Regionalism in the Middle East

I’m following a class at Harvard, on The Governance and International Politics of World Regions. I have to write a number of articles for this course, each connected to a particular class, also meaning each connected to a particular region.
I was keen on writing a response to the readings on Africa, but before that, the class on the Middle East demanded I put some thoughts on paper. Somewhat thankfully, the readings on Africa turned out to be primarily focused on the AU, meaning I didn’t think them that arousing.

(Not) predicting the future

Larry Diamond, writing in 2010, in Why Are There No Arab Democracies?, boldly sets the stage: “why is it the case that among the sixteen independent Arab states of the Middle East and coastal North Africa, Lebanon is the only one to have ever been a democracy?”

Iran is, of course, not Arab, but to purposefully exclude it in this context, presupposes some hidden feature of being ‘Arab’, which would not apply to Iran, which both has been a democracy, at least until the US led coup against Mossadegh in 1953, and, to some extent, even today. But, this does appear to be Diamond’s angle.
Though Diamond refrains from mentioning Iran in his article, the country does come up in his conclusion, but only through a reference to the country’s Arab minority.
Admitted, neither Turkey, nor Israel, features in the article, but then doesn’t Diamond’s point come close to simple cherry picking his focus?

That said, Diamond is correct in his observation that here’s a big ‘freedom gap’ between Arab and non-Arab Muslim-majority states. He suggests, though,that religion is not a likely major cause.

Diamond also dismisses ‘culture’ as the primary reason for this democracy deficit, drawing parallels with similar origin stories in multiple African and Asian states. Even if, by Diamond’s own admission, in surveys done between 2003 and 2006, support in five Arab countries was roughly evenly split between those favouring ‘secular democracy’ and those favouring a form of ‘islamic’ democracy, whatever that would mean in practice. Couldn’t this be an indicator for some cultural markers being at the root of this ‘freedom gap’, therefore exactly contradicting Diamond’s claim?

Diamond’s review of how ‘well-to-do’ Arab countries are, as an indicator for favouring, and keeping, democracy, is neither here nor there; Kuwait or Bahrain might be wealthy, but most of the Gulf states thrive on exploitation of a foreign lower class, who are suppressed by the grace of the authoritarian controls the elite thrive on. |
Doesn’t this skewer the impact of what he sees as ‘well-to-do’?

The ‘oil curse’, of course, plays a role: the lack of necessity to tax its citizens, due to high oil revenues, obfuscates the sense of government accountability. And, where oil dominates, there is little wealth creation through investment or risk taking.

Diamond then makes an interesting observation on the ‘Arab pattern’ of ‘managed reform’, where autocrats facilitate a back-and-forth on liberalisation when coming under political pressure, either from within, or without.
True, I suppose, but is this pattern ‘Arab’? Can this not be observed, as well, in more autocratic African states, particularly after the end of the colonial area?
So, where Diamond positions this as ‘Arab’, is it, really?

Thankfully, Diamond does acknowledge the skewering influence the US has in the region, with its military and ‘development’ assistance, Jordan, for example, from 2001 to 2006, receiving 27% of its domestic revenues as foreign assistance. To what extent Jordan does is not in the scope of my review, here, but it’s difficult not to dance to the tunes of your paymaster.
Similar numbers, incidentally, also have applied to Israel, which received 28% of its GDP in the form of American ‘assistance’ in the 1970s, though that dwindled to just 3% in 2000, even if in absolute terms the reduction was small. And, here, the close ties between these two countries are well known and obvious, and hugely influential in the trajectory of inter-regional politics in the Middle East.

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Writing before the Arab spring, Diamond predicts change will happen, even if his predictions feel quaint: Looking towards Iraq as a beacon of hope, and to Egypt as an example of adaptive change. And, he predicts that dwindling oil prices, as a precursor to a shift towards renewables, will be the harbinger of the end of Arab political exceptionalism.

Lustick, in The Absence of Middle Eastern Great Powers: Political ‘Backwardness’ in Historical Perspective, puts a lack of integration in the Middle East, in part, at the feet of the former colonial powers’ divide and conquer tactics, as well as petty squabbles between differing factions, within and between countries in the Middle East, dovetailing with much of Diamond, and, then asks why there have been no Middle Eastern great powers, as emerged from Europe from the 1200s onwards.

