Originally coined by the British Foreign Office in the 19th century, the term Middle East refers to the region between the Western Asia in the east and Egypt on the west. The British divided the region into three sub regions-Near East, the area closest to the United Kingdom and most of North Africa; the Far East, which was east of British India; and the Middle East, which was between British India and the Near East. With the exception of Turkey and Iran, the region is predominantly Arab and predominantly Muslim. Modelled on European nation-states, most of these countries are artificial creations, containing warring tribes for whom nation building is still in an embryonic stage.
Present crises in the Middle East are by and large an unfinished agenda of the past, which has left several legacies. History being a continuum, we can discern at least six distinct legacies of the history of the region which are now playing their role, individually or collectively, in the situation obtaining on the ground.
- Ancient History: Known as the Fertile Crescent because of its fertile soil and rich cultural history, the Middle East is the cradle of several civilizations and the birth place of three world religions. Because of its strategic location at the crossroads of three continents namely Asia, Africa and Europe, the Middle East has been the scene of internal conflicts and external invasions throughout its history, absorbing the best and the worst of all these great civilizations. While the Akkadians gave the Middle East its cultural foundations, they also bequeathed to it the first dimension of the present crises i.e. racial and cultural schism among the communities living in the region.
- Greeks and Romans: Alexander and his successors introduced the western ideas, including the authoritarian governance structures which were reinforced by the Romans and later on perfected by the Ottomans. The French and the British, finding them as excellent tools of statecraft, used them thoroughly and is now the second dimension of the crises i.e. by way of manipulating rules by the oppressive and authoritarian oligarchies in most of the Middle Eastern states.
- Islam: Rise of Islam in the early 7th century AD was a game changer in the political and cultural history of the Middle East. It not only introduced three crucial elements—religions, sects and language but also the idea of a shared Middle Eastern identity. Muslim conquest of Jerusalem with the consequent stoppage of land routes to India/China resulted in the start of the Crusades which, though destructive in nature, sowed the first seeds of Arab nationalism. These elements still define the region today and are the third dimension of the present crises i.e. religious conflicts, sectarian divide, linguistic differences.
- Ottomans: The Ottoman rule resulted in creating nationalistic feelings in the hitherto diverse communities and invited, by default, the penetration of European colonial powers—the fourth dimension of the crises i.e., Pan-Arabism and anti-imperialism feelings of the rulers and the general public.
- Colonialism: Western colonial era gave the Middle East its present boundaries as well as the oppressive, extractive state apparatus—the fifth dimension of the crises i.e. arbitrary nation-states with artificial boundaries containing divided social, ethnic and sectarian composition and loyalties being ruled by non-representative regimes which use these oppressive state structures to preserve themselves or to contain the centrifugal aspirations of the captive nationalities or both.
- Neo-colonialism: The Post-colonial era coincided with the establishment of the Zionist state of Israel and the start of the Cold War. These developments introduced two new ideological conflicts i.e. anti-Zionism and anti-communism in an area which was already seething with the conflicts discussed above. Hundreds and thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their ancestral homeland to make way for the creation of the state of Israel. This forcible eviction has not only resulted in bringing forth one of the most severe and long lasting humanitarian crises but has also been the major cause of three wars in the Middle East. On the other hand, presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees in resource scarce countries of the Middle East has created severe governance issues for these countries.
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:
Location: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.”
Boundaries: 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.
Resources: 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 boundariesis 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.
Underdevelopment: 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.
Divisions: 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.
Dimensions of the Crises
All the above fault lines, individually and collectively, have given birth to several interstate and intrastate conflicts and crises in the region which make the situation extremely complex and volatile. No war, big or small is a single dimensional phenomenon. It is always a conflict among several actors for a variety of reasons and several issues are at stake. There are nearly a dozen major and minor state and non-state actors jostling for power and influence in the Middle East. We can discern at least seven types of conflicts, crises and wars going on among the stakeholders, having multiple agendas and with strange sets of combination. These are:
Battle for Regional Hegemony:
At the regional level, it is an all-out war for the dominance of the Middle East by the regional powers with active collaboration of their respective sponsor world powers. There are five main contenders for the mantle of regional leadership—Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While Saudi Arabia claims this position for being the custodian of two most sacred places in the Muslim world, Egypt aspires for this position for being the champion of the Arab nationalism. Turkey lays her claim being the inheritor of the Ottoman Empire while for Israel, it is the only way to ward off the existential threat it faces in the hostile territory. Iran is vying for the leadership role on two counts—as inheritor of the Old Iranian Empire and as leader of the shite branch of Islam.
