The Arab Spring was an implosion of long-term grievances against malfunctioning political regimes. Unfortunately, initial hope for dignity, honor, good governance and popular rule did not come close to paving the way for "democratic transitions."1 Instead, the overly optimistic popular movements precipitated a reactionary response, giving rise to counterrevolutionary forces that fought to either restore the status quo or impose particularistic geostrategic goals. The ensuing fight between status quo and change, even in the form that now focuses mainly on settling scores, will determine the contours of the emerging Middle East and North African (MENA)2 order.
This paper seeks to delineate the complex dynamics of state failure and regional and global geostrategic rivalry that have paved the road to the current disorder and to shed light on the incipient elements of a prospective order. While demographic pressures (the youth bulge) and issues related to infrastructure, economics, education and so forth are also critical for understanding the motivations of the actors, this paper will focus primarily on strategic and geopolitical considerations.
ELEMENTS OF TRANSITION
The Arab revolts, which started in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread in different ways to other MENA countries, have dramatically altered the geopolitical landscape. While early predictions revolved around the case for a peaceful and swift transition, the region is still in flux. The protests primarily ended in failure, resulting in destabilization and conflict, failed states and in many cases the prevalence of authoritarian rulers. Sectarian, ethnic, political and other considerations led to shifting alliances, rivalries and military interventions. The Syrian war exemplifies many of the regional issues: dozens of internal actors are vying for power within Syria alongside the regional and external actors fighting proxy wars and striving to protect their stakes in the broader region. Particularly obvious in this regard are sectarian and ethnic tensions and rivalries; the rising influence of political Islam — moderates, Salafis and jihadists — and the interests of the regional powers Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and external powers such as Russia and the United States. Since the Arab Spring, there have been debates about the "new Middle East,"3 with scholars referring to "a new Arab Cold War," "a struggle of Syria redux," or a "new Thirty Years' War" to refer to the dynamics in the region.4
In general, regional power and interest calculations are the main driving forces behind the policies and actions in MENA. Realist considerations have been a crucial driver of events following the early popular movements, which were either hijacked for political or ideological reasons or suppressed in the name of raison d'état. As Delacoura underlined, the Arab Spring has altered the region on the levels of ideology, sect and power politics, but the "main players' changing power calculations and competing regime and national interests"5 played a greater role in shaping the landscape of the Middle East. "[R]ealpolitik concerns, defined by regime and national interests, tend to trump ideological and sectarian considerations."6
There have been three main theoretical arguments on the turn of events following the initial spark in Tunisia. The first emphasizes regional power and interest calculations over ethnic, sectarian and national tensions centering on camps led by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The second underlines changing dynamics following the Arab Spring, such as the rise of non-state actors and their changing supporters and rivals. A third argument proposes alternative ways of understanding the identities and conflicts in the region, including the global power dynamics.
Along these lines, F. Gregory Gause identified the current situation in the Middle East as a "new Cold War" with Iran and Saudi Arabia at the forefront.7 He argued that the new Cold War shares important structural similarities with what Malcolm Kerr called the "Arab Cold War"8 of the 1950s and '60s:
The power of the major protagonists in the Arab Cold War was measured in their ability to affect domestic political struggles in neighboring states where weak regimes had trouble controlling their own societies and local players sought regional allies against their own domestic opponents. Non-state actors played major roles. The contending camps themselves were not always united, with tactical alliances crossing what appeared to be the lines of conflict. The great powers were important participants but not the drivers of events.9
As a Lebanese NGO director underlines, "Regionalism is becoming more important in the Middle East. As such, discussions are led more by regional powers than the countries in focus themselves. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey come to the fore as potential leaders. From an Arab perspective, Saudi Arabia comes to the fore as the only possible regional leader."10
In this framework, reaching a conclusion of an all-defining sectarian conflict following the Arab Spring sounds simplistic; both sides have sought regional allies across and beyond their sectarian identities. From a sectarian standpoint, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Saudi Arabia could have joined together in a grand Sunni coalition against Iran, but this has not been the case. Intra-sectarian rivalry barely trumped inter-sectarian concerns until the MB was ultimately written off as a major threat.11 "In the Gulf, while there is tension between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), there is an alliance of convenience between Saudi Arabia and the UAE."12 Thus, the "regional cold war can only be understood by appreciating the links between domestic conflicts, transnational affinities, and regional state ambitions."13 Overemphasis on sectarian and confessional concerns also overlooks other important regional factors, such as the role of Kurdish groups, which in broad terms have an ethnonationalist identity.
