№ 2, 2024. “Old” and “new” independence: who will “restore order” in the Middle East?

February 28, 2024

The Middle East is experiencing another round of geopolitical transformation — against the backdrop of a redistribution of power between states, long-standing conflicts and previously resolved contradictions are being exposed, new formats of interstate dialogue and new “red lines” are emerging. 

However, according to skeptics, the indicated transformations are of insignificant nature, and changes in the situation in the Middle East region are part of the “Great Game” of the largest world powers, where Middle Eastern countries are assigned the role of “younger brothers”.

However, among researchers there are also many who prefer to look beyond the “old independence” and point to the gradual stabilization of the region and the rise of regional states to the level of global poles of power. Particular emphasis is placed on the trend that regional powers are increasingly making foreign policy decisions based on national interests, and not “instructions from the outside”.

In this regard, it seems interesting to “weigh” the key arguments of skeptics and identify how independent the Middle East can be today in matters of regulating internal problems and what its “new independence” consists of[1].

Illustrating the “old” independence

One of the characteristic features of the Middle Eastern security system is the high level of its “geopolitical fragmentation”: de facto, the region is divided into several clusters, the largest and most dynamically changing of which is the Arab world. In addition, such actors as Turkey, Iran and Israel have a significant influence on regional politics. The rapprochement of the main centers of power is complicated by mutual distrust, and in some cases, rejection. This, in turn, gives rise to constant conflicts and divisions, which creates dangerous imbalances in the regional security system.

However, even within the Arab world, which is positioned by many researchers as a “monolithic” cluster, there are enough unresolved contradictions that prevent its transformation into the “core” of the Middle Eastern security system. First of all, we are talking about the unspoken rivalry between two integration platforms — the League of Arab States (LAS) and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) — for the right to “play first fiddle” in the affairs of Arab countries. Moreover, some of the GCC countries seek to lobby their vision not only within the Council, but also in the Arab League, which, according to skeptics, in the long term only deepens mutual distrust between the Arab powers[2]. In addition, the contradictions within the Arab world are additionally superimposed by negative trends in relations with other elements of the security system (Israel, Turkey, Iran), which creates new imbalances.

Another argument of skeptics is related to the role of world powers — “exporters of security”. In particular, they note that the modern security system of the region is built primarily with external participation. Thus, the largest security projects in the Middle East are developed or implemented under the constant control of the “Collective West”, while the United States and the EU countries, for the most part, are firmly woven into the system of regional relations — so much so that they have the opportunity to directly determine the priorities for the development of the defense of their key regional allies.

In addition, Washington’s allies, according to skeptics, themselves demonstrate a high interest in copying foreign experience in collective defense and security as such. The most indicative is the project called “Arab NATO” — a defensive alliance under the auspices of which the United States has been trying to gather key allies over the past decade. The phenomenon of “Arab NATO” is interesting because, within its framework, Washington seeks to “bring together” both Arab (Egypt, Jordan, Gulf monarchies) and non-Arab (Turkey, Israel) partners and strengthen their interaction with the phenomenon of a “permanent threat” from Iran[3]. Until recently, this geopolitical technique worked well, but after the Saudi-Iranian normalization, exploiting the “fear factor” when overcoming contradictions between allies became somewhat more difficult.

Speaking about conflict resolution — as an integral part of the process of building a security system in the region — skeptics most often point to the fact that the most large-scale changes in conflict resolution in recent years have been achieved with the participation of external forces. For example, the normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab states (the so-called “Abraham Accords”) was achieved with the sponsorship and diplomatic assistance of the United States, and the long-term geopolitical conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran was successfully stopped after China joined the negotiation process. Skeptics especially emphasize the thesis that in the absence of proper attention, escalation in these areas would continue even if other countries in the region were involved as mediators.

