The Evolution and New Trends of the Regional Order in the Middle East

By Zhang Weiting

The traditional regional order in the Middle East has been introduced and dominated by outside powers and based on the nation states in the region. It reflects the different levels of relations between outside powers and countries in the region. The competition between them is the major driver of the evolution of the regional order. In the post-Arab Spring era, regional countries have come back to the center.  Elements such as outside powers and Non-state actors in the region will be constrained. A new regional order based on nation states is emerging. 

I. The Origin of the Modern Regional Order in the Middle East

The modern order in the Middle East and the emergence of non-state actors in the region can be traced back to the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed by Britain and France 100 years ago to divide the Ottoman Empire. The agreement officially established a vertical ruling order by the West to divide and rule in the Middle East. This not only profoundly transformed the geopolitical landscape in the region, but also started the history of the separation and parallel evolution of regimes and societies in the region. 

Without the shelter of the empire, the regional environment of religious tolerance where diverse cultures coexisted came to the end. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as the inheritor of the empire, embarked on the path of modern transition characterized by secularization. Levant and the Arab parts of the Gulf region were ceded and included in the West-dominated colonization system in the name of international trusteeship. The elites of traditional regimes became agents for the Western rule. They managed national economic and security affairs in dislocation of society. Religions and tribes, the two pillars of traditional social governance, were excluded from the global colonization system and, in turn, started to embrace the masses at the bottom, who had been marginalized but still accounted for the majority of society. The Islamism that had developed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire grew into two categories. One tends to learn from outside cultures and system, as represented by political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. The other prefers to seek answers from historical traditions. The extreme forms are fundamentalism and extremist organizations. 

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the ideological competition among outside powers spread into the region and was interwoven with long-standing regional geopolitical conflicts. This triggered the competition for survival among regional countries. The Muslim Brotherhood grew fast in Egypt and Syria, countries that shared basic conditions with Russia. These countries had big populations and scarce resources. If they wanted to expand tax bases, strengthen defenses and gain policy autonomy, they had no other options than take the lead to, albeit to different degrees, undertake democratic and constitutional reforms and pursue industrialization, and resort to nationalism or socialism from the outside as tools to mobilize society. Therefore, these societies were more open. On the other hand, fundamentalism became more popular in the Gulf and sparsely populated North African countries. One major reason was that it was hard for foreign influences to penetrate into these countries geographically. They didn’t receive attention from outside powers until oil was discovered there. Yet, the massive oil wealth and the far distance from the competition of foreign hegemons diluted the necessity for political and economic reforms as well as social mobilization. 
After the end of the Second World War, the Palestine-Israel issue and the hegemonic competition in the Gulf became a tussle ground for the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and regional proxy wars. On the former, the Arab world was divided into two camps: the radical and the moderate. In radical countries such as Syria and Iraq, frequent military coups have taken place in the context of outside wars and domestic curfews. The regimes have become increasingly centralized. The Muslim Brotherhood and other social mobilization tools are forced to go underground. On the latter, there was competition between Iran and Iraq for hegemony. The monarchy Iran, as it turned out, saw the outbreak of the Islamic revolution because of the lack of social support. Later, it exported revolution to resist the control of the United States and Soviet Union, which sowed the seeds for social revolutions in the region and led to the Iran-Iraq war. In the early days of the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states joined hands to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to make unified arrangements for foreign affairs and defense to counter the invasion of Iran and Iraq and the threat of social revolutions within their borders. Saddam was able to organize a million-strong troop at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, thanks to his social mobilization skills. But he also faced the risk of fiscal collapse. To defuse the crisis, he took the bold step to invade Kuwait, which sparked the Gulf War and the Iraq War. At the end, the US forces were brought into the Gulf and a US-dominated regional order was established in the Middle East. 

II. The Rise and Fall of the US-dominated Regional Order

The Gulf War established the dominance of the US and sped up the end of the Cold War. The US displayed its exceptional capabilities in air-space wars and long-distance projection. As the ally of Iraq, the Soviet Union, in a way, cemented the presence of the US and saw its own reputation nosedived in the Middle East. In the wake of the war, the US, the GCC, Egypt and other moderate states established a regional order that had two prominent features: first, it is dominated by security; second, it puts US interests first. These features also explain the inherent deficiencies and contradictions in such an order. It aggravates the dislocation of the regime and society and, undoubtedly, will not last for long. 

