The Return of Diplomacy?
The Middle East: From Dependency and Clientelism to Strategic Autonomy

One should not expect that the Arab countries that have achieved strategic autonomy will take revenge on the former colonial powers and imperialists. Rather, they will create something similar to a new non-aligned movement (without its formal trappings) and will be inclined to pursue a pragmatic balance and non-interference in confrontations between other global players, writes Nikolay Surkov, senior researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, IMEMO RAS, for the 13th Middle East conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.

The expansion of European powers in the Middle East began in the 19th century with the occupation of Algeria in the 1830s, the subjugation of Egypt and Tunisia in the 1880s, and Morocco in 1912. The colonial system reached its peak after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when most of the Arab vilayets were divided between the victorious powers, primarily Great Britain and France, within the framework of the mandate system, and the national independence movement that was gaining strength in some of them was suppressed. The last elements of colonialism lasted in the Arabian Peninsula until the early 1970s, when Qatar and the United Arab Emirates gained independence, and in North Africa until the mid-1970s, when the Spanish withdrew from Western Sahara

It should be noted that most Arab countries became independent after World War II. With the onset of the Cold War, the superpowers were interested in bringing Arab countries into their orbit of influence, so they promoted the principle of sovereignty, thereby hoping to win the sympathy of the young states. As a result, not only the USSR, but also the USA actively contributed to the dismantling of the British and French colonial empires.

However, the process of decolonisation in reality did not mean the end of external interference or liberation from dependence. As the Cold War began, the Middle East region, with its strategic transit corridors and energy reserves, was too important to the security of the Western world to be left to the mercy of leftist forces, so one form of domination was replaced by another. Colonial dependence gave way to geopolitical clientelism under the superpowers. In exchange for loyalty and policies consistent with the interests of the patron power, Arab countries could count on diplomatic, economic, or even direct military support. Despite their professed commitment to the ideas of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was actively declared in the 1950s and1960s, not a single country in the region managed to maintain a neutral status. We must admit that the Arab countries, in turn, could manoeuvre in order to get more benefits from potential patrons. However, the essence did not change — they were not free to choose foreign, and often domestic policy.

In the 1970s, some unity of the Arab countries under the banner of pan-Arabism and their successful experience of using oil to defend their collective interests for a short period gave hope for change, but by the mid-1980s it became obvious that the Arab countries were not able to overcome their dependence on the West, neither economically nor militarily. The Western powers remained the main markets for oil and agricultural products, as well as suppliers of knowledge and technology. They also acted as guarantors of security for a number of Arab countries, which was clearly demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war.

In the 1990s, the Middle East found itself firmly dependent on the United States. Many experts, including Western ones, directly call this decade the period of American hegemony. The Arab countries found themselves embedded in various formal and informal pro-Western military alliances. Most of them, with the exception of the richest oil exporters, became dependent on the IMF and other international financial institutions controlled by the United States.

At the same time, for the Arab masses, who see themselves as the heirs of a great civilisation, Western domination was and remains a kind of national humiliation. Pro-Western nationalist regimes were rapidly losing popularity. The period of American hegemony resulted in the emergence of a large number of radical anti-Western and Islamist movements in the Middle East. A series of outright failures and miscalculations of the hegemon ended in a series of crises starting in the 2000s — in Palestine, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.

Gaza. Yemen. Epicentres of Pain. Feelings, Myths, and Memories in the Middle East
Vitaly Naumkin, Vasily Kuznetsov
Many developments that significantly impacted the destinies of the regional players, non-regional actors, and many people around the world have unfolded during the year that followed the publication of our paper titled “The Middle East and the Future of a Polycentric World” (February 2023).

What went wrong?

Both Arab and venerable Western authors agree that the main consequence of colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East is that even decades after the collapse of the colonial system, the region has not become one of the world’s centres of power, although it has the civilisational potential necessary for this. It is better to dwell in more detail on some aspects of external intervention in order to illustrate its complexity and the depth of the problems.

From the point of view of interstate relations, the Western powers left behind a very painful legacy. After all, the boundaries of mandated territories and emerging states were drawn in the interests of the colonial powers and did not take into account the realities on the ground. Thus, Greater Syria (the Levant) was divided into four politically and militarily weak entities: Lebanon, present-day Syria, Jordan and Palestine. Disagreements, contradictions and rivalries weakened the countries of the region.

