The New Arab Order: ‘Fundamentally One of Disorder’

A vantage view of the Middle East post Arab Spring which was initiated during former US President Barack Obama’s era and sponsored/funded by George Soros, co-founder of Friends Of Democracy (PKonweb)

MARC LYNCH: In 2011, millions of citizens across the Arab world took to the streets. Popular uprisings from Tunis to Cairo promised to topple autocracies and usher in democratic reforms. For a moment, it looked as if the old Middle Eastern order was coming to an end and a new and better one was taking its place. But things quickly fell apart. Some states collapsed under the pressure and devolved into civil war; others found ways to muddle through and regain control over their societies. Seven years later, those early hopes for a fundamental, positive shift in Middle Eastern politics appear to have been profoundly misplaced.

But the upheaval did in fact create a new Arab order—just not the one most people expected. Although the Arab uprisings did not result in successful new democracies, they did reshape regional relations. The traditional great powers—Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—are now barely functional states. Wealthy and repressive Gulf countries—Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—are thriving. The proliferation of failed and weakened states has created new opportunities for competition and intervention, favoring new actors and new capabilities. Regional dynamics are no longer determined by formal alliances and conventional conflicts between major states. Instead, power operates through influence peddling and proxy warfare.

In almost every Arab state today, foreign policy is driven by a potent mixture of perceived threats and opportunities. Fears of resurgent domestic uprisings, Iranian power, and U.S. abandonment exist alongside aspirations to take advantage of weakened states and international disarray—a dynamic that draws regional powers into destructive proxy conflicts, which sow chaos throughout the region. Any vision of the region finding a workable balance of power is a mirage: the new order is fundamentally one of disorder.

The catalog of despair in the Middle East today is difficult to fathom because of the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, fallout of ISIS in Iraq and the Palestine issue, while Libya remains a catastrophically failed state. Even states that avoided collapse are struggling, for example Egypt.

Relatively successful states, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, are grappling with massive economic problems, discontented youth, and unstable neighbors. In almost every country, the economic and political problems that drove the region toward popular uprising in 2011 are more intense today than they were seven years ago.

Meanwhile, there is no shortage of flash points in the region. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran has reopened the prospect of an American or Israeli military strike leading to war. The boycott of Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, the most successful Arab international organization.

Amid all of this, the United States, under President Donald Trump, has enthusiastically aligned itself with an axis of like-minded states: Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But this attempt to restore something that resembles the pre-2011 order is far shakier than it appears. In the Middle East today, the proliferation of failed states, unresolved crises of governance, and crosscutting lines of competition undermine every exercise of power. When states attempt to assert control at home or influence abroad, they only exacerbate their own insecurity. The Trump administration’s decision to double down on support for autocratic regimes while ignoring the profound structural changes that stand in the way of restoring the old order will neither produce stability nor advance U.S. interests as turbulent regional dynamics are the product of classic “security dilemmas”:

Ken Catalino / Creators Syndicate

when states attempt to increase their own security, they trigger countermeasures that leave them even less secure than they were before. Every Arab regime today lives under the condition of profound perceived insecurity. For all their bravado, they are terrified of another outbreak of popular protests. And the rapid proliferation of protests in 2011 convinced states that an uprising anywhere in the region could ignite one at home. When economic protests rocked Jordan this past May, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates immediately renewed economic assistance to Amman in order to stem the unrest.

But when states attempt to repress potential challengers by exerting greater control over their societies, they typically only make the situation worse. The harder they crack down, the more anger and resentment they generate and the more possibilities for democratic inclusion they foreclose.

On foreign affairs, the competition between the Arab countries and Iran provides another example of the security dilemma at work. Although Arab fears of Iranian expansionism are grounded in reality, those anxieties have always been far out of proportion to actual Iranian power. Perversely, however, the more that Arab states do to confront Iran, the stronger it becomes.

Even with a U.S. president who takes a hard line on Iran and seems to have no problem with autocratic rule, the Arab regimes no longer see the United States as a reliable guarantor of regime survival or their foreign policy interests. In this new environment, it makes sense for even close U.S. allies to build relationships with China, Russia, and the EU—as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and even Jordan are now doing. Such efforts are a rational hedge against the unpredictability of the United States, but they could easily escalate into something more through the same security-dilemma dynamics that have unsettled all other dimensions of regional politics.

The Trump administration has struggled to manage these new realities. Trump’s sudden policy changes and the wildly incoherent messaging that is coming from different parts of the U.S. government are confusing allies and adversaries alike. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may like Trump’s harder line on Iran and his support for the war in Yemen, but other policies, such as Washington’s pressure on them to end the blockade of Qatar, its demands for them to increase oil production, and the signals of its intention to pull out of Syria, have generated new frustrations.

The United States no longer has the power or the standing to impose a regional order on its own terms. In all likelihood, U.S. hegemony in the Middle East will never be restored because the region has fundamentally changed. Moving beyond the wars and political failures that followed the Arab uprisings will not be easy. The damage is too deep.

The author is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East.

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