The argument that with the weakening of “external control” over the situation, the agreements reached quickly crumble is also of great force in this context. For example, “Abraham Accords”, in the implementation of which the administration of President Trump invested a large amount of effort and resources, with the change in US foreign policy priorities, “slowed down”[4] (for several years, the Israeli authorities failed to expand the “Abraham Accords” by involving new Arab countries in them), and against the background of the escalation of the conflict with Hamas, they were completely on the verge of dismantling[5]. Against this background, pessimists are increasingly calling to “take manual control” of the situation in the Middle East.

Speaking about the “old” independence of the Middle Eastern countries, skeptics quite often focus on the thesis that even the most developed and, at first glance, independent regimes are heavily dependent on external assistance from the superpowers — which is expressed, first of all, in the borrowing of ready-made technological and management decisions, as well as in attracting foreign personnel. In this context, any megaprojects implemented on the territory of Middle Eastern states with significant participation of international powers are a priori perceived as a manifestation of “technological colonialism”[6] and only harm the image of regional actors.

At the dawn of the “new” independence

However, the negative rhetoric of skeptics is often speculative in nature and does not take into account the recent large-scale changes in the system of regional security in the Middle East and the system of international relations as a whole.

Thus, blindly following the policies of the superpowers not only does not meet the interests of the vast majority of states in the Middle East, but is also perceived by them as a “dangerous relic of the past”. With the start of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) in Ukraine, a trend has emerged towards intensifying mediation efforts by Middle Eastern states in resolving conflicts outside the region – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey have taken corresponding actions. It is noteworthy that the list of international mediators from among the states of the Middle East is expanding over time, which indicates the intention of the actors to more actively influence the international settlement.

In addition, we should not lose sight of the intensification of efforts to independently “extinguish” protracted conflicts in the region. In particular, the Gulf monarchies managed to somewhat smooth out the conflict with the pro-Iranian “Ansar Allah” movement (also known as “Houthis”) in Yemen[7], freezing offensive operations in the country and withdrawing part of the contingent, as well as returning Syria to the Arab League almost 10 years after its expulsion[8]. In addition, there was some detente in relations with Turkey and Israel (which had a positive impact on the regional situation as a whole), and significant mediation efforts were made during the escalation of the conflict in the Gaza Strip[9]. Such steps not only strengthen the international positions of the Middle Eastern powers, but also indicate their willingness to independently work on a regional security system even in conditions of a high level of mutual mistrust.

Another important trend that should be paid attention to is the desire for “super-sovereignty”, which implies complete independence of the state from external powers and the course they impose. “Super-sovereignty” is most clearly manifested today in the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula — primarily in Saudi Arabia and the UAE — but the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern countries show a tendency to demonstrate independence to one degree or another (with the exception of “failed states”, where a significant part of the national resource is spent for the maintenance of state architecture). 

It should be noted that this is expressed both in foreign and domestic policies – thus, the states of the Middle East (and, in particular, the Gulf monarchies) are actively developing competencies and national human resources in the field of high technologies — guided, among other things, by long-term strategies of transformation (“Vision”) [10]. This, in turn, indicates fundamental shifts in the development model of Middle Eastern states and their readiness to integrate into the high-tech world as independent players.

Despite the fact that the desire of individual Middle Eastern countries to act as a global power does not exclude the preservation of some orientation towards the policies of the superpowers (for example, due to the common security priorities) — and, first of all, the Western powers — this factor is no longer considered a determining factor. A state can pursue a “balancing” foreign policy, avoiding final adherence to any geopolitical camp, and at the same time still be “hand decorated”.

Moreover, the ongoing transformation of the world order and the gradual transition to multipolarity play into the hands of the Middle Eastern powers. By the beginning of 2024, four Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, the UAE, Iran and Saudi Arabia) joined BRICS (a format that in some sense represents the consolidation of the efforts of the “Global South”)[11]. The accession to the Group of four actors at once, having a significant influence on the vector of development of the regional security system in the Middle East, significantly changes the balance of power in the region and makes it possible to form compromise models for resolving crises, taking into account the immediate interests of the most active local actors.

