Processes taking place in the Middle East cannot be explained by drawing one line separating two hostile camps as it was in the case of the Cold War between the Free World headed by the US, and the USSR bloc. The political reality of the Middle East consists of many conflicts, and the interrelationships can best be demonstrated by drawing a spiderweb.
The fact that two countries share common interests and are considered to be allies does not exclude the connection of one of them with an enemy of the other (e.g., relations in the Russia-Iran-Israel triangle). It also happens that the official alliance can simply be a game of appearances, behind which there is hidden competition (e.g., relations between Russia and Iran), while the façade of hostility, or lack of diplomatic relations, can mask an actual alliance (e.g., Saudi-Israeli relations).
The harm of simplifications related to the Middle East
At present, the main regional state actors in the Middle East are Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, also the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Egypt, despite its military and demographic potential, plays a smaller role in these competitions, in part due to its structural problems and financial dependence on the richer countries of the region. Furthermore, the independent role of Jordan in the Middle East competition is considerably smaller, and the significance of this state rather stems from the fact that it remains the key and the most reliable ally of the United States and Great Britain in the region. Iraq, once one of the most powerful countries in the region, is slowly beginning to stand on its own feet, although internal problems still limit the possibility of outward use of its potential.
Egypt, despite its military and demographic potential, plays a smaller role in these competitions, in part due to its structural problems and financial dependence on the richer countries of the region. Furthermore, the independent role of Jordan in the Middle East competition is considerably smaller, and the significance of this state rather stems from the fact that it remains the key and the most reliable ally of the United States and Great Britain in the region. Iraq, once one of the most powerful countries in the region, is slowly beginning to stand on its own feet, although internal problems still limit the possibility of outward use of its potential.
The external actors are primarily three large superpowers: the US, Russia, and China, with the latter being less visible than the first two. Regional rivalries, however, do not follow the pattern determined by the clash of global power interests, and some countries consider both Russia and the US as their allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia and Israel), and even both the US and Iran (e.g., Iraq). European countries, especially Great Britain and France, play a smaller but nonetheless important role, which a hundred years ago divided the Middle East into several spheres of influence. That picture, as far as state entities are concerned, is complemented by Germany, whose role is largely passive and is a derivative of German-Turkish ties. Non-state actors also play an important role, especially cross-border Islamic organizations such as the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is tempting to point out one key to the entire Middle Eastern conundrum of alliances, problems, and conflicts, bringing the whole puzzle into a simple answer for the question of “what is going on?” There are such responses which are put forth. Some point out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crucial; others bring everything to oil, and others to the religious war between Shias and Sunnis. None of these answers, however, explain all conflicts and problems, and the use of any simplifications does not make it easier, but rather makes it even more difficult to understand what is happening in the Middle East. An example may be the deception of the conflict in Syria in the first years of its existence. It was then understood to have been brought about to fight for those who wanted the freedom of “moderate rebels” against a bad dictator. The fact that there is even another force, i.e., branches of Syrian Kurds, was usually neglected at least until the end of 2014, because of the notion that talking about them was an unnecessary complication of the scenario, and mistaken assumption that the cantons of Rojava created by them already in 2012 were an ephemera that would disappear quickly. However, it turned out completely different, and Rojava, or West Kurdistan, developed into the existing Autonomous Administration of North-Eastern Syria, covering all areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
In fact, to describe what is happening in the Middle East, we must distinguish several autonomous conflicts, i.e. the regional Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the Yemen war primarily within it, the Iran-Israel conflict, the war in Syria, the problem of Islamic State, Al Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood, the isolation of Qatar, and the Kurdish and Palestinian problems. Geopolitical interests overlap, in particular, related to trade in energy raw materials, such as oil and gas, as well as religious and ideological conflicts (sometimes undervalued and sometimes overestimated). One cannot ignore the problem of democracy in the Middle East, although talking about it often provokes ridicule from people who are convinced that in this region one can only rule with a firm hand and that democracy is only the West’s excuse to intervene. Disregarding this problem in the name of realpolitik, however, leads to conclusions that fuel the Middle Eastern tragedy, failing to solve any problems, and often creating new ones permanently. On the other hand, democracy in the Middle East is often like a grenade that can easily explode in one’s hand.
