North Africa, West Asia

The Arab World: towards bi-polarity?

Maged Mandour

In Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain, it will be very difficult for revolutionary democratic movements to succeed in such a bi-polar order.

Maged Mandour
25 April 2015

It has been four years since the Arab Revolt was ignited and the resulting social upheaval has all but left the region in tatters. From Egypt to Syria and Iraq, it appears that the old elites in these countries are unable to remain in power without substantial international support. Beset by social unrest and the rise of violent non-state actors, some of these states have lost their ability to act autonomously in the international arena. They have becomes proxies to other regional powers, most notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, as they expand their quest for regional dominance.

US Secretary of State with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Demotix Live News/Demotix. All rights reserved.

US Secretary of State with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Demotix Live News/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Thus, the multi-polar nature of the regional order has steadily shifted towards bi-polarity, with Saudi Arabia acting as one regional super power, forming a coalition of Sunni conservative regimes, and Iran acting as the other, forming a coalition of Shia proxies. The powers of Egypt, Syria and Iraq - the traditional contenders for leadership - have all but evaporated, as their ruling elites rely on their patrons to maintain their flimsy grip on power.

Kenneth Waltz, one of the most celebrated International Relations theorists, argued in “The Theory of International Politics” that the behavior of states in an international system depends on the distribution of power within that system.

A system that has more than one major power is called a multi-polar system, which is considered unstable. While a system that has only two major powers is a bi-polar system, considered the most stable. Recently, under pax Americana, the age of a sole super power has emerged and the stability of this uni-polar world is still being widely debated.

Waltz goes on to argue that the reasons behind the stability of a bi-polar system is the ability of the two powers to control their junior partners, so that no junior partner can jeopardize a full scale war by dragging the major powers into an undesired confrontation - the dynamic of World War I is cited as an example. There is also less uncertainty in this system and the threat of war can be averted, since there are only two major powers communicating - European peace during the Cold War is cited in support of this hypothesis.  

This is the theory, but how does this apply to the Middle East?

The Saudi-led Sunni conservative camp

Saudi Arabia has emerged from the past four years relatively unscathed. There were hopes of a possible “Saudi Spring”, however these hopes have been crushed.

The Kingdom has actually emerged as a bastion of regional anti-revolutionary activity, as it supported the Egyptian military in its bid to maintain power and crush the revolution. The Kingdom led regional efforts, followed by the United Arab Emirates, to pump needed capital into the Egyptian economy, which is directly dominated by the military. In effect, this has allowed the Egyptian military to consolidate its grip on the country.

The Kingdom also followed an active and aggressive foreign policy in terms of intervening in neighboring states, especially if Shia elements are involved in an internal struggle. The first of such interventions was in Bahrain, now in Yemen, where Egypt and other junior allies are set to play prominent roles.

Based on this, one could argue that Saudi Arabia has become the most important power in the Sunni Arab World. The Kingdom has managed to accomplish this by ensuring a decline in its prospective competitors’ powers and their dependence on Saudi support to keep revolution at bay. As such, the only possible competitor was Egypt, which has been significantly weakened due to the revolution and become even more dependent on Saudi aid and international support to survive.

The Iranian camp

The same dynamic is visible in Iran. Iran through a careful and long-term policy of cultivating allies, combined with the folly of the United States and the Arab Revolt, has been able to amplify its influence in the Arab World. 

Iran has long-term strategic relationships with “radical” movements and regimes in the region, which include Hamas, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. This has allowed it to establish deep inroads in the Arab World by not only supporting the Shia cause, but by supporting issues that were of significant importance for the Arab populace, namely the occupation of Palestine, which it used skillfully to build its soft power in the region.

The US has also contributed to the expansion of Iranian power by removing two major rivals, the Iraqi Baathist regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan, giving Iran significant freedom of movement particularly in Iraq, as the Iraqi polity became more sectarian. Moreover, the decline of other regional powers made them mere proxies of Iran, most notably Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, the increasing sectarian nature of Iraqi politics, which was culminated with the rise of ISIS, has all but led to the corrosion of the Iraqi state, opening up the way for an expansion of Iranian influence, which in some respects threatens to replace the state.

This is very clear in the prominent role played by Iran in the battle for Tikrit, where Iranian backed militias played a prominent role, which in essence negates the role of the states and destroys their monopoly on violence. In simpler terms, the Iraqi state has become unable to protect itself and its citizens without Iranian backing, negating the reasons for its existence.

In Syria, a similar scenario has occurred. The Assad regime has become reliant on Iranian backing in order to remain in power. Thus, losing all autonomy in the realm of foreign policy. For the foreseeable future, the Syrian regime has no choice but to follow orders from Tehran.

In the middle of all this bloodshed, where is this stability predicted by Waltz?

One needs to remember that International Relations Theory is exceptionally Euro-centric, which explains the cultural blind spots it has. It simply ignores the large number of regional wars, civil wars, proxy wars, coups and counter coups, and the involvement of super powers, such as the United States, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Europe might have been stable, but the Third World suffered significant losses.

Based on this, what can we reasonably expect?

One could argue that a full-scale war between the two regional powers is neither desirable nor likely. However, a series of proxy confrontations, that have already been taking place in countries like Syria and possibly Yemen, are bound to follow, where both parties compete for the extension of their hegemony over the Arab World or what is, sadly, left of it. 

This does not bode well for democratic and revolutionary movements of what has now become the Arab Periphery. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain as they find themselves pulled into this regional conflict face, not only their oppressive governments, but also their governments’ supporters from either of the above mentioned camps. The success of revolutionary democratic movements in a bi-polar order will be very difficult, as attested by Mosaddegh, Allende and Patrice Lumumba.        

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