Analysis: The Middle East’s tectonic shifts

The region is now at a crossroads no less important than during the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago.

NEW FRIENDS. ‘Although Israel has the strongest military in the region, it is still an outsider in the Muslim Middle East since it is a Jewish State.’ (photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW FRIENDS. ‘Although Israel has the strongest military in the region, it is still an outsider in the Muslim Middle East since it is a Jewish State.’
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is a tendency to view the Middle East as largely unchanging, now that the chaos unleashed after the Arab Spring appears to have dissipated. It’s the status quo – again. Gaza is still Gaza. Iraq is Iraq. Egypt is Egypt. But that analysis ignores the tectonic shifts which have taken place in the last few decades.
Regimes may appear the same, but in fact, the instability of recent years has had major effects. The region is now at a crossroads no less important than during the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago.
From old leaders to a younger generation
For starters, to understand the changes let us look back 20 years. Who was in charge in 1999?
In Iraq it was Saddam Hussein, born in Tikrit in 1937 and president since 1979. In Saudi Arabia it was King Fahd, born in 1921 and reigning since 1982, as he would do until 2005. In Libya it was Muammar Gaddafi, who was born 1942 and came to power in 1961. In Egypt it was Hosni Mubarak, born in 1928 and in power since 1981.
In Syria it was Hafez Assad, born in 1930 and ruling since 1971. In Yemen, the long-serving Ali Abdullah Saleh, born in 1947, had come to power in 1958. Mohammed Khatami, the supposed reformer, was in Tehran. He had been born in 1943 and had been in charge since 1997, where he would stay until 2005.
 In Turkey, Mesut Yilmaz was prime minister, about to be succeeded by Bulent Ecevit. In Lebanon around this time, Rafic Hariri, born in 1944, had been prime minister, taking a hiatus from 1998 to 2000. King Hussein was the monarch of Jordan. Born in 1935, he began his reign in 1952. Let’s not forget Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was born 1936 and rose to power in 1989.
In neighboring Algeria it was Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was born in 1937 and came to power in April 1999. Among regional monarchies, Mohammed VI of Morocco, born in 1929, came to power in 1999, after Hassan II, who served since 1961, died. Lest we forget, the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who was born in 1952, had been in power since 1995, and would remain until his death 2013. And Yasser Arafat was president of the Palestinian National Authority, a post he held since 1994. He was born in 1929.
Listing all these leaders who dominated in the late 1990s, one gets a sense of who they were, and the worldviews they held. They were products primarily of the 1930s and 1940s. Most were born in the region’s colonial era. Their worldview was shaped by the rise of Arab nationalism and the Cold War. Some had played a formative role in putting down the first Islamist rebellions in the region, such as the battles in Egypt and Syria in the 1980s.
With the exception of Turkey or Iran, which are different than the rest of the Arab Middle East in history and politics, these regimes fit several clear patterns. They were aging dictators who were past their peak, in monarchies and a few hybrid regimes, such as Lebanon. This was an era of big politics and big men. Israel was an outsider in the region in many ways.
Then things began to change. Saddam was overthrown by the 2003 US invasion. Arafat, Fahd, Assad and King Hussein died. Hariri was assassinated. Eventually, Saddam would be hanged, Gaddafi raped to death, and Saleh assassinated and his body chucked onto a truck. Mubarak and Ali would abdicate, as would Hamad al-Thani. Today, leaders in the region are younger, even if some of them take after their parents or the systems that produced them.
Many of these men were born in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of them are much younger, such as Emir Tamim in Qatar, who was born in 1980. Mohammed Bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, was born in 1985. Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s long-serving prime minister, was born in 1970. The leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government are also of a younger generation, as is the king of Morocco. There are a few exceptions, such the President Hassan Rouhani in Iran and Sultan Qaboos in Oman.
Generally, this generation of leaders grew up in the shadow of American hegemony. The Cold War was ending or had already ended. They also dealt with the ramifications of the Gulf War, when many Arab regimes joined the Americans to oust Saddam from Kuwait. They have also had to look askance at an American hegemony led by US leaders who appear to change policies every four or eight years. That means they watched as George H.W. Bush preached a “New World Order” and as Clinton pushed for humanitarian intervention. They wondered about George W. Bush’s calls for democratization, and then were skeptical when calls for elections led to the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.
From US New World Order to withdrawal
As the Bush years turned to the Obama years, the region wondered whether Obama’s Cairo speech represented a new era. Others were concerned about the US push for the Iran deal and how that would play out. The US shifted its focus from opposing Assad to opposing ISIS. Disillusionment in Egypt led to claims that the US was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Libya became a chaos. Yemen, too. Syria fueled extremism across the region. And some 50,000 or more foreign extremists flooded in to support ISIS. This was unprecedented.
Through it all, old alliances were shattered and friendships tested. Qatar was isolated by its former Gulf friends and enjoyed warmer relations with Turkey. Iranian-supported militias rose in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. These groups gained from the war on ISIS and emerged with unprecedented strength and armaments. The Houthis even came close to taking the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
From the chaos, new alliance systems emerged. The bedrock southern Middle Eastern states, led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, form one system; Qatar and Turkey form, another; and Iran and its allies, a third. The US is at a historic crossroads in its attempt to withdraw – again – from the region.
