The Battle for Hegemony in the Middle East
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
Dr Einat Wilf is a Harvard and Cambridge trained political analyst. Her foreign policy and analysis roles include Baye Foundation Adjunct Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, consultant with McKinsey & Co, Intelligence Officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Foreign Policy Advisor to Shimon Peres when he was Israel’s Vice Prime Minister. While a member of the Israeli parliament, Dr Wilf served on its prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Acknowledgment: The author thanks Noah Slepkov for his research assistance
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and new cannot be born, and in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
—Antonio Gramsci, The prison notebooks, 1929–1935
The story of the Middle East for decades to come is of a battle for the hegemony of Sunni Islam, especially in the Arab world, and of the efforts by non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims to ensure that no dominant Sunni power capable of uniting the Sunni Arab world, and ultimately the Sunni world more broadly, emerges.
The Sunni world in general, and the Arab Sunni world in particular, lies in ruins. In some cases, quite literally. However, the current malaise of the Sunni Arab world shouldn’t cover the simple fact that Sunni Muslims make up the majority of Muslims around the world and that the Arab world is almost exclusively Sunni. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, due to the intervention of the conquering British and French powers, Sunni Arabs had little to say about their political organisation. Now that they are emerging from a century-long political hiatus, a united Sunni Arab world constitutes one of the biggest, but still contestable, geopolitical prizes.
Whereas borders have been drawn, alliances have been determined and clear regional hegemons have emerged on most of the world’s landmass, in the Middle East borders have been erased by the political sandstorm that was the Arab Spring, structures and alliances have been broken and no natural hegemon has yet emerged. Yet, this was a region that was united in the past and therefore has the potential to be united again.
Should a united Sunni Arab polity emerge, especially if it unites under the banner of the more extreme interpretations of Islam, it could constitute an existential threat to the non-Sunni, non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities of the Middle East. Those minorities therefore have no greater strategic imperative than to ensure that no such polity, as well as no hegemonic power capable of creating such a polity, emerges. The defence and diplomatic policies of the minorities of the Middle East should be understood as having been crafted to serve that end.
The policies of the Middle East’s non-Sunni and non-Muslim minorities echo the famous description of British foreign policy towards Europe, as put forth in the legendary comedy ‘Yes, Minister’:
Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians.
In the Middle East, the role of Britain in that scenario is played by Iran, Israel and Russia, which, despite their rivalries, all share the consistent goal of a disunited Middle East and are willing to form whatever alliances are necessary to that end.
Sunni actors, for their part, seek to consolidate their position as viable contenders for hegemony of the Sunni world in general and the Sunni Arab world in particular, while at the very least preventing any other serious contender from emerging. Part of becoming a viable contender involves also putting in place domestic policies that help bolster the credibility of the claimant to leadership—be it a state or a non-state actor—among the Sunni Muslims of the region.
Other grand narratives put forward for understanding the Middle East, such as ‘the battle between Sunna and Shia Islam’, fail to take note of the vast disparity in area and numbers between Sunni and Shia Islam, as well as the near impossibility of Shia Islam dominating the peoples and lands of Sunni Islam. At 10–15%, Shia are the minority in Islam (Figure 1). Outside Iran, Azerbaijan and certain areas of Iraq, they are a beleaguered minority, with Iran as their only protector. This is also the case for Shias in diaspora communities around the world. Shia Islam, as led by Iran, struggles not so much for domination of the Middle East, which a Shia Persian power can hardly expect to achieve, as much as to prevent the emergence of a united Sunni Arab force that would threaten it.
Iran’s Islamist revolution of 1979 might have served to bolster Iran’s regional credibility as a Muslim republic, but it also showed that its brand of Islam remains contested and even denied and denigrated in the region. Iran’s claim to Islamic leadership can at most be understood as a defence against the notion, frequently promulgated by Sunni Muslims, that it’s an illegitimate and heretical nation.
Iran’s nuclear policies are also better understood in this light. Iran is not only influenced by the possession of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, but is also a minority power seeking to defend itself against the threat of an emerging hegemon. Iran has walked the fine line between pursuing nuclear capabilities and becoming an actual nuclear weapons power. Walking that fine line has been a carefully crafted policy designed to convey deterrence through the projection of Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons, while not going so far as developing weapons that would drive its opponents to also seek full nuclear capabilities that would threaten it in turn.
The battle to replace the lost hegemony of the Ottoman Empire is waged among those who could credibly claim leadership of the Sunni world over which it once held sway. The serious players in this game are primarily Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and new Islamist contenders claiming to represent the vision of an Islamic state, or caliphate.