Another problem is terrorism, and in particular, its understanding. After all, in 2001, after the attack on the WTC, President George Bush began intervention in the region under the slogan of the global war on terror. In the Middle East, however, the saying “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” works well, and is perfectly illustrated by the Israeli leaders (fighting Palestinian organizations like Hamas) and Turkey (leading a decades-long war with the Kurdish PKK) mutually labelling their opponents as criminal and their activity as genocides. Terrorism, however, is only a tool, not a spontaneous problem.
A shadow of Wahhabism over the Arabian Peninsula
The most important contention destabilizing the Middle East is currently the Saudi-Iranian regional competition, which is often reduced to the so-called “fitnah,” or the sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis. However, albeit this is a far-reaching simplification, it is impossible to abstain from this aspect completely. Saudi Arabia is not only so much a Sunni state, as it was created on the Wahabi ideological foundation, and the problem of exporting this extremist ideology is crucial for understanding many problems not only in the Middle East but also around the world, including Europe. Wahhabism is inextricably linked to Saudi statehood from its beginnings in the middle of the 18th century. One of the Arab emirs, Muhammad ibn Saud, made a pact with radical Islamic reformer Muhammad ibn Wahab. Its effect was the creation of the first Saudi state, in which Wahhabism became the obligatory version of Islam. This ideology rejected the Muslim tradition and strives to restore the Islamic rule prevailing in the seventh century and prohibiting everything contradictory to its restrictively understood monotheism. The consequence was that in this point of view it categorizes many Muslims, in particular, Shias, as apostates of ‘faith,’ and therefore ‘unfaithful,’ meriting the most severe punishments. The first Saudi state was thus not much different from the modern Islamic State, which sought to murder all Shias. In 1801, the Saudis burned one of the most sacred Shia places – the mausoleum of Imam Hussein in Iraqi Karbala, murdering almost all residents of the city. Thirteen years later, the Ottoman penal expedition captured the last ruler of the first Saudi state, who was beheaded in Istanbul.
During the First World War, the British made a pact with the descendant of Muhammad ibn Saud, Abdulaziz, so that in 1932 he reconstructed the Saudi state, in which Wahhabism was once again instated. Radical ideology was not very much in harmony with the interests that the ruler of the new kingdom and his successors began to engage with the “infidel” West, which is why the Saudi rulers had to take care of their Wahabi followers. Hence, they established a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which became a fiefdom of the family of ibn Wahhab. The Ministry, into which income largely flows from the sale of oil, undertook the export of Wahhabism, including to the western world. These were particularly intense during the reign of King Fahd (1982-2005), who allocated 75 billion dollars for the export of Wahhabism. The effect of this policy was violent radicalization in the Muslim world, which was indirectly paradoxically financed by the West. In this way, Al Qaeda was also established, which entered into conflict with the Saudi kingdom but maintained some contacts with the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. This was confirmed by the Congress’s report on the WTC attacks, which indicated that the perpetrators (almost all Saudi citizens) received financial support from some of the high-ranking Saudi officials and members of the royal family. Of course, almost all of which were Saudis.
The Wahabis have never changed their attitude to the Shias, who make up at least 15% of the Saudi Arabian population and are persecuted in this country. A similar situation exists in the ruling Royal family of Bahrain, in which the Shias constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, but moreover this country had belonged to Iran in the past. When, in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring erupted, the Shia in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also joined the protests. However, the protests were quickly and grimly suppressed, and in Bahrain, the Saudi army simply conducted military intervention, turning the country into a de facto protectorate. The Saudis also accused Iran of being behind the protests, and as a result of the antipathy towards Iran, the West turned a blind eye to the applied methods of dealing with the Shia. Meanwhile, Iran has indeed taken up the use of Shia communities in the Arabian Peninsula for the implementation of its great geopolitical project i.e., the Shia crescent.
