Rapid developments in the Middle East indicate an undergoing process to reshape the region, especially amidst a global situation highlighted by the ramification of the military struggle in Ukraine. Though the US disengagement from the region began years earlier, its current strategy of focusing on Russia and China has triggered new regional dynamics.
Some might argue that recent competition between rising regional powers has its roots in the decades that followed independence in the last century. However, it might be more accurate to mark the start with the end of the Cold War three decades ago. Since then, the global arena has seen many attempts to create a new world order, one that reinforces the position of the US as the sole superpower leading a wider Western coalition and with global influence spanning across the world.
The US disengagement from the region has coincided with the decline of the Palestinian issue. The Arab-Israeli struggle has shrunk to become just the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, removing the regional weight of what were once known as the “belt countries” that surrounded Palestine. The last half of the 20th century also witnessed the rise and fall of Arab nationalism, which could be attributed to the wider global phenomenon of the end of ideologies, but in fact saw its true turning point in the Gulf War.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s, followed by the call by the Western countries to end the occupation and later the occupation of Iraq by Anglo-American forces, was a death certificate for an already declining nationalism. During that period, Islamist movements began to appear in some Arab countries, culminating in their hijack of the popular protests in 2011. A short stint of nationalist/Islamist cooperation after the turn of the century was the final breath of nationalism in the region.
But none of these political trends dominated the wider territory in the way that other ideologies had done previously. This is why they faded away, along with the dreams that accompanied the post-independence state in the Middle East. The destruction of Iraq at the turn of the century removed one of the main pillars of the order of the region. The remaining two pillars, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had to deal with other players: first, Qatar as the main business address for the Islamist groups, and then the UAE as the main antagonist to Islamist fundamentalism.
Irrespective of talk regarding a policy of “creative chaos” or other external factors, the region was ripe for change a decade into this century. This erupted in the form of popular protests in Tunisia, Syria, and other places at unprecedented speed. Arab monarchies from Morocco to the Gulf appeared to be immune to these protests, but that immunity did not only come from oil wealth, but instead from a socio-economic system that made their citizens indifferent to politics.
With Iraq reduced to a failed state, Syria tormented in a sectarian war, Libya almost broken as a state, Yemen in a protracted Civil War, and Algeria in a weak position, Egypt managed to weather the period following its own protests. By default, the Gulf countries rose to be more influential. Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla’s book The Gulf Moment in Contemporary Arab History concludes that the Gulf states are poised to lead the Middle East, filling the void left by the traditional power centres that dominated the region post-independence.
However, the notion that Saudi Arabia or the UAE are now reshaping the region or pushing for a new Arab order assumes that there was in fact an old Arab order. It is difficult to say that there ever was an Arab order, which is probably why many commentators now prefer to use the orientalist term “Middle East” instead, even as the Middle East, in Western thinking, includes regional powers like Turkey, Iran, and maybe even Pakistan.
Many analysts of the region use the term to implicitly, or explicitly, include Israel as well. So, it would be more appropriate to talk about a “new Middle East order” and one that might not have any of the rising regional Arab powers in the lead. With the traditional regional power centres weakened, the rising claimants to leadership must deal with the three regional powers of Israel, Iran, and Turkey.
Gulf wealth is of course important, especially at times of global economic distress that have been impacting the region. The UAE in particular has been building up its foreign policy to lure as many countries of the region to align with its bold stance on regional and global issues as possible. Saudi Arabia might be feeling intimidated by the UAE’s policies. Yet, in the end both countries share a lot of common interests in a new Middle East free of old and irrelevant clichés – from Palestine as a central Arab cause to the dream of Arab nationalism or Islamism.
In a way similar to the US struggle to lead the world alone, with the support of its Western allies, the new regional powers could find it difficult to lead the region alone even with the support of some allies. This has become apparent in the disastrous Civil War in Sudan, which no country in the region has been able to stop. Almost all resent others’ interference in this war-torn Nile Basin country.
The writer is a London-based seasoned journalist.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.