How New Rivalries Are Transforming the Middle East’s Strategic Landscape

24 May

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the Middle East has seen regional hegemons come and go. The 1950s and 1960s were Egypt’s era: Cairo was the Arab World’s capital and the home of its charismatic postcolonial leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

But Israel’s victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria in the 1967 war; Nasser’s death, in 1970; and the spike in oil prices after the 1973 war brought that era to an end. As millions of Egyptians and other Arabs left home for the oil-wealthy Gulf, the gravity of Arab politics went with them. As the Gulf’s fortunes rose, especially in Saudi Arabia, so too did Riyadh’s political clout. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, however, and the subsequent U.S.-led war, which was launched from Saudi soil, made clear that oil could buy Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, a lot of influence, but they still needed American protection.

After the Gulf War, in the first half of the 1990s, the Oslo Agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty, shepherded by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, gave rise to Israel’s moment in the Middle East. Regional economic cooperation took center stage, casting the politics of the previous four decades aside with the optimism of peace and integration. Rabin’s assassination in 1995 abruptly dashed those hopes. The peace process floundered by the end of the decade, as a new rightwing in Israeli politics rose to power, hardly disposed to any closeness to its neighbors.

Then there was a void; the 2000s was no one’s decade. No Arab country had the power, resources, or credibility to assert itself across the whole region. Sectarianism spread, fuelled by the U.S. occupation of Iraq and ensuing civil war. Arab republics, such as Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, witnessed shocking levels of corruption that eroded the foundation upon which they were built in the 1950s: social equality and the consent of the lower middle classes to the reigning regimes. In the Gulf, the ruling dynasties sought to turn their desert towns into glittering cities, modeled on Hong Kong and Singapore, and detached themselves from the problems of their other Arab neighbors. Whereas in previous decades the region’s strategic landscape had depended on one country’s ascendancy, by 2011, with so much of the region muddling through and failing to put together serious national or regional political projects, the dominant players in the Middle East seemed to be economic actors, from multinational corporations to regional financial interests.

The Arab uprisings of the last three years shook up the balance of power once more, toppling three of the Arab republics, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia; threatening Arab monarchies in the Gulf; and sewing chaos around Israel. Whereas most observers evaluate the uprisings in terms of the political changes they did — or did not — usher in, there are other forces at play. A larger power struggle has emerged out of the ashes of revolution, repression, and war from Tunisia to Syria, which is reshaping the entire strategic landscape of the Middle East. Its outcome will transform the entire region more than any regional rivalry or the rise or fall of any single power in the preceding half century.

The emerging confrontation is over the nature and future of the region’s societies, from North Africa to the Gulf.

via Tarek Osman | How New Rivalries Are Transforming the Middle East’s Strategic Landscape | Foreign Affairs.

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