The Stable Instability of the Middle East


As Bahgat Korany interestingly points out Middle East as a region provides an intricate pattern of contradictory processes, political systems, religious beliefs, ethnic identities, as well as, supranational and supra-state movements. As a result, when analyzing history and politics of the region, when trying to find solutions to the conflicts that plague it, and to predict possible courses of development, both, factors which affect the instability and those which provide for stability must be thoroughly evaluated.

From League of Nations and the UN peacekeeping efforts, the US direct involvement, existence of buffer states and monitoring of demilitarized zones to regional alliances, and balance of power interests, we can see the dynamics affecting the stability of the region. Nevertheless, it can be argued that factors which affect instability, such as the colonial past, arbitrary drown borders, the ideological conflict between Arabism and Islamism, economic interests, religious differences, and the presence of minorities are far stronger. Moreover, some of the actions taken to achieve stability do not address the profound underlying causes of the instability, and may even have a counter effect.

One of the most influential characteristics of the Middle East is its colonial history. While UN peacekeeping forces today try to minimize the violence occurring in the hotspots of the region, the truth remains that they do not possess enough military capability and are not entitled to actively intervene and actually achieve tangible results. Furthermore, UN decisions pertaining to the Middle East sometimes backfired as in the decision to partition Palestine in 1947 which created one of the most enduring and controversial conflicts – that of Israel and Palestine. This conflict continues to add oil on the fire of the unrest and renders any logical solution to achieve stability impossible. The fact that the modern map of the region was the result of the realpolitik considerations of colonial powers is the explanation for a whole bunch of conflicts over borders, minorities, as well as religiously and ethnically diverse weak states. This colonial past also laid the framework for the creation of multinational states, such as Turkey, and multistate nations, such as Kurds. The idea of national self-determination is opposed to that of state integrity, a struggle that can be vividly witnessed in the Middle East. Existence of religious and ethnic minorities destabilizes the states by becoming tools in the hands of outside or regional powers. Another interesting component of arbitrary drown borders was its effect on the division of religious groups. As a consequence, states such as Iraq acquired large population of Shia Muslims, while continued to be governed by Sunni elites, creating tensions and power struggle which continues until today.

The role of buffer states and territories is extremely important to keep stability in the region; however they are mainly sustained and supported by the US and NATO. As the cost of supporting these buffering policies goes up and the payoff goes down, their existence becomes challenged. Buffer zone statuses of Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan have been greatly compromised due to the rapidly changing pattern of regional relations. Buffer territories become more frequently drown into regional conflicts and controversial alliances, destabilizing the region even more.

Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 was seen as a betrayal of the idea of Arabism so strongly advocated by Nasser. Instead of creating a mediator out of Egypt with viable solutions to end Arab-Israeli Crisis, this treaty resulted in insulation and scorn of Egypt by other Arab countries. Similarly, Iran-Syria alliance against Iraq in 1980 was strongly criticized by the opponents of Islamism in general and those of Shia Revival in particular, isolating Syria till now. Furthermore, some argue that the fruit of this alliance; Hezbollah, provides for continuing tension and encourages extremist views, effectively blocking any attempt for Arab-Israeli rapprochement. As can be observed, Arabism and Islamism as contesting ideologies play a determining role in the Middle East. While Arabism relies on shared national and ethnic ties and pampers the hope of one day achieving a Pan-Arabic state, Islamism relies on shared religious belief in the supremacy of Islam, and in the central role of Sharia law. Two strong forces clash, that of nationalism and Islamism, and as long as this struggle continues, ME will be the battlefield. These two ideas undermine the state sovereignty, rendering state governments impotent to constructively implement their policies and achieve positive results.

A big player in this stability versus instability question is oil. Even though the emergence of Gulf Cooperation Countries can be viewed as a good example of regional cooperation with stabilizing influence, the downside is that this oil-rich countries frequently become victims of international political and economic interests. Interestingly, these economic considerations also affect the relations between regional powers, going against such profound ideologies as Arabism. An example can be the fact that Nasser was not able to unify rentier and production states around the ideology of Arabism. Another alliance coming to prove this point is the one between the US and Saudi Arabia, which not only goes against the Arab and Islamic values but also against the democratic ones preached by the US.

It can be argued that the US direct involvement in the regional politics has a stabilizing effect by providing for the emergence and development of democratic political systems as well as assuring the protection of human rights and of Israel, nevertheless, the reality points to the opposite direction. Not only the US-Israel alliance heightened anti-western and anti-American sentiments in the Arab world, but it also resulted in the worldwide spread of transnational terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda. As Mandaville argues, a western-styled democracy may not be the wisest choice for many of the Middle Eastern countries. Iraq can be seen as the perfect example highlighting the folly of these US attempts to take down “evil empires” and create democratic regimes. Even when some point to Turkey as the successful democracy in action in the region, nevertheless coming to power of the moderately Islamist AKP party, which reduced the US’ influence over the country and its political course, creates doubts about the future of the democratic progress in Turkey. This also creates tension between the US supremacy and Turkey’s aspirations to become a regional hegemon. The interests of the two countries do not overlap as perfectly as they did before, and Turkey is autarkic enough not to abide by the US decisions and rules.

As of today, arguments that the tendency towards stability is stronger as opposed to that of instability in the Middle East have no factual basis. From enduring ethnic, religious and national differences as a result of colonial partition, to the destabilizing effects of Pan-Arabic and Pan-Islamic ideologies on the state legitimacy, from economic and strategic consideration, particularly that of oil, to variety of military and political alliances, causes of instability are too numerous and influential to allow an existence of a long-lasting stability.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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