Cross-sectarian and cross-regional alliances have led to a dynamic realignment of strategic interests. While the Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia prioritized the ideological threat of moderate political Islam and confronted Turkish interests from Egypt to Libya and competed with it even in Syria, the fall of the MB and the rise of Iran have given way to realignment, especially after King Salman's debut in Saudi Arabia of what has been called a "Sunni coalition" against "Shia hegemony" in the region.14 The concerted efforts of Riyadh, Ankara and Doha, up to a point, rolled back the march of Iran in Syria and came to the brink of cornering Assad's forces in an Alawite enclave in Latakia through consolidating arms support to combative Sunni groups in Syria. Yet, neither bloc had a uniform and consistent structure, but varying degrees of commitment to the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. This, in a way, limited the geopolitical ambiguities among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and even between Iran and the Assad regime.
The loss of direction in geopolitics not only undermined core modern issues in the Arab world — political unity and the liberation of Arab lands including Palestine — but also brought deeper splits, such as the emergence of irredentism in opposition to the post-colonial state system. As a Tunisian politician observed, "The nuclear deal and U.S. disinterest in further engagement with the region leaves Iran as the most likely hegemon. Iran is regarded by many as the winner of the Arab Spring."15 This has inadvertently laid the groundwork for the growing salience of radical actors from the periphery such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Kurdish and Shiite militias, which came in to fill the vacuum created by the erosion of state and ideological authority. In that sense, fluidity has become the norm in MENA geopolitics, leaving regional order in a destructive cycle of security dilemmas among relevant actors without a definitive common good.
Paradoxically, the failure and weakness of all-encompassing state institutions, which Yousef and Cerami called "the original sin,"16 also created the backdrop for the rise of non-state actors, and politico-religious tensions have undermined the ultimate goal of security and stability in the region. According to an academic in Qatar, there is a historical and structural background for this problem: "The concept of nation-state was introduced to the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, adapted from European nation-states. However, it was perceived as either too small, because people saw themselves as part of the ummah, or too large for some religious or ethnic minorities. It took a lot of time for people to adjust to this new concept."17 The state order's inability to address and accommodate ethnic and sectarian questions ultimately brought in the spoilers, who made an unsubstantiated claim for sharing governmental authority. As a Lebanese diplomat noted,
The Arab Spring demonstrated that [a]state is not always the answer. Many countries in the region have weak and dysfunctional state institutions. Libya has some of the weakest institutions, many of which do not function. The proliferation of non-state actors has occurred for a reason. States cannot deliver basic needs and rights. However, despite the weakening of states and the rise of non-state actors, the idea of a nation-state is still there, and the state is still seen as the ultimate provider of security and stability in the region.18
In this sense, the emergence of non-state actors in failed states did not automatically result in the delegation of power but rather in broad co-optations by alternative power blocs, inflaming regional and global rivalries.
