Eight Years after the Upheaval: Alternative Approaches to Understanding the Current Middle East

Itai Brun, Sarah J. Feuer and Itay Haiminis, INSS, February 27, 2019

www.inss.org.il/publication/eight-years-upheaval-alternative-approaches-understanding-current-middle-east/

With permission, read full article on INSS.

Eight years after a series of uprisings erupted across the Middle East, there is a debate whether a relatively stable order (old or new) has taken hold in the Middle East, or whether the region remains unstable and, therefore, will continue to produce waves of unrest. At its heart, this debate reflects conflicting assessments of the regimes’ abilities to manage what few would argue are fundamental economic problems and identity-related crises that have gone largely unresolved and, in some cases, worsened. For decision makers in Israel, this means that strategic planning cannot be predicated solely on the assumption that current regional trends will persist. From Israel’s standpoint, it is advisable to continue pursuing a strategy of caution, all the while retaining a systemic flexibility so that opportunities can be seized and risks confronted.

Eight years after a series of uprisings erupted across the Middle East, analysts and policymakers continue to grapple with core questions surrounding the current nature of the region. Is the upheaval ongoing? What defines the regional order, to the extent one exists? (“Order” here denotes the region’s overarching structure, not its inherent stability.) How has the upheaval evolved? And what are the implications of regional stability or instability for Israel? This essay examines three approaches to understanding the Middle East today. One posits that the Middle East has settled into a “new order,” characteristically different from its pre-2011 form, and will remain relatively stable as such. A second approach contends that the region remains in a state of upheaval and will be marked by instability and uncertainty in the coming years. A third view asserts that the Middle East has largely returned to its pre-2011 order and will likely remain there for the foreseeable future. This is not merely an academic debate. Israel has been deeply affected by the unrest, both in terms of its national security and from a policy standpoint, and the question of regional stability will continue to bear on policymaking, operations planning, and military force buildup.

Option 1: A New Order for the Middle East 

According to this school of thought, the upheaval has already given birth to a new order comprising a different regional balance of power, alternative forms of governance, and new dynamics of inter-state relations. States and borders can be expected to remain the region’s organizing principles, but many countries will have to resign themselves to limited sovereignty, reflected in the emergence of chaotic, contested, and ungoverned zones on their frontiers, or in the need to share sovereignty with other actors. At the same time, a new configuration of Great Power involvement has taken root in the region. The components of this new order will likely persist.

The Iraqi state, for example, may have survived the American occupation and subsequent civil war, but its central government remains weak compared to sub-state actors operating on its territory, and it is subject to heavy Iranian influence. In Egypt, the upheaval may not have ultimately overturned the military regime in place since 1952, but since 2011 this regime has struggled to impose its authority over the Sinai Peninsula. Furthermore, the turmoil undercut the traditional dominance of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, while other actors – chiefly Iran and Israel – have used the turbulence to expand their influence. Iran today enjoys a much stronger military and political presence in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq than in the past. And Israel has broadened its regional influence through bolstered security and intelligence cooperation with Jordan, Egypt, and some of the Gulf states – a cooperation enabled, inter alia, by the downgrading of the Palestinian issue on the list of concerns for these countries.

Through its presence in Syria in recent years, Russia has secured its role as a superpower in the Middle East, alongside the United States – which has withdrawn from the region (rhetorically, if not yet completely in practice) – and to a lesser degree, China. Between the US and Russia, a division of spheres of influence has emerged, with the US preserving its dominance in the Gulf, and Russia reviving its influence in the Fertile Crescent and, to some extent, in North Africa. Thus, the Middle East has shifted from a regional system characterized by the dominance of a sole superpower (the US) to a system characterised by competition and rivalry between several world powers (the US, Russia, and China).

Option 2: Continuing Upheaval for the Middle East

According to this view, the collapse of the pre-2011 order has not (yet) produced a new one in the Middle East, and the region will remain in a protracted period of transition, characterized by a lack of stability and considerable uncertainty as to short and long term developments. The assessment of an ongoing upheaval stems primarily from the observation that the region’s fundamental economic deficiencies (e.g., youth unemployment, corruption, shadow economies, socio-economic inequality, and a crippling dependency on oil) and its identity struggles (whether religious, ethnic, or tribal) have not been resolved, and may have have even worsened since 2011. Absent a solution, these problems fuel increasingly divergent expectations between regimes and publics that are liable to spark future waves of popular protest.

