Transformation in the Middle East Amid Global Change

Russia and China may be better placed to play a more active role in the Middle East by intervening (in a positive way) in the crises gripping a number of countries in the region. Both nations enjoy long-standing friendly relations with the Arabs. But Moscow and Beijing must be clear about the meaning and consequences of the Arab Spring so as to steer the changes underway on their southern borders in the right direction.

To the participants of the Valdai Discussion Club Middle East section’s conference “Transformation in the Arab World and Russia’s Interests” . 

“Unbiased” historians, prominent researchers, professional diplomats and anyone else who analyzes the consequences of the Arab Spring will most likely agree that 2011 was “a year of deep change” which “laid the foundation for the next stage of the Middle East's history.” The beginning of 2011 was a turning point for an uncontrollable stream of random events, a powerful political earthquake that took down seemingly impregnable fortresses.

The Arab Spring swept away obsolete political regimes, disrupting the fragile balance of forces in the region, putting an end to the parity of power formula that was based only on predictions, and altering the established situation and the typical set of features that characterized the region. These changes gave rise to the development of a more complex geopolitical situation and painted an entirely new picture, which has made an analysis of the situation even more difficult.

The best way to describe that transitional period that was made possible through the actions of national patriotic forces, who realized their potential amid growing tensions and in an increasingly complicated international environment, would be to say that “everything is currently up in the air in the Middle East.” The processes that are underway there are being stimulated by the internal dynamics of events that are becoming uncontrollable. Concerns about these events are fuelled by external contradictions, the fragile regional balance, the different interests of local groups which explain their actions by what we regard as excessive caution, as well as the influence of other short-term interests.

On the other hand, there has been a group of active regional players in the Middle East (within its expanded borders) who have been swapping places in a coordinated manner for the past 30 years. They fought each other for power directly or indirectly, using both the carrot and the stick and ultimately turning the Middle East into a stage in which various forces have been trying to fill the vacuum while at the same time strengthening their influence in the context of larger international change.

In the past 30 years, such active regional powers as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel have formed regional centers of power that have been vying for domination until a powerful triangle with three unequal and constantly shifting sides developed in the region. As one of the triangle’s sides grew stronger, the other sides became weaker. These interchangeable processes were influenced either exclusively by internal forces (Iran and Turkey), or by regional powers that enjoyed unlimited assistance from key international players (Israel). In the meantime, internal factors led to stagnation and ultimately to the January revolt in Egypt. Saudi Arabia was taking unprecedented measures to strengthen its standing as the key regional power, stimulating the work of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG), increasing the council’s membership and thereby strengthening its own position.

The global situation in recent decades has favored deep change. The Arab countries lost their strong and competitive ally, the Soviet Union, the dissolution of which left the United States as the only superpower in the world. Washington strengthened its military presence in the Middle East, opening a new chapter of its domination in the region, which is now described as the Broader Middle East and includes countries from Afghanistan to Africa north of the Sahara. The United States has unleashed one war after another against al Qaeda, the Taliban, international terrorism and Saddam Hussein.

The country that has benefited the most from these changes on the international stage was Israel, which has strengthened its ties with the United States and has used the fight against terrorism to expand its own campaign of terror against the Palestinians. Under that pretext, it cut short the peace process, which had barely gotten off the ground again, and continued building illegal settlements and confiscating land, trampling the basic rights of the true owners of that land: the Palestinians. After that, Israel launched large-scale and barbarous aggression against the Gaza Strip in addition to its war against the West Bank, resuming its occupation of Palestinian cities, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian authorities and reviving the old occupation order.

That situation underscored the importance of the Arab Spring revolts in an area that politically was like desert islands, isolated from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, democratic processes were growing stronger in the world, spreading such values as freedom, pluralism and openness, and overthrowing totalitarian and authoritarian regimes in countries of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Latin America. The Arab world was the sole exception to that rule, an impenetrable fortress that remained immune to the winds of change for a quarter century, which was a period of reforms, progress and achievements in many spheres.

The first peaceful revolution started in Tunisia and came as a surprise even to its participants. And then the wave rolled into Egypt, which set an example for other countries and inspired them to fight. After Egypt, the revolutionary spark ignited Libya, Yemen and Syria. Public unrest there was more akin to revolts or revolutions, and quickly achieved the result that had seemed impossible before.

