Middle Eastern geopolitics II ­­­— Arab states

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Tarek Osman continues his series of articles on Middle Eastern geopolitics by looking at the priorities of the Arab states



ome Arab states do not have any geopolitical priorities, because over the past decade they have lost their cohesion, been effectively divided, or have seen their central authorities acutely diluted to the benefit of non-state actors, as described in the first article in this series.

Of the Arab states that retain their cohesion and the power of their central authorities, three groups are the most important in Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The first group comprises Egypt, Tunisia, and, Jordan. This is trying to retain the primary features of the geopolitical order that has prevailed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region over the past three decades and since the end of the Cold War. This is because these countries have had, to varying extents, significant influence over that order.

In their operations in the Middle Eastern geographical theatre, these countries try to maintain some pan-Arab cooperation on important international affairs. In their calculus, any form of collective Arab functioning, even if limited, gives momentum to the geopolitical order of the past decades.

Political collectivism also helps these countries. Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia all face serious internal socioeconomic challenges, which consume resources and attention. Each of them also confronts a set of national security challenges, from the operations of non-state actors on their borders to threats to crucial resources such as water, to drug-trafficking problems.

In their attempts to sustain forms of strategic cooperation between the Arab states that continue to retain geographical cohesion and effective central authorities, this group of Arab states tries to leverage collective Arab capabilities to compensate for the dilution of resources they often experience as a result of their tackling the national security dangers and economic challenges they confront.

A second group of Arab states comprises Algeria and Morocco, which despite the acute differences in their conceptions of national security share a key geopolitical feature. Whereas the strategic positioning of the first group of Arab states remains primarily anchored in Middle Eastern geopolitics, Algeria and Morocco increasingly have strategic orientations that transcend the region.

Algeria aims to become a primary energy provider to Europe, a role that will likely focus its attention in the foreseeable future on Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. Morocco, on the other hand, has headed south. In the past decade, it has successfully entrenched its political, economic, and cultural presence in Francophone West Africa.

The third group of Arab states comprises those in the Arabian Peninsula. All of these have managed not only to emerge from the decade since the Arab uprisings in a sociopolitically cohesive way and with strong central authorities, but the most internationally ambitious of them – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have also widened their influence in different parts of the Arab world in ways unprecedented in modern Arab history.

This has largely been because a long period of relatively high energy prices has endowed the Arabian Peninsula states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with immense financial resources that have enabled them to operate in the region and beyond with almost no limitations. Add to that the fact that these financial resources have come at a time when both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been under highly ambitious and assertive leaders.

The fact that these states operate without the shackles of limited resources has endowed them with confidence and attracted regional players to them – especially power centres in finance and the media – that want to associate themselves with seemingly unlimited wealth and with boats that the tides have taken to glorious highs.  

But the primary strategic differentiator of this group of states is the fact that they aim to evolve the geopolitical order of the region from the one that prevailed in the decades before the Arab uprisings that began in 2010-2011.

Political economy plays a paramount role here. The Arabian Peninsula states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, deem their political economy models to be successful and compatible with today’s world. Political economy is always a shaper of geopolitics. In presenting themselves as models of success, and in being by far the richest players in a region plagued by acute socioeconomic problems, the Arabian Peninsula states have been able to position themselves as a frame of reference for others in the region.

For those that adopt that frame of reference, the supposed promise is transformation from lethargy and chronic laggardness towards dynamism and relevance in a world that is changing at a disorienting pace.

The ambitions of the Arabian Peninsula states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, also go beyond the Arab world and the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to forge new interlinked interests with rising powers such as India and South Africa that are primarily anchored on trade, finance, and technology and subsequently on shared security. These interests are not based on what are sometimes referred to as “the grievances of the Global South.” On the contrary, they reflect the shared ambitions of powers that see themselves as poised for a further rise and wider influence.

In attempting to evolve the geopolitical order of the Middle East, and in linking themselves to other rising powers, the ambitious Arabian Peninsula countries are changing their positioning with regard to the global powers of the US, China, and the EU. They are transforming old relationships that were based on energy for security towards new partnerships in which they have a serious say in the geopolitics of regions that they consider important to their security and ambitions, particularly the eastern Mediterranean, East Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent, as well as the key trading routes linking Asia with Europe.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also aim to be voices that are listened to on key international policies, particularly the future of renewable energy and the global financial system.

However, these highly ambitious Arabian Peninsula states, like the countries of the first and second Arab groups, face two major geopolitical challenges.

As the next article in this series will show, the first challenge is that regional non-Arab powers like Iran, Turkey, and Israel see the current geopolitical moment in the eastern Mediterranean as being extremely important for them, and each has geopolitical objectives that are not necessarily compatible with the interests of the Arab groups.

The second challenge is that the key international powers of the US, China, and the EU see the region extending from the Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa in ways that are vastly different from those that they operated with in the past half century.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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