In a way this would be the third major withdrawal since the 1990s. Bush Sr. had reduced the US footprint. Obama also did. And so has Trump. A resurgent Russia has filled some of those gaps, but not all of them. Regional frameworks, such as the Arab League, have proven weak in addressing the region’s needs. And there is no longer consensus in the region regarding opposition to Israel, or even the workability of any peace plan. Old initiatives, such as the Saudi plan of the early 2000s, appear moribund.
Strong states defeat independent political groups
The last several years since 2011 have seen the rise of a plethora of political groups seeking to carve out spaces in various weak or unstable states. This has included some of the Kurdish movements that sought independence and autonomy. It has also included a long list of Sunni groups, many of them trending toward extremism. The remains of this can be found in Idlib where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham dominates, and Eastern Syria where the Syrian Democratic Forces are strongest. Other groups like the Houthis in Yemen, or Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, shape the politics of their countries.
Is the Sunni-Shia conflict over?
An unprecedented rancor of Sunni-Shia infighting has dominated politics in some countries. Ethnic struggles have emerged in others. But much of that is now being shoehorned back into the state structure. The fantasies of rewriting the Sykes-Picot European borders of the region that were drawn 100 years ago are no more. Now state structures have returned. But they have returned in a different way.
Arab Gulf states have taken a lead in foreign policy, launching a war in Yemen that began in 2015 to confront the Houthis. Egypt is playing a role in Libya. Regional security frameworks are emerging. This was evident at a meeting at the Dead Sea in late January, when representatives of Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan gathered. Proxies and militias still exist. Turkey has an unprecedented role in Iraq and Syria, and appears set to keep its soldiers in its two southern neighbors. The question now is whether the sectarian conflicts are being reduced and returning to power politics. The Gulf states are patching things up with Syria, for instance.
Defeating ISIS and the new alliance systems
As the last stronghold of ISIS is liberated in the Euphrates valley the Middle East finds itself transformed and at a turning point. The last decade, dominated by the Syrian civil war, has presented a struggle between extremist forces that have sought to exploit weak states and ungoverned spaces, and existing regional and global powers whose agenda is to come out of the recent conflicts positioned to dominate the region.
This is a unique time in the Middle East that presents complex challenges for policy-makers. The region is now increasingly influenced by two rising alliance systems. Iran and its proxies and clients in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen represent one system, while Turkey and Qatar, as well as their partners in northern Syria, Libya, Sudan and elsewhere, represent another.
The traditional US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE, Egypt, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, now face this changed environment and are seeking out policies that will best prepare them for the next phase.
Examples include the reopening of embassies in Syria, the Iran-Israel tensions in Syria, and the complexity of managing the US withdrawal from Syria. 
Despite US fatigue in dealing with Syria and Iraq, what comes next in the Middle East is of importance, because the Syrian civil war and the chaos it fed across the region has had major implications for Western powers. It has fueled a growing connection between Iran, Russia and Turkey as they have sought to agree to a post-conflict Syria absent a US role. The way in which countries have responded to the destabilizing extremism that led to the rise of ISIS is also important, because the region may be turning a corner in confronting the jihadist networks that flourished from the 1980s to 2014 and underpinned ISIS.
New totalitarianism
One of the responses among US allies and adversaries has been to increase crackdowns on dissent. Another response has been that some polities, such as the Palestinian Authority, appear to prefer the status quo over any experiments with new elections that might open the door to groups such as Hamas. This also appears to be the case in Iraq and Lebanon where, to governing elites, the status quo appears preferable to the chaos of Yemen and Libya.
The region is also witnessing the decline in any experiments to create new state structures, such as the decline of the independence of the Syrian rebels in northern Syria, and the likely decline of the autonomy of the Syrian Democratic Forces and groups linked to it in eastern Syria. This decline dovetails with the new authoritarianism. States fear chaos, instability and irredentist or extremist movements. Strong governments are seen as the best remedy to weak states where extremism has thrived. Controlling religious messages is seen as preferable to a free-for-all.
Is this a ‘New Middle East’?
Is this a “New Middle East” on par with the changes that took place 100 years ago with those wrought by the fall of the Ottoman Empire? Or is this merely a return to the ancient regime that dominated before 2010, and which was destabilized by democratization attempts and the wars sparked by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s? Are we seeing the eclipse of the ability of jihadist extremist groups to destabilize countries? Will Turkey, Russia and Iran be the main beneficiaries at the expense of Western powers and their allies?
All of these questions will be answered in coming years. The tensions between Israel and Iran will continue, and Israel will likely continue to make inroads among some Gulf states, where recent official visits have broken decades of silence. A complex series of challenges exist. And many of them will be addressed without US leadership in the region. This is a major change from the last decades, in which US policy was at the center of the decisions being made locally. Even if the US decides to increase its role, its reputation has been forever changed by zigzagging policies. It would be difficult to change that perception.
At the same time, the region must invest in recovering from the wars of the last decade and the harm done to infrastructure. Whereas the Gulf States have made major strides, many of the largest Arab states, such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt face uphill challenges. Meanwhile, countries on the periphery, such as Iran and Turkey, appear to have emerged much stronger from the last decades of instability. They will seek to dominate the region alongside the rising Russian influence.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.