Turkey is the direct heir of the Ottoman Empire and was home to the last accepted caliph, or ruler of the Muslim world. As such, Turkey can make a powerful claim to reuniting the Sunni world under its leadership. However, its development after World War I, in which Ataturk remade it into a modern secular state with a Western orientation, including its disavowal of the role of a caliph, has rendered it for some time an irrelevant player in the game for Sunni dominance. Turkey, like much of the Sunni world that its empire once controlled, is reawakening from its ‘lost century’ to contest its role as leader of the Sunni world.
As a non-Arab country, Turkey is at a disadvantage as it seeks to unite mostly Sunni Arabs. Erdogan’s election and policies—which have solidified Turkey’s turn away from the EU and the West towards the Middle East and Caucasus region—have served to slowly remake Turkey into an Islamic country with solid Islamic credentials. To an extent, Erdogan’s domestic policies are the Turkish equivalent of Iran’s Islamic revolution. However, whereas Iran’s Islamic revolution is useful at most to defend Iran against claims of illegitimacy and heresy, which a Shia and Persian country needs to address, Turkey’s gradual Islamic revolution, combined with its Ottoman heritage, help to position it as a credible claimant to hegemony over the Sunni world.
Unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia is undeniably both Arab and Islamic. It’s the birthplace of Islam and the fountain of the Arab conquests. Saudi Arabia possesses prized assets in the battle for Sunni Arab leadership. They include the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, its Arabism and of course its control of much of the world’s oil reserves and the power to set prices, although that’s now weakened by the US. Since the 1970s, Saudi Arabia has successfully used its oil wealth to promote its brand of puritanical Islam—Wahhabism—around the world. In that process, it has changed and even undermined countries from Mauritania to Malaysia, from Ethiopia to Pakistan.
Ostensibly partners of the West in the war on terror, the Saudis have been called ‘both the arsonists and the firefighters’.1 Under the cover of cultural exchanges and charities, Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated US$75–100 billion2 exporting extremist ideology by building mosques, publishing textbooks, training imams, establishing TV stations and creating organisations such as the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization.3 A 2005 report estimated that Saudi Arabia spent $120 million inside Australia’s Islamic community.4 Meanwhile, foreign workers who arrive in the kingdom from South Asia return home under the sway of Wahhabism and magnify Saudi Arabia’s influence.
Saudi Arabia has a powerful claim to uniting the Arab and Sunni Muslim worlds, as Mohammed and his caliphs did from the seventh to the tenth century. However it’s a fragile country, especially as questions of succession loom large. It has staked the legitimacy of its rule on an alliance with the most fundamentalist form of Islam—a form that has blown back to inspire Islamist contenders such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to challenge the legitimacy of the current Saudi regime. Moreover, the Saudis’ substantial and visible assets, including their military apparatus and purchases, are a valuable target for any claimant wanting to lead and unite the Sunni Arab world. Islamist non-state actors consider deposing the ruling family a necessary step towards uniting the Sunni Arabs. Saudi Arabia finds itself suspended between laying a claim to leadership and becoming a major battleground among other Sunni forces fighting for hegemony.
The Saudi ruling family faces grave danger from non-state Islamic contenders that have made clear their ambitions to unite Sunni Arabs under their leadership. Those contenders, whether al-Qaeda, the intentionally named Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or any of the various groups that have been inspired by the Saudis’ extremist interpretation of Islam and the notion of separating true believers from heretics, all contend that they have the purest and therefore the best credentials for leading the Sunni Arab world. They also have a clearly stated ambition to do so. In the quest to attain hegemony, they seek to control assets, such as those possessed by Saudi Arabia.
The campaign of terror waged by non-state Islamist groups should be understood as a two-pronged campaign to:
• position themselves as the only ones committed to an all-out Islamic war against the West
• delegitimise any other possible contenders for the position of Sunni Arab leadership.
By attacking the West, they can more easily portray Saudi Arabia and Egypt as ‘in the pocket of the West’. By attacking other non-Sunnis, they bolster their Sunni credentials, and by attacking Sunnis who fail to profess what is according to them the ‘one true path’ of Islam they set themselves up as the arbiters of faith and heresy in Sunni Islam, delegitimising any contenders as not sufficiently Muslim.
That ISIS is currently the most recognisable face of an Islamist contender for hegemony does not mean that if it’s defeated all Islamist contenders are defeated. If that specific Islamic state is defeated, there are others ready to assume the mantle. The working assumption should be that Islamist contenders will be part of the battle for hegemony of the Middle East for decades to come.
egypt is a perennial claimant to leadership of the Arab world. It certainly views itself as the ‘mother of nations’ and, given its pre-Arab and pre-Muslim history, the nation that can claim the greatest degree of historical, cultural and national coherence in the region, over millennia. It’s also home to the largest number of Sunni Arabs and can therefore make the simple numerical claim to leadership of the Sunni Arab world. Its location between North Africa and the Levant also gives it a geographical advantage.