As a Qatari diplomat points out,
The rise of non-state actors in the region is a result of the disintegration of the state and the regional order. Although non-state actors are not primary but secondary actors, they are going to be there and have a role for a while. ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas are the most influential ones. Many people in the region think that ISIS is a result of American failure in Iraq. There is also a conviction that non-state actors are used by regional and international actors as proxies to promote their interests.19
From a geopolitical standpoint, the jihadists' fundamental internal debate on whether to fight the near enemy (local rulers) or the far enemy20 (U.S. and global powers) largely lost meaning as they created a situation whereby local and global powers joined hands to fight back, particularly after September 11. First, with the ensuing War on Terror (WoT), the coalition partners and the United States situated their forces in Muslim lands, which further eroded the jihadists' status. Second, the regional powers coalesced with the U.S.-led coalition against the jihadists, which also set the stage for further security dependence on external powers. This pragmatic choice to ward off the jihadi threat also undermined regional attempts to sever links with global power centers and set an independent path towards normalization in the post-Cold War era. Third, after the Arab Spring, the amalgamation of the sectarian and ethnic conflicts into broader civil wars heightened jihadism's confrontation with the near enemy (domestic rulers of Muslim countries such as Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia) and gained even further sectarian colors. And this time a third element was added to the fight: Iran and the Shiite militias. While the fight against jihadism gained international priority, Iran expanded its clout and legitimized its regional goals toward maximalist Shiite geopolitics.21
The unintended consequence of the WoT has been the emergence of al-Qaeda and its offshoots throughout MENA. Initially, the U.S.-led coalition succeeded in delegitimizing the jihadists' political goals and limiting their global networks, especially after the surge in Iraq. Yet, the helter-skelter U.S. withdrawal from Iraq combined with the devastating civil war next door in Syria paving the way for the reinvigoration of al-Qaeda elements. There is still a prevailing conviction that the United States will continue to be a major actor in the region and is the only one able to deliver security reassurance and economic power.22
The so-called Islamic State posed a new type of asymmetrical threat to the regional order with its claim to control territory and implement a peculiar interpretation of sharia as a revolutionary ideology for ruling the lands of Islam23 and fighting against "infidels and apostates."24 Moreover, it threatened global security with its presence in 30 countries,25 on top of its "lone wolf attacks," and the possibility of the return of tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined ISIS from all over the world. The U.S.-led coalition's strategy26 to counter these threats to a large extent stemmed ISIS's territorial and ideological march. Yet, it has still fallen short of implementing a comprehensive formula to address the root causes of the problem or plan for the Sunni population's re-integration into the new political formations. The rise of ISIS not only undermined state authority. It also gave further leeway to alternative non-state actors that rose to prominence in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. decision to co-opt the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and, albeit implicitly, the Shiite militias in Iraq added new complications to the quest for order that in different ways transgressed regional states' national interests.
Great-power dynamics also played a role in the turn of events and became increasingly entangled in the later stages of regional unraveling, as growing insecurity started having an impact on their national and global interests. As Anthony Cordesman described, a Great Game is unfolding in which the United States is facing competition from Russia and possibly China.27 While Washington appeared reluctant to get embroiled in the post-2011 course of events and initially preferred "leading from behind" in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the issues in Syria and Iraq transformed the way the United States competed with Iran, Russia and China. Thus, "[while] the U.S./Europe, Russia, and Iran — along with the Arab Southern Gulf states — may share a common interest in defeating ISIS/ISIL and Sunni Islamist extremists,... their other interests differ sharply and seem increasingly likely to do so on an enduring basis as they pursue their very different strategic interests."28
In this regard, the United States competed against Russian and Iranian resistance in Syria while it simultaneously sought common understanding with Iran against the Turkish and Arab case for power sharing in Iraq. Furthermore, the crisis in Ukraine has caused Russia to double its commitment to Middle Eastern conflicts and follow an ambiguous course of geostrategic confrontation and, albeit limited, counterterrorism cooperation. China and Japan are seen as the most influential Asian actors. They are in the region for energy and trade, with economic rather than political roles. As one observer put forward, "China has economic power but lacks diplomatic skills compared to Russia or Turkey."29 It was also noted during one interview that, despite China's growing engagement, their presence would not change the game in the region unless they engaged militarily. The takeaway for Asian countries is this: "only the countries that are willing to intervene militarily can control the game."30 This hybrid approach to international relations has been denoted by the term "frenem(ies),"31 a loosening of the border between friendship and animosity. This rather skeptical approach has contributed to the failed attempts to carve out a sustainable basis for regional security.
