“The Middle East has been the chrysalis of three of the world’s great religions. From its stern landscape have issued conquerors and prophets holding aloft banners of universal aspirations. Across its seemingly limitless horizons, empires have been established and fallen; absolute rulers have proclaimed themselves the embodiment of all power, only to disappear as if they had been mirages. Here every form of domestic and international order has existed, and been rejected, at one time or another”
– Henry Kissinger, “Chapter 3: Islamism and the Middle East: A World in Disorder;” World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History, 2014
WEST ASIA /MIDDLE EAST THE BACKDROP:
West Asia in popular parlance also referred to as to the Middle East is a transcontinental region centered on Western Asia, Turkey, Asia and Egypt. Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, and Azeris constitute the largest ethnic groups in the region by population. Minorities of the Middle Eastinclude Jews, Baloch, Greeks, Assyrians, and other Arameans, Berbers, Circassians ,Kabardians, Copts, etc.
The Middle East lies at the juncture of Eurasia and Africa and of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is the birthplace and spiritual center of religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Manichaeism, Yezidi, Druze, Yarsan and Mandeanism, and in Iran, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, and the Bahá’í Faith. Throughout its history the Middle East has been a major center of world affairs; a strategically, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously sensitive area.
The modern Middle East began after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the Central Powers, was defeated by the British Empire and their allies and partitioned into a number of separate nations, initially under British and French Mandates. Other defining events in this transformation included the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the eventual departure of European powers, notably Britain and France by the end of the 1960s. They were supplanted in some part by the rising influence of the United States from the 1970s onwards.
In the 20th century, the region’s significant stocks of crude oil gave it new strategic and economic importance. Mass production of oil began around 1945, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates having large quantities of oil. Estimated oil reserves, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran, are some of the highest in the world, and the international oil cartel OPEC is dominated by Middle Eastern countries.
During the Cold War, the Middle East was a theater of ideological struggle between the two superpowers and their allies: NATO and the United States on one side, and the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact on the other, as they competed to influence regional allies. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the region has experienced both periods of relative peace and tolerance and periods of conflicts.
CURRENT STATE OF PLAY IN THE MIDDLE EAST:
Troubling instability in the security, political, economic and social realms marks the current reality of the Middle East. The impact of this instability is not limited to the Middle East alone but has also spilled over into the international system, forcing Western countries to contend with waves of jihadist terrorism and immigration on an unprecedented scale.
The Middle East is also becoming a region of renewed rivalry between the US and Russia.
The emerging regional reality is characterised by the following attributes:
Disintegration of the Political Order
Arab nation-states, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, were ruled for decades by authoritarian leaders. During this time, these rulers succeeded in maintaining state stability through: a) State institutions, armies, and security and intelligence apparatuses, ensuring survival of the regime through oppression of the civilian population; b) the exclusion of groups, tribes and sects (such as the Houthis in Yemen, the Sunnis and the Kurds in Syria, the Sunnis in Iraq and certain Bedouin tribes in Libya); and c) the management of the country’s domestic and foreign affairs. This involved the suppression of subversive forces, including jihadist terror organisations that posed a threat to the regime. State leaders took care to nurture the legitimacy of their rule and the illegitimacy of subversive forces using national identity, which they also attempted to cultivate despite shaky historical, ethnic, religious or cultural foundations.
Peripheral Regions as Frontiers
The central government in many of these countries lost control of peripheral regions and focused their efforts and resources on ensuring survival in the areas surrounding the capitals and large cities. Peripheral regions have thus become frontier regions, attracting jihadi terrorist groups that have based their organisations and activities in these uncontrolled areas.
The Spread of ISIS and Radical Jihad
The civil war that developed in Syria and the fragility of Iraq has resulted in the spread of ISIS in northwest Iraq and northeast Syria, its establishment throughout a broad territory, its control over the population in this territory, and the mass murder—in some cases, on par with genocide of all non-Sunnis and all Sunnis ISIS leadership classifies as infidels.
Network Jihad in the Making
ISIS’s successes have attracted other jihadi groups in the region to join its ranks in an effort to bring about an Islamic revolution they expect will be followed by the establishment of the Islamic State. This process is reflective of a new phenomenon of “network jihad”: Jihadist terrorist groups in the Middle East are accepting the authority of ISIS as a parent organization.
Iran, its Hegemonic Aspirations and Proxies
In order to ensure its vital interests in the region, Iran has mobilized itself completely, openly and in a declared manner to come to the assistance of the Syrian regime. To this end, Iran has also mobilized Hezbollah, its protégé and proxy and Syria’s ally.