Under Nasser’s pan-Arabism, Egypt appeared close to realising the vision of Arab unity under a secular nationalist ideology. Its crushing defeat by Israel in 1967 (even if partially redeemed by the war of 1973) and its subsequent turn to the West and a peace agreement with Israel have undermined that effort and left Egypt out of the leadership game for several decades, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t reclaim that position at some point and perhaps succeed more than it did under Nasser.
Currently, Egypt seems more intent on ensuring that no serious rival could emerge, rather than assuming the mantle itself. Even though Egypt is home to one of the most important centres of Islamic learning and interpretation, its Islamic star has been on the wane, the outcome of the staunch secularism of its military rulers, their battles against the Muslim Brotherhood and the success of Saudi Arabia in promoting the Saudi brand of Islamism.
Should Egypt come under a strong and stable Islamist rule, it would become a formidable contender for the Sunni Arab leadership. It might be particularly relevant if Egypt were to reclaim and propagate its relatively more moderate al-Azhar form of Islam and unite the Sunni Arab world under that banner, in opposition to the extremist interpretations in play. However, as long as Egypt lacks powerful Islamist credentials, it’s likely to focus on ensuring that, at the very least, no rival claimant to Sunni Arab leadership can emerge.
Egypt’s warming relations with Israel under President al-Sisi could be understood in this context. As long as Egypt doesn’t work directly to unite the Arab Sunni world, but merely to prevent the emergence of any rival capable of doing that, it will find in Israel a reliable ally who shares that goal and is committed to a disunited Arab Middle East.
Like Iran, Israel is a powerful state that’s the home of a minority denied and denigrated in the region—the Jews. Whereas Iran is the clear leader and defender of the Shia minority in the region—some of whom don’t live in Iran— Israel is the clear leader and defender of the tiny Jewish minority presence in the region. However, unlike Iran, which views itself as protecting Shia minorities throughout the region while also using them for its defence, ever since the Arab and Iranian expulsion of Jews from the region, Israel is the exclusive home of Jews in the region and their defender exclusively within its borders, as almost no Jews exist in the Middle East outside Israel.
Israel and its Jews are threatened, including with potential annihilation, by the spectre of a united Sunni power. In fact, a common view of Israel in the region is that it’s a deliberate wedge put in place by the West to prevent a united Sunni power from ever emerging. Israel’s position as home to and defender of the Jewish minority also means that it could be relied upon to never compete for hegemony of the Muslim and Arab world. This makes Israel, as long as it remains powerful, a potential ‘joker’ ally to be used by the various players in the grand battle to ensure that none of their rivals emerges as a hegemon.
While this grand struggle might appear to be contained to the region of the Middle East and North Africa, its development has profound implications for Russia, Africa, Asia and the West. The simple reason is that whenever Islam was united, whether under Arab or Ottoman rule, it attacked and conquered large parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. A united Sunni world is an expanding one. In Islamic history, as in the history of all civilisations, expansion and conquest follow in the wake of unification.
One look at the map of the global distribution of Sunni Islam and the russian geopolitical imperative becomes crystal clear: prevent the emergence of any serious contender for a united Sunni leadership. The danger of a powerful united Islam on its borders, uniting Central Asia, with its wealth of natural resources, is the definition of a Russian nightmare. Russia, like Iran and like Israel, wants a disunited Middle East.
There are those who are tempted to view Russia’s intervention in the Middle East, especially in Syria, as heralding a new Cold War. There’s no doubt that Putin takes a certain pleasure in exposing American weakness and hesitancy, but Russia’s position in the Middle East is that of a regional divider, not a global uniter. Russia, like Israel and like Iran, can’t unite the Sunni world under its banner. Even if it were to cast itself in the role of protector of the region’s Christians, it would be nearly unemployed, as Christians are fast disappearing from the region through war, exodus, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Russia’s interests in the Middle East, then, aren’t ones of global hegemony, but of the defence of its interests in a neighbourhood that threatens its very core. Since Russia, as an Orthodox Christian nation, can make no credible claim for hegemony in the Muslim Middle East, it serves as a useful ally for those, such as Iran and Israel, that share its goal of a permanently disunited Middle East. It’s also a useful ally for potential contenders for hegemony, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which it can aid in preventing their rivals from rising above them.
Ironically, the one player in the Middle East that remains a mystery is the United States. Whereas all the other actors—including Russia—are of the region and therefore have specific and clear interests that relate to their very existence, defence and power, the interests of the US in the region remain unclear, probably also to itself.
