Chronic Insecurity in the Middle East: Causes and Consequences

This paper is part of ACW’s fourth book, titled The Arab World Beyond Conflict.

Even before the discovery of oil in southwestern Iran at the start of the 20th century, the Middle East was viewed as a strategically vital region, both for the global economy in general and for the continued prosperity of advanced economies in particular. In the process, the region has become an arena for the emergence of multiple and often overlapping security challenges, many of them indigenous to the area and many imported from abroad. Up until the 2011 Arab uprisings, most of these security challenges revolved around territorial, political, and military competitions and conflicts within and between actors in the region itself and from outside actors. While threats and challenges to human security were also present, they were often overshadowed by more immediate and more tangible threats to territorial sovereignty and by various forms of political and military competition between state actors.

The 2011 Arab uprisings added a new dimension to security threats and challenges in the larger Middle East: identity politics. More specifically, the rise and spread of sectarianism introduced a new element in the societies and cultures of the region in which large swaths of the population felt threatened because of their core identity and belief systems. In its latest iteration, sectarianism has become a politically salient tool used by regional states for purposes of deflecting blame and enhancing faltering legitimacies. But its instrumentalist use occurred within receptive social and cultural milieus where it was readily adopted and internalized by influential non-state actors and nongovernmental organizations, with religious clerics, mosques, and the traditional and social media chief among them. The cross-border conflicts and civil wars that dominate the Middle East as well as the Iranian-Saudi competition in and around their immediate neighborhood only reinforce the salience of sectarian beliefs among peoples of the region. In the contemporary era, threats to human and hard security have converged and have assumed a mutually reinforcing relationship with one another in the Middle East.

Sources of Insecurity

The sources of this insecurity can be divided into four broad and overlapping categories. First, the security architecture that has emerged in the region is itself a source of insecurity. So far, it has largely rested on the exclusion of Iran and the continued and extensive efforts of an external balancer and its footprints, namely the United States. US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) security and strategic thinking were long premised on the assumption that Iran does not have any legitimate security concerns of its own. The flawed nature of the assumption prompted the Obama Administration to rethink and revise its thinking on Iran, largely through ensuring that the long-running nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic came to a successful fruition in 2015. Despite considerable consternation among Saudi and Israeli leaders, the Obama Administration stayed the course. But its successor Trump Administration reversed course and US-Iranian tensions once again increased.

A second reason for pervasive insecurity in the Middle East is the widespread neglect of security threats that are not strictly military in nature. More specifically, the rise of identity politics in general, and sectarianism in particular, have created considerable tension within and between communities across the region. Sectarianism has added force and potency to the rhetoric of state and non-state actors who have sought to advance their own agendas, and to compensate for their own shortcomings, by claiming to be defenders of supposedly threatened identities and communities.

This has been fed and reinforced by a third cause of insecurity, namely, the belligerence of the actors involved. Agency matters. At their core, politics and international relations are products of actions by individual policymakers and reflect their preferences. Moreover, aspirations of regional hegemony, ambitions of power projections, and achievement of middle power status have propelled regional state actors to compete with and undermine one another. These ambitions, combined with the force of sectarianism on the one hand and the proliferation of weak and fragile polities in the Middle East on the other, have made the region particularly volatile.

Foreign and security policy belligerence has had a fourth consequence: the ironic reproduction of insecurity itself, otherwise known as the security dilemma. This is when security-enhancing measures by one state increase the insecurity of its adversary, whose own countermeasures make the former insecure. The vicious cycle of security-insecurity that the security dilemma represents continues to undermine the prospects of regional peace and stability in the Middle East.