Even as we wait to see the outcome of the Arab Spring, it can be said that the situation in the region has changed irreversibly. The current situation is fundamentally different from what it was a year ago. The plans of many forces that have been affected by that deep historical change did not materialize. This has all happened in one of the world’s most explosive regions, where international attention is focused, and which is the point of intersection of the interests of many players.

Throughout its history, the Middle East has been a region of conflict and clashing ambitions, a network of mercenary interests of various powers and a scene of numerous hostilities.

New realities in the Arab world have unleashed new, previously dormant forces and put an end to the long era of despotic regimes where power was hereditary. These realities have also helped to spread values such as freedom, justice, participation in public life, the introduction of the principle of rotation at all levels of government, the creation of a civil society, independent mass media and other political cultural phenomena that were not available in countries known as “republics of silence” or “kingdoms of fear.”

The question is how these drastic changes in the Arab world have affected the balance of forces in the region? What are the long-term consequences of these changes within the context of the current global political situation? Who has won and who has lost out in the wake of these changes, whose progress is still being played out? Have these changes fueled tensions in the region even further? Have they pushed the world to the brink of war or, conversely, pulled it away from the edge of the abyss? Finally, in light of the above, how will these changes, whose end result is still unknown, affect the Arab-Israeli conflict?

In order to better understand the broader historical context, take in the changing situation and assess its key elements, we must consider these unprecedented events within a wider regional context and re-analyze them from the perspective of the international situation which is likely to continue changing for an indefinite period into the future. In this sense, the Arab Spring is one of the prerequisites for the important, albeit incomplete, changes that may take place in an unstable global political arena.

Before returning to what we defined earlier as a “triangle of the most active regional forces” in the Middle East – by triangle we mean Iran, Turkey and Israel – we should mention one of the earliest and most important consequences of the Arab Spring. That is the refusal to use acts of terror which had long been in use in the Middle East. Terrorism practically became a trademark of the Palestinian national liberation movement, which was replaced by an Islamic youth liberal alternative characterized by moderation and pragmatism. This alternative was designed to act as a “peaceful force of unprecedented changes.”

So with the emergence of the Arab Spring, which succeeded in overcoming the chronic problems of the previous historical period, including terrorism, the extremist forces cannot find a place among the millions of young people coming from the world of modern technology, who rose up against degrading practices and showed their indignation with the politics of the despotic regimes in their countries. They included representatives of democratic forces, men, women, civil society leaders, prominent public figures, lawyers, NGO activists and party activists. All of them decided to sever ties with their hated past and lead the way in building the next stage of history in the Middle East.

As a key regional power, Iran has attempted to lead the popular revolutionary movement and use it to its own advantage. However, this bid failed to materialize once the Arab Spring movement reached Syria. Iran sided with the criminal regime of Bashar Al-Asad, not the insurgents.

Turkey has continued doing everything it can to increase its political dividends and to extract maximum benefit from the situation. Initially, Ankara reacted positively to the events of the Arab Spring. It pursued a policy of help and solidarity with the insurgents, which was intended to strengthen its influence in the region as a moderate and stabilizing force. Turkey's policy of moderate Islam was supposed to be a role model for the forces participating in the popular uprisings in the Arab countries, including Islamist forces inspired by the Justice and Development Party. As a result, the role of the Islamists in the current popular uprisings has increased markedly.

Israel, as a regional player, is more affected than any other country by the consequences of the profound changes in the Middle East, since many of these uprisings directly affect Israel either geographically or politically. Israel continually ignored the long-term prospects of these changes and their huge impact on both above-mentioned aspects of the Middle East conflict and on the protesters. As a result, nothing is left of the peace process except for its name. The Jewish state convinced itself that these changes posed no risk to its security.

In brief, Israel’s policy with regard to the Arab revolutions boils down to it trying to show that these events have nothing to do with Israel. At least, that is how things were during the revolution in Tunisia. However, when the Arab Spring moved on to Egypt, the Israeli leaders started getting concerned, seeing in the Egyptian uprising sparks of a fire that could spread to Israel and undermine the strategic basis of its policy which it has pursued for 25 years. This concern made the Israeli government appeal to the United States for help to prevent the collapse of one of the foundations of the Middle Eastern system, which took shape after the signing of the Camp David agreements in 1979, and help prevent the destruction of the geostrategic foundation underlying Israeli foreign policy, which opposes a just and comprehensive peace in the region.