Another potential area for the manifestation of “new” independence of the states of the Middle East can be considered the sphere of nuclear technology. Despite the fact that this direction is shrouded in a large number of negative prejudices due to its specifics (and, in particular, the thin line between “military” and “peaceful” atom), the growing interest of regional actors in nuclear energy and the intention to develop this segment of the energy basket indicates the peaceful aspect of cooperation.

Instead of conclusions

Summing up the above, we can conclude that the transition of the Middle East to a “new” independence is just beginning — and this process, due to the influence of historical, political and social factors, is unlikely to pass quickly. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that under the influence of particularly large-scale crises (including, for example, the escalation in the Gaza Strip) it will proceed even more slowly.

At the same time, this process has already acquired a regional scale – due to the fact that interest in geopolitical independence is demonstrated not only by the leading countries of the Middle East, but also by those who have been under external influence for a long time. This, in turn, enables the states of the region to gradually work to overcome the most acute negative manifestations of the “old” independence and more confidently defend a new role in the system of international relations and international security as such. 

[1] This analytical essay is a reflection of the author’s theses, voiced during the XV Kortunov Global Affairs Debates (Russia, December 2023).

[2] See e.g.: The Arab League’s Many Failures // Arab Center (Washington DC). October 8, 2020. URL: https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/the-arab-leagues-many-failures/ (accessed: 02.01.2024). 

[3] See e.g.: Tsukanov L. “Arab NATO”: are you making a new approach? // Russian International Affairs Council. March 24, 2022. URL: https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/arabskoe-nato-daesh-novyy-zakhod/ (accessed: 03.01.2024), in Russian.

[4] Khalid A. Biden is building on the Abraham Accords, part of Trump’s legacy in the Middle East // NPR News Agency. July 9, 2022. URL: https://www.npr.org/2022/07/09/1110109088/biden-is-building-on-the-abraham-accords-part-of-trumps-legacy-in-the-middle-eas (accessed: 02.01.2024).

[5] It’s Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords // Time. December 4, 2023. URL: https://time.com/6339889/cancel-abraham-accords/ (accessed: 03.01.2024). 

[6] See e.g.: Green Hydrogen in Morocco: Just transition or Greenwashing Neocolonialism? // TNI Agency. October 30, 2023. URL: https://www.tni.org/en/publication/green-hydrogen-in-morocco-just-transition-or-greenwashing-neocolonialism (accessed: 03.01.2024).

[7] Arab League Hails Yemen Agreement as Positive Step Toward Lasting Peace // The Media Line. December 26, 2023. URL: https://themedialine.org/mideast-daily-news/arab-league-hails-yemen-agreement-as-positive-step-toward-lasting-peace/ (accessed: 03.01.2024). 

[8] Analysis: How important is Syria’s return to the Arab League? // Al Jazeera. May 19, 2023. URL: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/5/19/analysis-how-important-is-syrias-return-to-the-arab-league (accessed: 02.01.2024).

[9] See e.g.: Qatar deal could see release of up to 50 hostages, prolonged ceasefire in Gaza // The Jerusalem Post. December 29, 2023. URL: https://www.jpost.com/israel-hamas-war/article-780063 (accessed: 02.01.2024).

[10] Tsukanov L. On both sides of the Gulf: development of high-tech business in the Gulf region and Russian interests (PIR Center Report №38) // PIR Center – MGIMO University. December 28, 2023. URL: https://pircenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/23-12-28-Аналитическая-записка-ПИР-Центра-по-научно-технологическому-потенциалу-стран-Персидского-залива.pdf (accessed: 03.01.2024), in Russian.

[11] Five new countries joined BRICS // Big Asia. January 2, 2024. URL: https://bigasia.ru/pyat-novyh-stran-prisoedinilis-k-briks/ (mode of access: 03.01.2024), in Russian.

Key words: Middle East; Global Security


F3/TSU – 24/02/28