An Unsettling Overview of the Middle East in 2018

Since the Arab Spring revolutions and uprisings, the Middle East has seen drastic changes in its overall strategic picture. Except for Tunisia, all the Arab countries that experienced revolutions also witnessed great setbacks in the form of civil wars or military coups. Terrorist organizations found a golden opportunity to pursue their goals and pushed themselves into the fray, exploiting the weakness of state institutions and security organizations. These included the so-called Islamic State (IS), remnants of al-Qaeda, and different Iranian-supported and associated militias operating in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

The political and security challenges facing countries in the Middle East in the post-Arab Spring period have helped create an unstable environment. This allowed international forces and actors to intervene, again, in the region and pursue their own aims, creating a new and different strategic landscape. Many powers long present in the region, such as the United States and Russia, have seen that they are once more competing for advantage. While the Russian presence had diminished for some time––indeed, since the end of the cold war––the recent instability in the region has made possible a resurgence of Russian influence with profound impact on Syria. It is clear that the United States and Russia will continue to play a role that meets their own national interests rather than the interests of the states in the region.

A Layout of the Terrain

The United States, as the old hegemonic power in the region, has availed itself of the opportunity to become deeply involved in the Syrian civil war by adopting, arming, and training a Kurdish separatist faction, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which seeks to set up a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria—a region that has never been considered fully Kurdish. This move on the part of the United States, despite its promises to Turkey to withhold arms supplies to the Kurdish faction, has angered Turkey and may have prompted the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, to launch the ongoing military operation against Afrin in the west, one that could expand to Manbij in the east. This is considered a new dimension in the ongoing Syrian conflict that has already seriously affected US-Turkish relations.

Iraq. It appears that Iraq is still far from stable, even though IS control in western-northwestern Iraq has been dismantled, if not totally destroyed. The current government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faced serious challenges in dealing with many aspects of Iraqi security and political and economic life. Among these challenges are the fallout of the IS dismantlement, the failed Kurdish separatist referendum and its consequences, the evolving role of Iranian-backed militias, and the parliamentary elections to be held in the coming spring. On the other hand, the reconstruction of destroyed and battered Sunni cities and facilitation of the return of their displaced populations are serious issues that seem difficult for Abadi to address with the corrupt and inefficient government apparatus. This all makes it difficult to expect serious improvements in Iraq in the foreseeable future.

The GCC. Turning southward, the pending Gulf crisis continues to pose a danger to regional stability and security. The crisis seriously affected the coherence of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and bilateral relations between its member states; it also paved the way for more foreign involvement in GCC internal affairs. One very important episode that may be considered as a benchmark is the Saudi-UAE Joint Cooperation Committee, which aimed to keep coordination and cooperation on the top strategic and economic levels outside the respective GCC agencies. This agreement was announced on the eve of the GCC summit hosted by Kuwait and constituted a serious setback to the coherence and future of the organization.

Kuwait was the first GCC country to offer mediation toward a solution acceptable to the parties involved. This offer was accepted by Qatar and its rivals and supported by the international community. However, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, was not willing to compromise. Saudi Arabia left the door ajar, to an extent, in a conciliatory sign to the Kuwaiti emir, and Bahrain, as usual, followed Saudi Arabia in these matters. For its part, Egypt could only reprimand Qatar and hold it responsible for terrorism within Egypt, on unfounded grounds.

President Donald Trump offered to find workable solutions to the crisis. At first, he suggested convening a summit at Camp David but with no positive response from the parties, so he supported the efforts of the emir of Kuwait instead. The Trump Administration expressed its concern regarding the crisis and urged the parties to find a quick end to it. Some of Trump’s tweets were perceived as supporting the four countries blockading Qatar, which adversely affected the Kuwait mediation initiative. Renewed efforts at this time could produce better results in the next Camp David summit rumored to take place in May 2018.

Yemen. The Yemeni crisis is a further source of tension in the region. It was created by the confluence of domestic and regional conditions and pitted the Iranian-backed Houthis, who were allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, against the legitimate government headed by President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis felt the coup was directed against their territorial integrity and opted to support the legitimate government of Yemen by military means. The United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 2216/2015, branding the Houthi-Saleh coup a threat to regional stability, calling for the restoration of the Hadi government, and demanding the withdrawal of Houthi and other forces from the capital, Sanaa.

The GCC was not able to bring about a workable solution and the situation worsened when the Houthis targeted the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with reportedly Iranian-supplied missiles. A war of attrition, led by Saudi Arabia, continues against the Houthis to bring their authority to an end. After almost three years of continuous air bombing and destruction of the Yemeni infrastructure, the country has plunged into a cholera epidemic among thousands of children and families. The country’s economy has collapsed, and there seems to be no chance for a peaceful and negotiated solution to end this conflict. It is quite clear now that the crisis cannot be settled by military means; therefore, it will continue to affect not only Yemen and its people, but the neighboring countries as well. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, the country most involved in the Yemen crisis, is now vulnerable to missile attacks by the Houthis, and a heavy economic toll burdens the Saudi economy—a situation the Saudis have not experienced since the oil boom.

