Regional Powers in the Middle East: New Constellations after the Arab Revolts

  • Book Title:
 Regional Powers In The Middle East
  • Book Author:
Henner Fürtig
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The Concept of regional power as applied to the Middle east -Introduction

Three tasks are tackled in the present contribution. First, it is shown that the regional power concept is innovative because it sheds new light on regional affairs, particularly, but not only, after the end of the Cold War.

In the period following World War II, regional affairs have very often been shaped by the global rivalry of two superpowers. Thereby, the significance of regional actors has frequently been neglected.

Only in the early twenty-first century when it became apparent that US capabilities are limited, a scholarly movement came into being that developed alternative approaches, among them being the concept of regional power that looks thoroughly at the momentum of regions and actors within it. Second, the Middle East features for not having produced a regional power.

 Yet, this by no means implies that the concept of regional power is not useful in analyzing regional affairs of the Middle East. Rather, the application of the concept sharpens the view for the actual structures and particularities of Middle Eastern regional affairs. Moreover, by analyz- ing failed attempts of potential regional powers in the Middle East, the concept proves to be very fruitful in better comprehending regional politics.

 Moreover, analyses of the Middle East on the basis of the regional power concept allow theoretical conclusions that can enrich the concept itself. Third, the chapter discusses whether and how the Arab Spring has changed the fundaments of regional affairs.

It is remarkable that the Arab Spring has been committed by movements that strongly focus on domes- tic affairs, particularly since the two major revolutions that took place in the Middle East after World War II—namely, the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979—had a strong transnational component, that is, pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, respectively.

 At the same time, by possibly challenging the 1967 Khartoum consensus that established a modus vivendi between republics and monarchies, the Arab Spring bears the potentials for a new round of conflicts on regional leadership.

The regional power approach is a major offspring of theoretical con- cepts of regionalism that have recently been enjoying a renaissance.

 The East-West conflict had its effect on scholarly approaches of international relations that focused on regional politics primarily through the lenses of global affairs, thereby often neglecting the momentum of genuine regional relations. After the end of the Cold War, a scholarly movement came into being that developed alternative approaches, among them the concept of regional power that looks thoroughly at the momentum of regions and actors within it

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: With the end of bipolarity, a higher degree of regional autonomy (Hurrell 2007), particularly in security-related issues (Buzan and Wæver 2003), seemed to be an inevitable trend—although there were also early warnings that global unipolarity could also have opposing effects (Rosecrance 1991).

A quarter century after the Cold War, we are safe to say that in some regions, some issue areas and some periods’ regional affairs have been shaped to a higher degree than before by regional actors. Yet, it is equally safe to claim that developments on a global scale have been much too complex and even contradictory to overgeneralize:

 though regional politics do matter, yet, not all world regions today enjoy a higher degree of relative autonomy vis-à-vis global structures and actors in all policies than in the period of the Cold War. At the same time, the concept of regionalism also helped to rediscover the role of regional actors whose relative autonomy had sometimes been neglected when studying regional affairs only through the lenses of the Cold War (see Acharya 2007: 640).

Defining the Middle East

Most social scientists working on the Middle East would agree that it is a region composed of the Arab states plus Iran, Israel, and Turkey.

Yet, if this convention is scrutinized, it turns out to be a rather demanding task to present intersubjectively comprehensible arguments in favor of this definition.

When definitions of regions are based on commonalities, the Middle East appears as a rather complicated case, since it covers areas of three different continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe, which is why “objective” geographic factors are not easily applicable.

There are some criteria beyond geography that, if applied, produce more promising results such as a shared history, language, and religion. However, none of the criteria is truly selective: not all Middle Eastern countries have been part of the Ottoman Empire (while some that are not considered part of the Middle East, such as Greece, were once its part), non-Semitic languages play an important role in the region (and Malta is rarely considered part of the Middle East although Maltese is a Semitic language), and not all Middle Eastern countries are predominantly Muslim (and the biggest Muslim country—Indonesia—is located beyond the Middle East).