However, it should be noted that Israel has been in a state of disarray during the relatively short period of the Arab Spring. Despite its great strength and international influence, Israel has been unable to influence the events in the Arab world that have come close to the walls of its impregnable fortress. Following the collapse of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the revolutionary wave rolled over the entire Middle East and reached Syria. Historically, given its geographical location, events in Syria, have always had a strong influence on all its neighboring countries, including Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has been surprisingly indifferent to the Arab Spring, which foreshadowed profound changes in the Middle East.

Faced with these unforeseen changes, Israel has focused on the future of its peace with Egypt and on how to preserve the current state of affairs. Israel apparently has decided to bide its time until there is greater clarity, as numerous scenarios are possible at this point. It has concentrated on how to prevent the Egyptian revolution from influencing the bilateral peace agreement and to preserve diplomatic relations with Egypt. The Israeli leaders have maintained intensive contacts with the United States, with the result that Egypt’s Supreme Military Council and Islamist parties have expressed their commitment to uphold that historic agreement – at least for the foreseeable future.

But this wait-and-see tactic has prompted the ruling element in Israel to concentrate on matters of secondary importance. Instead of using this opportunity to get the peace process back on track, they have complained of gas leaks from a repeatedly sabotaged Egyptian pipeline, voiced fears over the potential proliferation of terrorism on the Sinai Peninsula, urged measures against Libyan weapons turning up in Gaza, and the like. At the same time they have been paying lip service to the need for a peace agreement with the Palestinian people. In reality, however, steps have been taken to alter the configuration of our territories and calling into question the status of Jerusalem. They continue to build new illegal settlements. They have been blatantly trampling on our rights, committing outrages, making arrests, and sealing off the West Bank and Gaza.

The history of the Middle East is riddled with missed opportunities and failed diplomatic initiatives. Regrettably, we are about to miss a new opportunity due to Israel’s usual obstinacy and subterfuge. On top of that, Western countries are concerned with the ongoing financial crisis and upcoming presidential elections, as well as other things, such as the Iranian nuclear program, the possible blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, the dramatic events in Syria, and other crises that have a negative impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict (which has been growing from generation to generation) and divert the world’s attention from the search for ways to settle it.

One of the most important consequences of the Arab Spring is that it has put an end to decades-long polarization of political views in the Arab world. It was a period of differences and theoretical debates. But the opposing camps – the Egypt-based “moderate camp” and the “resistance camp” – have ceased to exist, which became especially clear now that the Syrian protests have set off a real war and Iran is teetering on the verge of new sanctions.

Thus, we can assume that the current changes in the Middle East, as well as challenges and threats that will confront the region in the future, represent a transitional phase that poses more questions than it gives answers. Absolutely unpredictable things may happen here in the future. We don’t know how events will unfold in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, or what consequences the Syrian crisis will entail. Israel has been threatening to launch a new incursion in Gaza and to unleash a fresh war in the region. The interests of many forces are intertwined in Syria, something that could trigger an escalation of the armed conflict and a regional war. The slightest misunderstanding or miscalculation could trigger war in the region.

Proceeding from the above, we can conclude that the situation in the Middle East has become even more complicated, stirring up dark premonitions. The United States has turned away from the Middle East and focused on Southeast Asia. Its policy has seen a marked change, particularly after the discouraging developments in Iraq and, to a certain extent, in Afghanistan. Europe is consumed by the euro and debt crisis, as well as by the threat of losing access to Mideast oil supplies – and this on the eve of upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in several European countries.

At the same time, Russia and China may be better placed to play a more active role in the Middle East by intervening (in a positive way) in the crises gripping a number of countries in the region. Both nations enjoy long-standing friendly relations with the Arabs. But Moscow and Beijing must be clear about the meaning and consequences of the Arab Spring so as to steer the changes underway on their southern borders in the right direction. They should play a more effective role in the search for a just and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which must allow the Palestinian people to exercise their legitimate national rights – first and foremost, the right to return to its homeland, the right to self-determination, and the right to create an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. 

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