As for the kingdom itself, it seems to be veering into uncharted territory. The successive missteps and lack of transparency of the new leadership in Saudi Arabia— that of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—has cost the country dearly and seriously affected its international standing and reputation. To many observers, bin Salman seems to have miscalculated the internal, regional, and international reactions toward his detention of the sitting Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri; moreover, his mishandling of internal affairs has resulted in a deep split within the Saudi ruling family. Arresting some prominent princes under the pretext of fighting corruption was seen by many as blackmail to draw money from them and as a move to curb any threat to his ascending the throne in the future. News of prisoner torture also spread and one individual was reported to have died.

Instigating a GCC crisis was one of the gravest mistakes committed by Mohammed bin Salman and his Emirati counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed. The consequences of this crisis will continue to affect bilateral and multilateral relationships in the region for a long time. This will reflect on the future coherence of the Saudi regime, making it difficult to foresee a stable Saudi Arabia as envisaged in Saudi “Vision 2030.”

United Arab Emirates. The UAE has seen fundamental changes in its international policies and regional relations with the ill health of the president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who has ruled the country with a certain rationality and wisdom that limited the aspirations of his half-brother, Mohammed bin Zayed—who is well-known for ambition that is not commensurate with his capabilities. In the hierarchy of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed is not only the second leading figure; he is the Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces while the prime minister, minister of defense, and vice president of the UAE is the ruler of Dubai: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Mohammed bin Zayed, the heir apparent of Abu Dhabi, the largest and wealthiest of the UAE sheikhdoms, pushed aside bin Rashid and began to implement plans reflecting his ambition to dominate the region—although his ambitions outweigh his abilities to defend Abu Dhabi’s wealth and strategic assets. One important factor is that the UAE is only 10 percent native, a fact that has ramifications for state security, which may not end up being controlled by the citizenry. Foreigners and mercenaries cannot build nor defend a state. Such challenges to the UAE make expanding beyond its capabilities counterproductive in the near future. The country now is under scrutiny by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for human rights abuses, including in Yemen, where UAE mercenary forces have committed serious violations denounced by the international press and concerned UN organizations, while the legitimate Yemeni government ordered a probe.

For the future, the United Arab Emirates would be wise to reconsider its ambitious regional goals, such as trying to liberate its occupied islands from Iran before seeking a foothold in Yemen. It could potentially enjoy a constructive role in the Gulf region.

Palestine. President Trump’s recent move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, constitute some of the biggest challenges facing the Palestinian people, especially following the steps taken by the Trump Administration to reduce financial grants for UNRWA, the UN agency that extends humanitarian and educational aid to Palestinians refugees. This action by the Trump Administration will surely enable further aggressive Israeli policies in terms of settlement expansion and participation in potential peace plans in the future.

Iran. The biggest actor in the geostrategic landscape of the Arabian Gulf, Iran poses a challenge to the security balance of the region. It continues to be motivated by the revolutionary and ideological-religious teachings of the late Ayatollah Khomeini and an ideology calling for the exportation of the revolution beyond Iranian borders. This is the basis for the most dangerous meddling in the Arab neighborhood, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, and especially in the Arab Gulf—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

The Iranian religious leadership, represented by the institution of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his government, is facing a serious challenge as reflected in recent demonstrations and protests in several Iranian cities including Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, and even Qum, the holy city of Iranian Shiites. The aim of the protests was to denounce Iran’s costly political and military interference in Arab states such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen, and to demand that the government pay attention to the economic needs of the Iranian people themselves. Although the demonstrations were extinguished in two weeks, their effects are profound and will force the government to act to appease the people.

Turkey. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has emerged as a proactive and ambitious actor in the region. Motivated by the long-neglected Ottoman history, Turkish ambitions have surpassed the regional neighborhood and reached Africa for both strategic and economic interests. Examples include Somalia, where a military base was set up to train the Somali Army, and Sudan, where an agreement was signed to lease the island of Sawakin on the Red Sea, the old headquarters of the Ottoman ruler. Erdoğan has also visited Tunisia to strengthen relations.

Turkey’s role was first displayed in Syria, while in Iraq its stance was to resist the Iranian-backed militias. Pressured to pull its forces from Baashiqa near Mosul, Turkey arrived at an agreement with the Iraqi government. But whatever the future of Iraq in the post-IS period, Turkey will likely have a role in its politics for a long time to come.

In Syria, the challenge to the Turkish presence was even greater. All the active actors in Syria have issues with the Turkish presence and role: the regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters as well as the United States, which opted to back the Kurdish militias viewed by Turkey as a threat to its stability and territorial integrity. Turkey reached out to Russia and Iran to formulate an understanding on Syria. When the Americans announced that they would arm and deploy 30,000 Kurdish fighters on the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq, Turkey acted promptly and started a widescale military operation (Olive Branch) to force the Kurdish forces out of Afrin and its vicinity, despite the absence of any serious challenge from any active actors on the ground.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here