The US can theoretically choose to leave behind the region and pivot to Asia—a choice unavailable to all the other actors, who are of the region and in the region. Other than a general desire to prevent terrorism from reaching US soil, it’s no longer clear whether the US has clear interests in the region that it’s committed to protect. With technological advances in energy, it’s no longer clear even whether the US has economic and energy interests in the region. And, if it doesn’t, is there anything else to keep it involved?
It’s not clear whether the US favours a united or a disunited Middle East and whether it has a position on the matter at all. Washington clearly wants a less bothersome Middle East, but it’s not clear what it’s willing to do to achieve that end. While President Trump speaks of standing by the US’s traditional allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, the US continues to project a lack of clarity about its interests and commitments in the region. This has already led all the other players to operate under the assumption of substantially decreased US presence and commitment, until events prove otherwise.
The Battle Ground Theater
In the grand strategic game of the Middle East—defined here as the battle to lead or thwart Sunni, and especially Sunni Arab, unification and hegemony—the players are grouped into those capable of leading (Turkey, Egypt, Saudi, Islamist contenders) or thwarting (Iran, Israel, Russia). The board on which they are playing the game includes four major ongoing battlegrounds (Syria, Iraq, Libya, yemen) and five or six potential battlegrounds (Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the various gulf states, egypt, perhaps Turkey). Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco are likely to remain at the margins but will be profoundly affected by the outcomes of the other battles.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are notable for being both potential leaders of the Muslim Sunni world and potential battlegrounds in the struggle to dominate that world.
Syria and Iraq are the central theatre, where the main battle is taking place. All the relevant actors are present in one form or another: Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and various Islamist contenders, with Egypt and Israel at the margins. While Syria lacks valuable natural resources and centres of Islamic legitimacy, it’s a historical centre of Islamic rule, and its territory, together with the Sunni part of Iraq, forms the second population pole of the Sunni Arab world (with Egypt as the second pole).
The territories of Iraq are reminiscent of the German-speaking territories in Europe in the mid-19th century: a grand mass in the centre of a region in turmoil, up for grabs by those who can unite them. The similarity also extends, as happened several decades after German unification, to the possibility of a unification under an extremist ideology that’s then used as a basis for conquering and uniting the entire region under its banner.
The various actors in the region understand that, just as a united Nazi Germany was well placed to begin a campaign of conquest across Europe, threatening at its peak the Soviet Union, Britain, North Africa and the Middle East, whichever actor succeeds in uniting the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq and Syria would be well placed to further unite the Arab world. It could move from the territories of Iraq and Syria into Lebanon and Jordan and perhaps Palestine (the rest of the Levant alluded to in the Islamic State’s name), into the grand prize of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, with their wealth and advanced military equipment, and from there into North Africa, Turkey, the Caucasus, Europe and Russia.
Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states understand that if the unification were to take place under the extremist ideology of the various Islamist contenders, be it the Islamic State or a new incarnation, it poses an immediate danger of annihilation to all who fall outside the purview of its version of Islam, which means Jews, Christians and Shias, as well as all Sunnis who would refuse to submit. The ferocity with which the war’s being fought is a consequence of the understanding shared by all actors that the battle for Syria isn’t merely about drawing borders and dividing territory, but an existential battle that could determine the future existence of various peoples of the region. America’s choice, a single attack aside, to stay away from Syria and to engage in very limited fighting against the Islamic State (just as it did for the European theatre throughout much of World War II) reflects its assessment that it’s still very far away from being threatened by the outcomes of that war.
The Syrian and Iraqi battles are threatening to turn neighbouring areas into new battlegrounds. The flows of refugees from Syria and Iraq into Jordan and Lebanon further threaten those already very fragile countries. It’s certainly the intention of the Islamist contenders that all of the Levant, which includes Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, should come under their rule. Cognisant of the dangerous possibility of becoming battlegrounds, the leaderships and populations of Jordan and Lebanon are struggling to manoeuvre carefully, and have so far avoided the worst manifestations of the revolutionary fervour of the early Arab Spring. However, the fragility of both countries is apparent, and scenarios in which they become battlegrounds in the game should be seriously considered.
Beyond Jordan lies the grand prize of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which the Islamist contenders seek to rule. The fall of Saudi Arabia into the hands of a non-state extremist Islamist group is a scenario that needs to be seriously considered, if for no other reason than that it’s the declared goal of all of those groups. Ironically, if such an organisation were to take over Saudi Arabia, it would be the place where the Islamists would have to make the least adjustments to law and society to bring them into line with the most extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Precisely because Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states possess the ultimate prizes for all those would seek Middle Eastern hegemony (Mecca, Medina, much of the world’s oil and large caches of advanced military equipment), the fall of the Saudi ruling family, or any other sign that Saudi Arabia is turning from contender to battleground, would be likely to spark even greater involvement in the battle, including by the US.
