by Adnan Tabatabai
2016 certainly bore no good news for the Middle East. Wars are being waged with greater intensity, and the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen are reaching unprecedented levels. Instability remains the key defining character of the region as it moves into the new year. But that is hardly news for the regional stakeholders who have been living with instability for decades now.
What is new, however, is the heightened level of uncertainty that plagues the region. Multiple developments in 2016 have unleashed unpredicted and unpredictable new dynamics.
For observers to make better sense of why the stakeholders in the region are adopting seemingly irreconcilable policies, it is important to acknowledge the level of uncertainty sensed in those capitals.
Key developments with unknown consequences can be seen on the national, regional, and global level as 2016 comes to an end. All bear implications for the Middle East. A quick look at some of the most pressing questions arising from these developments may explain why anxiety in the region is reaching new heights.
Turmoil All Around
We can start by looking at the national contexts of the major players. In doing so it’s clear each one faces extraordinary short- and long-term challenges.
Iran is in the run-up to its presidential election in May, a contest that may lead to a re-adjustment of President Rouhani’s Western-leaning foreign policy. Potentially more important, the issue of ‘succession’ to the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already is emerging as a key factor in domestic politics. It underlies a multi-dimensional power struggle that is defined not only by the various factions competing for influence, but also along bigger systemic cleavages—i.e., between those who want to stress the republican nature of the Islamic Republic and those who seek to bolster its theocratic basis. While tendencies can be observed, no one can predict how this tug-of-war will play out. Whatever the outcome, however, the repercussions are sure to be felt far and wide.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, finds itself in a state of uncertain transition in virtually every respect—politically, economically, and socially. A young and well-educated youth is challenging the kingdom’s fundamental structures. An overly ambitious deputy crown prince is making every effort to position himself as the successor to the 81-year old King Salman. No one knows how far Mohammad Bin Salman can go. No one knows how implementable his Vision 2030 will be and whether it will embrace or alienate the old elites and the population alike. As Iran’s principal rival, and the de facto leader of the Arab world since the misnamed “Arab Spring” in 2011, what happens in Riyadh will no doubt have an outsized influence on the rest of the region and beyond.
Turkey has been leaving observers dumb-struck throughout the past year, and particularly since the July 15 aborted coup d’etat. There seems to be no limit to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions to create his Turkey, marginalize and criminalize any political or media opposition, and change the constitution in ways that will super-empower his office. It is impossible to profoundly assess where this is leading and what further consequences the process itself will bear. With outright armed conflict with the Kurds ongoing in Turkey’s east and deadly terrorist attacks striking the rest of the country, it is difficult to foresee how much more destabilization the country will face or be able to bear.
At the same time, Egypt is facing severe security threats, with ISIS attacks in Sinai and terrorist assaults elsewhere, including the recent fatal bombing of a Coptic Church in the heart of Cairo. Add to this the worsening socioeconomic plight of its population—with record and rising unemployment and 25% of households living below the poverty line—and the unrelenting crackdown against the country’s strongest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Some observers believe another uprising is imminent, while others say there is no such appetite among the people. That said, popular discontent with the repressive al-Sisi government must be regarded as a ticking time-bomb that could blow up the Arab world’s most populous country.
When looking at the Israel-Palestine conflict, meanwhile, 2016 made clear that the two-state solution has moved further away than ever before. While it is debatable whether this conflict is indeed the mother of all tensions in the region, as many officials in the region like to argue, its ongoing impasse certainly does harm beyond the plight of the Palestinian people—especially in Gaza—and the constant state of insecurity in Israel and the West Bank.
If all the above were not enough, the region is also facing key questions about the future of war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, each of whose conflicts—and the vacuums they have created—ripple far beyond their national borders and invite the intervention of both regional and extra-regional actors. In the absence of a clear vision for containing and reducing the violence of these conflicts, key regional players, from Ankara to Riyadh, and from Tel Aviv to Tehran, will make every effort to minimize potential harm to their own security interests.
Moreover, “security interests” are not confined to territorial integrity. The above-mentioned stakeholders share economic, cultural, political and social ties with each other. If there is one thing regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia undoubtedly have in common, for example, it is that both want stability and intact borders—not only for the sake of their own territorial integrity, but also to maintain and expand their regional ties and influence. And yet, finding a formula to reconcile Iranian and Saudi regional interests seems more challenging now than ever.
President Trump and a Chaotic Europe
And this is when yet another major uncertainty comes in: the Donald Trump factor.
It is impossible at this point to tell whether Trump’s Middle East policy will be driven by his explicit rejection of interventionism or by the far too explicit belief in interventionism for which people like leading Deputy Secretary of State candidate John Bolton are very well known. It is also difficult to predict at this point whether the nomination of Russia-friendly Rex W. Tillerson as Secretary of State is good or bad news for Tehran and/or Riyadh. And how will both countries be affected by Trump’s National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, for whom Islam is a political ideology and “a cancer?”
Moreover, with the current state of the European Union, amid Brexit and upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, it is even difficult to envisage how Europe, as a coherent political force in the world, will look one year from now. Events in 2016 have shown that anything is possible.
All of the above leave regional stakeholders in the Middle East no choice but to increasingly “nationalize” their security policies. The need for a new regional security architecture is stressed by many, but a tangible roadmap that can lead to it has yet to be charted.
Mistrust is rife. Accusations are sharpening by the day. All sides demand confidence-building measures from the other side. And yet, due to the prevalence of perceptions, as opposed to actual realities on the ground, things that are demanded as confidence-building measures are often things that the other side might actually be unable to deliver. Is Iran, for example, in a position to disarm the Houthis, as Riyadh demands? Are the Saudi and Qatari governments really capable of cutting financial support for jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, as Tehran expects? Such demands are on the table, but it appears impossible to assess whether either side has the actual control and leverage to deliver.
Needed: More, and Better, Dialogue
At this point, however, it is of utmost importance for regional actors to take a few steps back and talk with each other about how they talk about each other. This is how misperceptions can be deconstructed. Tehran should know how it is perceived in Riyadh and vice versa.
Allegations and accusations must be replaced with insights and knowledge derived from actual dialogue. Additionally, the national security interests of every regional stakeholder must be taken seriously, by regional and extra-regional actors. But there is a need for many more platforms for such dialogue to permit the parties to better understand those security interests in order to begin developing formulas to reconcile them. Such a process may not start at the official level; indeed, Track 2 efforts involving well-connected yet independent analysts and think tankers may be better at preparing the ground for actual diplomacy. This requires, however, that pundits in this field show more discipline in keeping an eye on the bigger picture, instead of diving into the jungle of micro-level discussions.
The horrors of Aleppo, Sanaa, and Mosul certainly need profound attention. But even more so, debates on these complicated multi-layered conflicts demand sober, in-depth analysis about the logic behind the behavior of the various stakeholders (state and non-state) involved. Only then can constructive avenues toward detente be explored and developed.
In times of uncertainty, it is even more important to fully understand the motivations of actors like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Russia, and spend time making sense of their respective security calculations. Glorifying or demonizing their actions, as some overly dogmatic, partisan or ideological pundits do, will not help in addressing the uncertainties, let alone changing their behavior. And instead of mainly focusing on the current state of play in the region, analysts from the U.S., Europe, and within the region itself should devote more attention to more long-term scenarios that offer mutually acceptable ways out of the ongoing uncertainties and the fears they generate.
In this way, key decision-makers—both in the region and from outside—can be guided towards what the Middle East desperately needs: a functional regional security architecture that all parties are committed to sustaining. That goal should be the North Star that guides the parties through these perilous and uncertain times.