In their collaborative new work, Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar Marina Ottaway and her husband, David Ottaway, the Washington Post’s former Middle East correspondent, provide an insightful and at times quite personal account of developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) from the Arab Spring uprisings to the present day. Their thorough and well-written account focuses on “four separate worlds with different characteristics, concerns and distinct dynamics”: the Levant, the Gulf countries, Egypt and the Maghreb. The work’s dedication foreshadows the Ottaways’ approach: “To Jamal Khashoggi and others like him fighting for a freer Middle East.” As this suggests, the authors come to their subject matter convinced that those with deep experience, expertise and personal ties in the region should advocate for positive change. Their book is an unblinking assessment of the challenges facing the region, along with prescriptions for its future.
In setting the historical backdrop, the Ottaways dismiss the false narrative that the “uprisings of 2011 were aspiring democratic revolutions that failed” (p. 2). However, while they did not presage democratic developments, the uprisings have had a lasting impact, and it is important to recognize the differences in this impact among the four parts of the Arab region, a theme that dominates the discussion to come.
As they lay out their assessment, the authors provide a comprehensive overview of recent events that are familiar to students of the region. Their value-added is to challenge overgeneralizations about similar events in different sub-regions, as well as to connect the dots among disparate developments that are, in fact, intertwined. The authors anchor their narrative of the modern history of the region with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the post-World War II period of decolonization. They go on to cite the failure of pan-Arabism and the stultifying post-colonial legacy of Arab socialism, and attribute to the Arab Spring uprisings a comparable impact.
The uprisings, they note, led to counterrevolutions and, more tragically, civil wars. They also “sprung wide open ethnic, tribal and religious fissures in Arab society long suppressed by authoritarian rulers and police states. … The old Arab order was gone.” Notably, in the Ottaways’ view, “the idea that there is one Arab world with common characteristics, always fictitious, has become completely untenable” (pp. 8-9).
The authors proceed to describe the factors in the region’s unraveling: domestic turmoil invited meddling by foreign states; peaceful protests turned violent; ISIS and other extremist factions arose; and Iran expanded its malign activities in the Arab countries. Noting that “the element of surprise” had played to the benefit of the early uprisings (in Tunisia and Egypt leaders were deposed quickly, before effective state opposition could coalesce), as the uprisings spread, “regimes … were quicker to react and more cunning and ruthless in their responses.” Fear of Islamism began to take hold, and “the division between Sunnis and Shias replaced the citizens-versus-government dynamic with one of sectarian strife,” blunting the protests (pp. 16-17). The authors sum up the consequences of the uprisings as three new political developments: “the internationalization of domestic politics; the emergence of Islamists as major players; … and the enhancement of sectarianism” (p. 28).
To answer the question “Why the Arab Spring?” the authors consider –– but dismiss –– the usual explanations: “the artificiality of many Arab states and the arbitrariness of their borders”; “the absence of democracy;” “deficits in education and in women’s empowerment”; “poor economic and social conditions”; “the youth bulge”; “high youth unemployment”; and “a crumbling housing infrastructure” (pp. 32-39). Rather, they cite an absence of “‘a state project,’ a sense of national identity and purpose,” and, crucially, agency: “Conditions do not act; people and organizations do” (p. 32).
Turning their attention to “The Changing Geopolitics of the Middle East,” they note that the 2011 uprisings began as domestic political events, but opened the door for (increased) foreign meddling in the domestic affairs of the states involved. While outside powers played a role (specifically, the United States and Russia), three regional actors were dominant: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. As they note, even prior to the uprisings there were four meddlesome regional dynamics already underway impacting primarily the Levant and the Gulf: “Iranian expansionism, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the rise of Turkey, and Saudi Arabia’s accelerated bid for regional primacy” (p. 52).
The authors place the current dynamic of regional interference and rivalry into its twentieth-century context, the regional hegemony of, first, Britain and France and, later, the United States. The early years of such regional dynamics were centered on Egypt and based on Cold War-era doctrines of pan-Arabism and nonalignment. But with Egypt’s economic –– and thus, inevitably, political –– decline, by the time of the 2011 uprisings it was Turkey and Iran that exerted regional influence, along with a newly assertive Saudi Arabia.
The authors’ discussion of Iranian hegemonic efforts takes the reader back to the 636 AD battle of al-Qadisiyyah, in which the Arabs defeated the Persians near Najaf; per the Ottaways, Saddam Hussein considered his invasion of Iran in 1980 an extension of that conflict. They trace the ensuing Sunni-Shia rivalry through the 1979 Iranian revolution and the subsequent Iranian use of proxies to spread its influence in the states of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. And then there is this: “The U.S. invasion of Iraq unwittingly served Iranian goals well” (p. 56).
