The Changing Middle East: A New Look at Regional Dynamics

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 The Changing Middle East
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Looking at the Middle East Differently: An Alternative Conceptual Lens

By focusing on change in the Arab Middle East, the objective of this study is not to negate international–regional connectedness or patterns of continuity in this region. These two aspects are all too evident and it would be foolish to deny their presence.

By privileging what has been overlooked—change—this chapter aims to promote a much more comprehensive picture of how this region actually functions. Focusing on change is required academically but it could also help in the elaboration of relevant policies to cope with the evolving challenges on the ground.

 That is why this chapter combines conceptual and applied analyses. Dividing change into two types, sudden and evolutionary, this study elucidates four bases of change: war, revolution, mile- stone events, and a steady or routine but incremental and cumulative chain of events.

To make the argument more concrete, the major part of the chapter is devoted to putting flesh on these conceptual factors by tracing the evolution of the region over the last fifty-five years or so, divided into five periods. As historians tell us, any periodization in the seamless web of history has its degree of arbitrariness, but periodization can here facilitate a grasp of evolutionary and revolutionary patterns over a long stretch of the region’s contemporary life.

 Given its strategic importance even before the advent of the current petrol era, this region has been highly penetrated (S. Amin 1976; Amin 1982). The focus here is on the region’s own dynamics, but in order to avoid the misperception that I have neglected the crucial external impact, I start with a note about the inside–outside connection with respect to the region.

The Middle East: An Amorphous Region with an Arab Core A large segment of outside observers and of the proverbial Arab street reduce the region’s dynamics, and even its fate, to the ‘constant’ of out- side forces. The impacts of globalization, both economic and cultural, or the occupation of Iraq do indeed justify this emphasis on the significance of ‘the outside.’ But this approach can be highly reductionist and par- tial (in both senses of the term) if local/regional factors are not brought in to show how they interact with the outside in shaping these regional dynamics

. A neologism for this inside–outside interaction is gaining credence in social analysis terminology in the twenty-first century, even among enthusiasts for the sweeping impact of globalization: glocalization (Ritzer 2007, 178–99).

This inside–outside debate was brought to the fore more than half a century ago and by no less than the University of Chicago. The famous ‘Chicago School’ has been, of course, well-established in economics and sociology since the early twentieth century. The school’s contribution extended later to political science. David Easton, for instance, launched his Systems Analysis of Political Life in the 1950s (Easton 1953; 1965) and Hans Morgenthau his ‘power politics’ foundation in International Relations in the 1940s. Much closer to our subject is the Kaplan/Binder debate.

In 1957, Morton Kaplan published his seminal System and Process in International Politics. As a rebuttal to his eminent colleague’s ‘power politics’ approach, Kaplan purported to apply scientific analysis to the  evolution and functioning of  the  international system. We are indebted to Kaplan for his rigorous analysis  of different types  of international systems since antiquity, from the balance of power to bipolarity, and the popularization of such terms as ‘loose’ and ‘tight’ bipolarity. We do not need to detail the impact of such an intellectual enterprise except to mention that it was a colleague of Kaplan at the University of Chicago, and a specialist in the Middle East, Leonard Binder, who attacked the book’s ethnocentrism and its reductionism of regional dynamics to reflect the rivalry and machinations of the Great Powers.

Binder’s approach was to emphasize the autonomy of Middle East dynamics, their sui generis character, as distinct from Cold War interaction.

 Suffice to say that this debate led to the elaboration of an important concept relevant to our analysis of the Middle East: the region as an international subsystem. As the prefix ‘sub-’ shows, the region as a set or system is conceived of as part of a wider international environment but without the negation of the characteristics proper to its own dynamics (see Thompson 1973 for a good conceptual analysis; Acharya 2007 for an extension to the whole architecture of world poli- tics).

 So we can have our cake and eat it too! But this happy solution was not applied to the region itself.

One of the early manifestations of this steady change is the debate from within on the definition of the region and the emphasis on a distinct Arab identity. Veteran Egyptian journalist Muhammad Hassanein Heikal distin- guished between a specifically Arab regional identity and a wider Middle Eastern one in clear-cut terms. Even though his reasoning is related to the Cold War era and its alliance-making in the 1950s, it is worth quoting in detail his distinction between the two frames of reference. Heikal defined the Middle East system as:

First advocated by Britain, France, the United States and Turkey, the real architect of the system was, in fact, the United States, backed by Great Britain. This system saw the Middle East in geographical terms, as a vulnerable land mass lying close to the Soviet Union. Wholly preoccupied with the Soviet threat, the architects of the system held that the countries of the area must organize themselves against this threat by joining in an alliance with others who were concerned for the region’s security.

This alliance would have to coordinate its defense with other countries exposed to the “Red Peril” (i.e., communism) in Europe and Asia. A Middle Eastern alliance would be the final link in a chain of alliances (including NATO and SEATO) encircling the southern frontiers of the Soviet Union.

 In the logic of this system, the Arab countries were expected to join in an alliance with Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, even Israel—that is, the Middle Eastern coun- tries directly concerned with the region, as well as with the United States, Britain, and France, the international parties concerned with the region’s security as well as being the major participants in NATO and SEATO.

But as a counter frame of reference, there was the Arab System. Based on a different outlook toward the region, this system saw the Middle East not as a hinterland lying between Europe and Asia—a simple geographical expansion—but as one nation having common interests and security priorities distinct from those of the West.

According to this logic, the countries of the area, which enjoyed unity of language, religion, history and culture should— indeed could—create their own system to counter any threat from whatever source.

And the main threat, as the advocates of this system saw it, came from Israel, not only because it cut across the African- Asian land bridge but also because, with its seizure of the Auja area demilitarized under the Rhodes armistice agreement, it was clear that it harbored expansionist aims. At the same time, while admittedly the Soviet Union did represent a threat, it was felt that there was not immediate or direct danger from that source.

Many people in the area, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, held that the lack of com- mon borders between the Arab nation and the Soviet Union would deter the Soviets from undertaking any military act against it. And in any case, Nasser felt that the answer to communist infiltration did not lie in joining Western-sponsored alliances with their imperial- ist overtones, but rather in promoting internal economic and social development and in affirming the spirit of nationalism and independence. (Heikal 1978a, 714–16)

As we will see below in dealing with the first phase of the region’s evolution, the 1954–55 debate over the Baghdad Pact brought to the fore the collision between these two frames of reference (Korany 1976, 198–300).

The emphasis here is on the Arab subsystem, composed of the twenty-three members of the Arab League, whereas the Middle East ‘environment’ includes, in addition to this Arab core, the three countries of Iran, Israel, and Turkey (see Noble 2008 for a recent detailed application;

Hilal and Matter 1980 for a pioneering attempt in Arabic; Sa‘id 1994 and Abu-Taleb 1994 for more recent analyses; and Idris 2001 for application to the Gulf sub-region only. Tables in the appendix provide data on both sets of countries). One important evolution of the last sixty years is that the period began, following the affirmation of Arab nationalism, with a

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