The battle for Yemen could be understood as being fought in the shadow of that possibility. Yemen is a nearly failed country that’s the geographical, social and political Achilles’ heel of the Arabian Peninsula. Any struggle for hegemony is likely to involve it as a southern gateway to Saudi Arabia. It’s no accident that the last wave of efforts at Arab unification under Nasser involved another murderous war in Yemen. Whereas Islamist contenders are using it to get to Saudi Arabia from the south, the Saudis are fighting bitterly in Yemen to protect their flank. Iran is also involved in the war, with the twin goals of protecting Yemen’s Shia minority and thwarting Saudi Arabia’s and other Islamist contenders’ attempts to unify the Arabian Peninsula.
In North Africa, for the moment, Libya is the only active battleground. Since the various battles taking place in its territory are between competing tribes, the war remains relatively contained, and the various actors in this latest grand game for hegemony have chosen not to intervene in any substantial way. Libya is mostly a battleground for various forms of Islamism, and all actors in the region are keeping a wary eye on it to see whether anything develops that threatens the region more broadly. For now, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are successfully working to contain the Libyan battle, but should they fail they face a danger of becoming, at the minimum, ideological battlegrounds for Islamism.
Egypt was briefly a battleground for Islamism. The battle is now suspended, but the millions of Egyptians who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 haven’t disappeared simply because a military coup reversed the election results. How long the military could fend off the rise of an Islamist Egypt remains in question, and the polity is still fragile. Egypt’s geography, population and cultural cohesion mean that it’s unlikely to be broken apart like Syria or Iraq, but the domestic battle for an Islamist Egypt is likely to erupt again in the future. It might not involve any clear outside intervention, as in the case of Iraq, but the actors in the region will have a major stake in whether Egypt turns Islamist and, if it does, under what brand of Islamism.
The Tools of the Game
With the game, players and battlegrounds defined, the ability of the players to achieve their aims depends on the tools at their disposal and whether they make effective use of them. In terms of the traditional tools of power— territory, people, military and economic resources—the various actors differ, and none emerges as the absolute clear hegemon. There’s no natural hegemon to the Sunni world, or to the Sunni Arab world, as exists in other regions of the world. There’s no single country that can make a credible claim to uniting the Sunni Arab world that also enjoys a preponderance of power in all its various forms. This means that not only is the struggle for hegemony likely to be drawn out over decades, if not longer, but also that the ability of the various actors to be effective and have an edge depends on their sophisticated use of other forms of power, such as so-called ‘soft’ power.
In the Middle East, soft power is found in the form of appeals of loyalty to religion, sect, ethnicity, tribe and nation as well as the ability to forge ever-shifting alliances in the service of specific goals. To put these various forms of power to effective use, the region’s leaders, rulers and political actors require a level of sophistication that was once associated with the great Metternich.
One of the reasons that the Middle East seems to confound so many outside, and especially Western, observers is that various forms of deadly loyalties to a collective—whether it’s a tribe, a religious sect or a nation—seem to exert power that many in the West consider to be long gone, or at least that should be long gone. In that sense, the ‘soft’ power isn’t soft at all. In the intellectual centres of the West, the prevailing 21st century ideology is universalist and refuses to acknowledge fealty to anything less general than the human race (for some, even that’s too parochial, and one must care about all living things equally). The idea that humans would fight, kill and be killed for a subsection of humanity to which they are loyal above others—whether it’s called a tribe, a sect or a nation—is considered abhorrent to the universalist mindset, which is prevalent among many policymakers in the West.
Yet, not so long ago, in the West’s own core, Yugoslavia blew up in a murderous civil war when the pressure-cooker lid of Tito’s autocratic rule was lifted. Neighbours and family members slaughtered each other in the name of loyalties supposedly long forgotten. Modern Europeans who thought they had put their own ethnic and national butchery behind them watched in horror how century-old loyalties and rivalries proved far more powerful than the modern Yugoslavian identity. Yugoslavia was just the tail end of several centuries in which the European continent was engulfed in ongoing murderous battles between competing loyalties to kings and princes, nations and empires. The modern and peaceful structure of Europe could only emerge once the bloody battle between all the competing loyalties was spent.
While Europe might yet find that it hasn’t put its past completely behind it, in much of the world, especially in times of chaos, family, tribe, sect, nation and religion remain remarkably powerful as a source of order, meaning and solidarity. They are able to lay claim to the allegiance of the individual and inspire acts of terror and sacrifice that no other forms of power could. Therefore, those who can command people’s loyalties and willingness to fight and sacrifice through an appeal to their sense of protecting ‘us against them’ are likely to command greater power than is apparent by a simple accounting of people, economies and armies.
