6 Fault Lines in the Middle East

Due to the historical legacies discussed above, combined with its geo strategic location, abundant resources and regional/global power politics, the region has been in turmoil for the last half a century or so. There are several conflicts, crises and wars going on in the Middle East with deep rooted causes having serious implications for the regional stability and the global security. However to fully comprehend the origin and nature of these crises, we will have to first understand the socioeconomic and geopolitical fault lines beneath the body politic of the Middle East. These structural fault lines, result of historical legacies, geopolitical situation, or global politics are:
The geostrategic location of the Middle East is its greatest strength on the one hand and also its biggest weakness on the other. Not blessed with the African remoteness or the American isolation, whatever happens anywhere affects Middle East more than any region. Similarly, whatever happens here affects the global politics. This unique location has made the Middle East an arena where anyone, who has the pretentions to be a global player, comes to jostle for influence, starting off regional conflicts. Albert Hourani, a British-Lebanese historian who specialized in the Middle Eastern studies rightly stated that “He who rules the Near East, rules the world; and he who has interests in the world is bound to concern himself with the Near East.
With the exception of a few countries, all of the Middle East has been under Ottoman Empire or European control for 500 years before WW1. After the First World War, the rest of the decolonized part of the Ottoman Empire was carved up and divided among the Europeans. The lines drawn on the drawing boards to delineate the respective spheres of influence between the French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the British, secretly arranged through Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), became the official borders when these countries got independence. Whether these borders made sense or not, USA which inherited the mantle of leadership of the western civilisation after the 2nd World War, informally confirmed the legitimacy of these borders through the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957.
These cartographic blunders of the colonial powers have created arbitrary nation-states with artificial boundaries, containing divided social, ethnic and sectarian composition and loyalties. Along with the other legacy of colonialism, namely, underdevelopment, these artificial boundaries are one of the major causes of the centrifugal tendencies of the captive minorities, creating crises of legitimacy and governance in these states.
Like its geostrategic location discussed above, availability of certain resources and acute shortage of others, have aggravated the crises in the Middle East. Abundant hydrocarbon and other mineral resources in some of the Middle Eastern countries with low population density have made their original inhabitants extremely rich. However, it has also made them extremely vulnerable and hence dependent on others for their security. In fact, some of the states and their ruling elites owe even their survival to their being outposts of one or the other global powers. These global powers, in turn, are only interested to maintain status quo within the states friendly to them and using them as proxies to extend their respective spheres of influence.
On the other side of the resource equation is the acute shortage of another commodity in most of these countries which is responsible for interstate and intrastate conflicts. Some countries are rapidly running out of water with a per capita average of 1000 m3/yr, as compared to the internationally defined threshold of 1700 cubic meters per year. In some countries, it has reached critical levels. For example, the average Yemeni has access to only 140 cubic meters of water per year for all uses; her  capital Sanaa might have to be evacuated due to this looming threat of water scarcity.
Situation is not much better in other countries either. This water insecurity has further escalated the ethnic conflicts and sectarian strife for which the Middle East is notorious. According to social scientists, 70% to 80% of conflicts in these countries’ rural regions are water and land-related. Some water disputes survive two generations. One of the major bones of contention between Turkey, Israel and Syria is the apportionment of water of the rivers.
Popular Unrest:
Globalization with increasing integration of economics, communications, and cultures across national boundaries is affecting, directly as well as indirectly, the governance structures, processes and the cultural fabric in every country. It is stoking the aspirations of the middle classes for better quality of life with improved standards of living as well as greater say in the socio-political decision making. However the political establishment in most of the countries in the Middle East, historically governed by authoritarian elites, are not providing them adequate channels of expression and empowerment. Consequently these countries are increasingly witnessing the outbursts of popular resentment against the status quo which is then exploited by the regional and global hegemons as well as the non-state violent actors.
All the countries in the Middle East are carrying a lot of historical baggage of social, economic and political underdevelopment inherited by them at the time of their independence from their colonial masters. Ruled by dynastic oligarchies, these countries suffer from economic and technological backwardness, widespread regional and tribal inequality with stalled state building and nation building processes, keeping the majority of the population as sideliners. Rapidly increasing population and unemployment are further widening the schism already existing between the ruling elites and the populace, providing opportunities for violent non state actors to recruit manpower for their agendas.
One of the defining features of a developing country is the sharp division of its society along racial, tribal and ethnic lines which invariably results in open conflicts for gaining the control of land, water and other scarce resources. While the tribal division of the Arab Society is thousands of years old, the sectarian division among the Muslims started with the Prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 with a power struggle over who would succeed him in ruling the Islamic Caliphate. Though Ali lost the fight but his supporters, the Shia, held on to the idea that he was the rightful successor. Over a period of time this group grew into an entirely separate branch (sect) of Islam.
Today about 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide are Shia, majority in Iran and Iraq with a significant presence in neighbouring countries. However, this sectarian divide is coterminous with tribal affinity on the one hand and political loyalty on the other in most of the countries in the Middle East. There are tribes that are Shia and there are countries which espouse the cause of one or the other of these sects. This division has now morphed into a struggle for regional influence between Shia political powers, led by Iran, versus Sunni political powers, led by Saudi Arabia.

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