THE SELECTIVE SEARCH FOR ORDER
After the Arab Spring undid the basis of the regional state order and eroded the ideological roots of the Arab states — modernism, pan-Arabism, Westernism and Islamism — state authority has been further undermined by the repeated failure to address political, economic and social issues. Without the provision of public security, which had been the one consistent public good from state authorities in the post-colonial era, the remaining link between state elites and the people is likely to all but disappear. A Lebanese politician argues,
Arab crowds want security and stability, and this is seen as the primary reason why uprisings have relatively cooled down. This nevertheless does not mean that people want dictators. There is a general perception that dictators cannot control people like they did before. There is now a foundation towards democracy as a result of the uprisings. Democracy, social justice, economic justice, civil liberties are now engrained in Arab citizens' psyches.32
The fundamental question for the regional states boils down to enforcement of public order against the odds of growing social, economic and geopolitical risks. Therefore, while the Arab revolts initially aimed to override the case for security (police) states, the course of events has inadvertently led to a situation whereby the provision of security gained even further priority. This has become an inescapable reality even for relatively liberal states such as Turkey, which oscillated from an earlier quest for "balance between security and democracy (freedom)"33 to a traditional "security-first" approach.34
On top of perennial challenges such as education, unemployment, the gender gap and human security,35 regional-state authorities face growing threats against their internal stability. First, the irrelevance of boundaries in preventing migration, extremism, and terror led to further insecurity and undermined state authorities' attempts to maintain domestic order by isolating external influences. The states are currently under duress from the onslaught of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) and the growing sociocultural and resource challenges. Second, the Shiite-Sunni schism turned into a self-inflicted wound. Minority elements turned into potential elements of instability, and the resultant repressive measures further crowded out the possibility of integrating minority grievances into political regimes. Third, extremism not only posed a threat to public security, but also represented an ideological alternative to the modern states. Terrorism has become a widespread and quasi-legitimate tool for political ends, while global and regional powers have turned a blind eye to terrorist roots and activities of proxy groups.
Changing global economic balances also undercut state authorities' ability to implement traditional policies of clientelism and co-optation. With petrodollars in short supply and alternative methods of revenue creation frozen by the global recession, the region faces the prospect of continuing economic stagnation. The Saudi reaction of throwing $130 billion at its citizens to stifle the possibility of revolt, or providing Egypt with $20 billion of credit, is no longer an option. The oil-free states face tremendous challenges of unemployment and lack of public services. Recently, Egypt, one of the traditional economic powerhouses of the region, is showing signs of turning into a "failed economy"; hoarding and black-market practices are common, and Cairo is likely to sign an IMF bailout deal, even at the risk of domestic stability.36 In failed states such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the economy may not be a priority, but it is still a source of instability as poor economic conditions give rise to migration and radicalism. Without sufficient money and order, the regional outlook has been largely lost; the only priority for states is to keep the fire away from home while the neighborhood descends deeper into crisis.
Looking inward has also been the approach of global and regional powers. In the resultant race for security, the regional and global geopolitical rivalry has been defined by strategies to limit the spillover of insecurity to domestic realms and to extend clout into the uncontrolled areas ruled by militias and non-state actors. There have been growing concerns about the internationalization of regional disputes, with occasional ISIS attacks and a seemingly unstoppable human flow into Western cities.
On that note, the U.S. quest for retrenchment collided with the growing ISIS threat, reviving the fears of jihadist attacks against the United States and its European allies. After prioritizing the fight against ISIS, the United States gradually increased its security presence in the conflict zones, first in Iraq and then in Syria, and to a lesser extent participated in counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Libya. Russia also based its military presence in Syria on domestic concerns — the possible return of jihadist (Russian-Caucasian) fighters to the country — while there was surely an underlying motive of countering Western interests and creating a new geostrategic balance against Western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. However, Russian moves have not found a welcoming audience: "Russia has no appealing power in the region. It is not a superpower, cannot protect states, and cannot deliver like the U.S."37 With respect to Russia's involvement in Syria, it is seen as being stuck in the conflict and likely to become exhausted over the long-term.38 Iran fought back against Sunni groups in line with a doctrine of outward defense — mainly aimed at keeping its access to the Mediterranean open and averting the fall of its protégées from Damascus to Baghdad, and to a lesser extent in Beirut and Sanaa. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies doubled down, this time in Yemen and Syria, after minimizing Iranian encroachments in Bahrain and the ideological threat of the MB in Egypt and Libya.
On Turkey's role, a Lebanese academic pointed out,
Although Turkey had been seen as a model for the region before 2011, the increasing authoritarianism in the country in recent years has negatively affected its image. For instance, in the elections in Tunisia, Turkey was given as an example; however, now it is not seen as such. Turkey should change its foreign policy and try to correct its mistakes, particularly vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis.39
Turkey chose a layered approach after backpedaling on its broader goal of regional integration. In order to maintain its organic link with the Arab world, Turkey first actively supported proxy groups' control across its borders and then strived to avert the possibility of "greater Kurdistan." This patchy picture overall defined the absence of a comprehensive approach to address the regional disorder and mooted the case for fighting its root causes.