In fact, these forms of allegiance and loyalty are so powerful that they also transcend any accounting of territory and borders. Especially with zero-cost international communications, social media and low-cost flights, people can express a sense of belonging to a tribe, sect, nation and religion across the globe. They can be inspired to take extreme actions and even sacrifice their lives on behalf of those loyalties while living halfway across the world from their territorial centre.
The religion of Islam remains the most powerful force in the grand game for the Middle East. The battle for hegemony is waged first and foremost in the world of Islam. Islam recognises no central authority and, as a religion of written and oral law, it’s in the hands of its interpreters. Those who can compel the greatest number of followers to their interpretation of Islam wield a powerful weapon in the battle for hegemony.
The ability to make an appeal to the broad mass of Sunnis across the Middle East and beyond is a critical factor in determining the outcome of the battle for hegemony. This battle is fought in all manners, from religious
pronouncements, to theological conferences, to social media and terrorism and, of course, to the funding of certain groups. The kind of Islam that ultimately triumphs is of interest not just to the region but to the Islamic world more broadly and the rest of the world where Muslim minorities live. There’s no determinism in this battle. The triumph of Wahhabism across the Middle East is by no means guaranteed for the long term; it’s also as likely to create backlash. The vast majority of Muslims don’t belong to that school of thought and don’t subscribe to the idea that violent beliefs and actions are the way of Islam. This creates room for countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco to appeal at one point to those seeking to free themselves from the temptations of fundamentalism.
While Islam encompasses the entire region, among the region’s people, predating Islam and still remarkable powerful, especially in certain areas, is the appeal to the tribe. Tribal loyalty and belonging is the oldest recorded form of political, social and judicial organisation. The Middle East and Africa remain the places in the world where that identity is most powerful and present in many people’s lives. The battle for hegemony in the region depends on the ability to appeal to tribal loyalties and to create coalitions and alliances that bring together previously warring tribes. As more territories become contested battlegrounds, loyalty to the tribe is likely to become an ever more powerful currency in the battle.
During the century from the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Arab Spring, when ‘old’ religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties were being laid low in a Middle East carved up by the victorious powers, new loyalties to new nations were being forged. Those loyalties, despite their ‘newness’, can’t be written off easily. By now, they have been in play for nearly a century. People across the Middle East have grown up as Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians or Saudis. That has power. The new loyalties also have the power of interests: powerful economic and military interests are tied to keeping them alive. The disintegration of Syria is also proving that keeping the new loyalties from succumbing to the old ones is the one thing that stands between a nation’s people and complete chaos. An appeal to the unity of the nation against the danger of chaos might be the only thing keeping countries such as Lebanon and Jordan from turning into the bloody battleground that is Syria.
Between the new and old loyalties lie the minorities of the Middle East, who themselves become a tool in the battle for hegemony. The ability to appeal to the religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties of the minorities to undermine whatever national loyalty they might have is another not-so-soft tool of power that the various players have at their disposal. The minorities in play include the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria (Figure 2); outside Iran, the Shias in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf states; in Egypt, the Coptic Christians.
Beyond the region, Muslim minorities in Russia and across the world are a critical element in the game for regional hegemony. Iran defends itself and creates deterrence by casting its protection over the Shia minorities of the region. The Kurds use their ethnic loyalty and are being used to undermine the countries where they have a significant presence. And the Islamic State uses Muslim minorities around the world to undermine the West and increase its credibility as a claimant to the leadership of the Sunni Arab world.
The multiplicity of actors and loyalties in the grand game of the Middle East means that the ability to forge alliances within and across these loyalties remains the most important skill required of the leaders in the region. In the absence of a clear and natural hegemon, the ability of any claimant to rise to hegemony will depend on the strength and quality of their alliances, and the same holds true for those seeking to thwart the rise of any hegemon. Yet, these alliances are likely to be written in the sand. Any effort to define an ‘axis’ is likely to fall prey to the players’ ever-shifting interests. Whatever axes of alliances appear at any given moment, they are temporary arrangements until a more stable regional order emerges. There’s little use trying to analyse them as permanent structures.
Whereas the basic conditions of the battle for hegemony seem already to presage a long and drawn-out battle, outside factors worsen even that grim outlook. First and foremost among those factors is the youth bulge being experienced across the Muslim world. A youth bulge occurs when advances in medicine lead to a marked drop in infant mortality but social norms still favour high birthrates. When societies experience rapid economic growth, youth bulges can contribute to economic prosperity as the young people enter an expanding work force. However, if the economy fails to create new and productive jobs to meet the growth in population, the masses of young people, and especially young men, tend to gravitate to social unrest, revolution and war. Youth bulges are now considered to have been major factors contributing to the intensity of the French Revolution, World War I, World War II and social unrest in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.