The notion of the Shia crescent is based on the
assumption of a close alliance of Iran,
dominated by Shias in Iraq, Syria ruled by Assad, dominated by the Shia Hezbollah of Lebanon, and controlled by the Shia-Yazidi Houthis in Yemen. In this way, Iran would gain land access to the Mediterranean and also control two key straits, i.e., Hormuz (exiting from the Persian Gulf) and Bab al-Mandab, which is the gate leading through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. By marking a land route to the Lebanese port of Tripoli, Iran could intensify its trade with Europe. In particular, this would apply to oil and gas exports, not only from Iran but also from Iraq and Syria. This would affect the transit position of Turkey and would be an alternative to Russian supplies of these raw materials to Europe. This would be part of the new Chinese “silk road” project. Thus, it determines the naturalness of the Sino-Iranian and, to some extent, Euro-Iranian cooperation, as well as the unnatural character of the “alliance” in the Iran-Turkey-Russia triangle, which develops in the so-called ‘Astana format’.
The Iranian-Russian alliance is purely tactical because both countries have no common interests in the geopolitical dimension. In particular, this applies to Syria, where Russia is only seemingly on the same side as Iran. It is equally uninterested in building a land connection between Iran and Lebanon as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and therefore does not actively attempt to discourage Israel from raiding Iranian positions in Syria. Moreover, Russian-Israeli relations are intense, as are the Russian-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia is the main partner of Russia in the OPEC + format and arrangements for global oil extraction in order to shape prices of this raw material. These relations likewise provoke Iran’s frustration. Also, it does not change the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia are key US allies in the region. The increasingly strengthening relations of both these countries with Russia, which are also a derivative of the fears of an isolationist turn in US politics, awaken concern among Americans.
The project of the Shia crescent is not about the export of the Shia Islamic revolution. Such an idea existed after the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, but currently, Iran’s Shia support stems rather from the fact that they are their natural proxy in the ongoing surrogate confrontations with Saudi Arabia. Iran operates here in the Arab world while it is itself a non-Arab state. This card is being used in this conflict by Saudi Arabia, trying to break the key link of the Shia crescent, i.e., weaken Iraqi-Iranian relations and strengthen Saudi-Iraqi relations by referring to the collective Arab identity. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also have an advantage over Iran when it comes to the ability to invest in Iraq, which after the war with the Islamic State, it needs very much. A similar pattern of action can also be applied in Syria as well.
Already concurrently, the Sunni Arab states, except for Qatar, are trying to normalize their relations with Damascus, using, inter alia, the intermediation of Russia. Russia is also interested in this because it alone has no means to rebuild Syria and does not want to allow China to undertake such an opportunity, because it would be a dangerous competitor in this area.
Iraq and Yemen: Saudi-Iranian rivalry
Iraqis are strongly divided in relation to Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, even many Shias do not accept Iran’s disproportionate influence in Iraq. On the other hand, they remember that the Sunni Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have contributed to destabilizing Iraq after 2003 in supporting the sectarian resentment of the Sunni minority towards the Shia majority, and that Iran helped Iraq to fight the Islamic State. Currently, Iran’s main ally in Iraq is the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) created based on Shia militia, which is evolving towards a similar role in Iraq as the Revolutionary Guardian Corps (Pasdaran) in Iran. Iran has two priorities in Iraq: on the one hand, stabilization, whilst also preventing the over-strengthening of Iraq, because it could lead to the regional rivalry of the country with Iran; and in balancing on the other hand, the ensuring of the dominant role of Shias. Iran takes advantage of the fact that for Arab Shias in Iraq, the Arab identity is not very important. However, in being pragmatic, it also tries to find allies among Kurds and Iraqi Sunnis. Meanwhile, the policy of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states towards Iraq was based on three core characteristics: not allowing the prevalence of the Shia regime in Iraq, preventing the Iraqi regional potential from being restored, and disallowing the construction of a stable democracy in that country.