The first apparent deficiency of the US-dominated regional order is that “US interests first” amplified the conflicts between regimes and societies. The Middle East is included in the global strategy of the US, providing support to the US dominance through its geographical and energy value. Saudi Arabia supported oil trade settled in US dollars and used the dollar specifically to buy the US treasury bills and prop up the US financial hegemony. In return, it got US support for its pricing right in OPEC and US commitment to ensure the security of the regimes of GCC states. Egypt and other countries accepted the US military and economic assistance. In exchange, they compromised on the Palestine-Israel issue, recognized the survival right of the Israel state and dropped their position of supporting regional radicalists to wipe out Israel. The surprising end of the Cold War and the “end of history” argument of Francis Fukuyama made these countries disoriented and subordinated to the US. They traded away their economic interests or national sentiments. As a result, they tried to get external support for the legitimacy of their regimes, and their economies became overly dependent on the outside world. At the same time, as their populations grew fast without adequate resources to support social development, pressure for social changes has built up inside these countries. 

The second deficiency of the US-dominated regional order is that it uncompromisingly excludes the radical states and thus escalated conflicts among countries in the region. After the Gulf War, the Rafsanjani government in Iran made goodwill gestures to the Gulf states, Europe and the US. The Clinton administration, however, still listed Iran as a supporter of terrorism because the Iranian government assassinated the opposition overseas. The US adopted the policy of promoting peace talks in the west and resisting Iraq and Iran in the east. It tried to negate the influence of Iran on the Palestine-Israel issue and use the threat of Iran to bolster its legitimacy in the region and maintain the dependence of the Gulf states on the US. Provoked by the uncompromising policy of the US, there emerged a consensus in Iran to pursue nuclear weapons and develop asymmetrical tactics for potential military confrontation with the US, such as developing shore-based missile technologies and blocking the Hormuz Strait. Moreover, Iran stepped up support to countries and organizations, which boycotted the Palestine-Israel peace talks. As result of the uncompromising policy of the US, the Palestine-Israel issue and the Gulf issue became highly interconnected and more complicated. The hegemonic presence of the US breeds anti-American sentiments and provides continuous social support for regional radicalists to resist the peaceful settlement of the Palestine-Israel issue. The long-standing Palestine-Israel issue, on the other hand, has undermined the relations between regimes and societies in moderate regions and countries, which, in turn, undercuts the stability of the regional order dominated by the US. 

After the 911 attacks, the balance of power between regions and societies in the region has shifted. The US-led regional order collapsed at a faster pace. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq greatly consumed US power and gave rise to rampant anti-American sentiments. In addition, with the rise of emerging countries and the shift of global geopolitical gravity, the regional order has, once again, moved to the stage of accelerated evolution. Under huge social pressure, the GCC states no longer completely followed the lead of the US. After closing the BBC Arabic channel which had just been brought in but was found to be in contradiction with traditional social values in 1995, Saudi Arabia canceled the US air base in the country for similar reasons in 2001. That said, the GCC is not monolithic. The BBC Arabic channel and the US air base were soon invited by Qatar. Al Jazeera and Al Udeid Air Base were then established. Qatar was the first to be diplomatically independent in the GCC and embarked on a path of diversified diplomacy. Apart from expanding its relations with other big powers, it made goodwill gestures to regional radicalists, providing funding assistance to Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood and other radical organizations. 

To eliminate the breeding ground for terrorism in the region, the Bush Jr. administration started to rebuild the Afghan and Iraqi governments and asked its Middle East allies to pursue democratic transformation, promote democracy in a top-down manner, and expand the basis for social support. The results, unfortunately, were less than desirable. First, the regimes which were comfortable with the status quo had no other choice but to make some superficial reforms from the top to the bottom, which divided the invested interests. Second, it set the stage for the legitimazation and politicalization of radical organizations in the region. Hamas was elected in the next year. The Iranian nuclear crisis and the Israel-Lebanon conflict soon broke out. The radicalists climbed to the peak in their regional popularity. Third, the former Iraqi security forces were disbanded, creating space for the infiltration of Al Qaeda. For the first time, fundamentalists got the chance to establish a state. The Obama administration started to pull out of the Middle East to get rid of the liabilities in the Middle East and tackle the financial crisis at home. In his speech at the University of Cairo in 2009, Obama responded to the call for social change among the local people who had been upset by the stalled development. But he produced a prescription for regime change in the name of human rights, which gave green light to bottom-up social revolution. Obama may have alluded to Iran, where green revolution had just erupted in protest of unfair elections. To stoke up the revolution in Iran, he went so far as to endorse all regional revolutions of social scales in the region. Unexpectedly, it was in Tunis and Egypt, the US allies in the region, that regimes were overthrown. 