There’s no question that the Muslim and Arab worlds are experiencing a youth bulge. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, the number of Muslims worldwide is expected to grow by 73% from 2010 to 2050, and Muslims are expected to outnumber Christians by 2070.
There’s also no question that economic prospects are grim across the Sunni Arab world. Economies are mismanaged or, rather, managed for the benefit of the few, are over-dependent on oil, or are devastated by war. The conditions for economic growth, whether they are quality education, innovation or open societies, are largely absent. Barring a miracle, the youth bulge will spell only disaster for the Arab and Muslim world. The various contenders for hegemony should be able to draw on a nearly limitless pool of disaffected young men to engage in protracted butchery.
The one natural resource that was able to shield the Sunni Arab world from responsible governance has lost its status as a cure-all-ills commodity. For decades, as rentier states, many countries in the Arab world, especially those in the Gulf, relied on massive oil and gas exports to bankroll a functioning state and economy. oil and gas account for more than 50% of GDP among the Arab states that are members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Oil revenues were essentially used to run a centralised welfare state and buy political stability.
With energy sales inflating economic growth over the past two decades, oil-rich governments avoided economic liberalisation and diversification. Rather than creating other drivers of economic growth and shielding themselves from the possibility of oil losing its financial and strategic value, the Gulf states preferred to control the price of oil by setting production limits, ensuring that their resources lasted several generations, while investing in sovereign wealth funds and foreign asset reserves to build up financial reserves. The assumption in their strategy was that oil would remain a strategic commodity and they would continue to hold the reins of its price and production. But the rug is starting to be removed from under their feet.
A number of factors have contributed to economic trouble among the oil-exporting Arab states. As their populations expanded at the highest growth rate in the world over the past decade, which required enlarged government budgets to expand their welfare states and make up for rampant unemployment, their oil revenues dropped significantly. Starting in mid-2014, even amid conflict in the Middle East (which usually causes a spike in oil prices), the price of oil began to fall dramatically as a result of economic turmoil in Europe and Asia, energy efficiency, and increased US oil production. The drop in prices has caused the Gulf states to dip into their financial reserves to make up for their increased budgets and decreased revenues.
The political turmoil that has unfolded in the region, especially the Islamic State taking control (and subsequently losing) large oil fields in Iraq and Syria, which it used to finance its operations, combined with the lower price of oil, has contributed to a significant decrease in foreign direct investment flowing into Arab states, further slowing economic growth. If these trends continue and the oil-exporting Arab states spend their wealth funds and foreign currency reserves making up for budget deficits, eventually their funds will run out and the economic situation could become catastrophic.
The Middle East and North Africa are also plagued by an environmental crisis that could prove to be more disastrous than armed conflict. The region’s extremely dry climate, growing population, pollution, poorly managed water resources and susceptibility to the effects of climate change will cause severe water scarcity and pose an existential threat. Some even argue that the devastating drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011 contributed to social unrest that evolved into civil war.
According to the World Bank, in 1962 the Arab world had 1,335 cubic metres of fresh water per capita; as of 2014, that volume had dwindled to around 295 cubic metres (the world average in 2014 was 5,925 cubic metres).8 Global warming is causing temperatures to rise, which corresponds to a decline in rainfall and thus further reduces the availability of fresh water and causes desertification. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 60% of Syria faces desertification; Iraq faces desertification at a rate of 0.5% per year; in Jordan, it’s estimated that as much as 30% of the country’s surface water resources has been lost due to drought and desertification.9 The flow in the Euphrates is expected to decline by 50% by 2025, which would lead to an estimated shortage of 33 billion cubic metres of water per year.
The environmental conditions alone make it a difficult challenge for the most developed nations to provide sustainable water resources, yet the region will need to find solutions to supply water to a thirsty population amidst regional chaos and conflict. But
water scarcity only adds to the regional turmoil (when it isn’t the cause of the turmoil), as most of the water resources are transboundary: the Jordan River is a water source for Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories; the Yarmouk River is shared by Syria and Jordan; the Disi aquifer runs along the border of Jordan and Saudi Arabia; the Euphrates River flows through Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
In the years following 9/11, the UN published a series of Arab development reports. The 2009 report, focused on human security, concluded that human insecurity was pervasive in the Arab world and noted that external threats such as pollution, terrorism, migration, pandemics and drug and human trafficking have challenged state security, while growing poverty, civil wars, ethnic and sectarian conflicts and authoritarian regimes were limiting the rights and freedoms of Arab citizens.11 Since the report was published, the situation has become much worse. The Arab Spring turned to winter, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions more have become refugees or internally displaced, while none of the underlying problems of the Arab world, from gender inequality to stunted development, is showing any signs of improvement.