The result has been the emergence of a highly volatile and tense regional security complex characterized by chronic tensions, diplomatic disputes, exceedingly charged and tense emotions, deep-seated anxieties and animosities, and, more recently, open military conflict and warfare. In the current global context, the Middle East’s instability is not occurring in isolation and is fed by—and is in turn feeding—instability in other places, near and far. In fact, it can be argued that the flows of instability from Yemen to Somalia are tying together one regional security complex with another.1 Since 2011, the world has witnessed uncharacteristic diplomatic and military assertiveness, often bordering on bellicosity, from the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Further, the proliferation of weak and fragile polities has afforded them, in addition to Iran, the opportunity to try to expand their respective spheres of influence to places as far flung as Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya. Ruling elites across the Middle East have historically demonstrated pragmatism in pursuit of political survival strategies.2 It is unclear whether their new pursuits––meant not so much to ensure their survival as to enable them to project power––will end up presenting them with new security challenges.

Looking Ahead

Not surprisingly, for some time now the question of what needs to be done to foster security in the Middle East has attracted the attention of numerous analysts, diplomats and policy practitioners, and academics.3 Three critical independent variables whose change in one direction or another is likely to greatly affect the overall security architecture and stability of the region should be highlighted here. These include the role of the region’s natural resources, namely oil and gas, in shaping ongoing domestic and international politics; perceptions toward and the direction of Iranian foreign policy and the Islamic Republic’s evolving strategic role and position in the region; and the shape and direction of US foreign and security policies as they relate to the Middle East. These are the great unknowns on the road to the evolution of security dynamics in the Middle East.

Natural resources have played the role of a double-edged sword for the Middle East. On the one hand, they have brought the region a resource curse on the domestic front and the unwanted intrusion and attention of the West. On the other hand, natural resources have turned what were once desert outposts and dusty fishing villages not that long ago into global cities and regional powerhouses today.4 Given their oil reserves and wealth-driven foreign policies, many GCC states have in fact emerged as “strategic and commercial pivots” around which shifts in the global balance of power are taking place.5 And oil and gas reserves will no doubt continue to keep global interests in the region high for the foreseeable future.6

But given the centrality of hydrocarbon resources to the evolution of the region’s contemporary political economies, and their continued role in enabling politically unaccountable regimes to stay in power, the nature and shape of the post-oil era remain a big question. By most accounts, the second oil boom of the early 2000s has now come to an end. The petroleum bubble has burst, with prices going from more than a $100 a barrel in 2014-2015 to between $30 and $40 in 2015 and early 2016. By mid- to late-2017, they had crawled back up to the mid-$40 to $60 range.7 No oil-dependent country can withstand this kind of a decline in revenues without facing a crisis.8 International investments,  along  with  serious  moves  across  the  GCC  to  prepare  the  domestic economy for the post-oil era, are likely to go part way toward alleviating some of the potential pains of transitioning to a new political economy. But exactly what that new era will look like, and how domestic populations and international and other regional actors will react, remain unknown.

Most observers agree that the post-oil era will be one of increasing domestic conflicts and threats to human security in the Middle East.9 What is unclear is the extent to which current moves toward fostering a knowledge-based—instead of a resource-dependent—economy are substantive and appropriate enough in addressing potential future needs. Also unknown are the intra-regional and international ramifications, if any, of the arrival of the post-oil era. Will the Middle East remain geopolitically important in global strategic calculations? As small, security-dependent states, will the GCC countries still be able to attract offshore balancers and, especially, the United States? Finally, will new and as yet unforeseen sources of tension and competition emerge and become points of contention within and between states?

A second unknown is Iran’s evolving role in the Middle East. More specifically, there are two questions concerning Iran and the rest of the region. First, what direction will domestic Iranian politics take as the country continues to decide the precise terms on which it wants to engage the rest of the world? Although labels such as “hardliners,” “moderates,” and “conservatives” are notoriously inaccurate indicators of who governs the country at any given point and how these leaders perceive Iran’s role in the region and beyond, factional alignments in Iran do continue to change, often quite unpredictably, and such changes often alter the country’s foreign policy and its international relations in significant ways. If there is a constant in Iranian politics, it is its fluid and unpredictable nature.

