The Middle East and Great Power Politics

It’s necessary for the Arabs to introduce changes which will allow them to cope with swift developments in the region and to alter their system of collective action, as it has proven to be a failure on several levels, and thus move beyond the current collective strategy of the Arab position, as it has been clearly undermined, writes Ahmed Majdalani, Member of the Executive Committee of The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Secretary General of The Palestinian Popular Struggle Front

The Middle East is best understood as chaotic, i.e., it lacks a regional system that would include regional institutions, agreements and arrangements that regulate relations within the region. This has led to an arms race and a sort of balance of power, the disruption of which means war. The Middle East is characterised by the presence of multiple regional powers that aspire to reach regional hegemony through their conflicting political projects, where the security agenda outweighs the economic agenda. A state of security and political looseness prevails in the region as a result of the failure of its sub-regional systems, e.g., the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, to build a regional strategy based on a unified identification of threats, their sources, and how to confront them. This is mainly attributable to the role of major powers in impeding such an approach, specifically the United States of America, which has been taking over the region since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, as well as the continuing regional competition for hegemony between Turkey, Iran and Israel, especially after the overthrow of Iraq as a rising regional Arab power in parallel to them.

The Turkish role

After Turkey’s failure to join the European Union after several attempts, Turkey adopted a strategic depth doctrine, by exploiting its geopolitical position in the centre of the three continents to achieve Turkish political, economic and military interests through dispute settlements and by building positive relations with all nations, from Asia through Europe, as well as the Arab world and Africa, and by managing an active international diplomacy. The vision of neo-Ottomanism focuses on achieving Turkey’s interests in the Middle East through soft power and openness towards the countries there to achieve Ankara’s political, strategic, economic and military interests.

The Turkish role has been subject to three determinants. The first is Ankara’s establishment of itself in the region and drive to increase its efficacy; it exercises influence in three ways which Turkey has deemed to be the best for penetrating the region and realising its interests. The second is its relationship with Russia: Russia has become the balancing power in the eyes of Turkish decision-makers, especially vis-a-vis the Western world, regarding several issues that Turkey perceives as a threat to its national security (especially US support for the Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq); thus we can see the results of Turkish-Russian rapprochement through several moves and regular meeting that result in economic and security agreements. Finally, the third determinant is its relationship with the United States: the gap had deepened between Washington and Ankara during Barack Obama’s rule, when Turkey steered towards establishing a new relationship with Russia as a reliable ally and partner.

The Iranian Role: How far is Iran driven by legacy of an empire?

Iran is working through networks of alliances with local sectarian forces in the region, with the aim of reviving the Persian-Iranian project in the Middle East. Iran is seeking to deepen its political influence through its agents in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as its presence, to a lesser extent, in the Palestinian territories. This expansion aims at turning Iran into the dominant power in the region. However, this approach clashes with three major players in the region:

For the Biden administration, Iran represents the primary challenge after he vowed to restrict its access to nuclear weapons. Biden believes that reinstating the nuclear deal would effectively delay Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons and would place its nuclear programme under international surveillance.

The relationship between Iran and Russia has been strengthened due to the increasing tensions between Tehran and Washington since President Donald Trump took office. There is no doubt that Iran considers Russia as one of its closest allies and has benefited from this alliance in the United Nations, when Russia used its veto against several resolutions against Iran. In addition, Syria is also a common interest, although there have been some conflicts of interests between the two countries in Syria.

Tensions have escalated between Iran and Israel since President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. Confrontations between Iranian and US proxies in the Persian Gulf have also escalated, along with the strategic targeting of Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq.

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The American role

US policies in the Middle East reflect its neo-colonial perspective, as demonstrated by its policy of establishing rival ‘axes’ to preserve its interests and prolong the state of polarisation between the different states of the region.

The US has tried to restructure the region based on axes, which demonstrates that the use of axes is a genuine US policy, and that the regimes of the axis of moderation are merely adversaries of their peoples. The so called “resistance axis” (whose regimes and parties cannot be said to be in a state of reconciliation and harmony with their peoples), ironically, do not introduce any strategic objective that is achievable or even measurable.

The United States has shifted its policies from the idea of creating a state that would act as a policeman in the region to the idea of creating an axis that would be one. After the failure of all previous attempts to have a central state act as a sub-proxy, Trump’s administration adopted the idea of establishing an Arab-Israeli NATO to control the region and hamper Iran’s regional ambitions.

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Europe is the most affected by the instability in the region.

Although it has been affected by the conflict in the Middle East, especially the continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is clear that Europe is still incapable of taking any serious steps towards the continuation of the Israeli policy of settlement-building and changing the status quo. The European inability to take any steps towards criminalising Israeli behaviour makes it merely a follower of the United States, especially as it is still unable to build a security system that is capable of facing new challenges at the security and political levels.

The Arab role: What is the role of Arab states in the new system of regional relations?

Political realism and Arab regional variables pushed the Arab states to sign the degrading peace agreements with Israel, whether through establishing diplomatic relations or partial relations. This establishes the Arab approach towards adopting peace as a strategic option in settling the Palestinian issue.

Normalisation blooms in the context of a general Arab weakness and Arab conflicts with Iran, in addition to the US exploitation of the Arab-Iranian dispute in order to bring about a rapprochement with Israel, as well as the Israeli statements on common interests between the Arab countries and Israel, aiming at cooperation in the fields of technology, water, agriculture and medicine. Others see it a strategy to confront the Iranian danger in the region, as it comes in light of an Arab-Arab disagreement, especially the Gulf dispute, in addition to the intensification of the crisis in the Arab states, with popular uprisings that generated a state of division among Arabs and caused a rush towards normalisation.

Therefore, the Arabs are required in the coming stage to bring about change to cope with swift developments in the region, and to bring about a change in the system of Arab collective action, after it has proven its failure on several levels, and thus forego the collective strategy of the Arab position, that has been clearly undermined. For the second consecutive year, the Arab League has failed to hold its periodic summit conference, which has led to the deterioration of joint Arab action and portends a lack of reliability in the future.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.