The world has an enormous stake in the outcome of the battle for hegemony in the Sunni world in general and the Arab world, in particular. That outcome might determine whether citizens around the world will be safe from attacks on their soil. It might determine whether a new power emerges to threaten Europe, Russia, Africa, Asia and beyond and what kind of Islam will shape the lives of a third of the world’s population. Unfortunately, there’s little the non-Muslim world could do to shape the result. At most, outside powers might be able to mitigate the worst possible outcomes of the protracted battle for hegemony in the Middle East—and even that’s questionable.
Outside observers of the Middle East should realise that, for the first time in a century, what’s happening across the Sunni Arab world is authentic, but that ‘authentic’ doesn’t necessarily mean positive. It only means that what’s happening is an authentic expression of the various pressures and powers of the Sunni Arabs themselves.
Ultimately, the Sunnis in general and the Sunni Arabs in particular will have to work out their regional order for themselves. This is a process that will take time—decades, perhaps a century—and can’t be condensed or accelerated. No outside power can do it for them. Either a clear hegemon will emerge or the various sides will spend themselves in battles to the point of exhaustion, leading perhaps to a balanced compromise.
Whatever regional order emerges, it will have to be described in terms that come from Islamic, Sunni and Arab history. Islam is a political religion that has clear conceptions of the proper world order and the way public and private matters should be ruled and arranged. Whatever regional order emerges, whoever the hegemon, it will be rooted in Islam as the cultural language of the region. The idea of the caliphate isn’t going away. It’s merely the historical Islamic form of Arab and Muslim unity—a fundamental political organising principle. Even if the current organisation that goes by the name of the Islamic State is defeated, the idea of an Islamic state will continue to hold sway as the organising principle of the Sunni Arab world and the Muslim world more broadly.
One can compare the idea of the caliphate and the Islamic state to the idea of a unified European continent. That idea has an old lineage, and it served not only Napoleon and Hitler but also Jean Monnet, a founder of the European Union. An Islamic state, a caliphate and a united Sunni Arab world need not in themselves threaten the world at large, but under a certain interpretation of Islam they pose a threat.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, many a Western nation has sought to ‘fix’ the Middle East with soft, hard and hybrid strategies. Those approaches have been underpinned by an over-simplistic construct in which the various layers of complexity in the region can somehow be harmonised. In the aftermath of these strategies, the international community finds that the region’s multi-layer conflicts are being played out further afield, fed by factors such as forced migration.
In time, it’s highly likely that the deep religious and cultural differences in the Middle East will play an increasing role in shaping other countries’ domestic security and international relations strategies. There’s neither time nor need to respond to this challenge with grand visions and pronouncements or expressions of post-colonial guilt. Before outside nations attempt to monitor and shape the events in the Middle East, they should clearly articulate their interests in the region.
Ultimately, Western countries have to come to terms with their limited role in shaping the outcomes of the battle for hegemony in the Arab Middle East. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be done, but those outside the region must clinically and dispassionately consider their interests in the region and what they can reasonably expect to achieve.
To avoid importing or expanding the Middle East’s conflicts, those outside the region need to develop a greater understanding of its various layers of complexity. And, in doing so, they need to avoid the temptation to seek an over-simplistic ‘fix’. In the realms of domestic, border and international security, what’s to be done is arguably much more about Islam in the West than about the Middle East.
Notes and Readings
Scott Shane, ‘Saudis and extremism: “both the arsonists and the firefighters”’, New York Times, 25 August 2016, online.
James M Dorsey, ‘Saudi export of Wahhabism’, Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal, 15 March 2016, online.
Marian Wilkinson, ‘Revealed: the Saudis’ paymaster in Australia’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 2005, online.
Luat Al-Khatteeb, ‘Gulf oil economies must wake up or face decades of decline’, The Brookings Institution, 14 August 2015, online.
Colin P Kelley, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A Cane, Richard Seager, Yochanan Kushnir, ‘Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2015, 112(11).
The World Bank, ‘Renewable internal freshwater resources per capita (cubic meters)’, World Development Indicators, 2017, 22 January 2017, online.
Sundeep Waslekar, The blue peace: rethinking Middle East water, Strategic Foresight Group, 2011, online. 10 Waslekar, The blue peace: rethinking Middle East water.
United Nations Development Programme, Arab human development report 2009: challenges to human security in the Arab countries, 2009, online.
Indeed, Farah Pandith, the first US special representative to Muslim countries, who served the Obama administration between 2009 and 2014, argued for disrupting ‘the training of extremist imams and creat[ing] imam training centres in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America that are free of Saudi funding and that offer a diversity of Islamic practices … If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing, there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.’ Farah Pandith, ‘The world needs a long-term strategy for defeating extremism’, New York Times, 8 December 2015, online.
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