For their part, the Saudis found themselves playing catch-up. As the authors note, even prior to the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia sought to hone its Islamic identity (and, in its view, primacy) with the establishment in 1962 of the Muslim World League and, in 1969, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (today called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation). “Shiite Iran’s Islamic revolution only accelerated Saudi efforts to use religion as a tool of foreign policy” (p. 59). King Fahd, who acceded to the throne in 1982, took the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (a title first used by Saladin in the twelfth-century). The kingdom redoubled the promotion of its ascetic brand of (Sunni) Islam (called Salafism by the Saudis, Wahhabism by others), supporting mosques and madrassas throughout Muslim-majority countries. In 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed as a bulwark against Iran by the six Gulf Arab monarchies (official name: “Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf”). The events of 9/11, however, unleashed a backlash against Saudi Wahhabism, with even the Saudis recognizing the role of Wahhabist proselytizing in the growth of Islamic extremism.
The third ambitious would-be regional hegemon, the non-Arab, Sunni-Muslim-majority republic of Turkey, enjoyed “a remarkable rise in influence at the beginning of the millennium.” It was seen “as a model of Islamic democracy” as it pursued a foreign policy of “zero problems with its neighbors” (p. 62). But this began to unravel following the events of the Arab Spring. Turkey’s “Islamic democracy” grew more Islamic and less democratic under Recep Tayyip Erdogan –– first as prime minister (2008–14) and then president (2014–the present). Following the disastrous Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt (2012–13), “suddenly, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general became the number-one enemy of most Arab governments outside the Maghreb” (p. 64), putting Turkey on the wrong side of the Islamism issue in the eyes of the three most influential Arab states: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Extra-regional engagement also took a sharp turn. President Obama’s determination to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and Russian President Putin’s astute exploitation of that sentiment, undermined confidence in the United States and fostered increased Russian influence, especially after its military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime. These developments have left “an intense struggle underway among foreign powers to determine the future of the region” (p. 72).
The Ottaways next examine Iraq and Syria, in their view “not really states at this point, although they remain countries enjoying international recognition” (p. 75). Here, as elsewhere, they bring their considerable historical knowledge and personal experience to their description of the forces that led to present-day national boundaries in the region. Particularly insightful is their account of state formation in Greater Syria and Mesopotamia: a Christian-dominated Lebanon carved out of Syria; the “three conflicting nationalisms in Palestine: Arab Nationalism, … Zionism, … and Palestinian Nationalism”; and “the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, which became the basis for modern-day Iraq” (pp. 78-79).
The next stage of state-building in the Levant was at the hands of Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Brute force and repression “succeeded in consolidating and stabilizing” the two countries, but “these strongmen failed to gain the support of most of their citizens. Their states quickly collapsed when challenged by uprisings and foreign interventions” (pp. 81-82). In Iraq, this occurred with the American-led invasion of 2003. The ignorance and ineptitude that followed Saddam’s removal has been well documented; the Ottaways recap this narrative in an insightful 10-page overview (pp. 82-92). Having served in Iraq during the early days of U.S. efforts at state building there, I would add one point missing from the authors’ account –– the effort by Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, to blunt Iranian attempts to dominate Iraq, including his rejection (and that of the broader Iraqi Shia clerical leadership) of the Iranian concept of rule by an Islamic jurist (velayat-e faqih).
Unlike Iraq, “the Syrian state … was dismembered from within” by the actions “of the minority Alawite regime … determined to stay in power at all costs” (p. 93). By this time, however, the Iraq fiasco had triggered Middle East fatigue among American leaders and the public, assuring that the United States would not intervene. As with the recent history of Iraq, the authors present a detailed overview of the actors and actions in Syria from the 2011 uprising to the present day (pp. 93-99). After brief consideration of the role of outside players in the Syrian catastrophe (Russia, Iran, ISIS, Turkey), the authors conclude with two dispiriting predictions: “Iraq will emerge from the conflict as a non-state country” (like Lebanon and Somalia), while “the prospects for Syria appear even bleaker” (p. 101).
The authors next turn their attention to the Gulf monarchies, which have several commonalities: all are recently formed rentier states with considerable hydrocarbon wealth, dynastic family leadership and tribal societal structures. To varying degrees, all have been buffeted by recent “external shocks”: “the takeover of Iran in 1979 by a theocratic Shiite regime”; “the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States”; and “the 2011 uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world” (p. 106). Since 2015, they have also had to adjust to a sharp reduction in oil prices.
