Over the past four decades, the geopolitics of the Middle East have seen one clear trend: the rise of the Gulf subcomplex. This rise was initially kicked off by 1970s petrodollar politics and Egypt’s decline and continues unabated today, although with different actors taking center stage.
The rise of the Gulf followed the end of Egyptian dominance of the regional order in the late 1950s and 1960s. Then, thanks to a number of foreign policy achievements and unmatchable soft power, Cairo had become the magnet of the Arab world. The United Arab Republic with Syria, the alliance with Jordan, the capacity to influence other states’ domestic contexts, as in the case of Yemen, all pointed to the extent of Cairo’s dominance, especially vis-à-vis the Gulf. The Gulf’s rise occurred thanks to energy rents but also, crucially, as a consequence of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, which led to rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt in a classic counter-balancing move.
If the 1990s represent a decade of regional security, characterized by the end of the cold war, bipolarity, the launch of the Middle East Peace Process and of multilateral politics and economic integration, the 2000s represent a decade of fragmentation of the national sovereignty norm in the MENA region and, in parallel, the disintegration of its precarious regional order. With the stalemate of several state-building processes, domestic and regional instability has exploded.
The geopolitics of the Middle East have grown increasingly complex since 9/11, and three critical junctures stand out in terms of shaking the foundations of domestic and regional stability: the 2003 Iraq war, the Israel-Hezbollah war in the summer 2006 and the 2011 Arab revolts.
The 2003 Iraq war deeply altered the previous multipolar regional order: the fall of Saddam Hussein and the ensuing instability, civil war, sectarian conflict and spread of terrorist dynamics has paved the way for the penetration into Iraq of external forces, mainly Tehran, and the institutionalization of their presence. After decades of isolation, Iran resurfaced, extending its leeway well beyond non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah, and directly shaping Iraqi domestic and foreign policy. The consequence of this watershed was the empowerment of Iran vis-à-vis the rest of the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa.
The second critical juncture, though of a lesser magnitude, was the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, ending – at least at the media level – with a symbolic victory for the Shia resistance force and its patrons, i.e. Syria and Iran. The war strengthened the “axis of resistance” against Israel, uniting Hamas and Hezbollah, despite the ever-present sectarian differences. This conflict stressed the continued relevance of the Levant in regional stability, and the persistence of the Israel-Arab rivalry and its wide-ranging regional repercussions. As after 2003, a revisionist actor emerged strengthened from military and political success, enhancing Tehran’s strategic depth in the Levant.
Lastly, the 2011 Arab revolts reverberated on many levels in regional geopolitics, rendering domestic and foreign policy more intertwined than ever. As many observers have pointed out, the unaccomplished or failed state-building projects have shown the weakness of state institutions, the personalized nature of power in most MENA countries, the unpredictability of foreign policy trajectories and the easiness with which foreign powers, mostly Gulf countries, have been able to steer political developments in one sense or another.
The war in Syria remains the region’s open wound, a constant reminder to the international community as well as to regional powers of their failure in bringing about any solution or even containment of the conflict. Beyond the casualties and the thousands of displaced Syrians, the country will never be the same in terms of territorial integrity. The north is now integrated into the Islamic State (ISIS), which was declared in Mosul in June, continues to expand and is contained mainly by Iraqi Kurdistan. The war in Syria has had a number of ramifications, including the hardening of the Iranian stance in defending the Assad regime vis-à-vis Sunni Gulf countries and Turkey, increasingly supporting a wide array of opposition forces to Assad, and the rise of Sunni militant violent jihadi groups in Syria, Iraq and parts of Lebanon.
In the Maghreb, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had been at the forefront of the Islamist revival at the ballot box throughout the region, and its 2013 fall due to a military coup supported by Sunni Gulf monarchies, with the exception of Qatar, was another signal of the strengthening of the Gulf subcomplex. With the 2013 oust of Mohamed Morsi, Qatari foreign policy got increasingly isolated and out of tune with regional dynamics.
In all this, the Gulf Cooperation Council has kept its traditional role of counterbalancing Iran, while opening the possibility of reacting on the ground against the ISIS. Riyadh seems to believe that this fight has to have local ownership, and that far from being purely about counter-terrorism, the overall goal should be the removal of Assad, a non-starter for Tehran. Tehran has suffered a setback in Iraq, with the birth of the Al-Abadi government and the definite end of the Al-Maliki era. Despite a meeting in September between Saudi Foreign Minister Saud bin Faisal and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, which was initially perceived as a step in a bilateral rapprochement, the Saudi discourse centered on Iran’s regional credibility depending on abandoning Bashar Assad. However, while Iran agrees on the necessity to stop ISIS, it will likely continue to operate through Assad’s security apparatus and its IRGC forces. Tehran also desperately wants to avoid territorial fragmentation in Iraq and Syria, and supports forces, even Kurdish ones, loyal to the central authority there.
These latest developments testify to the strengthening of a pro-status quo Sunni axis, mainly composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, an increased influence of Gulf politics over the rest of the MENA region and the isolation of a number of non-Arab players such as Turkey and Iran.
To conclude, the regional security complex, which had been a multipolar one since 1967, looks increasingly interpenetrated by the Gulf security complex, both in the Levant and in the Maghreb. The ongoing regional cold war presents very different features from the 1950s-1960s Arab cold war: it is articulated on a regional competition for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which overlaps but also goes well beyond the Shia-Sunni cleavage and the resistance versus the conservative axis.
In both camps there are defections, as with Hamas having left Assad and Qatar strongly opposed to Saudi influence. The new balance of power will be determined by the major actors (and their supporters) who will provide some security for the region and not just pursue their strategic interests in strictly national terms. The jury is very much still out.