Obama’s speech gave people in the region expectations that the US would give unconditional support to social revolutions in the region.  The Turkish model of Islamic revolution in tandem with social and economic development added to the drive of regional organizations of political Islam for revolution. During the Arab Spring, political Islam organizations, in partnerships with populism, used social media to mobilize and organize mass protests. Extremist organizations fished in the troubled water and escalated the street protests into violent revolutions. Al Jazeera confused populism and democracy in its reports and put a cloak of legitimacy on the Arab Spring. Western countries suffered from self-inflicted damage, as they pursued the fabricated principle of political correctness and had undefined geopolitical interests. They threatened to suspend assistance to prevent their allies from cracking down on the revolutions. Due to the failure of the international security mechanism and for the sake of self security and power competition, countries in the region started to support non-state actors in penetrating into regional hotspot security issues, which fueled the spread of the Arab spring in the region. For all the above reasons, the security alliance of the US and its allies in the region was breached from within. Social revolutions easily took down many regimes in the region. 

III. Regional Competitions in the Post Arab-Spring Era

Due to the Arab Spring social revolution, governments in the region had to face non-traditional security challenges and new competitions for survival among countries. However, dwindling demands for energy, structural problems in those governments and homogeneous competitions in the region further restricted the space for reform and transformation in regional countries. Exporting security crises and instigation of confrontations among religious sects only temporarily froze the demands for economic reform. They fell short of tackling economic challenges and meeting the needs for social progress.    
The fact that countries such as Tunisia and Egypt suffered grave setbacks during the Arab Spring testified two points. First, the isolated moderate countries were more vulnerable to the social revolution in the region because such revolution mainly pursued social development and political participation, which were exactly what has been long overlooked by regional allies of the United States who focused on traditional security.  Second, restricted by its own fiscal difficulty and political righteousness of human rights values, the United States had no capability or willingness to interfere in the social revolution in the region. Thus, the US commitment to its allies on ensuring the security of their regimes did not hold anymore. Because of the traditionally high mobility of the people, widely spread regional organizations and unimpeded information dissemination by Al Jazeera and social media, countries in the region had actually entered into new competitions centering on social governance abilities. The most vulnerable countries would very likely be the first to be knocked out by the social revolution. The US allies in the region were generally caught in a difficult situation. The explosive growth of population and information transparency resulted in diversified demands, which significantly impacted the previous single-product economy and closed social structure. When endeavoring to secure their ruling status, the governments in the region must create conditions to advance economic development and broaden the participation of the general public in state affairs.  

Countries in the region will face serious difficulty in their efforts to push for economic transformation and reform for three reasons. First, global demands for energy consumption have declined. After reaching its peak in 2005, the carbon emissions in Europe have been dropping on an annual basis as it turned increasingly to photovoltaic, nuclear and other new energy sources. The debt and refugee crises, terrorist attacks, rising populism and Brexit not only dragged down Europe’s economic growth, but also challenged its integration. Since the financial crisis, the United States has exported its inflation risks through quantitative easing and thus further curbed global consumption. In 2014, the application of shale oil technology on a market scale turned the United States into a net energy exporter and shale oil will take away part of global energy market share. Emerging countries have seen their economic growth slide and in the meantime face the needs for economic transformation and upgrading and safeguarding financial security. Therefore, it will be difficult for them to absorb on their own the newly added energy supply. Oil revenues of gulf countries have decreased and their service sectors such as trade, shipping and tourism, which rely on energy processing and exports, have shrunk. Cross-border management, remittances from migrant workers and the tourism sector of countries like the UAE and Egypt will be harmed as well. Inflation and losses of foreign reserves brought by quantitative easing have undoubtedly added more pains to the people and made reforms more urgent. However, the tools for the governments in the region to regulate their economies have been seriously limited. 
Second, advancement of reforms faces structural obstacles. The social crisis in single-product economies relying on resources such as Saudi Arabia has mainly stemmed from the demands by its minorities for equal rights and its youths for participation in the governance. The areas where Shias are concentrated in Saudi Arabia much overlap with those rich in oil. The legitimacy of the royal authority is bound with the doctrines of Wahhabis who refuse to share power with Shias. Therefore, issues relating to Shias are highly sensitive in the country and it is quite difficult to find compromises. The participation of the young people is another standing obstacle. In Saudi Arabia’s population of around 30 million, a staggering 70% are those under the age of 30. Information has resulted in more diversified needs of the youths and women. However, employment provided by the oil industry is far from adequate. Due to shrinking oil revenues, Saudi Arabia will not only exit from its system of high social welfare and privatize public service sectors, but also levy an income tax. Egypt, a populous country with little resources, has long been faced with shortfalls in fiscal payment. Young people under the age of 30 make up for 40% of its population of over 80 million. Daily resident spending nearly consumes the majority of revenues from remittances, the Suez Canal, tourism and natural gas from the Mediterranean. After the revolution, revenues from the above-mentioned sources have dwindled significantly. In addition, the Egyptian military has controlled around 40% of the national economy, and the 700,000-troop standing army is the major beneficiary of international aids, which have been the main source of daily government spending. As the military is important for countering terrorists and maintaining stability, military-related industries have actually become an untouchable independent kingdom. 

