worries of Ankara relating to its own Kurdish separatists. Meanwhile, Islamic State has already spread its tentacles in Turkey. The Turks will be forced to deal with IS and, as a result, will become the largest regional power. But they will not do this willingly.
Furthermore, Syrian rebel groups are not dominated by Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists with whom Turkey’s ruling party enjoys ideological affinity. Instead, they are composed of a slew of mostly Salafist-jihadist militias not that different from the Islamic State. In addition, they are allied with al-Qaida’s Syrian branch Jabhat al-Nusra, which has the backing of Turkey’s leading Arab state ally, Qatar. The Turks are also blocked by the Iranians who, despite the reversals, still have a major presence in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey will have to cut through this complex arrangement of forces in order to emerge as the dominant power in the region. However, it has the advantage of having the U.S.’s support in leading the region. Elsewhere, the region’s third non-Arab power, Israel, is watching the growing insecurity surrounding its borders. The rise of the Islamic State and other Islamist groups in the Sunni Arab world, as well as Iran’s improving relations with the West, are indeed threats to the Jewish state. This is compounded by the U.S.’s pursuit of an increasingly complex balance of power strategy for the region, which amplifies the divergence in American and Israeli interests. This explains the degradation in American-Israeli relations in recent years. However, these are long-term threats. For now, the sectarian geopolitical struggle in the region pits these various forces against each other and thus Israel finds itself relatively secure.
Turkey’s effort to take control of the region is pushing it closer to direct competition with Iran for influence in an Arab world. Meanwhile, more upheaval is likely as the Saudi kingdom and the Islamic State battle each other. From the American perspective, there are enough levers with which to manage the situation remotely.