Another distinctive quality of the post-2011 geostrategic competition has been the use of proxies and a layered approach to war. The major state actors employed proxies and ideologically like-minded paramilitaries to create a favorable balance on the battlefield to reach their ulterior geopolitical goals. This was first promoted by the U.S.-led coalition in the Libyan operation through its strategy of "leading from behind." As a Lebanese politician pointed out,
The war in Yemen is a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Yemen is considered almost as a war of prestige and survival for Gulf countries. There is a conviction that if the Gulf loses Yemen to Iran, it will be their second loss after Iraq. Yemen is seen as more crucial since it shares more geography with the Gulf.40
In addition, the urgency of the situation in the Syrian and Iraqi crises, maximized by the emergence of ISIS, compelled the U.S. leadership to bring in aerial and command support while coordinating with paramilitary forces such as the Syrian rebels, PYD, Kurdish peshmerga or Shiite militias. This minimal boots-on-the-ground approach, which reduced the U.S. and Russian presence to an advisory and command role, also points to the defining elements of the post-conflict settlement, whereby the paramilitary groups act with the expectation of being given their share of spoils. This newfound role has also increased the autonomy of non-state actors vis-à-vis state authorities in territories under their de facto control.
IN SEARCH OF A NEW ORDER
As Kaplan suggested, "In geopolitics the past never dies, and there is no modern world."41 There are ongoing historical continuities in MENA that have given rise not only to Turkish-Iranian-Arab competition for leadership but also reignited great-power dynamics to usher in an era of multipolarity — "no one's world."42
From the beginning, the Arab Spring represented an interregnum, a transition to a prospective new order in the Middle East.43 After early trials and "shock therapy" through instantaneous regime changes, the later impetus for resistance to change set the stage for an incremental breakdown of the main pillars of the anciens régimes. The authoritarian hold of the post-colonial Arab regimes on the population's allegiance, to ensure public order, has given way to, at best, temporary and fragile arrangements to fend off the destabilizing threat of the Arab spillover. In the worst cases, these measures have engendered civil-war conditions, not only undermining national states but engendering transnational diffusion of disorder.
The agendas of the current political systems in MENA, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and even more stable countries such as Iran and Turkey, are defined by suffocating security concerns. This single focus, however, does not negate the need to face the growing pile of political, economic and social problems.
Intra-Arab solutions to problems are sensed as too difficult, since Arab states are in deep crisis themselves. Arab countries have failed to manage the Syria conflict since it is too complex, there are too many actors, and the state has almost collapsed. Arab states do not have experience dealing with such complex issues.44
One of the most remarkable results of the Arab disorder has been the loss of direction for reform and the erosion of possible models for transformation. The region lacks a model to emulate, either in the form of a political or economic system that could absorb the crippling shock of complex security threats and respond to national and regional demands and grievances.
Moving away from current challenges, the Arab Spring has also produced its own momentum towards a new order that would have to take into account the interests of non-state actors and discontented masses, beyond the dynamics of the international balance of power. Refugees and IDPs also have become a massive social entity in different countries, with possible political and geostrategic consequences affecting even European political systems, as well as an overall belief in the global liberal order. Stifling an urge to isolate the region from external influences, local political elites paradoxically started losing one firewall after another against the flow of people.45 Regional conflicts not only attracted foreign fighters from across the globe, they also generated cases in which multidirectional interventions overrode national authority. The xenophobic and largely Islamophobic political discourse, disseminating from Central Europe to the United Kingdom and the United States, negated the idea of peaceful coexistence with Islam and undermined the power of the West to transform other societies.
Against all odds, the MENA region is much in need of a peace settlement that would define the basis of a new order. Yet this is far from probable, given that the stakeholders are still on a collision course to settle geostrategic scores. There are three ongoing processes that would set the tone for the regional balance of power and might encourage the parties to accommodate a normative regional order.
First, the fight against ISIS and other jihadist groups is set as a consequential task, strategized to pave the way for discussing the broad contours of prospective political regimes. Yet the Obama administration's strategy to "degrade and destroy" ISIS has created further complications. While political transitions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya were sidelined, geostrategic calculations entered the fray to obstruct the road to possible transitions in these countries. This deepened the wound of civil wars and exacerbated sectarian and geopolitical rivalries.