The Sunni-Shiite Split in the Arab World
The involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in regional conflicts has not stopped in Syria. Both have also maintained an active presence in Iraq, and active Iranian involvement has also reached Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. In actuality, the Arab upheaval has become a tool and a justification used by the Iranians to expand Shiite spheres of influence. Iranian involvement has served to escalate and broaden the Sunni-Shiite split in the Arab world.
An expanding Turkish role
ISIS’s area of operation borders on Turkey and has had a direct impact on Turkey’s strategic interests in the region. Turkey regards itself as a regional power in competition with Iran and fears a split within the country as a result of stronger Kurdish national sentiment. Iraq’s Kurdish autonomy, and the apparent joining of forces of the Iraqi Kurds and their Kurdish brethren in Syria, has raised levels of Turkish anxiety and restlessness.
The upheaval that is currently gripping the Arab world is resulting in some of the most serious humanitarian crises that the region has known in recent decades. This is particularly so because of the large populations that have been uprooted and the migratory processes that have become prevalent both within the region and from the region outward. This migration is economically, socially and politically significant. It has become a destabilizing influence in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, a serious humanitarian problem in Syria, and an intensifying source of trouble for Muslim communities in the Western countries seeing an influx of refugees.
CONSEQUENCE AND DESIRABILITY OF DICTATORSHIP IN THE MIDDLE EAST:
The Middle East /West Asia region, post-Arab Spring, is in a state of flux and uncertainty. But is dictatorship an answer to this conundrum.
The Arab revolution that started in Tunisia in January 2011 spread like wildfire to other parts of the region. The causes of the Arab Spring were common across the Arab landscape. The actors of these revolutions were mainly young people from civil society, who were mobilized by the new technologies of communication, such as social media forms like Twitter and Facebook. They demanded the establishment of democracy, respect for human rights, social equality, economic and socio-cultural reforms and development, anti-corruption measures, as well as good governance. The populace also revolted against the monopoly of wealth and the grip of ruling monarchies and their families on social, economic, military and judicial institutions. Through these revolts, they expressed their suffering brought on by a repressive economic regime (DICTATORSHIP!!!!) marked by high unemployment, high inflation, poor social housing, widespread poverty and lack of access to basic social and health services.
The political consequences of the Arab Spring were spectacular. The fall of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen was followed by significant political reforms in some countries, including in those that did not experience large-scale protests, such as Morocco, Mauritania, Jordan and Algeria. More free and transparent elections were held in several Arab countries. There was also an expansion of individual and collective freedoms with regard to expression, association and the press. Elected assemblies were put in place, and governments were formed.
Some of the Arab countries plunged deeper into a state of instability, as in the case of Libya, where successive governments could not hold on to Tripoli against the rising power of Islamist militias. Syria’s bloody civil war has persevered for three years now. Iraq is in a dire situation after the departure of US troops, with the rivalry among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds having further crystallised. In Jordan and Oman, some political reforms have allowed for the preservation of the regimes. In Tunisia, a new constitution was adopted.
One surprise of the Arab Spring has been the rise of Islamist parties. These parties, who were persecuted under previous authoritarian regimes, had previously made concerted efforts towards providing services for the marginalized communities that continued to be deprived by their respective rulers. Therefore, when free and transparent elections were organized, these parties won most of them. But once in power, they lacked, on the one hand, discernment and advocated a revival of Islam in the entire society, and skill, on the other hand, to improve the economic situation. Their inability to organize themselves as economic providers eventually led to their eviction in Egypt and, to some extent, in Tunisia. What complicated the situation was the emergence of radical Islamists, who claim that they will restore the Islamic Khalifa.
The Arab countries have shown, like all other peoples of the world, the desire for democracy, equality, respect for human rights, and economic and social development. The Arab world saw the fall of some dictators; other authoritarian regimes have been able to maintain their power by using financial prowess to placate populations and keep peace.
Thus instead of hankering for dictatorship, the political outlook for the Arab must promote democracy, which alone can create grounds for stable and long-term development. Economically, Arab countries must ensure stability, that is to say, eliminate budget deficits, avoid high debt, ensure low inflation and maintain as much as possible, substantial foreign exchange reserves.
In the absence of a functional infrastructure and tradition, and a commitment to society and state as opposed to merely ‘leader’ and ‘regime,’ these states crumbled, and the alternative regimes set up in their stead were unable to establish sufficiently broad legitimacy for their existence. Hence, strong democratic institutions are required in the Middle East for peace and prosperity.