Furthermore, persistent struggles over political authority rage on, both within countries and between various camps. Violence continues in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where full political sovereignty remains elusive. Despite his looming victory in Syria, Bashar al-Assad must still contend with pockets of fighting and the intervention of external actors – namely, Iran, Russia, and Turkey – that undermine his sovereignty while competing among themselves for influence. In Yemen, external interference from Iran and Saudi Arabia fuels the fighting and an unwillingness of the warring parties to compromise, a critical precursor to any cessation of hostilities. In Libya, an armed conflict over territory and power continues among a slew of actors (including two governments, dozens of militias, and vestiges of the Islamic State) with no sign of a resolution on the horizon. These violent struggles prevent, or at least impede, a consolidation of strong, centralized rule that could offer such countries the possibility of restored sovereignty, governing institutions, and functioning economies. Under such circumstances, these countries remain sources of refugees, crime, and even terrorism for neighboring European states.

In countries that weathered the 2011 waves of protests and did not descend into civil conflict (e.g., Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran), a periodic resurgence of demonstrations preserves the question marks regarding their internal resilience and cohesion. Given the unaddressed grievances and the intensity of these ongoing struggles, the region might well undergo additional shockwaves in the coming years that could bring about additional, unexpected changes.

Option 3: A Middle East Restored to the Old Order

According to this approach, the Middle East has, despite the upheaval, retained the predominant characteristics of its pre-2011 order. The precariousness, frequency, and intensity of changes seen immediately after the uprisings have returned to familiar levels, as has the ability to anticipate change. The region is still composed of the same countries, which, with the exception of Tunisia, have not undergone a significant internal reordering of the power structure long defining their regimes. Rather, these regimes have met and adjusted to the challenges of the period in a manner that will likely permit them to retain power.

The demands of protestors in 2011 for individual rights and social justice did not translate into a new political culture in the region. Countries of the Middle East continue to be characterized by authoritarian rulers, close links between wealth and power, bloated national bureaucracies, deep involvement by the military and state security system in politics and the economy, and a central role for religion in public and private life. The publics that played such a crucial role in the protests have shifted their focus inward to basic necessities and abandoned their calls for a new order (in some cases reflecting a wariness of the chaos unleashed in the region after 2011). Fundamental problems may persist, but the region’s leaders are more aware than before of the potential threat disaffected citizens pose to their rule, and they believe their policies have managed to contend with the challenges and will continue to do so.

Significance and the Way Ahead

The central debate highlighted above lies between those who contend that a relatively stable order (old or new) has taken hold in the Middle East, and those who believe the region remains unstable and, therefore, will continue to produce waves of unrest. At its heart, this debate reflects conflicting assessments of the regimes’ abilities to manage what few would argue are fundamental economic problems and identity-related crises that have gone largely unresolved and, in some cases, worsened. Adherents of the stable-order approach assess that regimes have developed sufficient tools to contend with the current state of affairs, whereas those partial to the ongoing-upheaval school of thought posit that the very existence of such regimes condemns the region to future bouts of unrest, similar to those witnessed in recent years.

How, then, can we characterize the nature of today’s Middle East? On the face of it, the three alternatives outlined here invite very different conclusions. Yet the complexities of the region today are such that elements of all three can exist side by side, and the region is home to forces supporting each of the three options: backers of the old order, advocates of a new order, and those seeking to undermine any order.

As such, properly assessing the Middle East likely requires an analytic framework that integrates all three alternatives, or at least elements therein. This framework would incorporate expertise on transitional periods (i.e., periods characterized primarily by instability, uncertainly, and volatility), a deep familiarity with the history and traditions of the region, and an upgraded understanding of the region’s characteristics as they have emerged in recent years.

For decision makers in Israel, this means strategic planning cannot be predicated solely on the assumption that current regional trends will persist. From Israel’s standpoint, it is advisable to continue pursuing a strategy of caution in forging treaties, cementing alliances, and signing cooperation agreements, all the while retaining a systemic flexibility so that opportunities can be seized and risks confronted. Circumstances continue to justify a focus on the pinpoint use of force against threats and the pursuit of arrangements – including with adversaries – that are localized, flexible, and short term. At the same time, while there is a likelihood that the Middle East will continue to experience surprise reversals, the current period (in contrast to the initial years of the upheaval) allows for strategic regional planning that, with the requisite prudence, could address middle and even long term considerations.

February 28, 2019