Third, gloomy prospects due to homogenous competitions of the region. Saudi Arabia has been the most steadfast protester to the Iran nuclear deal. For one reason, removing sanctions on Iran would challenge Saudi’s market share and its dominant role in OPEC. Upon the deal, Iran did raise its daily output of crude oil by around 2 million barrels. It also makes new breakthroughs in its natural gas exports. In 2016, Iran began to export gas by ground pipeline to Iraq, Syria and Oman. To maintain its market share, Saudis tried to edge out major competitors by increasing its production and selling at low prices. But this tactic failed, because the shale oil producers in the US reduced their average cost per barrel from 40 dollars to around 20 dollars, while the Iranians, during the years under sever sanctions, had accumulated hundreds of millions of barrels in stock which they would dump at any low prices for cash. Quite to the contrary, Saudi Arabia received the most damages by its own tactics, as the oil revenue fell, its foreign exchange reserve shrank at a pace so alarming as to threaten the safety of the regime itself. To reverse the trend, at the end of November 2016, the OPEC headed by Saudi Arabia and Russia reached a deal to lower production, which, in May 2017, was allowed to extend for another half year, but the oil price was still hovering at low levels. Saudi Aramco’s plan for listing also fell victim to the low oil price. The biggest IPO in the world had to face the embarrassment of continuous value shrinking. Secondly, leashing out Iran would make Saudi’s economic prospects even more pessimistic. Iran has a larger and more competent labor force, better endowment of natural resources, a self reliant economic system and a democratic election. Its authority is supported by the minority and the young people. More importantly, contrary to Saudis, after years of embargo and sanction, the Iranians are very optimistic about their future after the lifting of sanctions.

Confronted with newly installed competition rules, regional regimes made different endeavors is accordance with different advantages in resources and priority concerns. The Egyptians cleaned the biggest opposition force the Muslim Brotherhood in the name of counter-terrorism. At the same time, they tried every means to attract FDI into huge infrastructure projects like the new Cairo city and New Suez canal to boost economy and employment. In Turkey, apart from attacking his oppositions on the one hand, they championed the flag of Islam to accommodate and consolidate populist support, on the other, promoted constitution amendment to consolidate the presidential power. For Saudi Arabia, with the difficulties in domestic reform, they had to turn to the export of security crisis to the outside. During the Arab spring, the Saudis sided with the oppositions in Iraq, Libya and Syria, intervened militarily to quell Shiite rebellion in Bahrain and Yemen, backed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's coup in Egypt. They also tried to persuade the Americans and Israelis to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis with force, killed ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr and finally cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Recently it also united with the VAE and other countires to create the crisis of breaking diplomatic reations with Qatar. All these attempts were aimed at bringing up conventional security issues like sectarian conflicts in the region and to trigger the response mechanism of the US-led regional security arrangement or to help to forge a Saudi-dominated security alliance for the Sunnis, thus forestall potential threats from Shiite camp, and provide cover for internal political reform aimed at power consolidation. Iran, to maintain its regional assets, was forced to make counter moves and invest precious resources into almost all regional hot spot issues, especially Syrian civil war. 

IV. Building Regional Order From the Perspective of Saudi Arabia

The security crisis transferred from Saudi Arabia resulted in sectarian conflicts in the region and made regional hotspot issues chronic and complicated, becoming the source of a host of security headaches in the region. By remaking regional links and economic ties through security efforts, Saudi Arabia has partly reinstated the U.S.-dominated regional security order in form, yet it is still exposed to potential risks of domestic social crises.

Despite the partial success, its effects are to be examined for the following reasons.

