Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, The World

2 December 2019

Even in a rapidly changing world, the Middle East has problems so entrenched that the region is destined to remain as turbulent in the near future as it has been in the recent past, Amin Saikal writes.

The Middle East continues to be a zone of frenemies, despite the territorial defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) by two conflicting international coalitions – one led by the United States and the other by Russia.

For the foreseeable future, the oil-rich region is set to be an arena of economic and strategic significance on the one hand, yet riddled with factors of instability and insecurity on the other. This is a recipe for it to remain a major source of anxiety in world politics.

The Syrian conflict is unresolved, the Iraqi situation remains traumatic, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle persists, and the Yemeni and Libyan killing fields continue. Meanwhile, Iranian-Saudi rivalry, Russo-American competition, and Chinese economic and political interests are all gaining strength.

More on this: Russia, ‘peace talks’, and the Middle East

The Middle East is experiencing a very volatile period in its modern history. Meanwhile, the public demand for structural reforms is once again growing louder, given that authoritarianism, massive socio-economic disparities, cronyism, corruption, human rights violations, poor governance, and inter-elite backdoor wheeling and dealing feature heavily in most of the states in the region.

This has lately been reflected in mass protests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan in particular, leading some analysts to suggest that a second ‘Arab Spring’ may be in the offing. The first uprisings resulted in the overthrow of dictatorial rules in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and triggered the Syrian conflict, but mostly failed to achieve their objectives, except in the case of Tunisia, which has since experienced a pro-democracy trajectory.

However, at the same time, the forces of the status quo are in full swing to ensure that current elites maintain their grip on power and that whatever change may occur does not disadvantage them.

Despite regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or animosities between the latter and Israel and the United States, the region’s leaders have one thing they all agree on, their own self-preservation. They do not want to see any major change to current geopolitical configurations.

More on this: The Middle East: the new Asia?

Even Russia, which has become a key player in Syria and enhanced its economic and strategic interests elsewhere in the region, and China, whose activities are more focused on trade with and acquisition of natural resources from the region, favour preservation of the status quo.

This regional setting means that the struggle between the forces of change and the status quo will continue to dominate the Middle East landscape for some time. Although public protests in Sudan have resulted in a tentative pro-democratic transition without any certainty about its direction, dissent elsewhere is seriously challenged by forces favourable to the prevailing systems.

In such a situation, there is always room for extremist elements – whether religious or otherwise – to find a niche in support of their ideological and notional goals, as has been the case, for example, with IS and Al Qaeda.

In Iraq, the protesters, who are outraged by levels of corruption, nepotism, unemployment, and a lack of basic services, have already paid a heavy price, with hundreds killed and injured in the second half of 2019.

The country’s problems are compounded by the mosaic nature of its population, the difficulty of forming a coalition government, Iranian influence that wants the unity of the country under the Shia majority rule, and America’s involvement in opposition to it.

The same goes for Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed Hezbollah is determined to maintain its political and military prowess, and therefore stifles the demands of the cross-confessional protestors for changes that could seriously disrupt the country’s model of governance.

Forged in the 1940s, Lebanon’s governmental model is based on proportional representation of varying confessional groups in the country’s power structure. It worked well until the system broke down under pressure from demographic change and interventions by neighbouring states, Syria and Israel in particular, igniting a devastating civil war in 1974.

The war lasted until 1989 when the warring groups and their foreign patrons finally agreed under Saudi Arabian auspices to revive the old power arrangement. However, they did so without making the necessary modifications to safeguard its workability in pursuit of the long-term common good.

In the case of both Iraq and Lebanon, there is no viable option other than for each to have an inclusive system and coalition governments.

Yet, to achieve such a system a technocratic government is needed, so it can generate the necessary conditions for transition to a clean, efficient, and participatory system of governance. Improvement in this area can go a long way to address citizens’ discontent. However, such a development may not come soon enough for the peoples of the region.

Ongoing internal and regional conflicts, along with major power interventionism, appear to be firmly entrenched in the region. This will ensure that the Middle East remains a very turbulent region of the world in the years ahead.

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