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However, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958: §§ 66–67) argued that sometimes terms should be defined on the basis of family resemblances: as Wittgenstein argues, not all things we call games have one distinct feature in common; rather, they are connected through a complicated network of overlapping and crisscrossing similarities.

 This is also the case with the (members of the) Middle East. Then, we have to accept that the definition of the Middle East does not have clear borders and its exact meaning may vary according to the research issue we are focusing on.

When the definition of the Middle East is based on the density of social interactions, the Middle East easily qualifies as a “regional security complex” (Buzan and Wæever 2003: 187), which, however, is highly penetrated by external actors, above all the United States.

Yet, if other issue areas are highlighted, the Middle East does not always easily meet the criteria of a region. In particular, many countries of the region have much closer economic ties with countries beyond the Middle East than within the region. Thus, from this perspective, the definition of the Middle East—and its meaning—depends on the issue area under consideration.

Although the oil-producing countries of the Middle East have been part of a truly globalized industry with comparatively few regional economic ties, it is remarkable that the Western perspective on energy security very often reinforces (the perception of) the Middle East as a region.

The latter aspect substantiates that our definitions of regions are (often) based on social constructions. Edward Said (1995) shows that in the case of the Middle East, Orientalism contributed to an artificial dichotomiza- tion of “us” and “them” that created an ideological basis for asymmetrical political, economic, and cultural relations.

It is, for example, telling how the major European powers arrogated to exclude the Ottoman Empire (and its modernizing members, particularly Egypt) when establishing a concert of modern nation-states in the nineteenth century (Rogan 2013).

Apparently “objective” factors such as the Mediterranean sea were—and are still— used to draw regional borders, although the Roman Empire despite its much lower technological level in terms of transportation and communication had no problems in defining the Mediterranean as “our sea” (mare nostrum).

 At the same time, it must be emphasized that the Middle East is not just an ascription from outside. The term “Middle East”—sharq al-awsat in Arabic—is frequently used in the region although it literally denotes a very British worldview.

The Arab Spring has been just the latest proof that the Middle East shapes social reality (and therefore, does exist): what started in a rather small country on the far West of the Middle East very soon gained momentum in the whole of the Arab Middle East, be it as a catalyst for regime change or as the major topic of political debates that were focusing on developments in Tunisia and Egypt as quasi-domestic issues.

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 Although Turkey, Iran, and Israel were not directly affected, the meaning and impact of the Arab Spring on the non-Arab states of the Middle East became a top aspect of their respective national agendas.

Attempting to Identify Regional Powers

A regional power is an actor—normally a state—whose power capabilities in a region significantly outweigh those of other actors within the same region and whose power is, to a high degree, based on its leadership role within the region.

As has been conceptualized by Detlef Nolte (2010), regional powers heavily rely on soft-power skills since, as he argues, their power capabilities are not sufficient to dominate regional affairs by unilateral measures. Thus, regional powers exert their influence on the basis of cooperation (which is not always symmetrical yet never purely imperialist) rather than measures of hard-power politics.

According to Nolte’s (2010: 893) presentation of the state of the art of the regional power concept, a regional power is characterized as a state that fulfills not less than 11 criteria. Although these criteria are formu- lated in a way that leaves the issue of operationalization rather unspecified, it appears evident that only few of the criteria are met by states of the Middle East.

There are indeed some Middle Eastern actors that articulate “the pretension (self-conception) of a leading position” in the Middle East: Iran (particularly since 1979), Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt (partic- ularly between 1952 and 1967 but also thereafter), Israel (particularly in the 1990s), and Iraq (particularly in the 1980s).

One could further agree that some countries—mainly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—influence “the geopolitical delimitation and the political-ideational construction of the region.”

However, it is questionable whether any (single) country in the Middle East “displays the material (military, economic, demo- graphic), organizational and ideological resources for regional power projection”; “truly has great influence in regional affairs”; “is economically, politically and culturally interconnected with the region”; “pro- vides a collective good for the region”; and “defines the regional security agenda in a significant way.”

Moreover, no single Middle Eastern state exerts its influence “by means of regional governance structures” and

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