The idea of a new Middle East is not new. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union there had been questions about the new order that is expected to rise in this corner of the world. In the few I followed I saw two types of discussions. One focuses on how each individual state will evolve/devolve given the shifts that are happening. The other, more systemic discussion focuses on the form of alliances that will emerge and the fault lines of the coming conflicts.
The Arab Spring has rejuvenated both discussions though the focus seemed to be more on the behavior of individual states. Now the recent concerns over the global role of the United States are shifting the attention towards the possible systemic changes.
The Middle East’s predicament
The fact is that the main factor that had shaped the Middle East order in the past century had been – and will continue to be - the competition of super powers over regional hegemony. Whatever space Middle Eastern countries had was primarily defined by that competition and their maneuverability was constrained by the risks of going beyond that space.
Since WWII and until around 1990 this competition was driven by the interests of the U.S. and the U.S.SR. But from then on it was almost solely shaped by the type of strategy the U.S. decided to undertake with regard to its global role. There is no reason to think that this will change anytime soon. Russia is not in a position to compete over grounds already taken by the U.S.
The fact is that the main factor that had shaped the Middle East order in the past century had been – and will continue to be - the competition of super powers over regional hegemony.Abdullah Hamidaddin
The best Russia can do today is to retain its already dwindling regional assets. This may change for sure, but not anytime soon. Not that I like an outcome where the U.S. continues to “rule.” Its policies in the region had caused more suffering than all of the Middle East’s despots put together. But one deals with reality as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Thus the primary question needs be asked in order to imagine a new Middle East is: What is America actually doing now? And whatever answer one formulates, it must be done thoughtfully as it would contain most of the answers regarding the future of the Middle East.
Most of the rhetoric we hear today claims that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, or returning to its isolationist strategy, or shifting all of its attention to Asia. The examples being cited to support this claim are President Obama’s various stances since 2011. He let Mubarak go, he let Syria fall to the Iranians, and now he is committing the ultimate sin of flirting with Iran. He is also paying more attention to China.
In one word what we most hear now is that the new Middle East will be one without the U.S. Subsequently states will need to provide their own security creating a new cold war in the Middle East with Saudi and Iran as the main antagonists, and Israel as a probable future ally to the Saudis. Or to summarize it: The U.S. is leaving. We have to provide our own security. A cold war is imminent.
Here I want to think in a different way.
Less security but less interference
Now it would a nice idea to imagine our region without the influence of the U.S., but sadly this is wishful thinking. If it is not the U.S. it will be someone else. This is the tragedy of small countries with assets that have a global value. Eisenhower described the Middle East as the most “strategically important area in the world.” This remains the case, and until it changes we will have one super power or another meddling in our affairs.
Also it is not such a bad idea for the countries of the Middle East to provide their own security. But considering the current imbalance of power – and I hate to say this – this cannot happen. So America is still around. And it will still be the foundation of security for the Middle East.
But even if both were wrong; even if by some moral epiphany the U.S. decided to leave the Middle East for its people; and the states of the Middle East were able to provide their own security; even if that were the case it does not follow that a cold war is imminent. There are other possible realistic options. A cold war is just one option which some are keen to promote as the only strategic option available. And I think it is important to challenge that and show that they are wrong.
To start with, America is not withdrawing back into isolationism rather back to the pre-1990 era. At that time the U.S. was intimately involved in the region but as an off-shore balancer. Then the U.S. pursued “global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony” which is essentially a policy of interfering in the politics of other countries for the purpose of – to use Mearsheimer's imagery - re-making the word in America’s image.
Such a strategy reached its limits during the Obama administration and it was now up to him to take America back to the previous strategy of off-shore balancing. But “offshore balancing is a strategy of burden shifting, not burden sharing. It is based on getting other states to do more for their security so the United States can do less” which will naturally aggravate U.S. allies who have gotten used to free ride. So what others are lamenting as isolationism is actually a return to a hawkish and realist strategy that serves the interests of the U.S. but in ways that demand pro-active allies.
When President Obama declared that the war on terror is over, one should not take it as simply a statement about the U.S. vs Al Qaeda. Rather a statement about a 20 year policy where the U.S. was going everywhere based on the so called war on terror. And thus one can also explain Obama’s hesitation towards Egypt and Syria. From the perspective of an off-shore balancer what happens inside those two countries simply does not matter.
What matters is one and only one thing. The implication of internal changes on the security of oil flows. This also explains the Iran-U.S. rapprochement. As an off-shore balancer it is in the interest of U.S. to have ‘normal’ relations with Iran. It does not matter that Iran is ruled by Mullah’s no more than it mattered that Egypt would be ruled by the Army.
To sum it up: The U.S. will still provide regional security but somewhat less than before. But in return the U.S. will also interfere less in the region's politics.
Security vacuum or meddling vacuum?
So what can one imagine here?
The return of the U.S. to its old strategy creates two options for the states of the Middle East. The first is to consider this a threating security vacuum that needs to be addressed by new alliances. And here one can envisage a cold war scenario. The second option is to consider this an advantageous ‘meddling vacuum’ that opens up space for more regional integration for the dual purpose of preserving regional security but also regional prosperity. Both options do not threaten or challenge the U.S., both will keep oil flowing, thus both can be considered equally acceptable from an American point of view.
But it is not the U.S. which will determine which option the region will pursue. It is the relevant states of the region. And today those states are: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Israel. Egypt and Iraq are important but their current circumstances do not allow them to play a leadership role. The Gulf States and Jordan will play important roles in promoting one option or the other, but not in deciding the final outcome.
The questions are: Will those four states opt for a balancing policy or for an integration policy? Is it even realistic to place those four states in one sentence let alone consider them working together for regional stability?
For sure each state has many reasons for not working with the other. The Saudi’s and the Israelis fear Iranian expansionism. The Iranian’s ideological identity resists the idea of peace with Israel. The Saudi population cannot yet see Israel as a regional partner. Moreover the Israelis are looking west and see themselves as an island off the shores of Europe rather than a strip of land in the Middle East. The Turks are still hoping to be part of the European Union... the list of reasons against the idea of integration can go on endlessly.
On the other hand there are many reasons to benefit from this. Economics, technology transfer, commercial prosperity, but most importantly regional peace. A cold war will cost us so much in terms of human life, opportunity for future generations, and resources. A cold war would be a recipe for the collapse of the Middle East in the near future. We are already facing too many existential problems such as water scarcity, pollution, diminishing energy resources, population growth, and shrinking economies to name a few. We simply cannot afford wars, cold or hot.
Now I know that the mere suggestion of what I am saying here can be considered naïve. But naiveté in politics can actually be healthy. The EU was created by countries that had been warring with each other for centuries. Just imagine the period between the Napoleonic wars and the WWII. I am sure many people thought that the vision of an EU was absolutely ridiculous.
So maybe we should try to be naïve for a change.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1