All of them are relying on different sources of support for their claims. Iran is using her soft power in the form of shite communities and its militant proxies while Saudi Arabia has the political support of all the Sunnis states and emotional backing of the Sunni population of the region as well as the support of the western powers. Turkey and Israel both have strong armies and western support to advance their claims. Egypt is relying on her cultural superiority and her educated and skilled Diaspora settled in all the countries of the Middle East. Incidentally, in this five way contest, all of these countries are using different militant groups, organised or footloose, as their proxies in various conflict zones in the region to advance their respective claims.
Civil Rights Movements:
In most of the present day developing countries, citizens have been denied the right of exercising their right to choose their representatives. However modernisation process which accompanied the industrialization efforts of post-colonial states has brought fundamental changes in the attitudes and behaviour of the citizens all over the world. Modernization, once set in motion, becomes a self-reinforcing process, penetrating all aspects of life and brings multidimensional changes in any society. These changes in turn transform social life and political institutions, bringing rising mass participation in politics in the long run.
Same is happening in the Middle East briefly witnessed during the Arab Spring. People are now demanding greater say in public affairs, an open government, transparency in public dealing, and an accountable and responsible executive. It is a struggle of the Arab people, particularly the rising middle classes against their unrepresentative rulers for good governance, empowerment, quality of life, equality of opportunity etc. A result of interplay of the underlying forces of demography, technological advancements, economic and social globalization, this struggle is serving as a base as well as the context against which other conflicts and crises are defined.
New Cold War:
At the global level it is the intensification of the old rivalry between two super powers, namely Russia and the USA with China as a new entrant. Having global agenda, all of them want to increase their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East which is strategically so important that any loss or gain of influence in this region will determine their relative global power equations.
A Scramble for Resources:
In the ultimate analysis, every conflict is for control of resources irrespective of the stated objectives of the contenders. Present conflicts, crises and wars in the Middle East are no exception. At the global level, it is an all-out war for controlling the hydrocarbon and mineral resources as well as the markets for selling their goods, services and military hardware. And, at regional level it is a struggle to control water and other resources by the regional hegemons. As stated earlier, one of the major bones of contention between Turkey, Israel and Syria is the apportionment of water of the rivers.
Ethnic and Religious/Sectarian Conflicts:
One of the defining features of a developing country is the sharp division of its society along racial, tribal and ethnic lines which invariably result in open conflicts for gaining control of land, water and other scarce resources. However in the Middle East, division of society on sectarian lines has added fuel to the fire. Some states and their proxy non-state actors are using this sectarian division, which had been so far ignored or suppressed, as tools of statecraft. Some of the non-representative oppressive regimes are also promoting these conflicts to divert attention of their respective restive populations from their own high-handedness. This sectarian divide has now mutated into war between two groups of countries in the Middle East. Sunni nations like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are at odds with Shiite nations like Iran, Syria and Iraq. At the same time non-state groups are fighting among one another as well as with the states also in ways that cross state borders.
Struggle for Self Determination: As stated earlier, cartographic blunders of the former imperial powers have resulted in the creation of states in such a manner that in each state there is a significant minority which is yearning for independence and thus creating governance issues in each state. Aspirations and struggle for self-determination of these suppressed and divided communities have created existentialist threats for several states.
Clash of Ideologies:
At the wide ideological plane, we may not agree with the clash of civilisations thesis of Huntington but there is no escaping the fact that there are several ideological dimensions to these conflicts. No doubt there has been a rivalry between the Christians and the Muslims in the Middle East for the last many centuries but by and large it never resulted in open war between the two communities. However, the creation of the state of Israel introduced the third variable in the age old equation—political Jewry.
The onset of the Cold War introduced another ideological conflict i.e. capitalism vs communism. Although the latter lost the epic battle in the last quarter of the 20th century but left several innovative ideas for socio-political reengineering of the societies and their economic management. These ideas are still the stuff of the debates at social and intellectual levels, whether ‘History’ has ended or not. Thus there are two clear nexuses in the Middle East, one comprising Russia, Iran and Syria while the other consisting of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, jostling for power in the region. These conflicts have turned the Middle East into a playground where the global powers which are using the politically non representative regimes as pawns and Israel as the bully or the regional policeman to secure their permanent interests.
The Middle East has been a troubled region for centuries, and it will remain so for any foreseeable future because of the structural fault lines and the resulting conflicts discussed above. Almost all the countries in the region have alliances of conveniences among themselves which, interestingly, cut across their respective stands on one issue or the other. If one country is backing a group in one conflict, she opposes it in other theatre and so on. This has created an ideal situation for footloose mercenaries and even for outright criminal gangs to operate with impunity for their own vested interests. In such a complex situation, there are no simple solutions.