Second, the regional powers failed to restrict the destructive spillover of the geostrategic rivalry, which in the end made its way into the domestic arena. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have seen sectarian, ethno-nationalist, and extremist causes unraveling their national political balances, while Iran lost a historical opportunity to peacefully reenter the global order, again becoming further embroiled in security dilemmas.46 Moreover, the relations between these three regional powerhouses were also damaged and turned into a zero-sum equation despite earlier attempts to find common ground. At another level, in the course of events after the Arab Spring, Turkey's and Saudi Arabia's international standing was harmed for different reasons. While Turkey and Saudi Arabia reacted out of broad frustration with Western inaction, the Western response has been to condemn their domestic and regional policies, mostly via unofficial commentary but also from time to time in official capacity.47 Iran felt empowered, especially after the nuclear deal and geostrategic victories from Baghdad to Damascus and Sanaa, but it still fell short of establishing a long-term security order in the region.
Third, following the initial military expedition in Libya, Russian activism to compensate for the U.S. role carried enough weight to alter foreign-policy alignments in MENA. As a result, the United States started accepting Russia as its prime interlocutor in shaping the post-Arab Spring MENA region. This not only undermined the possible positive contribution of regional powers; it also brought back the Cold War dynamics of great-power competition for allies, proxies and territorial concessions. Russia thus moved into Syria to set up a barrier against possible U.S.-backed attempts at regime change, even if under the pretext of fighting ISIS. The Russian ability to empower the Assad regime and roll back the Syrian opposition changed the regional calculus, which in turn compelled regional actors such as Turkey and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia to unwillingly get on board and emulate Russian strategies and create space for their respective national goals. With Russia's return to the Middle East, regional leaderships found a new pillar for security, weaponry and political dialogue, even if a Russian economic downturn disabled financial aid for regional interlocutors. Russia's presence in MENA also served broader Russian interests in maintaining its monopoly in European energy markets by decoupling Iranian, Iraqi and, more broadly, Eastern Mediterranean access. The Obama administration seemed reluctant to confront Russia, having a pronounced distaste for new foreign-policy adventures.48
Currently, the fight against ISIS from Mosul to Raqqa is carried out under the command authority of the United States, which chose to co-opt the Iraqi army, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) peshmerga, and Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, as well as the PYD-Arab coalition of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria. Russia is still engaged in the aerial fight supposedly against jihadist groups but mainly targets the Syrian rebels in order to consolidate Assad's political position. Iran, Hezbollah and various Shiite militias also fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Assad's forces and aim to prevent the Sunnis' march to Damascus. Turkey was late to enter this military equation on the ground, engaging through a cross-border operation under the pretext of fighting against ISIS but not hiding its main objective of preventing the formation of a PYD/PKK-led "Kurdish corridor" on its border with Syria. The Syrian rebels, backed mainly by Turkey, also have made inroads towards claiming an ISIS-free zone between Jarablus and Menbij, with limited results in changing the overall Syrian strategic landscape.
The desired effects of the Arab Spring have not bypassed these states completely. There is now an ingrained mindset for further freedom, democracy and civil rights, particularly among the youth. However, the tide of change is still minimal. There is a trend towards a continuation of monarchy, with the extended participation of the people, and there are municipal elections in some countries now, while women are given new but limited roles.
Although on the geostrategic back burner, the crises in Yemen and Libya have also seen broader geostrategic moves by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against Iranian-backed Houthis in the former case and UAE-Egyptian aerial bombardment against jihadist elements in the latter. While ISIS is considered dangerous, it is not a priority for all of the Gulf states; the Iranian threat is much more urgent.49 Saudi-led Gulf activism has defined regime survival and countering Iran as primary concerns but has not offered much in terms of addressing the wider problems of the region. According to a Lebanese academic, "There is a consensus in the Middle East that the new Gulf role has been a brief moment and is unsustainable as a result of declining oil prices, a depleting surplus, the lack of tangible economic reforms, and the Yemeni crisis."50
Geostrategic bricklaying is conveying certain hints about the defining elements of the prospective MENA order. First, the regional order defined by confrontation between pro- and anti-Western actors vying for power has finally come to an end. With American retrenchment, regional foreign-policy alignments turned selective and transactional. Therefore, a new approach prevails among the relevant actors, involving selective cooperation and competition. Second, the erosion of state authority not only undermined the state order but also widened the scope of competition. As a result, regional and global powers co-opted various non-state actors to expand their clout. This in turn harmed bilateral relations and foreign-policy alignments. Even failed states such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen are far from adopting a single foreign-policy orientation, and they will have to balance their alignments among different geostrategic competitors. Third, the basis for regional security, predicated on territorial provision by national authorities, became irrelevant. The resultant moves to repair this security deficit further embroiled regional states in security competition and rendered them even more insecure because of transborder and transnational spillover. Fourth, Arab unity has become a lost cause and disunity and more fragmentation a given, with non-state actors vying for power and territory.