The colonial powers left behind the potential not only for numerous territorial disputes, but also for the emergence of chronic tensions.

Examples include the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is now in its seventh decade, and the conflict in Western Sahara, which since 1976 has been the main reason for the confrontation between Algeria and Morocco.

In domestic politics, the legacy of colonial rule also makes itself felt. Even neighbouring countries that were under the control of the same European power could take different paths in their political development. An illustrative example is North Africa — the Maghreb. In Morocco, the French acted as saviours of the monarchy in the 1920s, which became the basis of a pro-Western regime. In Morocco’s neighbour Algeria, national identity and political culture were greatly influenced by the long and bloody war for independence from France.

The colonial powers often brought ethnic and religious minorities or individual clans/dynasties to power in the territories they controlled, which became a time bomb. This laid the foundation for a large number of internal conflicts on ethnic or religious grounds. The states of the so-called “fertile crescent” — Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, which are home to several different faiths and ethnic groups, turned out to be especially vulnerable.

It was important for the colonial powers to ensure control over the local population and the suppression of the dissatisfied, so institutional development often followed the path of forming armies and a loyal bureaucracy to the detriment of other important public and social institutions. Subsequently, this yielded coups and revolutions, as well as the fall of the liberal-nationalist regimes created by the Western powers.

The principle of the self-determination of nations, proclaimed after the First World War by the US President Woodrow Wilson, was applied to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but not to the Middle East. Therefore, the Arabs, especially outside the metropolitan elite, felt deceived. As a result, many countries in the region have experience in anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles for sovereignty. One of the consequences of this struggle was the significant role of the military in political life, since the army began to be seen as the main guarantor of not just sovereignty, but the very survival of young states.

The economic development of Arab countries during the period of colonial dependence and later on was subordinated to the interests of the metropolises. Therefore, in most cases, the economies of Arab countries turned out to be single-commodity, based either on the export of agricultural products, such as cotton, or on the export of mineral raw materials. It has not been possible to cope with this problem so far. Moreover, new challenges have arisen, particularly the gap between rich and poor Arab countries, preventing their unification.

What’s next?

As a result of intentional or accidental miscalculations and mistakes made at the stage of their creation, most Arab states have turned out to be politically fragile and militarily vulnerable in the post-colonial period, and from the point of view of their economic development and influence on global processes, they have actually remained part of the world periphery. A paradoxical situation arose when the majority of Arab countries condemned Western imperialism and sought to prevent violations of their sovereignty and external interference, but at the same time remained dependent on extra-regional forces or could not influence their regional policies, as was the case in 2003 with the US operation against Iraq.

The answer may be a movement towards strategic autonomy, which in the case of the Arab world should be expressed in overcoming some of the negative trends inherited from the colonial system, and in the transition from clientelism in the spirit of the Cold War to independently solving problems in order to maintain stability and security.

It can be argued that a window of opportunity is now opening for the Arab world that has not existed since the 1970s. This is facilitated by two trends — the weakening of Western powers against the background of the emergence of alternative centres of military, economic and technological power, as well as the emergence of new regional leaders in the Middle East itself.

The presence of alternative partners on a global scale makes it possible to diversify foreign policy, sources of weapons supplies, technology and investment. This enables countries in the Middle East region to pursue a more independent policy, for example, remaining neutral in cases where conflicts do not affect their security. In the future, there is a possibility that the economic links will be weakened through the formation of alternative international financial mechanisms, etc. The question of regional leadership is also not idle. Historical experience shows that Arab countries have managed to achieve results and defend their interests only under the condition of unity and mutual support. Currently, the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, relying on financial resources and their energy superpower status, are claiming the role of an Arab unifying centre. Moreover, they set themselves a very ambitious goal — to overcome weaknesses in economic and military terms and become a new pole in the coming multipolar world over the next decade.

However, one should not expect that the Arab countries that have achieved strategic autonomy will take revenge on the former colonial powers and imperialists. Rather, they will create something similar to a new non-aligned movement (without its formal trappings) and will be inclined to pursue a pragmatic balance and non-interference in confrontations between other global players, extracting affordable benefits from cooperation with everyone.

The Return of Diplomacy?
Ensuring Stability and Peace in the Middle East
Çağrı Erhan
Three intertwined fundamental problems can be considered the source of instability in the Middle East. These are the Palestine issue, the ambitions of non-regional actors in the region, and the activities of terrorist groups and non-state actors.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.