One of the primary structural causes of tension in the Middle East is the deliberate exclusion of Iran from the prevailing regional security arrangement. As the United States and its regional allies have sought to isolate and marginalize Iran in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Islamic Republic has cultivated ties with militias and other non-state actors across the Middle East. These include not just the Lebanese Hezbollah or the Iraqi al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Resistance), but even the Afghan Taliban.10 The outcome has all too often been a zero-sum game in which strategic competition between Iran and its southern Gulf neighbors has only heightened regional and intranational tensions and instability. Mohammad Ayoob warns that “isolating Iran and building a security structure to contain it rather than include it is bound to fail.”11 He likens such a scenario to building a South Asian security structure without India’s participation. Iran’s integration into a regional security framework, Ayoob and others agree, will no doubt result in lowering Arab-Iranian tensions.12

The third and final independent variable affecting Middle East security in the coming years is the United States, which has been one of the central constitutive elements of the regional security arrangement in the region for several decades. As recently as the early 2000s, experts were confidently stating that “the sine qua non of any future Gulf security system will be a U.S. military umbrella.”13 Today, more than a decade later, however, it is no longer clear whether the historic raison d’être of American military presence in the Middle East still holds. For decades, both before and after the Cold War, America’s strategic interests in the region boiled down to oil. In his 1987 statement to the US Congress, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger was clear in outlining American strategic objectives in the Middle East. For over four decades, he said, America’s “vital national interests are at stake in the Gulf” and have required the United States to be “present, vigilant, and resolute….” These national interests included “denying Soviet access/influence in the region which would threaten free world access to regional oil resources; stability and security of the Gulf states which is critical to insure Free World access to oil; and access to Gulf oil resources, the disruption of which would seriously affect the Free World oil market.”14

In the second decade of the 2000s, imported oil in general, and Middle East oil in particular, do not have the same significance to the US economic engine that they did in the 1980s. Beginning with President Barack Obama’s second term in office, a new strategic perception seemed to be emerging in which the US military presence in the Middle East was no longer strictly necessary.15 Moreover, the Obama Administration’s notion of “leading from behind,” coming on the heels of George W. Bush’s hegemonic interventionism, appeared to be signaling “US acknowledgement of the end of its regional hegemony.”16 But actual signs of a lessening of US military commitment to and presence in the Middle East were few and far between. In fact, there is no reason to believe that Obama’s evolving views about US security commitments in the Middle East, especially near the end of his tenure, were shared by the Trump Administration or, for that matter, within the larger US foreign policy establishment.17

What has been clear for some time is that unilateral US attempts at imposing liberal democracy and a return to the old-fashioned balance-of-power approach—reminiscent most recently of George W. Bush’s foreign policy toward the Middle East—are no longer viable options.18 Also problematic have been US attempts to act as an external balancer using unsteady or unreliable regional allies.19 Despite the failure of such approaches to produce desired results so far, the Trump Administration has declared its pursuits to be integral to its policies toward the region. Ideally, US engagement in and commitment to the Middle East should move in a non-military direction.20 If oil supplies are generally safe, and a modus vivendi is reached between Iran on the one side and the United States and its allies on the other, then the American military presence in the Middle East can be substantially reduced.21 This would not resolve all regional tensions, but it would go some way toward reducing them. It could then pave the way for gradually replacing the current balance-of-power system with one that takes into account a “balance of interests.”22 As Wehrey and Sokolsky argue, “a new regional security forum should be an integral element of the United States’ vision of a rules-based and more stable security order in the Gulf.”23

These are only ideal scenarios that could potentially turn the United States from one of the region’s most powerful belligerents into a primary catalyst for reduced tensions and increased stability. Academics often excel at laying out such visions, but seldom do politicians and policymakers think they are viable or even realistic. These types of scenarios have been around for some time, but none has been considered seriously so far.