I believe Lustick is on to something when he recounts, from Cohen, Brown, and Organski in The Paradoxical Nature of State Making: The Violent Creation of Order, that by 1900, there were around 20 times fewer independent polities in Europe than there had been in 1500. They did not disappear peacefully, or decay as nation states developed; they were the losers in multiple protracted wars.

And, even when conflict in the Middle East could emerge (again) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was under the watchful eye of greater international powers, as well as international institutions and norms, creating a wildly different context for both the conflicts and potential resolutions, compared to pre-modern Europe, bringing us to Lustick’s central claim, that these historical differences in the geopolitical context of European and Middle Eastern state system development constitute not the only but the single most important explanation for the contemporary absence of a Middle Eastern great power.

Or, loosely translated, if only the Middle East had had protracted conflict, earlier, as well as two ‘world wars’, it would be in much better shape, now. As per Tilly, in Reflections on the History of European State-Making and War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, war makes the state, and the state makes war.
Conveying the status of ‘latecomer’ to the countries in the Middle East, Lustick explains they came too late to the international scene to make a meaningful dent in prospects of becoming ‘great powers’, through war.

Lustick recounts three examples to underscore his claim, Muhammed Ali, the once viceroy of Egypt, Gamal Nasser, also of Egypt, and, particularly, Saddam Hussein’s attempt at occupying Kuwait.
Pleasantly, Lustick, writing before 9/11, is insightful, stating that “through the lens of late medieval and early modern Europe and America, the great powers’ aggressive self-interestedness comes into focus”, as “their enforcement of norms of peace and security among sovereign states, norms whose direct effect was to deny Arabs entry into the great power club by the only route ever taken into that club, is visible as a ‘vital interest’ in preserving petrodollar monarchies and sheikhdoms in the Gulf, whose very survival requires the most favourable and intimate of relationships with the Western powers”, so “it is the survival of these countries, in the same neighbourhood as Iraq (and Iran), that is the anomaly, not the Iraqi walkover into Kuwait”.

In other words, Lustick recognises that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, as well as, surely, that country’s invasion of Iran, were attempts, by Saddam Hussain, to establish his country as the regional power.

Gause, in Hegemony’ Compared: Great Britain and the United States in the Middle East, details the changing state of affairs in the Middle East, and shows that Britain was a more successful hegemon during the interwar period than the US, after the war. This because of changing comparative power relations; stronger individual states, through the ‘democratization of violence’, and more demanding, and powerful, international governing bodies.
Through the power exerted by first the UK, then the US, this decreased the possibility of a regional great power emerging in the Middle East. This touches on one of Diamond’s points.

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Gause does seem to have a slightly disjointed vision of some of the events that have shaped the Middle East in recent times, claiming that the US invasion of Iraq in 1990 was a moment where the American military invaded a Soviet ally, as evidenced by a friendship treaty dating back to 1972. Besides the fact in 1990, the Soviet Union was on its last legs, it was the US who supported Saddam in the 1980s, in his war with Iran. Whose ally was Saddam, really?

Barnett and Solingen, in Designed to fail or failure of design? talk about the 60-year (now 75) sedate history of the Arab League. The authors are surprised. But, my first impression is that they are not quite as familiar with how societal allegiances under islam are seen to be configured: strong familial connections, and a strong awareness of being part of the ummah, collective islam, less so, at least historically, of being a citizen of a particular country.

The authors do point to the competitive politics of regime survival as limiting national cooperation, showing that national regimes sought legitimacy through Arab nationalism and unity, emanating from the League, while also fearing its influence, in turn limiting the powers of regional bodies.

In addition, as trade between states in the Middle East is limited, in significant part due to the rent seeking behaviour of these governments as a consequence of the extensive oil wealth that a number of them rake in, the region sees very little cross-border economic exchange and, as a consequence, few grassroots calls for integration and unification as a means to reduce economic and social frictions.