Fifth, universal ideologies are becoming irrelevant, while liberal democracy has turned into a pipe dream. Baathism is an anachronism, having lost the challenge of ensuring the coexistence of Alawites, Druzes, Kurds and Sunni and Shiite groups, even if the Assad regime survives the civil war. Iranian influence in Baghdad and Basra might set the scene for a kind of "Islamic Republic" in Iraq, but it would still need to settle the doctrinal differences between the Najaf and Qom seminaries and a major disagreement on the primacy of the Islamic jurist, velayat-e faqih. Sixth, there is a search going on for new political entities in the region. Disenfranchised Sunni groups would ultimately ask for an Islamic political order, yet it would still need global powers' recognition for international legitimacy and might face the ultimate fate of the MB in Egypt and elsewhere: exclusion and delegitimation. The Kurds are vying for independence or autonomy but still need to accommodate the concerns of regional powers, above all Turkey, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Iraq and Syria. Salafism, which struggles to overcome international condemnation as well as the destructive split with Shiism, has been a victim of MENA disorder. Last, there is the inevitable need to define a common good for the prospective regional order, even if the recognition of the need itself is still lacking. This would set a normative base for comprehensive security and stability. Yet, conflicting claims to the right to set the defining elements of the regional order, rather than paving the way to common ground, have become the ulterior motive for ongoing geostrategic rivalries.
1 This was initially the core question among Western policy makers, whereby the U.S. government and other proponents of the Arab Spring foresaw a democratic transition (interchanged with orderly and peaceful transition) as the ultimate end result of a series of Arab revolts. See "Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa," May 19, 2011, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/19/remarks-presiden….
2 The term MENA is a recent political formulation that was partly born out of the need to understand the common causes of the Arab revolts in North Africa and the Middle East, which surely influenced each other. A similar formulation was the "Greater Middle East," which included Afghanistan and Pakistan to delineate the battlefield of the War on Terror after September 11.
3 Paul Danahar, The New Middle East: The World after the Arab Spring (Bloomsbury Press, 2013).
4 Morten Valbjorn, "International Relations Theory and the New Middle East: Three Levels of a Debate," POMEPS Studies 16 (2015). He mentions the following literature related to these categorizations: Geneive Abdo, "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide," Brookings Institution Saban Center Analysis Paper, No. 29, (April 2013); some have made comparisons to the European Thirty-Years War, e.g., Richard Haas, "The New Thirty Years' War," Project Syndicate. July 21, 2014; and some have made analogies to the 1950-60s Arab Cold War and the "Struggle for Syria," e.g., Nabeel A. Khoury, "The Arab Cold War Revisited: Regional Impact of the Arab Uprising," Middle East Policy 20, no. 2 (2013): 73-87; Marc Lynch, ed., "Arab Cold War," in Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (Public Affairs, 2013); Curtis Ryan, "The New Arab Cold War and the Struggle for Syria," Middle East Report, no. 262 (2012): 28-31; and Eyal Zisser, "The 'Struggle for Syria': Return to the Past?" Mediterranean Politics 17, no. 1 (2012): 105-10."
5 Katerina Delacoura, "The Arab Uprisings Two Years On: Ideology, Sectarianism and the Changing Balance of Power in the Middle East," Insight Turkey 15, no.1 (2013): 76. See also Curtis R. Ryan, "Regime Security and Shifting Alliances in the Middle East," POMEPS Studies 16 (2015), in which he argues that regime security is the driving force behind politics of the region.
6 Delacoura, 83.
7 Saudi Arabia-Iran competition is also emphasized by Bassel F. Salloukh. Salloukh argues that "the Arab uprisings intensified this geopolitical contest and spread it to Syria. The sectarianisation of the region's geopolitical battles, and the instrumental use of some of the uprisings for geopolitical ends, has hardened sectarian sentiments across the region, complicated post-authoritarian democratic transitions and…in Syria's case, transformed its popular uprising into a veritable civil war." See Bassel F. Salloukh, "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East," International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 48, no. 2 (2013): 32.