More than a decade ago, for example, Michael Kraig called for a “principled multilateralism” in which “security is sought with other states rather than against them.” He argued that “domestic developments in the Gulf will follow a more beneficial course if all states are gradually intertwined in a web of military and economic agreements that create strong interdependence.”24 Today, Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in an intense and conflict-prone competition; there are proxy wars raging in Syria and Iraq; Libya is in tatters and has become a new arena of power projection for the United Arab Emirates; and a Saudi-led military coalition is unable to fully extricate itself from Yemen without having the country devolve completely into chaos and disorder. And neither the Saudis nor the Iranians appear willing to reverse course or capable of containing the destructive sectarianism which their policies keep fueling. Middle East security today remains as elusive as ever.

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1 Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), p. 3.
2 David Held and Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, The Transformation of the Gulf: Politics, Economics and the Global Order (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 14.
3 An example includes the work of Andrew Rathmell, Theodore Karasik, and David Gompert, who as far back as 2003 were arguing that a viable security system in the Middle East needs to entail two synergetic components: a multilateralism that encompasses a GCC-Iran-Iraq balance of power and internal reforms within the GCC states. Andrew Rathmell, Theodore Karasik, and David Gompert, “A New Persian Gulf Security System,” Rand Issue Paper (2003), p. 10.
4 On the resource curse see Michael L. Ross, The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012); on the rise of global cities along the Persian Gulf see Mehran Kamrava, ed., Gateways to the World: Port Cities in the Persian Gulf (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
5 Held and Ulrichsen, The Transformation of the Gulf, p. 8.
6 Ulrichsen, Insecure Gulf, p. 76.
7 U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Crude oil prices increased in 2017, and Brent-WTI spread widened,” (January 3, 2018),
8 Anthony Cordesman, “The Coming Petroleum Revenues Crisis in the MENA,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (March 11, 2016): p. 2,
9 Ulrichsen, Insecure Gulf, p. 11.
10 The Iraqi Shia militia al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya is popularly known as al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (“the popular mobilization”). For a report on Iran’s alleged relationship with the Taliban, see Barbara Slavin, “Iran’s ‘marriage of convenience’ with Taliban,” Al-Monitor, May 31, 2016,
11 Mohammad Ayoob, “The Iranian Nuclear Deal: Long-Term Implications for the Middle East,”
Insight Turkey, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer 2015): p. 50.
12 See Frederic Wehrey and Richard Sokolsky, “Imagining a New Security Order in the Persian Gulf” (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2015), p. 1.
13 Rathmell, Karasik, and Gompert, “A New Persian Gulf Security System,” p. 5.
14 Caspar Weinberger, “A Report to the Congress on Security Arrangements in the Persian Gulf,” United States Department of Defense, June 15, 1987, p. 1.
15 Gary Sick, “US Persian Gulf Policy in Obama’s Second Term.” Gary’s Choices, March 19, 2013, https:bit.ly2Gcz2U9.
16 Anoushiravan Ehteshami, “Making Foreign Policy in the Midst of Turmoil,” in Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami, eds., The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, second ed. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014), p. 349.
17 Jim Lobe, “The Neocon-Liberal Hawk Convergence Is Worse Than I Thought,” LobeLog, May 25, 2016,
18 Rathmell, Karasik, and Gompert, “A New Persian Gulf Security System,” pp. 1-2.
19 Ibid., p. 7.
20 Robert E. Hunter, “Securing the Persian Gulf: Diplomacy, Not Arms,” December 18, 2013,
21 Sick, “US Persian Gulf Policy in Obama’s Second Term.”
22 Michael Ryan Kraig, “Forging a New Security Order for the Persian Gulf,” Policy Analysis Brief, The Stanley Foundation (January 2006): p. 13.
23 Wehrey and Sokolsky, Imagining a New Security Order in the Persian Gulf.
24 Michael Kraig, “Assessing Alternative Security Frameworks for the Persian Gulf,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2004): p. 154.