Not addressed by either, though I can’t say to what extent this is relevant, is that, for centuries, much of the Middle East was united politically, but under nominal control of an ethnic outsider, the Turkish caliph. When the Arab League was established, this memory was still fresh. Could this have influenced the interest and perceived need of Arab unification?

The authors recognise that, starting in the 1980s, with increasing economic interdependence, and growing nationalism, room for intraregional cooperation saw the establishment of smaller, more active, regional bodies, in the shape of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and others, participating countries recognising the need for regionalism, but not necessarily through an alignment along racial lines. Though of these, only the GCC appears to have staying power.

Barnett and Stolingen touch on the stronger unification among Arab countries, against the American invasion of Iraq. However, writing in the middle of the 2000s, this prefaces the soon-to-follow Arab spring, causing upheaval throughout the region, and a break with the existing trajectory of seeking Arab unification.

Beck, in The End of Regional Middle Eastern Exceptionalism? builds on this, when writing in 2015, observing a renewed interest in empowering the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. However, does Beck not believe that Saudi Arabia’s leading role in this is anything but a form of self preservation, while perhaps also, as per Lustick, realising that war is what is needed to establish the country as a regionally dominant player?

Beck posits that regionalisation may come as the result of two mutually reinforcing dialectical processes: the emergence of a regional power and the strengthening of regional institutions. Beck refers to Lustick and the need for war to see powers emerge, but suggests that other events of historic significance could also play this role.

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Implying this could be the collective of Arab uprisings, Beck rightfully points to the Arab League’s changing role after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, suspending both Libya and Syria from the League, and calling for votes in the UN Security Council. And, then points to Saudi Arabia as the national power gaining ground regionally. 

This emergence indeed safeguarded the Saudi Arabian elite’s survival, and could also have been a reaction to Egypt’s weakened regional position. In addition, we can now look back at the near-decision of Saudi Arabia to invade Qatar, and the war, lead by Saudi Arabia, in Yemen. Beck seems correct, the Arab Spring might have been a major event prefacing the rise of a regional hegemon, Saudi Arabia is trying to help itself along through warfare, while being supported by the United States, who shifted a lot of allegiance away from Egypt, with the fall of Mubarak, to Saudi Arabia.

In his conclusion, Beck points out that Saudi Arabia’s position is precarious: There’s geopolitical influence from three other major players in the region: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. However, at the moment, Saudi Arabia has managed to strengthen its position in comparison to the historically stronger adversary Egypt, and, globally, is certainly perceived as a major regional player.

Going back to a point made above, Mandaville, in Islam and International Relations in the Middle East: From Umma to Nation State, discusses the ummah, but historically seems to situate its emergence after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, with the eventual rise of political islam. To me, this feels like an inverse characterisation of history; nationalism perhaps surged after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, but, in my understanding, before, regional identity was considered less important than either local, or global identity, that is, being part of the ‘world of islam’, the ummah.

But, Mandaville’s observation of the rise of political islam feels correct. But, as such, this islamism, because it, mostly, does not recognise a single overarching authority, seeks a different kind of universal identification, if any at all.

Mandaville suggests that Khomeini, after the Iranian revolution, competed with the Saudis and Zia ul-Haq for the mantle of Muslim leadership, but this seems like quite a stretch to me. Iran, and Khomeini, still receive credit in the non-aligned world, for their success in withstanding US hegemony, and, for all intents and purposes, thriving as a nation. But, few would consider Iran the flag bearer of Islam as a whole, probably not even Iranian clerics. 

Mandaville does seem to acknowledge that the recent rise of islam-oriented political parties, might be a symptom of the shift towards a kind of cultural islam, even if he does not quite label this as such. Or, islam has become a tool for the ruling elites to entrench their position. Or both.

In the end, Diamond’s observation no longer holds; Tunisia and Egypt have significantly shifted away from autocracy, though the pendulum might already be swinging back. The region is still in flux, and displeasure is still brewing with a younger generation.
It’s a bit of an open door, but recent events suggest Mandaville’s closing note is perhaps as good as our predictions can be at the moment, ‘Islam will remain an important feature of international relations in the Middle East and beyond’. I’ll add that I believe that the trajectory of shedding autocracy in the Middle East has not yet been completed. For one, what happens when ayatollah Khamenei passes away?