The authors focus on reform efforts in Saudi Arabia to describe the challenges and dynamics of the recent period in the Gulf. There was an effort at reform under the late King Abdullah (reign: 2005–15), included new restrictions on the power of the religious police (mutawa) and expanded educational, political, employment and other rights for women. But, in the late stages of King Abdullah’s reign, there were also signs of increased authoritarianism. The authors chronicle the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) after his father’s accession to the throne in January 2015, and his new vision for the kingdom (“Vision 2030,” announced in 2016). As they lay out, MBS’s approach has been progressive socially (gender-mixing, women’s rights, public entertainment), ambitious economically (Saudi Aramco IPO, privatization, diversification away from oil), headstrong regionally (the Qatar rift, war in Yemen, detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri), and draconian on domestic control (Ritz-Carlton detentions, arrest of women activists, and –– most shocking to the West –– the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi). The impact? In their view, “Saudi Arabia is still teetering between real change and symbolic gestures” (p. 131).
The Ottaways next turn their attention to Egypt in a chapter whose subtitle sums up their assessment of the current state of the country: “The Triumph of State over Citizens” (p. 133). Citing the three demands of Egyptian protesters during the Arab Spring –– bread, freedom and dignity –– they see little hope of the current al-Sisi regime delivering on any of them. It was the political astuteness of the Muslim Brotherhood and the political amateurism of Egypt’s secular parties that led to the election of the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as president in 2012. The authors provide an in-depth analysis of the jockeying among various centers of power in Egypt –– the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the secular “deep state,” and the Brotherhood during Morsi’s “arrogant,” “inexperienced” and “incompetent” rule –– that resulted in the SCAF-led coup of 2013 and the imposition of military rule under its leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Despite having received an infusion of tens of billions of dollars from the Gulf countries since the SCAF takeover, Egypt’s economic and employment situation remains grim. Its population has exploded to 100 million, unemployment is above 50 percent in some parts of the country, the value of the Egyptian pound has declined sharply, and the inflation and poverty rates have both increased markedly. To address such dire circumstances, al-Sisi is pursuing an agenda of “mega national projects” (“megafantasies,” in the words of one U.S. economist), including a new administrative capital on the outskirts of Cairo (to feature the tallest skyscraper in Africa). A recent IMF report, while critical of such “reliance on a state-dominated model for development,” nonetheless does foresee rising GDP growth and declining inflation, an assessment likely influenced by the recent discovery of a large natural-gas field in Egypt’s territorial waters (pp. 150-53). However, even such improving prospects for a country that has essentially hit rock bottom do not alter the authors’ assessment of Egypt:
Decades of marginalization due to its peace treaty with Israel, stunted leadership under Mubarak and economic stagnation have reduced Egypt to a shadow of its old glory. It has become a mere appendage to the oil-wealthy Arab Gulf monarchies that have taken over as the new dynamic center of the Arab world (p. 159).
The last of the four worlds the Ottaways discuss is the Maghreb (they refer only to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, leaving the fourth Maghreb state, Libya, aside). They put their bottom line up front – “All three countries are taking deliberate steps to distance themselves from the turmoil of the Middle East, strengthen their economic ties to Europe, and develop new ones to Africa.” Three post-uprising trends distinguish the Maghreb from the rest of the Arab world: they have “succeeded in integrating strong Islamist movements into their body politics”; the “Islamist parties do not wield much power”; and, there has been a “marked acceleration of North Africa’s drift away from the Middle East” (pp. 161-63).
The authors use a lengthy and insightful account of the role of Islam in the politics of the Maghreb to draw a broader conclusion about Islamism in the region: “Islamist organizations have been a presence and a political factor in the majority of Arab countries for most of the past century. No government has welcomed them, but none has succeeded in eliminating them” (p. 164). Their ideology appeals to pious populations, and their networks of generous charities positively impact the lives of ordinary citizens, especially the poor.
The Ottaways conclude with a primer on the current state of the four worlds: turmoil and state collapse in the Levant; efforts at economic diversification and social evolution in the Gulf; autocracy and repression in Egypt; and political evolution and co-existence in the Maghreb. To explain the differing courses these four worlds have taken in the wake of the 2011 uprisings, the authors return to the concept of agency:
Success or failure in instituting reforms depends not only on the strength of the state, available wealth and political conditions, but also on the conscious decisions and actions taken by a number of individuals and organizations –– in short, agency. … The will, ability and character of a small number of movers and shakers were extremely important to the outcomes of the uprisings in all countries (p. 197)