The emergence of a stable democracy in a strong, 40-million state, in addition to being dominated by Shias, would be a nightmare for Sunni monarchies because it would give a “fatal” example to the citizens of these countries. In 2016, notwithstanding, the Saudis changed their approach to Iraq, because they understood that their policy of distancing themselves from the authorities in Baghdad only strengthens the influence of Iran in Iraq.
Nevertheless, the actual main arena of Saudi-Iranian rivalry is currently in Yemen, where a war is fought between the Houthis, supported by Iran, and the legally-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, supported militarily by the Sunni coalition with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Yemen’s puzzle is additionally complicated by the activity of Al Qaeda and Islamic State in the south of this country as well as the active separatism of the south, which in the past was a separate state with the capital in Aden. A significant contributing cause of the Yemeni conflict was the swinging of the local Koranic schools, which has been ongoing since the 1980s, in part due to the layout of the long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, deposed in 2011, with Saudi Arabia. The Zaidiyyah, although they are Shia, belong to a different school of Islam than Shia Twelvers prominent in Iran, and therefore for centuries had little differences with Yemenite Sunnis, who follow the Shafi’i school of law that is considered moderate. The emergence of the Wahhabism imported from Saudi Arabia changed this situation and also led to the radicalization of the Zaidi community and the increasing imitation of the system created in Iran. This was the genesis of the creation of the Houthi Movement, which at the end of 2014 took control of the capital of the country, Sana’a, the main port of al-Hudeida and the majority of the northern part of the country. Hadi managed to escape to Saudi Arabia, where he asked for military support, which led to the ongoing war.
War in Syria and the Kurdish problem
Much more complicated still is the civil war in Syria, where the interests of not only Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Israel, Russia, the USA, Turkey, and Qatar are intersecting, and which also involves both the Kurdish and (indirectly) Palestinian problems. Now, after the near-complete suppression of the anti-Assad rebellion and the abolition of the Islamic State in its territorial dimension, the Syrian Autonomous Administration (NES), created in territories dominated by Syrian Kurds is of key importance to Syria’s future as well as US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The second key problem is also the occupation of northern Syria by Turkey. Both issues are interrelated because Turkish policy is determined by the anti-Kurdish phobia in this country. As a result, Turkey, being a member of NATO, runs a policy that is completely contrary to the interests of other Alliance countries. One of the manifestations of this paradox was Turkey’s at the least friendly neutrality towards jihadists from Islamic State and Al Qaeda fighting Kurds in Syria. Turkey consistently interfered with the US in operations targeted at Islamic State, striking, again and again, at the key American land ally, i.e., the SDF. Such action was beneficial for Russia, for which either alternative – either weakening NATO’s cohesion, or the US abandoning the Kurds (being their sole ally in Syria) – would be a win-win situation. Leaving the Kurds would have an additional positive effect for Russia because it would create a vacuum in northern Syria that only Iran or Russia could fill. Israel and Saudi Arabia would, of course, aim for it not to be Iran, which in turn would bind them more strongly with Russia. Such a scenario began to follow the US declaration regarding a withdrawal from Syria, but it was blocked (at least temporarily) after the announcement that partial US forces would be remaining in this region. Iran’s determination to open the corridor connecting it with the Mediterranean also determines Israel’s policy, which fears the use of such a connection to the logistical support of Israel’s opponents, in particular Hezbollah, which in combination with the Iranian nuclear program is now perceived by Israel as an existential threat.
