New Approaches to Old Problems – Changes and “Mega-changes” in the Middle East (1 of 4)
Written by Amb. (ret.) Doru Costea, Ph.D
What follows is the first of four chapters which are to be published in the next days. The full paper will be published on June 18, exclusively on the TrueStoryProject website in the TrueStoryPapers section.
This paper develops remarks made by H.E. Amb. Doru Costea at the 3rd edition of the Atlantic – Black Sea Security Forum that was organized by Aspen Institute Romania and the Bucharest Office of the German Marshall Fund in Bucharest, Romania, on June 1, 2021.
The common and deeply entrenched perception of the Middle East reads that it is the most dynamic and challenging region in terms of security and stability. Consequential changes occurred that have moved the center of gravity of their causes from interference of foreign powers to the domestic/regional dimension and the interaction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is intensifying. Known problems sprout new issues, while attempts at addressing them linger in the conflict-management stage, instead of resolutely aiming to finding and implementing durable solutions. New players (China), join traditional actors in the region, even as the performance of traditional forces (Russia, USA) is also changing, and regional powers (Saudi Arabia, EAU, Turkey, Iran) turn more assertive. Romania’s strategic interests are integrated with EU and NATO objectives and can be supported by its intellectual assets and diplomatic knowledge of the region.
The end of the second decade of the 21st century witnessed several developments that made analysts and decision-makers think a century back at what had caused World War I and its consequences, not least because some of them reverberate to the present days. The Middle East, be it understood in its ‘traditional’ dimensions, or new, expanded ones – a.k.a. ‘The Greater Middle East’ – came to the fore as a particularly appropriate area for this examination, the landmines hidden along this way of thinking notwithstanding, as ominous parallel trends fueled by revisionist thinking and imperial nostalgia could be noticed that deal with treaties like the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Trianon Treaty.
However, there is no need to return that far in time in order to observe occurring changes that might prove almost equally consequential, or, at least, highly significant, for a region that has been for ever at the center of concerns and interests of a wide range of actors, both local and global – with a visible predominance of the later, because of well-known geopolitical and geo-economic reasons. The New Middle East is not only the title of best-sellers; it is a reality that has been in the making ever since the ‘old’ Cold War came to an end and opened a new stage in front of the local forces, as they found themselves without the previous familiar choice between opposite developmental and political models, mainly in terms of managing increasingly complex domestic challenges.
One change is a shift in the center of gravity of factors that would trigger processes aiming at shaping the realities on the ground: foreign actors that had seen the area as an ideological, and more often than not, military playground through proxies came to face more serious challenges issuing from within the area itself.
To put it otherwise, the balance shifted so that developments inside national borders turned into more significant causes of reactions from the outside, which changed the old pattern of foreign interferences from countering other foreign actions to dealing with troubling local developments.
Another shift concerns the so-called ‘main problem’ of the Middle East, as the region is perceived sometimes as riven less by an Israeli-Arab divide than by a Sunni-Shi’a one; along the same lines of deeper fractures within the societal environment across the region, the opposition among radical, even extremist trends based on religious rather than ideological and political narratives is on the rise, as well as acts of discrimination and increasing inequality originating from different ethnic roots and religious beliefs. These developments compound the existing pressures on the social fabric of Middle Eastern societies and extend the inventory of problems, some of them century-old indeed, like state- and nation-building, while others impede the normal functioning of governments; the four successive and inconclusive elections in Israel in the last two years provided an example in this respect. An unexpected, yet explainable development along the same lines is the link that has recently been made between the status of the Palestinians’ rights and ‘Black Lives Matter’.
Two other shifts may be added to this list of changes: one is the emergence of non-state actors, mostly of the violent, militant and ideologically extremist kind, some of which are under influences other than home-grown forces; the second would be the expansion of the very boundaries of the region – hence ‘the Greater Middle East’ image, which goes beyond the entire Arab Peninsula and rightly include Turkey, Iran and, perhaps only naturally, the latter’s neighbors, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Caucasus.
Actors old and new
The new dimensions of the region have been accompanied by changes in the roles of various actors, both local/regional and from the outside. Some of these changes are mere continuations of ‘old’ developments: Iran’s stances towards its Arab Gulf neighbors have run the whole gamut between normal relationships and outright war, besides military conflicts through proxies in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere, while its footprint on Iraqi internal politics has become unmistakable and disquietingly unavoidable.
Turkey, which has a special place in the history of the region, has arguably taken the most visible steps on assuming a new role with its military return to parts of Syria and Iraq, only to expand them to Libya; likewise, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have enhanced their regional footprint, and so did Qatar, particularly in areas ravaged by conflicts in attempts to assert their positions beyond the purview of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
There is little doubt that the most spectacular transformation in the roles played by foreign actors is to be found in the actions of the United States and Russia. It became a commonplace to note that the American ‘retreat’ from the Middle East is replaced by Russia’s coming back in full force, military basis and all – yet, less so in economic terms. At the same time, more careful examination of this change would be in order: like Schumpeter said, ‘nothing is so treacherous as the obvious’. Indeed, the extent of the American ‘retreat’ from the Middle East deserves a separate reading, which is hardly appropriate here and now; suffice is to recall steps taken by the Trump Administration that would be rather at odds with the perception of an American declining interest in Middle Eastern matters, for good or for bad. A short list of related moments reads the January 2017 visit to the region, which was an unprecedented destination for the first foreign trip of an American President; ‘the Deal of the Century’, which came as an iconoclastic and highly questionable peace-plan for the Israeli-Palestinian file; and the ‘Abraham Accords’, which doubled the number of Arab states establishing relations with Israel.. A succinct, yet significant and quite well-known characterization of the US approach to the area includes the shift from political thinking to transactional initiatives, with a considerable share of military deals.
 The phrase is considered to have been coined by Shimon Peres after the Oslo Agreements. He authored a book with the same title, together with Arye Naor, in 1993, reportedly before these agreements. Another book was published more than two decades later: Paul Danahar, The New Middle East – the world after the Arab Spring, Bloomsbury, 2015.
 In this sense, moments like (in chronological order) the Mossadegh case in Iran (1953), the nationalization of the Suez Canal and/or the Islamic revolution in Iran may be considered as early warning events; however, their consequences, while relevant, were somehow less dramatic than the aftermath of the Arab Spring. A necessary caveat is the acknowledgement of the interwoven influences of domestic/regional causes and factors originating from outside the area.
 For a comprehensive analysis of this trend see Dilip Hiro, Cold War in the Islamic War – Saudi Arabia, Iran and the struggle for supremacy, C.Hurst and Co., London, 2018.
Photo source: Daily Advent