8 Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abdal-Nasir and His Rivals (Oxford University Press, 1971).
9 F. Gregory Gause III, "Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War," Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, No.11 (July 2014): 1.
10 Confidential interview with a Lebanese NGO director, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
11 Ibid., 16.
12 Confidential interview with a Qatari academic, Doha, October 10-14, 2016.
13 Gause, 1.
14 Ofir Haivry, "Shifting Alliances in the Middle East," Commentary 138, no. 3 (2014): 29.
15 Confidential interview with a Tunisian politician, Tunisia, October 22-27, 2016.
16 Amr Yousef and Joseph R. Cerami, The Arab Spring and the Geopolitics of the Middle East: Emerging Security Threats and Revolutionary Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
17 Confidential interview with Qatari academics, Doha, October 10-14, 2016.
18 Confidential interview with a Lebanese diplomat, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
19 Confidential interview with a Qatari diplomat, Doha, October 10-14, 2016.
20 Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global? (Cambridge University Press, 2005).
21 Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future (Norton, 2006).
22 Confidential interview with a Lebanese diplomat, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016; confidential interview with a Qatari diplomat, Doha, October 10-14, 2016.
23 For the formative debates of ISIS, see Jessica Stern and J. M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (HarperCollins Publishers, 2015).
24 "What Is 'Islamic State'?," BBC, December 2, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29052144.
25 "The Mystery of ISIS," New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/08/13/mystery-isis.
26 See, "FACT SHEET: The Administration's Strategy to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Updated FY 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations Request," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, November 7, 2014, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/07/fact-sheet-admin….
27 Anthony H. Cordesman, "The New "Great Game" in the Middle East: Looking beyond the "Islamic State" and Iraq," CSIS, 2014, p.1.
28 Ibid., 9.
29 Confidential interview with Qatari academics, Doha, October 10-14, 2016.
30 Confidential interview with Tunisian NGO personnel, October 25-29, 2016.
31 "Obama Says Egypt Neither Enemy Nor Friend," ABC News, September 31, 2012.
32 Confidential interview with a former Tunisian politician, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
33 Ahmet Davutoglu, "Turkey's Zero-Problems Policy," Foreign Policy, May 20, 2010, http://foreignpolicy.com/2010/05/20/turkeys-zero-problems-foreign-polic….
34 Metin Gurcan, "Turkey's New 'Erdogan Doctrine,'" Al-Monitor, November 4, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/11/turkey-wants-use-its-….
35 See Arab Human Development Reports, http://www.arab-hdr.org.
36 "Hoarding Sugar in Egypt? That Can Get You Jailed," Washington Post, October 30, 2016.
37 Confidential interview with Lebanese academics, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
38 Confidential interview with a former Tunisian politician, October 25-29, 2016.
39 Confidential interview with a Lebanese academic, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
40 Confidential interview with a Tunisian academic, October 25-29, 2016; confidential interview with a Lebanese politician, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
41 Robert D.Kaplan, "Old World Order," Time, March 31, 2014, 30-35.
42 Charles Kupchan, No One's World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Oxford University Press, 2012); and Ian Bremmer, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (Portfolio/Penguin, 2012).
43 Danahar, The New Middle East.
44 Confidential interview with Tunisian NGO personnel, October 25-29, 2016.
45 Bulent Aras and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, "State, Region and Order: Geopolitics of the Arab Spring," Third World Quarterly 37, no.12 (December 2016): 2259-2273.
46 Bulent Aras and Emirhan Yorulmazlar, "Turkey and Iran Relations: A Long-Term Perspective," Center for American Progress, July 11, 2016, https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/07081708/Tu….
47 "Biden Blames U.S. Allies in the Middle East for the Rise of ISIS," Russia Today, October 3, 2014, https://www.rt.com/news/192880-biden-isis-us-allies.
48 Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Obama Doctrine," Atlantic Monthly 317, no.3 (April 2016): 70-90.
49 Confidential interview with a Qatari academic, Doha, October 11-14, 2016; confidential interview with a Tunisian politician, October 25-29, 2016.
50 Confidential interview with a Lebanese academic, Beirut, October 22-27, 2016.
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