The Kurdish problem is the subject of many misunderstandings. One of the frequent mistakes is not distinguishing between Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. Meanwhile, the relations between NES and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) are quite cold even though both of these entities are US allies. As far as KRG is concerned, this does not prevent them from maintaining close relations with Iran and lead Rosneft to gain a key position on the Kurdish energy market. Another misunderstanding is the recognition of a real thesis put forward by propagated Turkish notions equating Kurdish troops in Syria with the PKK. An additional, fundamental mistake is the belief that the Kurds are fighting to create an independent state. Such a postulate was put forward only by the Kurdish Democratic Party (PDK) which dominated the Iraqi Kurdistan and referred only to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, not to the entirety of Kurdistan. On the other hand, the Kurds in Syria have never advanced the postulates of secession, even while striving to federalize Syria or to grant autonomy to its north-eastern part.
Troublesome US allies
Closer cooperation between Turkey and Russia and its hostility towards SDF are not the only points where Turkish and American interests are contradictory. After 2011, Turkey proceeded to enthusiastically support the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. The supranational organization, with which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ruling in Turkey since 2002 has connections, on the wave of Arab Spring has also has taken power in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, is designated as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and therefore the Saudis supported in July 2013 a coup in Egypt that led to the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Since then, the relations between Turkey on the one hand and Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the other are openly hostile. The Muslim Brotherhood has one more ally – Qatar, which caused the country’s confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In July 2017, Saudi Arabia and UAE accused Qatar supporting terrorism and cooperating with Iran, made several demands, and then introduced the blockade of this country and threatening military intervention. The Qatari Emir was then protected by Turkey, which sent its troops to this country. Qatar maintains good relations with Iran, although at the same time it is perceived as the main sponsor of anti-Shia jihadists by allies of Iran in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, the largest US military base in the region also is situated in Qatar. Hence, the Saudi-Qatari dispute is another problem for US interests in the region. Moreover, the Turkish-Israeli contention should also be added to this. Relations between these two countries were excellent during the Cold War, though they began to deteriorate with the coming into power of Islamist Erdogan, and now they are already openly hostile. One of the reasons for this is Turkey’s support for Palestinian Hamas.
The US would like to formalize between Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE with Israel. This was the purpose of the Middle East conference held in Warsaw. The informal cooperation of these countries, despite not maintaining diplomatic relations, has been an open secret for quite a while. They are joined by a common enemy: Iran. However, the Palestinian problem is an obstacle to the formalization of this cooperation. It is not about the fact that Palestinians play an essential role in Saudi politics, but for fear of the reaction of Arab public opinion. In effect, the Palestinians themselves are treated entirely instrumentally by the Arab states of the region.
Old and new challenges
The future of mutual relations in the Middle East cauldron will also be marked by new challenges such as conflicts over water, demographic changes, as well as changes in the regional balance of power. The main determinants will be demographic potential, internal cohesion, military, and economic potential, including that of raw materials. Currently, according to the Global Fire Power rating, in the region, Turkey has the largest military potential (9th place), followed by Egypt (12th) and Iran (13th), with only Iran showing an upward trend. In further places, there are Israel (16), Saudi Arabia (26), and Iraq (47). In terms of demographic potential, the largest country is Egypt, followed by Turkey and Iran. Fourth place is Iraq, which, however, has a very high birth rate. On the other hand, the share of Sunni Arab states in the total population of the region is decreasing. Currently, the population of Sunni countries on the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain) is only 62 million inhabitants, for a total population of 440 million in the region (including Egypt, Turkey, and Iran). According to forecasts, in 2050, the population of these countries will increase to only 84 million and will be comparable to the then population of Iraq (82 million), while the entire population of the region will increase to almost 720 million.
From Saudi Arabia’s point of view, the greatest threat is paradoxically the collapse of the current regime in Iran, which the US aims for, seeing Saudi Arabia as an ally in this policy. Meanwhile, the rise of a democratic Iran would not only cause a domino effect in the region, but Iran as a US ally would be much more valuable than Saudi Arabia. Thus, it would be a nail to the coffin for the Saudi monarchy.
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