First, hotspot issues in the region have been protracted by the security crisis and sectarian animosity transferred from Saudi Arabia. Dissolution of sectarian powers during their conflicts has opened up a power vacuum, prolonging crises in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and facilitating the permeation and growth of non-state actors including extremist groups. On the other hand, the involvement of extremist groups has in turn complicated hotspot issues even further. Extending its influence in Iraq and Syria and exploiting the weak balance of power in their civil wars, the Islamic State (IS) took over troops and large swathes of territory, and finally declared the establishment of a “caliphate”. Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen turned out to be costly and unsatisfactory, but persistent hotspot issues have kept security the top concern of the region. Saudi Arabia’s ground operations also interrupted the economic development plans of Iran and other rivals in the region. The rise and spread of IS resulted in Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented isolation by the U.S. and Europe, and also provided grounds for successive events in 2015, the U.S. lifting Iran sanctions, Russia’s military return to the Middle East and the creation of a Shiite counter-terrorism alliance. Outstanding security issues sustained the geopolitical significance of the Middle East despite declining oil prices, and it was exactly geopolitical competition that brought back the U.S., which had prepared for a withdrawal. The U.S. declared in a high-profile manner that it wouldn’t give up its leadership in the global fight against terrorism: it hit an airbase of Syria this April under the pretext that Syria launched a chemical attack on civilians from that airbase, and later dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan.

Second, Saudi Arabia has shifted the region’s security focus from Levant to the Gulf by bundling regional hotspot issues with counter-terrorism and economic interests. The Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (Sunni-dominated) that was established in December 2015 is the Version 2.0 of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab alliance created in May 2015, in that all three are dominated by Saudi Arabia and all three sent troops to Yemen. Another upgrade of these Sunni regional alliances came during April’s Arab Islamic American Summit. The Shiite counter-terrorism alliance set up under the dominance of Russia and Iran is more of a temporary security alliance formed upon war-time needs. In contrast, the Sunni alliance dominated by Saudi Arabia is mainly a community of interests formed through economic ties, which can be seen from the Qatar diplomatic rift. To the United Arab Emirates, lifting the sanction on Iran means ending the prosperous transit trade of Dubai, so it has no choice but to bet on Saudi’s future international investment and funding plan. To Egypt, Saudi Arabia is not only a supporter of Sisi’s military coup, but also its largest funder and a bridge to U.S. aid. To Bahrain, the security or fall of its government entirely depends on the GCC headed by Saudi Arabia, and its pillar tourism industry is in need of the markets of neighboring countries. To Libya and Yemen, Saudi Arabia is the major supporter of their central governments, while Qatar and Iran side with their opposition forces. Even when the U.S. came onboard, it looked like an exchange of interests. Through a $110 billion arms deal, Saudi Arabia redirected America to its Clinton-era Middle East policy, which is to contain Iran and resolve the Palestine-Israel conflict at the same time.

Third, Saudi Arabia orients its regional order towards containing Iran, and has built a broad alliance of interests upon this basis. Inciting sectarian conflicts is but a Saudi Arabian tactic to transfer its security crisis and to unite the majority in the region, and under the surface, fear of Iran and restraining Iran are what’s really in the mind of Saudi Arabia. During the Iran nuclear talks, Saudi Arabia plotted with Israel for joint military actions against Iran, and together they lobbied the U.S. Congress for barriers to lifting sanctions on Iran. During Donald Trump’s Middle East visit, Saudi Arabia played up its intimate relationship with the U.S. on a high profile, and even used 1/5 of its foreign exchange reserve on U.S. arms and U.S. jobs when it was suffering economically. However, after the GCC junior Qatar expressed goodwill to Iran by suggesting joint development of a shared gas field, and paid a huge sum of ransom to Shiite militant groups, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut their ties with Qatar and severed land, air, and sea travel to the country. The siege laid to Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood will repress activist groups in the region, help region states repair relations between their regimes and the society, and then help them return to the role of modern nation states. Sunni countries focus on domestic affairs and keep aloof from the Palestine-Israel issue, while Iran and Hezbollah are mired in the Syrian war, and the helpless Hamas has indirectly expressed its willingness to acknowledge the statehood of Israel.

Hotspot issues in the region have provided conditions for building a new regional security cooperation mechanism. For the moment, Saudi Arabia’s regional security policies are undoubtedly conducive to settling the Palestine-Israel conflict, the root cause of all problems in the region. Once the conflict is ended, most of Iran’s regional influence would be lost, so would Iran’s threats to countries including Saudi Arabia. However, the security of Israel is only part of the conflict. Before the conflict is solved, everything in the region is likely to backslide into their prior states. From a historical perspective, enriching nation states and strengthening the functionality and inclusiveness of regional mechanisms will remain the direction in building the future order of the Middle East.

Zhang Weiting is Post-doctoral Fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.